What It’s Like to Own Elkamp: A Conversation With Brian West and Tom Searl

Jun 13, 2022 | Campgrounds, Interviews

What It’s Like to Own Elkamp: A Conversation With Brian West and Tom Searl

By Kendra Clapp Olguín

Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

For years, Brian West and Tom Searl lived busy lives in sunny Southern California. Long workdays in corporate positions led them to camp as a way to spend more time together. Their Airstream helped plant the idea of purchasing and running a campground when they came across a residence while camping at a KOA in Manchester Beach, California.

It seemed to add up: They were looking for something to do together, loved being outside, and enjoyed camping. So began the journey and process of finding a campground that they could call their own.

Their search kept pulling them back to the wonderland of the Pacific Northwest, where they eventually found Eastcreek Campground, which was for sale. In July 2019, they decided to go all in and purchase the campground, move to Washington, and start the next chapter of their lives together.

two men and a dog sit at a picnic table in front of a camp store
Elkamp owners Brian West (left) and Tom Searl (right) sit with their dog Ella in front of their camp store. | Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

Elkamp, as it’s now called, is one of my favorite campgrounds in the U.S., and I wanted to share Tom and Brian’s story. I had the pleasure of staying at Elkamp in June 2021, and I became enamored with the campground’s natural beauty, attention to detail, and the best camp store I’ve come across. Tom and Brian’s warm welcome was just the cherry on top. 

I still can’t get over how ideal the location of Elkamp is. Please share where Elkamp is and what’s nearby.

Brian: When looking for a campground, we wanted to be 1.5 to 2 hours from a major city to attract people who didn’t want to drive far. We also thought it ideal to be near a national park or monument, an attractor that would get people from the regional area and globally. So that was part of the wishlist, and we hit the gold stake by buying this place. Portland and Seattle are about 2 hours away, and the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park is just a 20-minute drive.

Tom: We’ve had people that have made reservations because it’s the perfect place to meet between Portland and Seattle. Then there is the bonus of having Mount Rainier so close. So our location has spoken to many from those two communities. 

a man and a dog in a green golf cart full of firewood
Tom and Ella head out to deliver bundles of campfire wood. | Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

Brian: The PNW is ripe with campers as well. This may be something that I am convincing myself of, but I feel like this is a golden area for people who love the outdoors. It’s a huge benefit for us. Whether it’s true or not, we see it, we feel it. 

Speaking of camping, it’s what led you two to the idea of owning and running a campground. Have you always been campers? 

Brian: Tom had not done a lot of camping. I had grown up camping and was a boy scout. My family always camped and went all over. My parents had a camper, and the kids stayed in tents. So, I was a camper early on, but Tom wasn’t. I wanted to find something that we could both do together, a way we could camp together, and I didn’t want to start small. So, we went the Airstream route.

Tom: I’m trying to think how we even decided that we wanted to get a trailer? It felt like one day, you just came home and asked, “Hey, what do you think about getting a trailer?”

a campsite with an airstream, tent and hammock in the woods
An example of a pull-through RV site at Elkamp in Mineral, Washington. | Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

Brian: I’ve always admired Airstreams, and I was looking for a change in my life, so I went shopping one weekend and checked out a couple at the local dealership. That’s when I met Helen there and her Vizsla (dog), so I thought, “Hey, maybe we want to get a Vizsla too.” Tom was away working when I went out shopping for Airstreams and dogs, and a couple of weeks later, I came home with one of each! 

How did you go from owning an Airstream and camping here and there to deciding to purchase a campground?

Brian: We had the Airstream and enjoyed exploring for a while. As we began planning for the next phase of our life, we knew we wanted to do something different but didn’t know what that would be. At the time, we both worked corporate jobs. Then we were at the Manchester Beach KOA, and we noticed a residence there. It dawned on us that people live at campgrounds. We thought that would be interesting and sat around the campfire talking about it, which led us seriously to consider buying a campground. We searched for about 2 years and then came across this then-called Eastcreek campground, and reality hit. It was kismet, and I felt it was the perfect place. 

On your website, it says that it took a couple of days for you, Tom, to come around to the idea of purchasing the campground. What was it that made it click for you?

Tom: We had only seen the property online. Brian went into a deep dive looking at different properties around the country, kept coming back to it, and continued to show it to me. I think that’s when the shift started to happen. What would our lives look like if we were to get out of corporate America and into our own business? That led us to visit the property. Unfortunately, that first visit was in the fall when it was dreary and rainy. It wasn’t the most fun camping experience. 

Fast-forward 7 months, we returned in July and stayed at one of the campsites. It was one of those perfect days, and I looked at Brian and said, “All right, okay, I get it now.” I finally understood what it was like to have that utopian feeling where you’re in your rig in a beautiful surrounding, and then add that there is the potential of it being yours because it’s for sale. I was dragging my feet, but Brian always had both feet in when he first saw the property. It took me a while to get there, but I got there.

An aerial view of Elkamp’s meadow that has walking paths, relaxation spots, and looks out to the surrounding mountains.
An aerial view of Elkamp’s meadow that has walking paths, relaxation spots, and looks out to the surrounding mountains. | Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

You purchased the campground, and then it was time to make it your own. How did you settle on the name Elkamp?

Brian: We started thinking about how we would develop and run the property. What was our focus? It came back to our preference for when we go camping. It’s all about the aesthetics for me. Is it a pretty place? Is it clean? Is the gravel nice and level? It doesn’t have to be fancy; it needs to be well cared for. I don’t know how long it took me to work toward the name Elkamp, but it came from the concept of “elevated camping.” Of course, it helped that the property had elk on it too.

Tom: We did want to, at first, keep the name Eastcreek to honor the previous owners and guests. We didn’t want to go in and change everything right away. Adding Elkamp was adding our spin. We’ll continue to focus on elevating the experience of camping, and that’s where our vision and focus come from. 

Can you share some specifics about your campsite options?

Brian: We have 12 RV sites with water and electric hookups; one of them has full hookups, and four are pull-through sites. There is also a dump station. Then we have 10 tent sites that have access to a bathroom building. There are water spigots for the tent area, so campers don’t have to walk to the bathroom and dishwashing building. It’s a simple campground, not large, but we’re not looking to expand much more. We are adding a cabin to our inventory this year and will eventually be renting out our Airstream. We’re still developing all of our walking paths and making the property more explorable, but we’re not looking to expand much more because it would compromise the privacy that the spaces currently have. Stepping into our sites, we envision how people camp and lay out their equipment. We try to create little coves and areas at each of the campsites. We just want to simplify and care for the campground and sites so that nature shines.

a green and a white tent are pitched in the woods
Tents pitched at one of the 10 tent sites at Elkamp in Mineral, Washington. | Photo: Kendra Clapp Olguín

Tom: We also want to credit the previous owners who laid it out because they could’ve done something very different to it. We just want to take it to the next level in terms of the aesthetics and how people feel when they pull into each site. We’re also fortunate with the whole atmosphere at the campground. Besides Mount Rainier National Park as a focal point for people visiting, people often ask if hikes are here on the property. It’s fun to say, “Here are some areas to walk and experience on the property.” We’ve created two or so spots in the meadow with Adirondack chairs so people can just sit and look at the meadow, mountains, and trees. We’ve also put some Adirondack chairs within the campground to allow people to sit and be.

Brian: Visitors have said that our place is like a state park, and we love hearing people gush over how beautiful it is here. I know it. I live in it every day. I step outside, and sometimes I’m surprised that I live here. I’ve never thought I’d be able to absorb this much nature and greenery in my home.

What’s your favorite part about owning and operating your campground?

Tom: It’s such a 180-degree turn from the profession I was in. Working for yourself versus working for someone else—it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. We’re responsible for this place, the grounds, the finances, the name we make for ourselves, and how we present ourselves to the community and customers. The best part about it is that because we’re so intent on making a great product, it feels incredible to get positive feedback from people who appreciate it. I don’t know if that’s a selfish way of saying I like hearing the great things we do, but we know we put a lot of hard work into it. It’s also incredible to be in a small community where people watch out for one another. 

Brian: For me, the one thing I am thrilled with is that we’re in control. We’ve worked for other people all of our working lives. We have a canvas that we get to paint, a future that we get to be in control of, and to me, that’s the biggest benefit of being here. We love it, and we put our passion and hearts into it. That, to me, is bliss.