IKE KINSWA STATE PARK, Wash. -- The view from the lakeside cabin was serene, the price tag -- $59 a night -- a bargain.
The usual wintry dreariness turned out to be a mere cameo. We were greeted with more sun than clouds during our stay.
After pulling up to Ike Kinswa State Park, my buddy launched his kayak a few feet from our cabin and paddled until sunset. I plopped down on the lawn chair on the front porch, a great place to prop feet on a railing, favorite beverage in hand.
My view: rolling hills, calm, clear water, a hawk soaring across the lake, critters rustling in the conifer forest, a postcard setting.
And yet, something seemed odd, something off.
No crowds. No RVs or tents around the campgrounds. The other lakeside cabins were vacant. I had booked, then canceled, then rebooked and still I had my pick of cabins at the last minute.
Out of curiosity, I scanned the Washington State Park reservations website and found most cabins were available through all the weekends in January and February.
That's not just at Ike Kinswa but at most of the other 22 state parks that have cabins, yurts and other shelters.
State parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said I had stumbled on to the big secret. "That's fairly typical of all the overnight roof accommodations," she said.
Ike Kinswa, for instance, has a 92 percent vacancy rate in January. It's when you get into July and August that vacancies drop to 3 percent, she said.
Winter "is a great opportunity to get into these roof accommodations. And they're cheaper."
The offseason rate is usually less than $60 a night for cabins and yurts.
There's Bay View State Park, close to the saltwater shoreline near Mount Vernon, where you can rent a simple cabin for $59. Just $10 more gets you a private bathroom and shower.
Or if you prefer the drier side of the mountains, book at Lincoln Rock State Park ($59) on the Columbia River -- a dammed section also called Lake Entiat. It's about six miles northeast of Wenatchee.
Something closer to Seattle: Wallace Falls State Park in Gold Bar has five cabins ($59) near the trailhead.
Your own island? Rent a cabin ($91) on Ben Ure Island at Deception Pass. Want beachfront? Cama Beach's waterfront cabins put you right on the edge of Saratoga Passage for $76 on winter weekends.
For my stay, I chose Ike Kinswa, about 20 miles southeast of Chehalis and a two-hour drive from Seattle. Named for a Cowlitz tribal member who represented his people, the park has five cabins, typically booked up to eight weeks in advance in late spring and into summer. To meet the demand, the state plans to build four more cabins there this spring.
Vacationers, especially families on a budget, love this 454-acre park, with its 46,000 feet of freshwater shoreline bordering the campgrounds and cabins.
The park is flanked by the Tilton River to the north, Mayfield Lake to the west and the Cowlitz River to the east, making it a water recreation hub during the summer, with swimming, boating and fishing. (The lake is formed by Mayfield Dam, on the Cowlitz.)
My stay in December was different -- more low-key than the spring break-like ambience to be found in the shorts-and-sandals months.
Mother Nature brushes Ike Kinswa with muted colors this time of year -- more rustic and earth-toned, the trails covered in brown needles shed from the firs.
I stayed at Cabin No. 1, the most popular due to its proximity to the water and trail, both a stone's throw away. I walked across a field to the Mayfield Lake Trail. It's unmarked, though easy to spot, the trail sandwiched by water on one side and ferns, nurse logs and moss on the other. Along the short trail, a rope swing dangled over the water, with smashed cans from an energy drink littering the bank and hinting that my quiet stay would have been different in summer.
Other short, unmarked trails cross the park. But it's hard to get lost since a long, winding road cuts through the park.
The housing here mirrors what you would see at most state-run cabins -- bare basics, with lights, heat, bunk beds and a full-size futon. Bathrooms and showers are located near the cabins and campgrounds.
Cabins come with a six-foot covered front porch, and on the side, a picnic table and a fire pit that doubles as your kitchen unless you plan to drive to town for dinner. We opted for the former, sprinkling salt over some steelhead and roasting it over the open fire. It was a buttery, smoky, melt-in-your-mouth delight, better than anything we ate within a 20-mile radius of the park.
Night comes early during the winter, so we brought two bundles of firewood to light up our cabin area by 7 p.m.
In the morning, after the fog lifted, the view from the cabin was as tranquil and beautiful a nature setting as I had witnessed all season. No ripples from Jet Skis. Just calm waters, with a dreamy reflection of the ghost forest under the surface. I just dragged out a chair and stared at the sunrise.