Host Spotlight: Restoring Public Access and Camping at Naked Falls

I wanted to create a culture of mutual respect and kindness, and a sense of stewardship over the river and land around it. I felt a responsibility toward it.”

When Hipcamp Host Steven Epling was told he could no longer visit one of his favorite places, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Recently, Steven has reopened public access to Naked Falls, a breathtaking and fairy-tale-like destination in southern Washington that has held a special place in his heart since childhood.

Steven grew up playing in and around Naked Falls as a teen, and soon came to feel a deep sense of commitment to the land. He was disappointed and heartbroken as access became more and more limited, and Naked Falls faced a series of progressively stricter restrictions.

In 2006, the county outlawed camping at the falls, and in 2016, Weyerhaeuser timber company that owned the property closed it to the public entirely. They arrested everyone who visited that summer, and had regular patrols to prevent visitors from accessing the land. Steven quickly began his quest to regain access.

The Host at Naked Falls, Steven. Photo (and all others in this post unless stated otherwise) by Whitney Seiler.

Hipcamp: How did Naked Falls get its name?

Steven: What I’ve been told my whole life and by others is that it’s because of the nature of the landscape—the river bed is very exposed and the water recedes into shallow channels. There’s around a half-mile stretch of flat area where you can lay out in the river and sunbathe there. It’s very remote and there didn’t used to be a lot of people who knew about it, so folks would go out there and lay naked on the rocks in the river.

HC: When did you first learn about Naked Falls?

SE: In 7th grade, my friend Dan was kind enough to invite me to his birthday party, which included camping at Naked Falls. We had the best time. Dan took me to this spot that was just great for cliff-diving. There are a couple of waterfalls that are raging in the winter, but it’s calmer in the summer and you can slide off of the waterfall. It was like a little playground or a natural waterpark. I fell in love with it.

Every summer, I would quit my job during high school and go out to the river all the way until I had to become a responsible adult.

Photo by Steven Epling.

HC: When and why did the falls close to the public?

SE: Over the years, more and more restrictions got put on Naked Falls. In 2006, the county made it illegal to camp there. I was really bummed about that.

Over the years, I started noticing that a lot more people were coming up to the falls. It was concerning because it was a place only locals really knew about originally. It started getting dirty and trashed, and I began taking it pretty personally. I used to wait until I saw someone leaving and say, “Hey! You need to pick that up!” I felt very protective of the area, and it was changing.

It became more dangerous, too. People would show up drunk and start jumping off of cliffs. I kept warning people, “This is a privilege. They’re not going to keep putting up with this.”

Then it happened in 2016. Weyerhaeuser, who owned the property, closed it completely to the public. They arrested everyone who came up there that summer and had regular patrols going on. I was super disappointed and sad about it, but I felt like I saw this coming. We abused it. Collectively, as a community, we didn’t deserve [the falls].

HC: So how did you come to own the land?

SE: I didn’t actually think I could buy it. I had called Weyerhaeuser and asked to get a permit to come visit. They said no. I then asked if I could lease it, and they again said no. So I asked, “What if I bought it?” The woman on the phone paused for a bit and then said, “let me look into that.” I didn’t expect that.

She called me back and said they’re interested, and told me to write up a proposal. I wrote one up and poured my heart out to them. I realized they knew why I wanted the property, and I wasn’t going to be able to hide that.

I explained that while of course I understood this was a financial investment for them, I understood their decision to close it. I was so grateful for the years they left it open.

Finally, I made them an offer and negotiated over a period of about 8 months. It was finalized in March of 2017.

HC: What changes have you made on the property since buying it?

SE: I haven’t done much, and don’t plan to do a lot. Number one, I didn’t want to hoard this property for myself. I intended the entire time to open it to the public. It’s meant to be enjoyed—it’s meant for us to go out there and find a break from the daily grind, and breathe in some fresh air.

So, the first thing I did was recreate parking and make it a little bit better and safer. I started charging for parking for a couple of reasons: the parking pass reduces the number of people that come that aren’t willing to respect the land, and the people that do come are more likely to respect and honor the land and the rules. They kind of have some skin in the game. I wasn’t going to let it get trashed and overrun.

The passes worked out perfectly; last year was the cleanest I’ve ever seen Naked Falls! It’s a beautiful thing to see your faith in humanity proven right.

HC: What inspired you to allow people to camp at Naked Falls through Hipcamp?

SE: I was referred to Hipcamp by a friend. We had the two campsites that were already there, and we cleared out some of the bushes to create a few more sites. Now we have seven total.

What’s special or unique about camping here is that campfires are illegal within 1,000 feet of the river. Due to safety corridor regulations, I worked with the county to apply for a conditional use permit to create a campground. I worked with wonderful people at the county, and they helped me a lot and were very patient with me. I eventually got a permit to make campfires in a designated fire ring.

HC: What does your day-to-day look like as the owner and now a Hipcamp Host?

SE: As a Host, I try to make sure I respond to everybody in a timely manner and help remotely. Usually, I’m up there on the weekends because it’s a little busier, so I try to be available in-person for things that come up. But most of the day-to-day [hosting] is now managed from a distance. I work for a credit union and live in Eugene now, so about 2 hours away.

HC: Can you describe the experience camping at Naked Falls in a few words?

SE: It’s different, spacious, and beautiful.

One thing I tend to say is that you can go camping here and not feel like you’re in a campground. You have 3 acres to yourself, so you get to feel like you’re in the woods all alone if you want. Site 1 and site 2 are where all the action are. You have to be social to enjoy those, and the others are very private so you don’t have to see other people.

HC: What has been your favorite experience hosting campers thus far?

SE: I had an amazing experience with an early Hipcamp couple. They were arriving really late, and I was worried they wouldn’t find their spot, so I drove up around 10pm. I went and saw there was a camp kind of already set up, and I walked down the trail to the river and found them sitting on a log, looking up at the stars and listening to the water.

I saw down and we had a great conversation. We tried to fix as many of the world’s problems as we could in that time while we were talking. They come back regularly now.

There are a lot of those experiences now, but that was the first one. I stopped and thought about how grateful I was that this place is having the kind of impact I wanted it to have on people.

HC: What are your dreams for this property?

SE: Before I burn out, which I know will happen, I want to have this be a place I can work a little less on and enjoy a little more. I want to have bathrooms that are sustainable, install solar power, and have clean water. I also want to add a few more sites—probably up to 10.

HC: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a Host?

SE: Recognize what challenges you’re going to have and be prepared for them. Make a plan and anticipate every possible challenge you could have and write them down. Also recognize that there’s going to be things that will happen unexpectedly, but you’ll get through it and be OK. Sometimes we feel frustrated in the moment when something doesn’t go according to plan, but it’s all worth it.

On that note, if you don’t like people, you should consider doing something else. But if you’re excited about it and have taken the time to anticipate the challenges, it’ll go a lot smoother.

HC: What do you want for visitors to take away from your property?

SE: I want people to feel a reprieve from their daily life and routine. I also want them to take away a sense of ownership and pride, like “this is my swimming hole.” That’s how I see it, and I didn’t own [the falls] when I started feeling that way. I want people to come here and feel that same thing.

HC: Any questions for other hosts?

SE: A ton! I would love to learn from someone who’s off-grid about what solar options they’ve used, and how they’ve dealt with well water. I’d love to learn how to drill your own well, and am always interested in trail-building tips, as well as managing invasive species on a large property.

HC: Any final thoughts on Naked Falls and what kind of experience campers can expect there?

SE: One of my favorite sayings is by Kurt Vonnegut from a book called [“Fates Worse Than Death:] An Autobiographical [Collage] of the 1980s.” He was on vacation in Paris, and went out on the balcony while his parents were asleep to look at the sunrise.

He said he experienced happiness in that moment. He felt that someone had made that sunrise for him. He said that happiness is the feeling that something or somebody, somewhere, wanted him to like it there.

I think when you go to Naked Falls, you have that feeling. When I go to Naked Falls, I feel that somebody, somewhere wants us to like it here.

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Sarah Nelson is a Support Lead at Hipcamp and spends her free time exploring the Rockies. She posts her amateur adventure photos on Instagram to document her favorite places.

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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