Campsites Close to Home

September 1, 2003
Filed under Feature Stories

Facebook Twitter Email Pinterest

It’s fall. The kids are back in school, vacation time and money are spent and the days are getting shorter. But there’s no need to be glum about the end of the camping season. The autumn weather is absolutely wonderful for outdoor explorations. The leaves are turning color almost everywhere, summer’s heat wave is waning, and the scenery seems more beautiful than ever. Why not opt for a late-season weekend family camping trip and a couple of nights of barbecues, boating, fishing and hiking (maybe to the nearest Starbucks)?

Here are some of our favorite campsites that are both reasonably close to one of the 12 U.S. metropolitan centers on our list and yet far enough away to make you feel like you went someplace. Our first suggestion after you decide on a location to visit is to make a campground reservation in advance. At some of these campgrounds, you can’t arrive at the last minute and expect a campsite. If they don’t take reservations, get there as early on Friday night as possible — Saturday morning won’t cut it.

We who live there say, “If Montana had an ocean, it would be perfect.” Well, Seattle not only has an ocean, it also has glorious mountains, great fishing in lakes, rivers and streams, and three national parks. (It’s also home to 186 Starbucks, three Trader Joe’s and Frasier). There’s one more Seattle-area feature we love just as much: the Washington State Ferry System.

Take the ferry to Sequim (pronounced Squim) and stay at Sequim State Park (reservations: 888/CAMPOUT or parks.wa.gov), then discover Olympic National Park. Or, head for North Cascade National Park (Newhalem: 877/875-2448; marblemount.com); Mount Rainier National Park (877/886-4662; nps.gov/mora/); or visit one of our favorite places on Earth via the ferry: the San Juan Islands and Moran State Park on Orcas Island. Orcas Island, a CCC Depression-era project, is a beautiful tribute to Robert Moran, shipping magnate and former Seattle mayor.

If it’s just adults and you want to party and gamble all weekend, you’ll love Skagit near Mt. Vernon. We’ve done that too. This is one of the best Indian resorts anywhere (877/2-SKAGIT).

Jim loves quizzes, and often asks quiz questions on his Yellowstone summer bus tours. Among his favorites: “What’s the largest city and metro area in the Mountain Time Zone?” “What two U.S. capital cities are actually higher in elevation than mile-high Denver?” and “What are the other two national parks on the Continental
Divide?” Think about these while we direct your attention just outside of the “Mile-High City” toward some great mountain campgrounds.

The first escape is, of course, Rocky Mountain National Park (Loveland), high atop the Continental Divide. For Rocky Mountain campground reservations, contact the National Park reservation system at 800/365-2267; reservations.nps.gov.

There are also three great Colorado high-elevation state parks nearby, and two of the three are very near the state’s casino towns. Mueller State Park is near historic Cripple Creek, and Golden Gate State Park is near historic Central City. Steamboat Lake State Park is near Steamboat Springs. The reservation number for all Colorado state parks is 800/678-CAMP, or check out coloradoparks.org.

Quiz answers: 1. Phoenix (Surprise!);
2. Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and 3. Yellowstone and Glacier. The most common response I get to question number one is “What is Mountain Time Zone?”

Lindy is from New Jersey, and her family and part of mine are devout New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. We get back there just about every fall and camp on every visit. No other region rivals New York and New England for fall colors. The first thing we do (and you should, too) is call 800/CALL-NYS. You can also visit iloveny.com to get your free copy of the I Love New York State travel guide. The guide has a list of 134 New York state parks, private resorts and campgrounds, and other facilities and amenities.

Our favorite site in New York is North-South Lake State Campground in Haines Falls (in the Catskills), 518/357-2289. Nearby gems on our list include: Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Bushkill, Pennsylvania (on the NJ-PA border), 570/588-2452; and Woodford and Molly Stark state parks (near Wilmington) in southern Vermont, 802/241-3655.

In Georgia, there “ain’t a dog in the state park kennel.” Throw a dart at a map and you’ll be happy. Call 800/864-7275 (or 770/389-7275) to reserve campsites, cottages, lodge rooms, picnic shelters, group shelters and golfing packages. The official park website can be found at gastateparks.org. Forty-one of 48 state parks offer camping, and 30 have cottages, too.

We recommend you go first to Vogel State Park in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains (Blairsville) right next to the Appalachian Trail. Our next selection is the Atlantic Ocean and Fort McAllister State Park or Crooked River State Park (St. Mary’s). Another Georgia gem is Mistletoe, near Augusta — especially if you like to fish for bass.

As I said, Jim loves quizzing his Yellowstone passengers. Here’s one more: “How do you properly pronounce the capital of Louisiana? Is it
(a) No-lands,
(b) New Or-leens,
(c) New Or-lee-ans, or
(d) none of the above?”

Two hundred years ago (1803) our young country sent a “Dear Mr. Emperor” letter to France. It was a real-estate query: “How much for Louisiana?” Four months later President Jefferson got a reply from Napoleon Bonaparte. (You thought “snail mail” was slow; how about “sail mail?”)

Fifteen million bucks for the entire French territory! Such a deal! And, as an incentive for making prompt payments, we got a very big statue (the Statue of Liberty) as a gift. The agreement commonly known as the “Louisiana Purchase” made on December 20, 1803, doubled the size of our country.

As for Louisiana camping, Grand Isle State Park (near Leeville) and Lake Fausse Pointe State Park (near Martinville) are jewels
(877/CAMP-N-LA; crt.state.la.us/crt/parks). We sometimes also go out of state to Mississippi and one of its class four (as in “four-star”) parks nearby: Buccaneer (near Bay St. Louis); Percy Quin (near McComb); or Paul B. Johnson (near Purvis).
For reservations, call 800/SEE-MISS or log on to visitmississippi.org.

Quiz answer: (d) none of the above. The capital of Louisiana is Red Stake — a.k.a. Baton Rouge.

Texas is a whole different country — and that’s a good thing. We’re proud to be related to several native Texans and we visit their world often. We have four words for Texas campers: “Head for the hills,” especially in the spring or fall. The Texas “Hill Country” alone has 11 state parks with campgrounds (10 more without) and the state has a park reservation number: 512/389-8900 or visit tpwd.state.tx.us.

Our favorites are: Garner State Recreation Park (Concan) near San Antonio; Pedernales Falls State Park (Johnson City) near Austin; and Kerrville-Schreiner State Park (Kerrville) in the center of it all.

Texans think nothing of a 150-mile road trip to check out a new barbecue-rib joint — in fact, we’ve ridden in the back of a pickup truck with “Billy,” the huntin’ dawg, many times on these trips. Watersports lovers will like Lake Corpus Christi State Park. Big Bend National Park is a sight to see, even though it’s at least 400 miles away. Call for reservations: 915/477-2291. Only in Texas does 400 miles mean five hours — or less.

Author Strong says: “In September Phoenix cools off nicely — down to around 105 degrees.” He should know. He and wife Sally lived there for 10 years. Until mid-October or so, to Phoenixians we say the same thing we say to Texans, “Head for the hills.”

Grand Canyon National Park is the obvious first choice and campground reservations can be made on the National Park reservation system at 800/365-2267.

Near the strange and magical mystery tour that has now become Sedona is a great Arizona state park called Dead Horse Ranch (Clarksdale). They don’t require, or take, reservations, but you can get info at 928/634-5283. The one-time mining (now artsy) town of Jerome is just south of Sedona, while splendidly cool Oak Creek Canyon is up the hill to the north.

For a third spot, there’s good news and bad news: In the Pedregosa Mountains, southeast of Wilcox, lies Chiricahua National Monument and one of the best campgrounds and trail systems anywhere. But the campground is very small, very popular and operates on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’re not there early in the morning, you’re usually out of luck. You can camp next door, however, in the Coronado National Forest and try again the following morning. For info, call 520-824-3560 or visit nps.gov/chir.

This is too easy. Oregon has one of the best state park systems in America and, in our experience, is number one in oceanfront public access. Call 800/551-6949 for more info and reservations or log onto oregonstateparks.org. While our favorite state park of all is Custer State Park in South Dakota, number two on our all-time list is in Oregon: Fort Stevens State Park (near Astoria), the largest state park west of the Mississippi. More importantly, it’s next door to Fort Clatsop National Memorial, as in Lewis and Clark, and the Columbia River, too. Fort Stevens is perfect for both hiking trails and great history.

Here’s an Astoria travel tip. Stop in at the Brown Bagger’s Deli, and say “hi” to Brian and Leslie Burke. Get some take-out and ask Leslie about her “Dead Sweater Heads of Astoria.” Also visit the new maritime museum and climb the Astoria column.

Other state parks we recommend include: Jesse M. Honeyman (Florence); Beverly Beach (Newport); Tumalo (on the Deschutes River near Bend); and Nehalem Bay (Nehalem).

We always feel right at home in Philadelphia. There are more familiar National Park Service uniforms here than in our own Yellowstone, at least per square mile. Washington, D.C., and Boston are like that, too.

While you’re not exactly in a campground town, the fall colors here are nevertheless spectacular. But not far away are two state parks we like: French Creek (near Elversen) surrounding Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, and Gifford Pinchot (near York), not far from Amish country. For info and reservations for both, call 800/63-PARKS. Then, of course, there’s the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (Bushkill) — see New York City.

If we lived in Philly, we’d grab hoagies and cheese steaks, then head out of town for an escape to the ocean and Delaware’s four state parks and beaches: Cape Henlopen; Delaware Seashore; Holts Landing; and Fenwick Island (the last two are daytime use only). For reservations and info call 877/98-PARKS or visit destateparks.com.

There’s nothing like pulling out the old banjo and joining an impromptu bluegrass group — if only Jim could play the darn thing. In “Middle Tennessee” there are 13 state parks with camping and seven federal recreation areas. But we’ll always head for national parks — “America’s Best Neighborhoods.” In Tennessee, that means Great Smoky Mountains National Park (with five campgrounds, 800/365-CAMP) or Mammoth Cave National Park in south central Kentucky (Brownsville, 800/365-CAMP; reservations.nps.gov).

Our favorite Tennessee state park is Natchez Trace (Wilderville), which has a bit of everything, including late fall beauty. For reservations, call 888/TNPARKS or log on to tnstateparks.com.

Politically speaking, Minnesota could be the strangest state in the union. Recently, it had Jesse “the Body” as governor, and, following the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, the re-emergence of Vice President Walter Mondale and his defeat by a right-winger. Geez!

But we’re talking about camping, not politics, and Minnesota has 71 state parks — all but seven have camping. Throw another dart at another map. Take your pick. Minnesota really has everything and it’s all very close. Just call 866/85PARKS for reservations. Our favorites are Beaver Creek Valley State Park near Caledonia; Big Island State Park near Albert Lea; and Frontenac State Park near Frontenac.

“La-la Land” is not all Max Factor and silicone implants. There are lots of real people getting outside and doing real things. Really! In addition, there are quite a few really cool places to go camping in the vicinity.

Two of the most interesting and easy-to-access camping destinations mark the edges of the “Southland.” To the east, straddling two distinctly different desert bio-zones (the Mojave and Sonoran), sits Joshua Tree National Park (just north of Palm Springs).

To the far west on the ocean (north of Malibu) is Leo Carrillo State Beach, a seaside campground that offers surfing, sandy shores, tide pools, sea caves and coastal bluffs, as well as a tree-lined, stream-bottomed canyon that penetrates deep into the surrounding hills.

Approximately one hour from Los Angeles, 140-unit Leo Carillo State Beach lies in a sycamore-studded canyon within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. Other notable state parks nearby include Point Magu, McGrath and San Onofre (also on the Pacific), and Anza Borrego (in the desert). State Park reservations are made by calling 800/444-PARK or you can log onto parks.ca.gov.

Joshua Tree National Park (760/367-7511; nps.gov.jotr) is a desert lover’s dream location. It defies all the “notions” of what a desert is supposed to be. Yes, the days can be hot, even in fall. But visitors are also greeted with hundreds of different plants and animals. You’ll find tall pinon and palm trees; spiny, yet beautiful cholla and ocotillo cactus; watery oases out of an Arabian Nights tale; and more wildlife than you can keep up with, including bobcats, coyote, rattlesnakes, dozens of birds and about a million lizards.

Our favorite spot is in the heart of the park. It’s a campground appropriately named Jumbo Rocks, as each site sits nestled among the large sandstone formations. Most of the park’s campgrounds, including Jumbo Rocks, don’t take reservations, so you must be an early bird. Indian Cove, located on the northern edge of the park, is one of the two campgrounds that do offer reservations. It’s our second favorite, and because it’s dotted with rocky spires and fins, also a magnet for rock climbers.

The Berrys’ basic camping philosophy has always been, “keep it simple, keep it light — don’t take it if you don’t use it every night.” With that in mind, Lindy Berry shares how she makes it easy to go on a weekend camping outing at the drop of a hat.

In order to be ready at a moment’s notice, we have come up with a sure-fire system. We throw the tent, sleeping bags, cooler and grill into our van, along with my two bags of camp cooking essentials. One’s a multicompartment nylon bag that measures about 12”x10”x10” and is always packed and ready.

The contents of the “always ready” bag:

* Silverware
* Spatula, tongs, big spoon and chef’s knife
* Skewers for kebabs
* Vegetable peeler
* Scissors
* Potholders
* Paper towels
* Kitchen towels (we use old ones as napkins)
* Salt shaker and pepper mill
* Baggies (for leftovers or marinating)
* Small jars of olive oil and vinegar
* Small containers of various herbs and spices (oregano, garlic, Mrs. Dash)
* Small bottle of hot sauce
* Can opener
* Corkscrew
* Two plastic wine glasses
* Matches
* Citronella candle
* Miscellaneous condiment
packets (soy sauce, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, mayo, honey, peanut butter, jam, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes: I’ve never met a fast food condiment I didn’t collect).

Our second bag is a heavy-duty canvas carryall that is home to our nest of cooking pots and bowls, a Teflon frying pan, plates, our camping tablecloth (actually an old, but still attractive, fabric shower curtain), tablecloth clips, foil, a plastic cutting board, plastic glasses, an unbreakable French coffee press, and more kitchen towels.

When we’re camping we always enjoy doing our food shopping in the closest town (years ago — after one-too-many convenience store dinners — we started planning ahead). Plus, it’s fun to see what’s regional and/or ethnic in the local grocery world. Canned veggies, like potatoes, mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, and green beans are always handy, as are rice mixes. We’re never without a can or two of tuna, either.

Can you tell the Berrys are front-country campers? As Jim comments, tongue-in-cheek, “We don’t want to get too far away from an ice machine.”

Berry Style
This “Berry-esque” listing of favorite campsites close enough to a major city to qualify as “not-too-far from home” doesn’t touch on every metro region in the U.S. that offers these camping advantages. It does, however, offer a dozen sets of late-season weekend campouts for you to choose from. More importantly, these examples suggest that a camping “gem” can be found close to any metro center, if you look deeply enough.

Camping Life readers readily recognize authors Jim and Lindy Berry of West Yellowstone, Montana. Over a dozen years ago each made a mid-life detour to Yellowstone National Park — and decided to stay. They met in the park in August of 1989 at Old Faithful Inn. They were married that September. Both left prestige positions in corporate America, opting instead for modest lifestyles employed eight months a year (five summer/three winter) in the Yellowstone area and traveling more freely. The Berrys decided camping was the logical way to pursue their off-season touring and 14 years, 160,000 miles and about 350 campgrounds later, they’re still getting out there.


Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!