I boondock a lot. However, like with most RVers who do, sometimes I prefer or need the amenities of a campground. Over the years, I developed a pattern of avoiding commercial campgrounds as much as possible, gravitating toward those operated by the U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Land Management.
I tend to avoid campgrounds run by the various state park services for several reasons, e.g., poor reservations systems, arbitrary high surcharges for non-residents, no senior- or annual/lifetime pass discounts, poor management, and weird, nonsensical rules.
Over the years, I have consistently maintained an exception to the “no state parks” rule in my native state of Idaho to visit Farragut State Park. I use Farragut as an example here because it is a place I’ve returned to over a lifetime of hiking and camping and know it the best. There are several reasons.
Farragut State Park
First, I grew up on and around the 4,000-acre property that is currently the park. It was land taken over by the U.S. federal government in the early 1940s to establish a vast U.S. Navy training facility. The Navy decommissioned Farragut at the end of WWII; however, when I was a child in the 1950s, all the U.S. Naval Training Base Farragut buildings and facilities were still there.
The vast land parcel was transferred from the federal government to the Idaho State Department of Fish and Game in 1950. There it sat, abandoned, for more than ten years, until the process of dismantling the facility began in the early 1960s. Farragut became an Idaho State Park in 1966. Few people noticed. The park remained a tranquil, underused public property, with nothing there in the mid-1960s except the relics of the military base, the “Brig” base stockade, miles and miles of nicely paved roads, a large water tower, and many concrete parade grounds that look very odd in the middle of the vast open fields. There were no campgrounds. There were the occasional national Boy Scout and Girl Scout summer encampments and a rock concert or two, and that was it.
The park became a political hot potato in the ‘70s. In the late 1980s, there was discussion among majority members of the Idaho state legislature about selling the 4,000 acres of land with its thousands of feet of waterfront property to private developers.
Camping at Farragut State Park
Fast-forward to the 1970s when a few campers began using the park. Most of us who camped there knew the camp management and staff—maybe a dozen staff—and the park was generally a low-key, welcoming place. There were no gates or giant boulders obstructing access to large areas of the park like there are today. The park posted a few commonsense rules about fires and trash and charged a modest fee to use the facilities. You could hike, camp, swim, launch your boat, fish, and generally have a great time.
Then it all began to change. I started noticing the changes in the late 1990s. A lot more staff appeared. Gates were erected across the main roads. Large boulders blocked off other routes. Arguably the nicest area of the park, the Buttonhook campground, was designated as a “group” camp, its access road gated and closed off most of the time. (The Buttonhook Bay camp has recently been re-designated as a “Day Use” area, which is an improvement, but no camping.) Despite the thousands of acres of land accessible by roads built by the Navy Seabees, the park management relegated dispersed camping to one camp with a dozen or so primitive designated camp spots.
And signs. Signs everywhere. There is scarcely an eyeline left in the park without intrusive signs.
You could almost always get a camp spot upon arrival at the park, but then a “reservation system” was established at some point. It was a disaster. It took years for the system to catch up to digital technology and improve. Today, it is better but cumbersome. And then there is the “check-in” process, which has been bureaucratized to a ridiculously Kafkaesque degree.
Arrival… then and now
For many years, arrival at Farragut State Park was a pleasant experience, made so by the Visitor Center staff, who were the same friendly people season after season. A visitor would stop at the Visitor Center, pay a modest fee, and get a receipt to display on the RV or tow vehicle windshield. The check-in time rule remained unchanged over many years: Don’t occupy your campsite until 2:00 p.m. Simple. The rule was leniently enforced, intended only to allow the camp hosts time to tidy the site before each new arrival. Because check-out was at noon and most campers left earlier, the staff always had the sites done early. If you arrived at the park in the morning or midday, you could go to the beach or picnic in a day-use area. No big deal. Until the bureaucrats took over.
Now, check-in time is still 2:00 p.m., but no one can check in—not even one minute earlier. So, instead of campers checking in as they arrive at the main entrance, they must get in line and wait. Because, of course, standing in line is a time-honored bureaucratic tactic, some poruchik decided to implement a rigid, no-exceptions procedure. Park patrons stood in line (I waited for more than an hour) while the bureaucracy stood idle behind the counter a few feet away, like the characters in one of Franz Kafka’s stories, peering at computer screens (perhaps seeking instructions from the branch office in Prague).
What I saw and experienced was, as the author Jack Matthews wrote in 1992: “…an unfathomable bureaucracy, one that has emerged through a combination of inertia, default, and the institution of political power, perpetuating itself by feeding upon the rights of the people it was ostensibly designed to serve.”
Irksome as it can be to camp there, Farragut State Park is, above all, a wonderful place of beauty and tranquility perched upon the shores of one of the biggest and deepest lakes in the west. It is worth enduring the government bureaucracy that controls it. And, likely, that will never change.