Head South For Warm Weather Camping
When I lived in Salt Lake City we came to call it the “February thaw.” For a few days in mid-winter, a warm sun shone, snow melted and blue skies chased away the gray. It was all a tease, of course. But even so, hope began rising as our thoughts turned to activities like camping and fishing — until a few days later when the season’s next storm arrived with the rock-hard thud of a block of ice.
“Enough!” you say, “I can’t take any more rain, sleet and snow!” You want to feel warm sunshine on your skin. You want to hear bacon sizzling and smell coffee perking on your trusty old camp stove. But like the groundhog that sees its shadow in February, you know it will be weeks or months before you’ll be out there again enjoying life in your RV or tent. Well, maybe you don’t need to wait.
There is warm weather camping to be done in winter. While it takes some planning and preparation (because even in warm climates, winter can be fickle) the advantages of winter camping in the southern states abound. For openers, the rewards almost always feature fewer crowds. Also, warm weather camping in winter can be found in areas that are often muggy, buggy or otherwise miserable during summer; but in winter these locations are at their benign best.
Understandably, warm-winter camping is found almost exclusively in the southern latitudes of the U.S. However, there’s no reason not to treat your camping passion to a mid-winter thaw with some warm weather camping.
A good book store is the first place to stop on a Golden State beach camping tour. Buy the California Coastal Commission’s California Coastal Access Guide. It is, according to the Oakland Tribune, “Nothing less than a Bible” that covers the state’s entire 1100-mile-long coast, listing all public access areas — including, of course, public campgrounds.
Channel Islands National Park. Just offshore from the glamour and glitz of Santa Barbara is one of the nation’s best kept National Park Service secrets — Channel Islands National Park. Five of the eight islands in the chain are included in the park. Because the islands are isolated and relatively undeveloped, access is via plane to Santa Rosa Island or by boat to the other islands in the park. Climate is mild year-round, but be ready for wind and fog. The park’s most developed campground(15 sites) is in Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island, a 1/4-mile hike from the airstrip (1.5 miles from the pier landing). The campground has windbreaks, running water and an “invigorating” shower. Short hikes are required to reach dry (no water) campsites on Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz Islands. All campsites have pit toilets and tables. Westernmost San Miguel Island features Point Bennett where — in winter — as many as 50,000 seals and sea lions can be viewed at protected breeding grounds. All campsites are equipped with tables and pit toilets. Reservations: 800/365-CAMP; information: 805/658-5730; nps.gov/chis.
More accessible and less primitive beach camping dots the mainland southern California coast. In the Santa Barbara/Ventura area alone — between Gaviota and Point Mugu State Parks — there are seven state parks offering coastal camping. Two are next-door neighbors.
El Capitan State Beach. Seventeen miles west of Santa Barbara along U.S. 101, El Capitan offers a sandy beach, rocky tide pools, and stands of sycamore and oaks along El Capitan Creek. The area includes swimming, fishing, surfing, picnicking and camping. A stairway provides access from the bluffs to the beach area. A bike trail connects the park with its adjoining neighbor Refugio State Beach, 2.5 miles away.
Refugio State Beach. Excellent coastal fishing as well as trails and picnic sites can be found at Refugio State Beach. Palm trees planted near Refugio Creek give a distinctive look to the beach and camping area. For Refugio/El Capitan information: 805/968-1033; reservations: reserveamerica.com.
Leo Carillo State Beach. Twenty-five miles up the coast from Santa Monica along California’s Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is Leo Carillo State Beach. Leo Carillo has 1.5 miles of beach, tide pools, caves and reefs. Giant sycamore trees shade the main campground. A tree-lined, stream-bottomed canyon penetrates deep into the surrounding hills. Information: 800/444-PARK; reservations: reserveamerica.com.
GULF COAST WARM WEATHER CAMPING
Louisiana and the Lone Star State offer beach camping with variety and quantity. Swimming, hiking, fishing, and wildlife/waterfowl watching are all available at a wide range of federal and state beach facilities along the barrier-islands of the Gulf Coast. And winter is the time to go — average January minimum temperatures are in a very sleep-comfortable mid-40s-degree range.
Padre Island National Seashore, Texas. South of Corpus Christi, Padre Island is the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the U.S. The National Seashore is on North Padre Island (avoid the spring-break crowd on South Padre Island). While camping is first-come/first-serve, permits are required from the Malaquite Visitor Center for all five of the park’s camping areas. Toilets, showers and picnic tables are available at Malaquite, the most developed campground.
Fifty campsites are less than 100 feet from the beach and have unobstructed views of the ocean. Check with the Malaquite Visitor’s Center regarding educational and interpretive programs including deck talks, beach walks, and evening programs such as “comets and the constellations.” For information: 361/949-8068; nps.gov/pais.
Goose Island State Park, Texas. If great fishing, crabbing and birding is more important than sunning and swimming, consider tiny (321 acres) Goose Island State Park on Aransas Bay north of Rockport, Texas. The 1600-foot pier can be used as a base to fish for speckled trout, redfish, drum, flounder and sheepshead. Goose Island is also great for crabbing and oystering, and an excellent place to observe waterfowl in both migration and residence. Forty-five sheltered campsites are located on the water near the bay and 57 sites are in a heavily tree-sheltered area. Sites include water and electricity. Fees vary. For information: 361/729-2858; reservations: 512/389-8900; reserveamerica.com.
Mustang Island State Park, Texas. For the complete package of outdoor activities head south from Port Aransas (north of Padre Island National Seashore), to Mustang Island State Park for fishing, swimming, hiking and mountain biking on five miles of open beach. Mustang is a barrier island with well-vegetated coastal sand dunes (some approaching 35 feet in height). Forty-eight sites at the park’s campground include electrical and water hookups, picnic tables, grills, restrooms and showers. High tides can affect beach conditions — and camping — so call ahead. For information: 361/749-5246; reservations: 512/389-8900; reserveamerica.com.
Sea Rim State Park, Texas. During the Texas Gulf Coast’s prime waterfowl wintering season, 4000-acre Sea Rim State Park is a must-see and -do for wildlife/waterfowl enthusiasts. Sea Rim is named for the area where tidal salt marsh grass meets the Gulf waters. Marshland wildlife includes alligator, mink, raccoon, rabbit and rare river otter.
Two units (Beach and Marshland) divide the park. Camping is best in the Beach Unit (fewer critters — no gators) where campsites include water and electricity, picnic tables, and restrooms with showers. Be sure to try Gambusia nature trail (a boardwalk through the marsh with a self-guided booklet). Camping fees vary. For information: 409/971-2559; reservations: 512/389-8900; reserveamerica.com.
Grand Isle State Park, Louisiana. Getting to Louisiana’s Grand Isle State Park is easy — drive south two hours from New Orleans on Louisiana Highway 1. At highway’s end is the state park — the most popular barrier island off the coast of Louisiana. Fishing is the primary activity here: A 400-foot fishing pier near the Visitor’s Center gives water access to surf fisherman angling for winter redfish. Kids and/or adults who don’t have the attention span for fishing might want to try chasing Grand Isle’s squirming beach crabs with hand-held nets. The 95-unit beach campground includes sites with electrical and water hookups and a bathhouse for basic necessities. For information: 888/787-2559; reservations: 877/226-7652.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Louisiana. The eleven units of Gulf Islands National Seashore stretch 150 miles from West Ship Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in the Florida panhandle. This is the place for sparkling blue waters and snowy-white beaches — or if you prefer fertile coastal marshes and dense maritime forests. Fort Pickens, built in 1829 and completed in 1834 to defend Pensacola, is home to the park’s largest campground, with 200 sites. Campsites are located in a grassy area of pine and oak and feature paved parking pads, picnic tables, grills, water and electric hookups. The Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay are a short walking distance from the campground. For information: 850/934-2621; reservations: 800/365-CAMP.
St. Andrews State Recreational Area, Panama City, Florida. This Florida Panhandle pearl sports sugar-white sands and crystal-clear, emerald-green water and has been called “The World’s Best Beach,” by some who rate and rank such things. Swimming, snorkeling, surf and pier fishing, wildlife viewing and hiking the “Blue Heron Trail” are all worthwhile park activities. Two campground loops are placed in the pine trees, offering 176 shaded family campsites with electricity, water, tables and grills. Dump stations, laundry and bath houses are located throughout the campground. For information and reservations: 800/326-3521; reserveamerica.com.
Long Key State Park, Florida Keys. The Spanish called it “Cayo Vivora” — Rattlesnake Key — but don’t panic. The name describes the shape of the island, which resembles a snake with its jaws open. Located at mile marker 67.5 on Florida’s U.S. 1 highway, Long Key today offers campers the same comfortable, laid-back style that has attracted presidents, poets and writers for more than two centuries. A smallish 965 acres, Long Key sits atop a 100,000-year-old coral reef now covered with a large variety of trees, shallows and abundant marine life. Wading birds in mangrove lagoons are a winter camping attraction.
Three nature trails are available as well. Best of all: 60 full-facility campsites on crystal-clear Atlantic waters. Each comes equipped with a table, grill, water, and electricity (extra charge). Restrooms with hot showers are centrally located. Reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance. Sites book quickly, so plan ahead. For information: 305/664-4815; reservations: 800/326-3521 or reserveamerica.com.
Bahia Honda State Park, Florida Keys. Farther west from Long Key — just one island east of land’s end at Key West — Bahia Honda State Park is the place for swimming and snorkeling. Unique among other Florida Keys islands, Bahia Honda offers broad sandy beaches combined with exceptional swimming and snorkeling in waters teeming with close-to-shore sea life. Snorkeling here is especially good for beginners in shallow (4 to 6 feet) water. Cooler water temperatures in winter (mid to lower 70s) may require a wet suit. Eighty campsites are split among three full-facility campgrounds that accept reservations up to 11 months in advance. Buttonwood is best for RVs and includes electricity, tables, grills, showers and bathhouse. Sandspur Campground — great for tents and pop-ups, but low clearance for RVs — is in a hardwood hammock and features the park’s prettiest sites. For information: 305/872-2353; reservations: 800/326-3521 or reserveamerica.com.
Everglades National Park, Florida. The nation’s 100-mile-long “River of Grass” — the only subtropical preserve in North America — is at its best from November to April (no hurricanes, mild temperatures, a tad fewer mosquitoes). At about 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is big, one of the largest national parks in the “Lower 48.”
Available exploration methods include car, bus tour, bicycle, motor boat and canoe. From Miami drive 35 miles south, taking toll road 821 to Florida City, then west to the park’s main entrance. Long Pine Key Campground offers fishing and hiking and is just off the main road, seven miles from the entrance, with 108 drive-up sites for tents and RVs. Flamingo Campground at the end of the park road and on Florida Bay has 234 drive-in sites (55 with a view of the water). Flamingo offers hiking, fishing and canoe trails. Limited groceries are at Flamingo Marina. For information: 305/242-7700; nps.gov/ever; reservations: 800/365-CAMP.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia. Protecting the mainland and sheltering the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway between Savannah and Jacksonville east of I-95 is Cumberland National Seashore. Remote, in that it’s accessible only by ferry, this national park service facility offers more than 17 miles of clean sand beaches and nearly 20,000 acres for exploring. The park features fertile saltwater marshes, estuaries, freshwater ponds, forests of moss-covered oak, massive dunes, and clean sand beaches that provide critical habitat to loggerhead turtles. The developed camp (Sea Camp) has rest rooms, showers and drinking water. Sites have grills and picnic table. Reservations, required for the campground and ferry, can be made up to six months in advance. For information and reservations: 888/817-3421; www.nps.gov/cuis.
The Natchez Trace, Mississippi/Tennessee. An ancient game trail originally connecting southern portions of the Mississippi River to central Tennessee salt licks, the Natchez Trace was also used by the Choctaw, Chickasaw and other American Indians. Later, boatmen traveled the route between Natchez and Nashville on journeys home after delivering crops and goods down the Ohio and Mississippi. More than 400 miles of this scenic route are preserved in near pristine condition winding through southern mountains and woodlands — ideal territory for hiking, biking, horseback riding and canoeing. Three campgrounds are open all year along the trace: Rocky Springs, Jeff Busby and Meriwether Lewis. All are relatively small — no reservations and no fees.
The Meriwether Lewis campsite, located near the rest stop where the famed explorer met his tragic death along the trail, is located at Natchez Trace milepost 385.9 in Tennessee near Hohenwald. (All milepost mileage begins at Natchez, Mississippi). The campground has 32 sites with tables, fire rings, water and flush toilets. For information: 800/305-7417; nps.gov/natr.
Table Rock State Park, South Carolina. South Carolina’s Table Rock State Park offers an excellent introduction to what’s called “upcountry” in the southeast. The park, located between Highways 8 and 178, offers at its highest elevation (3425 feet) a one-of-a-kind view overlooking lower parts of South Carolina. The “Blue Wall” is how locals describe this rapidly rising area near the North Carolina border. Take Scenic Drive Highway 11 for the best view of the region from lower elevations. Two lakes and challenging hikes await — a 3.5-mile hike to the top of Table Rock is a good half-day test. The park is open year-round with a 75-unit campground near the entrance. Sites include electricity and water, with convenient access to restrooms and showers. Primitive walk-in camping is near Lake Oolenoy. For information: 888/88-PARKS; reservations: 864/878-9813.
They call it Utah’s “Dixie” because one of the major agricultural concerns in the southern part of the state is cotton, but it’s a region also rich in outdoor splendor. Campers who prefer smallish, out-of-the-way campsites should try two units of the Utah State Park system, both nestled in Utah’s famed redrock region. Each makes an ideal base camp for day exploration of nearby higher elevation — thus cooler — southwestern Utah attractions like Cedar Breaks National Monument, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Lake Powell, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Park (north rim).
Snow Canyon State Park. Named for Mormon pioneer Erastus Snow and not for snowy weather, Snow Canyon is located on Highway 18 about 10 miles northwest of St. George in the heart of Utah’s Dixie. The area makes photography, hiking, biking and camping an unforgettable treat. Facilities include a 35-unit campground, modern rest rooms, hot showers, electric hookups, and a sewage disposal station. For information: 435/628-2255; reservations: 800/322-3770; reserveamerica.com.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Higher in elevation and cooler than Snow Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park is located off Highway 43, west of Kanab, Utah. The park offers a cozy, beautiful 22-unit campground with electricity, modern restrooms, hot showers and an RV dump station. Campsites provide pull-through parking, tables and grills. Sites are set back in pinyon and juniper and, of course, coral pink sands. Here’s a place to take your 4WD or ATV for off-highway riding. For information: 435/648-2800; reservations: 800/322-3770; reserveamerica.com.
It’s no mystery why the population of Arizona grows by 300,000 between November and April: Snowbirds know winter is the time to migrate to the desert. In September and October, triple-digit temperatures give way to brilliant 70- to 80-degree days and snuggle-up 30- to 40-degree nights. Caution: Delightful as the desert is in winter, certain mandatories remain. Use sunscreen and sunglasses, wear sturdy shoes or boots and — most important — the desert is still dry, so drink plenty of water.
Southern Arizona, Gilbert Ray. Natives call Tucson “El Pueblo Viejo” (The Old Pueblo). Less jam-packed and with more culture and history than the sprawling Valley of the Sun (Phoenix) that lies 100 miles northwest on I-10, Tucson offers more of what’s good — and less of what’s not — for Arizona winter camping. Gilbert Ray, a county-managed, well-maintained park west of Tucson, offers 130 sites with hookups in a classic desert-and-rock setting. The scenic Tucson Mountain Park location gives easy access to Saguaro National Park, the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, and the San Xavier Indian Reservation Mission — as well as Tucson itself (note: spring training baseball — the Cactus League — begins in late February). Plan ahead and arrive early, as Gilbert Ray takes no reservations and fills to capacity each night during winter. For information: 520/883-4200 or 520/740-5830.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona/Nevada — Boulder Bay. Some could overdose on the camping and recreation choices within Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Two lakes (Mead and Mohave), eight campgrounds and close to 1000 individual campsites provide opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, hiking, wildlife watching and photography. Three of America’s four desert ecosystems — the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Sonoran Desert — meet here. A favorite campground of many is Boulder Beach on Boulder Bay (154 sites). It’s close to Boulder City stores, Hoover Dam, and less than a half-hour drive from Las Vegas. For information: 702/293-8990; nps.gov/lame; reservations: 800/365-CAMP; reservations.nps.gov.
Big Bend National Park, Texas. You really have to want to go there. no one just stumbles across it, but solitude seekers will find winter camping on the Mexican border, where the Rio Grande makes its “big bend,” to be well worth the effort. This Chihuahuan desert national park is usually uncrowded (except during college spring break), with more than 800,000 acres in which to unwind and spread out. The National Park Service operates campgrounds at Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Castolon. A concessionaire-operated fourth campground at Rio Grande Village offers the park’s only RV hookups. Highest in elevation (5400 feet) Chisos Basin Campground (65 units, flush toilets, running water, grills and tables) is best located for day-hiking to a wide range of terrain. Castolon (pit toilets, water, grills tables) is in the park’s western extreme.
Most campsites are first-come-first-serve. However, a limited number of campsites in Rio Grande Village and Chisos Basin are available for advance reservation from November to April. For information: 432/477-2251; nps.gov/bibe; reservations: reserveamerica.com.
So there you have it: a checklist of warm, sunny places you can go for warm weather camping to break winter’s icy grip. No matter which of these many southern-latitude campgrounds you may choose to visit, these sites offer some of the best cures for the winter blues that we’ve ever found. January and February may not seem so long and dark with one of these warm-winter locales in the back of your mind — or in front of your windshield!