Once we got our trailer, the next question was, where do we park it? We ended up staying in three really distinct types of venues: commercial campgrounds, public campgrounds, and friends’ driveways. Each of them had different advantages, and sometimes we alternated amongst them on purpose.
We didn’t attempt to camp off-the-grid: although you can camp legally for free on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands (as long as you are a certain distance from the roads). We weren’t usually off in the wild – as we wanted to see a combination of natural and built environments, those camping options weren’t usually close. It would have taken some time and effort to explore and find good spots, and we didn’t want to spend the time – camping for us was a means, not an end. And with a fourteen-year-old girl along I was more concerned about amenities and safety than I might have been alone (especially as we’d be travelling in parts of the country with heavily-armed rednecks).
Our first night out was at the Crystal Crane campground in eastern Oregon, a private hot spring hippie resort (which later became renowned for inadvertently renting their community room to the Bundys one evening). We arrived in the dark and the rain, and were pretty clueless about how to set up our trailer, and how to organize everything for comfortable living. But the next morning we began to get the hang of it, sitting in the hot spring before hitting the road.
The next night at Craters of the Moon National Monument introduced us to the National Park camping experience. First, if you show up after 5:00, there’s usually not anyone working there, so you just wander into a campground and find a spot. The spots were close together, but well-sited – usually with vegetation (or in this case, large mounds of lava) in between to give you some privacy. The bathrooms were minimal but fine. Greta began to learn that you don’t need a shower every day.
I had discovered a few weeks before that if you want a campsite in a popular National Park, you usually have to make reservations months in advance. Luckily I was connected on the phone to a helpful guy who found us three nights available in Yellowstone in mid-September, at Madison Village, the only campground there that stays open past Labor Day. (That became our first destination – the fixed reservation that got us out of town on a certain date.) We arrived in a thunder snowstorm, having pulled the trailer over the Continental Divide, in the dark, as traffic had slowed to a crawl with the weather. The office was still open at 8:00, and as they processed the paperwork for all the weary campers, they informed us that a grizzly bear had been spotted in the campground the day before, so if we spotted one, we should stay in our trailers and give the office a call.
Huddled inside eating a can of soup, we realized the essential character of our trailer: it was a hard-shell, bear-proof tent, which is not a bad thing. For the first of many subsequent occasions, we were grateful that after a long drive, we didn’t have to set up a tent, roll out sleeping bags, arrange gear, cook a meal and then put our food in a bear-proof enclosure. We opened a door and stepped into a completely dry, wind-proof space, where we could turn on the lights, heat up some dinner and crawl into comfortable beds. Venturing out to the bathroom later that night, I was startled by some eerie sounds that I couldn’t identify, which turned out to be elk calling down by the lake; the grizzly did not make an appearance. The next morning, we awoke to 25 degree temperatures in the trailer, pulled our clothes on while under the covers, and zoomed off in the truck to find a warm restaurant for breakfast; this became our modus operandi for the next few days.
At 2:00 in the morning, a train showed up to load grain, repeatedly maneuvering with its loud diesel engine, and often backing across an intersection, which caused gates to descend and bells to sound, waking us up for hours. It turns out that many commercial campgrounds are right next to railroad tracks, or even freight yards. This is probably because many western towns are located on rail lines, and I think that when you’re looking for a parcel big enough and zoned correctly for a campground, you’re often going to find sites that formerly housed industrial uses, right along the railroad lines. As I considered campgrounds in the future, I checked for possible railroad noise, but it often was unavoidable – there would be no other options in the area.
Another commercial campground in Chamberlain, South Dakota, made us more aware of the highway noise issue, as it was located right off I-90. The noise is more continuous, and not as disruptive as trains, but the air brakes on an 18-wheeler coming down a slope are still very noticeable. This was also the first place where we clearly saw where our little Scamp fit in the hierarchy of RVs in a campground, and Greta had an image of a ramp coming down from the back of a moving RV, and we would drive our whole rig right into it, in a sort of James-Bond-goes-camping movie.
One week into our trip, the differences between public and private campgrounds started to become clear to us:
Cost and amenities
Public campgrounds were usually in the $15-25 per night range. Commercial campgrounds were usually $30-50 per night, although there were outliers on each end. These costs reflected different levels of amenity. Public campgrounds had perfectly fine, functional bathrooms, and sometimes a sink for washing dishes. Showers were really uncommon, although at major parks (Yellowstone, Bryce, Grand Canyon, etc.) they could be accessed for a fee in what was often a centralized facility you might drive to (probably added in later years when Americans’ obsession with showers became stronger). Commercial campgrounds always had less spartan bathrooms and showers. Some of them were incredibly luxurious, such as this one with stone and etched-glass in Apalachicola:
Public campgrounds sometimes had a holding tank dump station, but almost never had any utilities at the campsite. Commercial campgrounds offered a range of hook-ups – from full (water, sewer, 50-amp power, cable TV), to simpler 30-amp and water sites. Very few public campgrounds had wifi, whereas most commercial ones did. (We found the wifi very variable – sometimes it was almost useless, as they probably had enough bandwidth to accommodate email and web-surfing, but the patrons would stream videos, and it would slow to a crawl (until all the old people went to sleep after 10:00).
These differences in amenities reflected the differences in clientele, which were notable. In a nutshell, commercial campgrounds were full of giant RVs and fifth wheels, usually towing a car, whose owners only stopped watching their widescreen TVs inside when they needed to take their rat dogs for walks. We almost never met anyone in a commercial campground – they even often used their own bathrooms rather than the common ones.
Public campgrounds had some big RVs (if the terrain permitted), but were usually a mix of tents, pop-up-trailers, normal trailers, and mid-sized RVs and conversion vans. Our neighbors were usually outdoors – building fires, and walking their very big dogs. We got to meet really cool people, such as Patty and Danny, retired psychologists from the Carolinas who had a 16-foot Airstream next to us in Big Bend, whom we met because they would sit outside at night drinking bourbon and playing the banjo. Or this other lovely couple of semi-retired teachers from Dallas, with whom we crossed paths and chatted several times in Big Bend.
The essential difference between the residents is this: in commercial campgrounds, people are living in their RVs. They are bringing all the paraphernalia of normal American suburban lifestyles, and they are looking for comfortable places which facilitate those lifestyles. Many of them are snowbirds (we were camping a lot in the South and Southwest in the winter), and many of them are retired (Greta was usually the only kid in an off-season campground). Outside Charleston, our campground was full of people who’d get into their pickup trucks every morning and go off to work – I think many of them were utility workers who’d come from far off to work on short-term contracts.
In public campgrounds, people are living in campers so that they can experience those places. They are purposefully leaving suburban American lifestyles behind, and they are into exploring and experiencing the places where they’re camping, including meeting the other campers. They don’t care much about amenities, as those can get in the way of the experience.
The difference in lifestyles also explains the dogs: people in big RVs have rat dogs as they’ve acquired a small dog to live in what is essentially a small house. People in small trailers have big dogs as they’ve just brought along the dog that lives with them at home.
I used to get nervous about getting old and living in such a way that I mainly associated with other old people; this trip has given me a different perspective on that. The retired people we met in National Parks were some of the coolest people I’ve met in years. I’d be happy hanging out with them, and I’m already plotting my second career as a National Park volunteer campground host (it comes with a free campsite, and I’d have an excuse to talk to everyone).
Public campgrounds: sites and locations
National Park campgrounds are located right near the reason you’re there, and the areas right around the campgrounds themselves are often beautiful. This is looking down on our campground in the Chisos Basin, in Big Bend. We were hundreds of miles from any city, and at night every person in this campground came outside, built a fire, and sat looking at the stars.
Even when you are surrounded by others, the Park Service planners take care with the layout of individual campsites, trying to ensure some privacy and engagement with nature. For example, here is our site, backed right up to the bayou, in Davis Bayou in Gulf Islands National Seashore. It was dark and humid, and when Greta got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she had to contend with lurking raccoons and swamp rabbits.
Commercial campgrounds: sites and locations
Commercial campgrounds were more focussed upon getting as many vehicles onto their property as they could, and we usually got a large parking space between other RVs, often with a picnic table, but no real privacy. As we were travelling in the off-season, this didn’t bother us much – we were inside at night, with the windows closed. In the summer it would probably be less pleasant – I assume there’d be lots of kids running around, lots of grownups noisily drinking beer by their campfires, and lots of generators running air conditioners. (Generators were less of a problem than I’d imagined – most campgrounds have reasonable quiet hours, and the cool weather kept the usage down).
The campgrounds in the Midwest and East were mainly parking lots with utilities, and while the facilities were often fine, the locations were determined more by finding a large property near a metropolitan area, rather than by any attractions in the landscape. However, once we moved into the South and West, even commercial campgrounds were often in beautiful locations.
Outside Macon, Georgia, we found a strange campground run by the Shriners, located behind their meeting hall, on a rolling rural parcel. (There was a serious security gate, one had to rouse the on-site manager – who lived in a mobile home and who seemed loathe to actually accept payment – to get access, and we were one of only two campers there.)
The campgrounds at the Lake Mead and Lake Powell National Recreation Areas were hybrids – inside units of the NPS, but run by contractors, and seeming more like commercial campgrounds. They had lots of the giant RVs, wifi and utilities, and in the summer I’m sure this place fills up with motor-boat fanatics.
The Wahweap campground on Lake Powell was quite wonderful, with desert sunsets, privacy plus utilities, an evening program of stargazing, and most importantly for Greta, an overabundance of jackrabbits.
Another hybrid was at Canyon de Chelly, a National Monument situated on the Navajo reservation, so the campground is part of the Navajo park system. It was a beautiful spot among the cottonwoods by the river, but perhaps the most interesting aspect was the presence of res dogs wandering around. Greta made the mistake of petting one, who then didn’t leave us alone for two days, except when he had an opportunity to tree a cat.
At one point some water leaked out of our drain, and as it contained some of the water out of a tuna can, we got to watch another dog lick it off the pavement. The next night this dog ran off with one of my clogs, and I found it 200 yards way, with tooth marks. Part of the pleasure of this campground was getting the whole reservation experience.
State and local parks
We didn’t often stay at state and local parks. As we were doing our research on the fly, it was often hard to find out about them (whereas the National Park Service runs almost all of its campground information and reservation services through one contracted website). Our first attempt to find a local campground was in Wisconsin, where we couldn’t get any information in advance and so just showed up, and after half an hour driving around, discerned that there were no campsites available. We realized that most local campgrounds are used by local people who make a reservation way in advance so they can recreate – they’re really not geared to travelers and don’t make any accommodation for them.
The one great exception to this is Florida. We first found a municipal campground outside Jacksonville, as it was listed on the NPS website, as the only campground within the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. It was fantastic, camping right on the beach at the mouth of the St. John’s River, across from the Mayport Naval Station. It was beautiful, cheap and secure, as there was a guard at the gate to keep non-campers from showing up late to party.
Through this we learned about the Florida State Park system, which has a website similar to that of the NPS. You can search for available sites, and even pick your spot online. The residents were a cross between those found in national park and commercial campgrounds – campers, but many medium-term, and there for the recreational opportunities rather than any particular features in the landscape. The campground in the bayou at Chassahowitzka was hot and humid, with lots of bugs beneath the cypresses, and seemed to be mainly filled with Canadians, who were having pizzas delivered.
Our favorite was at Tomoka State Park on the Atlantic coast, where we discovered the Celery City String Band in the community room, practicing for their New Year’s Eve gig the next night. They invited Greta to sit in on washboard.
Ten miles outside Tucson, we stayed in the Gilbert Ray county park immediately adjacent to Saguaro national park, found again because it was listed on the NPS website. It came with packs of coyotes.
Choosing a campground usually depended on what was available – if we were heading to a National Park, and they had available sites, we’d go there – they were better and cheaper, and we usually didn’t care about amenities. This process was facilitated by the http://www.recreation.gov webpage, where you can check availability by date and make reservations. I set up a rough itinerary for our trip on the website, selecting all the National Park sites where we were likely to go, and as we closed in on one, I’d call up that info and try to reserve a campsite. Some National Parks have a first-come-first-served policy, and it is hard to know how to play that one. The park website will sometimes tell you what the likelihood of getting a site is – such as at Mesa Verde, where we were early in the season, and they said the campground almost never fills up. At others it can be iffy, but we did learn that the NPS often has a fallback plan. Even in campgrounds where they take reservations, they may say the campground is full, but they hold some sites back, in case people show up late with no other options. It’s not likely that you’ll show up at Big Bend after a drive of hundreds of miles and they’ll tell you to turn back.
If there were no public sites available, we’d look for commercial ones. For example, when we made a last-minute decision based upon the weather to head towards Zion rather than the Grand Canyon, there were no public sites available, and we had to head to a commercial campground in Hurricane, 30 miles away. It was sometimes frustrating, as the campground system is geared towards people who can plan their lives six months in advance. We wanted to go to Yosemite, but by the time we knew when we might be there, there were no public camp sites available, and we couldn’t find any commercial campgrounds available anywhere near it.
While commercial campgrounds were sometimes the only ones available, and sometimes a fallback, sometimes we chose them on purpose. If we had been in public campgrounds for days, getting electricity, showers and wifi started to sound attractive. The other big determinant was the weather. If it was down in the 30s or lower, being able to run a heater at night was very nice. Eventually I found a very useful website, RVparkreviews.com. It is geared towards RVers who want full hookups and serious luxury, but the reviews are detailed enough to steer you away from the really ratty RV parks, of which there are quite a few. (One common recommendation seems to be to not stay in trailer parks which also have long-term residents, as they are living different, noisy lifestyles, with kids, late-night parties, and starting up the big diesel to go to work early in the morning.) We also got a KOA discount card, and would sometimes skew towards them, as they ensure a baseline of decent accommodations, although not always in the most convenient locations.
Overall, staying in campgrounds and trailer parks was much better than I expected it to be. It was never terrible, and was often fantastic. A couple of times on this trip we had to stay in motels, and that just reinforced our decision to go camping. We hated the motels with their thin walls, noisy TVs and general lack of appeal. I even considered going back to the parking lot at one motel to sleep in the Scamp.
No campers allowed
There were places without campgrounds where having a trailer (or even a truck) was a problem. When we reached a big metropolitan area where we would be staying in the city (or other place where we didn’t want to take the trailer), we left the rig on the outskirts with other friends – with Aaron in Woodstock when we went into Chicago, Mike and Cathie in Scituate as we headed for the ferry to the Vineyard (avoiding hundreds of dollars in ferry tolls), my brother outside New York, Norman and Ginny outside DC, etc. The most annoying situation was where we had family or friends to stay with, but we weren’t allowed to park a trailer in their neighborhood. As Northwesterners, with our laissez-faire attitude towards life, we hadn’t anticipated this world of CC&Rs at all; the places where it occurred were new developments in the Sunbelt, as distant philosophically from the Northwest as they are geographically. (Although we appreciated the irony that these hotbeds of Republican property-rights mania had all these restrictions, while the commie hippies of the Northwest let you do what you want.) As Greta remarked, there should be a sign which reads, Southern Florida, a Gated Community. So in Florida and Phoenix we had to track down RV storage yards, where we could park our rig for a few weeks.
The other, very different place we camped was in friends’ driveways, and this was the best. Besides seeing friends and being on the receiving end of their hospitality, we were also getting local informants and guides to the places, who would tell us what to see and where to eat. (And as I mentioned, we hoped that bringing our own guest room would eliminate some of the imposition.) Most of these camping sites were normal suburban driveways, but some stood out for their unusual locations.
We first stopped in St. Paul, where Josh and Laura didn’t have a driveway in this older residential neighborhood, but they got us a spot in the alley behind their house that belonged to their college boy neighbors. Greta slept inside where she got a feline companion, while I tried out urban camping. It worked just fine, and Greta and I started thinking about parking in random city alleys, spending the night and being off in the morning before anyone started to wonder about us.
In Baltimore, we didn’t have any suburban location where we could ditch the rig, so we drove into the center of the city. Neelab and Ben live in a rowhouse and don’t have a driveway, but they pointed out the street around the corner from their house with no-permit-required, perpendicular parking, where we put the trailer and truck in two adjacent spots. I was a little nervous about burglary, so I parked the truck up tight to the trailer door, so you couldn’t open it. We slept in their house, and everything was fine. Except that six months later, we got a parking ticket in the mail from the City of Baltimore, with no explanation or citation of what law we had broken. The burglars left us alone, but the City got us.
In Santa Cruz, it seemed that Jerry and Gunilla had designed their house with driveway camping in mind. It felt more like a courtyard than a driveway, with a nice privacy gradient from the street provided by the porte-cochere, and easy bathroom access around the back.
But by far the most amazing urban camping experience was in New Orleans at Glen and Michelle’s. For the first couple of weeks we stayed in Glen’s mom’s apartment while she was back home in Cut Off. But when she came back to town, Greta and Glen and I pushed the Scamp through the vehicle bay in the Marigny firehouse (which they operate as a shared office space), and into the courtyard in the middle of the block. There were bathrooms and a shared kitchen right off the courtyard, and we got to chat with all the young creatives who would walk through the courtyard on the way to their offices. It was idyllic – urban camping in the center of the city – quiet, but close to all the action. As in so many other categories of our trip, New Orleans provided our favorite experience. I thought that maybe we should leave the trailer there, Glen could rent it out as an AirBnb while we were gone, and we could just come stay for Mardi Gras every year.
We started this trip with trailer camping just as a pragmatic means, but it came to be an important part of the trip. We really loved many of the places we stayed, and we remember all of them vividly. For our last nights on the road, we wanted to camp somewhere cool and memorable. We thought of Crater Lake, but the campground wasn’t open yet. So we headed to Redwood National Park, where we stayed in the Elk Prairie state campground. As I made a reservation, I asked Greta whether she wanted a site in the redwoods, or one nearby on the prairie. She said she wanted the spot where she’d be less likely to run into an elk on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So we ended up in this dark spot in the forest, surrounded by the giant trees.