By Russ and Tiña De Maris
A few days ago we received an electronic newsletter from Washington State Parks. The writers eagerly pointed to the coming of summer, and how the Evergreen State was a great place to camp. Included was a list of parks that still had available reservations for camping units this summer. It had 16 entries – the entire park system has 71 parks with camping units – meaning, less than a quarter of Washington State Parks have spots you can reserve. Is it just us, or is camping in state parks getting to be a tough call, particularly if you haven’t got plans months in advance?
We did a little more nosing around. Washington may be in the far northwest corner of the Lower 48, but plenty of the other 47 states are having problems. The Lone Star State certainly isn’t lonely, as notes texasobserver.org: “More people are enjoying Texas’ 95 state parks than ever. In the 2017 fiscal year, there were 10 million visitors, a 20 percent increase over 2012. Visitation at some destinations has skyrocketed. For example, the number of visitors to McKinney Falls, a small park on Onion Creek in far southeast Austin, nearly doubled in the last decade, jumping from 128,000 in 2008 to 319,000 in 2017.”
Echoing this pattern, going Back East doesn’t appear to alleviate the symptoms. “Across Pennsylvania, and especially in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding region, the state park system has seen an explosion of visitors. Attendance at the 121 parks grew from 36.8 million in 2011 to more than 40 million in 2016, according to state data,” reports mccall.com. Their story added that a representative for the Bureau of State Parks said, “Some state park campgrounds repeatedly were nearly filled to capacity this year, with some turning people away.”
Finally, returning to the West, California’s park system, which boasts 280 state parks, beaches and historic sites, is likewise feeling the bloated pinch. Reports mercurynews.com, “‘Even as our population has been growing substantially, we haven’t been expanding our state parks system to accommodate that increased visitation,’ said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco organization that has helped establish 66 redwood parks since 1918. ‘We’re not keeping up.'”
Here at RVtravel.com we’ve been accused of being drumbeaters when we’ve spoken up about the crowding in corporate and privately owned RV parks. In this article, we won’t even touch the subject of trying to take your RV for a couple of nights in a national park. But state campgrounds? These used to be a mainstay for the RV traveler who wanted to keep a flexible schedule, enjoy the road and the scenery, and simply pull into a state campground somewhere near them at day’s end. Those days appear to be at their end.
What’s the cause? Sure, nobody’s manufacturing land these days, so it would seem that state governments might have a difficult time finding places to put new parks. But like the song from Porgy and Bess says, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Take the California Park system as an example. The last California state park to open anew was back in 2009, when the state was gifted a long tract of coastal beaches now known as Fort Ord Dunes State Park.
It’s not that the state can’t get more land. Since 2009 the park system has acquired nearly 38,000 acres of land – and two-thirds of it was turned, not into a state park, but a motorcycle riding area called Onyx Ranch State Vehicular Recreation Area. The park system has been offered land at reduced rates, and some, even for free. All of these offers have been turned down. Why? Officials say they can’t afford it. Some non-profit protection groups have offered tracts of land suitable for parks, but the state said they’d only accept the donations – if the group also provided money for park personnel.
Money issues are usually at the heart of the matter. And some states have used money as an incentive to redistribute the crowds more evenly. Others, with more jaded viewpoints, suggest the approach we’ll describe as just a better way of pumping up state coffers.
Wisconsin’s state park system is an example. A 2018 report from wiscnews.com says, “The state Natural Resources Board approved a new pricing strategy Wednesday proposed by DNR Secretary Dan Meyer. Camping fees will jump as much as $7 per night at electric sites in popular state parks like Devil’s Lake near Baraboo and Peninsula in Door County. Both parks will charge $37 per night during the peak summer season. That’s bound to produce a little sticker shock – especially when it’s coupled with increases in daily entrance fees. Entrance fee at Devil’s Lake will rise from $8 per day to $13 per day, a jump of more than 60 percent. Likewise, the daily entrance fee for non-residents would rise from $11 to $16.”
Why the seeming-draconian price hikes? Park managers were apparently tossed under the bus when, back in 2015, Wisconsin’s lawmakers decided to chop off taxpayer-supported funding of the state parks, and make parks support themselves with fees they collect.
Oregon’s legislature also decided to follow a similar path to handle uneven use of its state parks. Back in 2017, parks were authorized to jump prices at more-visited parks, and lower rates at less popular venues. Last year, rates jumped $3 to $5 per night at four popular parks. While there was no doubt some moaning and groaning at those campground pay stations, officials are quick to point out they’re working on opening two new campgrounds and making existing campgrounds larger.
Where does this leave the RVer searching for a place to stay? We could say, “Put more cash in your wallet,” but that hardly matters if you haven’t planned your trip to popular campgrounds months in advance. There’s still a bit of good news to be had in some places. Not all campgrounds put every site on a reserve basis. Some have “walk up” spots, where if you show up at the campground and a site is available, it’s yours. It’s a bit risky but, well, it’s probably better than staying in a Wally parking lot.
Do a little advance work before you travel. Check out the smaller, away from the major population center state parks. Give the local ranger a call and ask how full their campgrounds get, and when. Try and have an “out” in your travel plans.
If you can’t get into a state campground and loathe the thought of an RV park, what other choice do you have? Despite the huge increase in folks staying on at “developed” sites, boondocking is still a viable option. You may need to rethink (and perhaps retool) your way of camping. Getting along without full hookups may seem nearly impossible, but take it from avid boondockers – “staying in the sticks” offers plenty of rewards. And more often, you won’t find a “full up” sign.
For the past 10 years of fulltiming, we’ve rarely stayed in a state park for several reasons. Yes, they are usually full during the prime season, but even other times of the year they are too noisy with barking dogs, drinking, etc. They also don’t accept the federal senior pass, nor discount cards like Passport America, so they’re too expensive for retirees on a budget.
The cutback in states’ funding is the basic problem, coupled with increased demand by the new millions living the “RV Dream.” One response is the mandatory reservation system that allows reserving sites up to a year in advance. WA state basically zero-funded their park system, and instituted a $30 yearly ‘Discover Pass’ parking permit. Plus, reservation-only sites include an $8 non-refundable fee payable to a private company. So, basically, WA state parks now try to survive as a user-fee funded system. I’m expecting one day to see all the state parks leased out to private management companies. Hang tight… it’s the future. (KOA of WA, maybe? Ugh!)
Sadly, the reservation system has actually made it more difficult to find a RV site in many places since people will now reserve a spot a year in advance even if they don’t think they will actually use it so many folks have to gamble on there being a cancellation a day or so before they would like to camp in those parks.
It looks like New Mexico State parks might also be changing, a volunteer at Caballo Lake State Park told me last week that they are going to all sights reserved, he didn’t know if it was all parks in the system or just those along the Rio Grande or if it was just for the summer season. Two days later another camper told me that Elephant Butte State Park had changed all of the sites to reservation only. I bought a NM annual camping pass this year and even when I try to reserve it is difficult to find a spot as most weekends are already reserved.
Sounds like your only option is to go during the week. You know, arrive on Monday, leave on Friday. What a pain . . .