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Beat the campground reservation crunch: Camp with the animals

By Scott Linden
The “campground crunch” is real. You’ve read about it, and you probably have or certainly will experience the mass of competitors jockeying for a campground reservation. That includes “bots” beating you to the one measly vacancy at your favorite campground. Finding places to camp is tougher than ever. Some are hanging up their RV keys, but most aren’t willing to abandon the RV travel lifestyle just yet. So, how to avoid the mob scene and find a campsite? Why not go just a bit outside the traditional RV park-campground realm and check out a wildlife refuge?

I do. And what I’ve learned might help you find serenity, stunning scenery, and a new place to park your RV for a couple of days. In my day job as a TV host and producer, I almost always travel in an RV. I can bring crew, dogs and equipment, and I have ultimate flexibility in my schedule. Luckily, I’ve taken to stopping and smelling the roses once shooting is done, along the way discovering a bunch of fascinating, less-well-known places that welcome RVers. Here’s one suggestion:

Seek refuge in a wildlife refuge

U.S. Wildlife refuges are scenic and tranquil, and often have unique attributes RV travelers can appreciate. There’s at least one in every state, most are within an hour of a major city, and about 100 of them offer camping, some even providing hookups. If you pay at all, the cost is low compared to an RV park. Crowds are nonexistent (unless you count bird watchers). Considering that the most common outdoor activity in America is wildlife watching, it’s almost a no-brainer. Here’s some more good news: Recent federal legislation is already boosting the number of refuges where you can fish, hunt and camp. You might try one next time your blood boils during the online campsite reservation agony you endure with many parks and campgrounds. Here’s a list.

“If this was closer to civilization, it would be a national park.”

That’s what a fellow RVer said as we were settling in for a soak in the hot springs. We later woke up to bighorn sheep wandering the campground, explored a stunning rocky gorge reminiscent of Middle Earth, and were parked in a clean, spacious campground with stunning views. No hookups, unless you count the electrifying night sky, so full of stars. But who cares?

Not all the comforts of home, but refuges often have some of them, including this “civilized” hot spring.

There are plenty of reasons to explore wildlife refuges. Culture and history are a major emphasis (after, of course, providing refuge to migrating birds, rare and endangered species). The staff are knowledgeable and helpful, trained interpreters of their “home place,” and their services are free.

Some of my top picks for wildlife refuges

I’m daydreaming about one of my favorites, betting you’d add it to your list, too. (You’ll have to find your own. Start here.) Lush lawns, shaded dells and spacious campsites flank a gurgling trout stream, all framed in a miniature Grand Canyon-esque setting. There’s hiking and bike riding on the refuge, with a charming small village adjacent. Indian petroglyphs abound, and the wildlife is a rich and diverse menagerie: mule deer, elk, mink, dozens of bird species all there for the looking. A museum will help you identify them, and acquaint you with the cultural backstory from Native Americans to cattle barons.

Another favorite stop in the Midwest offers vast rolling plains, highlighted by a horizon so distant you’d swear you can see the curvature of the earth! The grassland harbors pronghorns and ring-necked pheasants, dozens of charming waterholes, each with its resident flock of mallard ducks. The Milky Way blazes nightly, yet laundry, fast food, groceries and everything else you need are less than 20 miles distant.

Find your own level

Wildlife refuge campgrounds can have every amenity imaginable, or they can be Spartan. You’re boondocking to a great extent. While some of them have electric hookups, most have water nearby, but few have sewer connections. Many have single sites that might not support a big RV. But the inconveniences are often worth the reward: scenery the feds thought worthy of preservation, high-percentage chances to glimpse fascinating wild critters.

Most refuges have motorized routes leading to scenic overlooks and wildlife-watching kiosks. Many are located close to major thoroughfares and all of them beat a Walmart parking lot. Some require considerable effort to get to, but rewards are often commensurate. You’ll find breathtaking vistas, fascinating geology and, oh yeah, wildlife rivaling any national park – but without the “bear jams.”

Hint: Even if there are no campgrounds on the actual refuge, often there are public or private campgrounds immediately adjacent. If you’re Jonesin’ for a particular refuge, search outside the borders for nearby facilities. Start with a call to the refuge headquarters – you won’t be the first to ask about nearby camping.

There’s one other advantage to wildlife refuges. The other visitors are mainly quiet, considerate lovers of nature. They’re up early to catch the birds as those birds catch the worms. They’re turning in early, too. You’ll marvel at the quiet in your campground.

Think about why you love RV travel, and you’ll likely find a wildlife refuge that offers an uncrowded, personal-best version of the experience. Top off your water and batteries and enjoy!

##RVT1000

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Carson Axtell
5 months ago

If you don’t like being boxed in when you camp, you’ve got to think outside the box. If you don’t like being driven crazy by inconsiderate crowds, camp far from the maddening crowds…

Steve
5 months ago

We stayed in two NWRs. with improved campgrounds in Alaska. One was supposed to have water, according to the website. But the water had failed a water-quality test and the pump was locked, although that was NOT mentioned on the website. Lesson learned–always be prepared for “emergencies”.

The other NWR was more interesting when the ranger followed us to our campsite. She told us to be careful when outside the trailer as a young grizzly had just destroyed a screen tent set up over a picnic table at the campsite directly behind ours. Seems the van-camper couple behind us had left two 12-packs of pop on the picnic table, then left to explore the area. Needless to say, we did not leave the trailer after “dark” (of course, there is no real “dark” in Alaska in summer). And another lesson learned–bears can smell food even through aluminum cans!

Scott R. Ellis
5 months ago

Be aware that “National Wildlife Refuge” status does not *necessarily* imply any level of development or of public accessibility. At least out here in the west, there are some of them that exist on maps and in law but may as well not on the ground.

Not to downplay the general idea, which is a great one. Just do more research than to glance at the map and steer the rig thataway.