Host Spotlight: Camping and Coastal Rewilding on Washington’s Columbia River

From glampsites and wineries to Indigenous lands and working farms, an emerging community of landowners are generously opening their land to the next generation of campers. Sol M., owner of Rose Creek Retreat in the Pacific Northwest, is one of them.

He continuously rehabilitates his property with the hope that it can be an example to others as a new model of land restoration and conservation. Sol’s vision is for long-term, stewardship-led land management that steadily improves the land, while sharing it with campers. Visitors to this spot above the Columbia River are met with opportunities to witness stunning sunrises, sunsets, and early morning mists. And if you’re lucky, you might even be able to see bald eagles, sea lions, or river otters at the beach across the road.

Photo by Lisse Lundin

Read on to learn more about Rose Creek Retreat, Sol’s restoration efforts, and his experience as a Hipcamp Host.

Hipcamp: Why did you decide to allow campers to stay on your land?

Sol: To share it and bring people out here. We want campers to enjoy it and that helps keep it going. It’s a different business model, rather than it being a government-funded and -operated park. People come and experience it, and by paying to camp, they’re helping to keep it here. All these roses, we’ve planted thousands of trees—all of that costs money and then you have to maintain it.

Be sure to ask Sol for advice on things to see, eat, and do during your stay. Photo by Lisse Lundin

That’s not necessarily what inspired me to make it, but as far as hosting campers, it’s to share it with people. Coming from Portland, one thing that I like is that even if you’re poor there’s always a public rose garden where people can go. You can go up to the Gorge and it’s free to walk the waterfalls. I’ve always been poor and I’ve gone to all those types of places. So having a place like this, I love it, and when there are no campers, we don’t charge a day fee, and we share it with the community. When people come here, they genuinely love it. I’ve had people in the Creekside Camp and they say, “This is paradise,” in the summer when it’s really warm and the sun’s trickling through just right. To know what this place looked like before when it was completely trashed, and then people coming to experience it restored, that’s a good feeling. It’s bringing life back to a place that had been abandoned and left to just rot.

HC: You describe this area as a ghost town. how did you learn about it?

SM: My boss bought the land. He was looking for a tractor online and down in the bottom of his browser he saw a picture for this land. He clicked on it and thought, “How is this not a park?” That was literally one of his first thoughts. He bought it and he was going to live out here but he had some health problems, and it’s so remote that he didn’t feel like he could take care of himself the way he needed to. So I told him we should build it into this eco-retreat, have people come out here, just continuously restore it. I said we’ll get agricultural products coming out of it, speciality products, and have visitors—that way, we can keep it going and keep it preserved so that it just keeps improving. He started the company so that we could do that and we’ve been going ever since.

Photo by Lisse Lundin
HC: What kind of activities can campers participate in at Rose Creek Retreat?

SM: A lot of it is just hanging out by the river, enjoying the roses and the scenery. In the Rose Garden, people mostly stay quiet and gather at the fire pit, listen to the stream, watch the shorebirds and all the river life. We’re anticipating birding to be a big part of things here, too. If you want a sunset or birds, you have to camp at the Rose Garden.

You can hang out by the rocks and watch the tide come in. I’ve seen river otters, herons, and sea lions. The sea lions come right up where the water is a little calmer off the channel and they’ll fish around—it’s pretty neat. You can go down to Grays Bay and walk out into the bay during low tide. People who are into photography come up and take pictures of eagles and trees. We also have biking—Pillar Rock Road is actually a designated bike route. It’s such a cool road and a great ride during the summer.

Photo by Lisse Lundin

You can come out here and you’re going to be the only person getting a picture of nine eagles fighting over a duck. People come just to have the experience of being in the forest. Now people pay for “forest bathing,” literally just sitting in the woods. So yeah, that’s an activity, forest bathing. Forest bathe all weekend in the orchid gardens.

HC: Tell us more about the history of this property.

SM: During the last big real estate boom here in 2005 and 2006, I worked as an environmental consultant to banks, real estate developers, and nonprofits. I looked at pieces of land to do initial environmental assessments. Part of that is going back and interpreting special-order aerial photos that you get from the Army Corps. With that vocational background as a resource, I got aerial photos of this place when I started out here. With those, I’ve been able to primarily reconstruct what was going on in the last several decades.

Photo by Lisse Lundin

Indigenous people lived here from who knows when. Before the decline of salmon, this was one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. It was called the Miller Sands by Europeans, who came in around 1850. This wasn’t even America at that point, but the traders came in and got the canneries going. That kept going until the 1930s and 1940s—by that point, they were pretty well fished out and salmon just declined. In the 1930s it was just pretty much forested and there were towns on the river. There was a school, services, and shops, and everything was done by boat. There were no roads, but this was actually a stop between Astoria and Portland.

In the 1950s, industries came in and logged it and started building the logging road. After that they reforested in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, a guy came in from out of state and bought the property. He carved the land up and wanted to put a development up here. They put 12,000 cubic yards of material in the middle of our valley. That is hundreds and hundreds of truckloads coming up and down the road, degrading the whole area. We also have a lot of geologic issues with fracturing because the hillside was blasted out, so now we have a big slide area.

So after years of destruction and neglect, this is what we decided to do: ecotourism, wildlife viewing, and agroforestry. We never had owls, and then the owls started to come back. I’ve seen probably close to 10 bald eagles at one time. We have over 30 varieties of roses here.

Rose Creek Retreat’s visitor center. Photo by Lisse Lundin
HC: Was there a specific moment when you decided you needed to be the person to restore the natural landscape here?

SM: For a long time, I was trying to advocate alternatives to psychiatry, before eco-psychology was such a big deal. Even in the early 2000s, I was working with people who had mental health needs, to get them outdoors. I’ve also worked outdoors with at-risk youth. This method started with me—nature was therapy for my own struggles. A big part of why I came to Northwest in the ’90s was to be in the woods and find solitude and serenity. I worked and went to college, took internships, and served in AmeriCorps to get training in environmental work. I became a geologist and also did mental health activism, promoting outdoor activities. When the recession hit, I lost my consulting job and I started to get into videos. I was making cable-access tv when my boss bought this place. When I came here, I said, “I could stay forever—I don’t want to leave this place.” It’s so quiet—when I’m not rambling, this place is just amazing. [laughs]

I wanted this to be a place where people could come to work and not be bothered. This is the kind of place where no one’s going to hassle or gawk at you. Where you can come and be inspired. But it’s also for people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable in a mainstream campground. I’ve known a lot of people in the LGBTQ community over the years. Even in a liberal place like this, there are a lot of queer people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable being in a campground with a bunch of people who aren’t used to being around different types of people. When you come here, there’s no issue at all, because I’m the one you’re dealing with and I can’t think of anybody that would be too far beyond for me. All people are welcome, but at the same time, it’s also toward the side of alternative people. We want to be recognized as a place that is okay for people that don’t want to be bothered or judged.

Photo by Lisse Lundin
HC: Can you talk more about your efforts to utilize eco-recreation as a funding source for restoration?

SM: People come and they pay to camp, and that means we can keep restoring. We’re not asking for a donation—we’re giving you something. This isn’t a charity, this is your place for however many days you pay. I’ve worked in the environmental field and I know the government model. Sometimes they come in and buy all the old farmland and they push everybody out. What winds up happening is you have nobody to live out here, so you don’t have leaders, a tax base, or people showing up to forums. In the other direction, you have people like us moving here and buying up these little properties and working the land in sustainable ways. We come together at places like the Grays River Grange and the Marine Resource Committee in Cathlamet to work on these issues. Wahkiakum has a goat farm, I know somebody up the road who has llamas, and we’ve got specialty farmers on Puget Island that grow all kinds of produce for high-end restaurants in Portland. We’re all part of that whole movement.

Too often, outside eco-interests come in and they do a little bit of initial work when they buy land and then they just let it sit. I’ve worked for those types of people in the city before and they don’t really care what happens to these places when they’re depopulated. Whereas what we’re trying to do is continuously improve and add to the land. When I worked for Metro in the early 2000s, they owned about 9,000 acres of land. They only had three people as park rangers. They don’t have the resources. This kind of fixes that problem. You have somebody in the community who can be involved with community activities and you have somebody constantly working the land.

Photo by Lisse Lundin

Rose Creek represents a third way, basically. Put in native edibles and turn a wetland into an agricultural area. This is something I’m trying to promote: agroforestry, huckleberries, selective clearing to bring the health back, dense edibles for understory, and food for high-end restaurants from wetland areas. Imagine if you had Cascadian sea plantain in San Francisco restaurants. What I want to have is the sea plantain and miner’s lettuce salad special for the week. We’re trying to advance our wetland edibles and agroforestry as an alternative to logging. This is fish-friendly agriculture, which is huge in the Northwest. We employ environmentally conscious forestry practices, and we want to spread this to as many people as we can. This place is a cause more than a business.

HC: When is the best time of year to visit Rose Creek Retreat?

SM: It absolutely depends on what you’re looking for. If you want it to be completely quiet and you love mists and sunsets of a certain variety, you should come in December. It’s going to be cold, but you’re going to see scenery that you don’t normally see. If you really like hazy sunsets, July and August are good. The eagles come and go, I can never predict when they’re going to be here. Iif you want to hang out by the river and watch the sea lions, spring is a great time to come. If you want to see roses, come in July.

Photo by Lisse Lundin

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Lisse Lundin is a photographer based in San Francisco.

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