Ode to campgrounds

How I learned to stop hating developed sites--and tents

My parents first took me camping before I could even walk, and throughout my childhood our version of a family vacation was to pack up the decrepit station wagon or the oil-guzzling International Harvester pickup and head out into the land of sage and sandstone and set up camp underneath some old cottonwood, where we’d throw our sleeping bags in the dirt and my dad would cook over the fire one of his delicacies—Dinty Moore stew topped with those crispy chow mein noodles out of a can, perhaps, or Hormel chili with gobs of cheddar cheese—and then I’d crawl into my shitty little bag and lie shivering as I stared up at tree-branch skeletons silhouetted against the bowl of stars.

It was a wonderful, if not always comfortable, childhood.

We had several sites we’d return to time after time—at the mouth of Arch Canyon, on a slickrock outcrop on Cedar Mesa’s edge, in the Dolores River Canyon, at a lofty spot on the rim of upper Arch Canyon, and at a place called the “Potholes,” which required a mile-long backpack.

We almost never stayed in campgrounds. We were dispersed camping devotees. Maybe we were purists or maybe we were just poor, the latter also being the best explanation for our lack of adequate camping gear. We eschewed tents and stoves and warm sleeping bags and even functional sleeping pads. Our water purification system was an empty Clorox bottle filled with warm, murky pothole fluid, the taste redolent of stone and bleach and possibly tadpoles.

As an adolescent I began camping with friends. For the first several years none of us were old enough to drive, so our parents had to haul us out into the mountains or desert and drop us off and come back and pick us up a few days later. Usually we were “backpacking,” albeit only a few miles, at most, so staying in campgrounds wasn’t really an option. But looking back, and considering how young we were—12, 13, 14—you’d think our parents wouldn’t let us stay anywhere except campgrounds.

Our parents weren’t like that, though. Nor were we. As I grew older my distaste for tents and developed campsites grew stronger. Why put up a barrier between oneself and the stars? Why pay to be surrounded by other people when the whole point of camping is to get away from it all—especially other humans?

I suffered due to my stubbornness. I’ve lost count of the number of interminable soggy-sleeping-bag nights. Winter camping, even with a decent bag, can be a sleepless hell without a tent. And in the summer, I often woke up in a blind panic, my eyes swollen shut from nocturnal mosquito and gnat attacks. Over time, the regular dispersed campsites were trampled and trashed, the lower branches of all the trees cut or busted off for fires in multiple pits. There were times when we’d set up camp in one of “our” spots, only to have someone else come along and plop down right next to us.

It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I bought my first tent. My wife and I wanted to take our daughter, a toddler, camping, and sleeping under the stars just wouldn’t cut it. So we headed down to Walmart and picked up a cheap dome deal and headed west to—egad!—a campground. And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. Lydia, our daughter, loved the tent—she cried when we took it down—and I woke up without a single gnat bite. As I dismantled the tent I noticed a scorpion that had been nestled up underneath us, and I shuddered as I thought of where it might have been had we been tentless. Staying in a place with a picnic table and built in shade and bathrooms and running water and trash cans made camping with a one-year-old downright pleasant.

Maybe I had seen the light, at last. Or perhaps it was more like surrender. Either way, I’ve become a devotee of both tents and campgrounds in the years since. Sure, I still occasionally sleep under the stars and at the mercy of scorpions and mosquitos, I still backpack, and still frequent a few very special dispersed car-campsites. But in recent years I’ve found the non-designated camping areas to be just as crowded as the designated campsites. And because the former lacks the amenities—toilets, firepits, trash bins, and so forth—the impacts to the site and the surrounding area are greater.

When camping alone, I feel as if I can do the dispersed thing with minimal impact. The more one adds to the party, however, the more untenable dispersed camping becomes. What starts out as a contained campsite grows as folks head out into the fragile surroundings to find private tent spots or hammock-hanging trees or a good place to park the car or their own under-a-juniper crapper. Cooking for a group is a pain without some sort of table, so you’ve got to fork out for the rollup tables when dispersed camping. Staying in a campground soothes such concerns.

And so it is that I learned to stop being a cantankerous young jerk and aged into a fondness for both tents and campgrounds. Not all campgrounds, though: Like anything else there are good, bad, and ugly ones. Here’s a bit of a rundown of some of my favorites, and a couple bad ones. I’ve left the names off of the faves only so that you can do some sleuthing of your own and try to figure out where they are. If you’re familiar with the Four Corners Country, it shouldn’t be too hard.

H——- Campground. This is my go-to place. It’s a couple hours west of Durango and the second half of the drive is through some of my favorite country. The campground has something like 25 campsites, but it feels like fewer. And it was designed in such a way as to give a bit of privacy to each site. The views are spectacular, each site has shade, a picnic table, and a sandy tent site, and campers can embark on two great hikes from camp. Best of all, it’s usually not crowded and can be almost empty in the middle of the summer.

S—— Campground. This is literally an oasis in the desert. The campsites are in an oak grove on the lower slopes of a rocky mountain range and the campground water comes from a spring (that also keeps the vegetation lush). Walk out of camp and up on a rise and get one of the best views anywhere. I’ve only been there a few times, but never saw more than one other party.

D—— Campground. This is a small campground, with just seven sites, no potable water, and a road leading to private houses going right through it. It’s a lot better than it sounds. A sweet little stream runs feet away from the campsites—meaning you’d better have a tent to keep the bugs away—good hikes can be had right out of camp, and one of the finest eating establishments in the West is a mere five miles away.

A—- Campground. I first stumbled upon this place when I was doing some reporting in the San Juan Basin oil and gas patch and really didn’t want to stay in another cheap and skanky Farmington motel, but also didn’t want to camp on a hydrogen sulfide-steeped well pad. There are just a handful of sites, it’s in the gas patch, there’s no potable water. But it’s free and the views … nothing compares to sitting here above the badlands and watching a late-summer sunset thunderstorm make its way toward you.

The list goes on, but I’ll leave it at that. As for my least favorite campgrounds (sorry, but I’m naming names on this one):

Kroeger Campground: I’ve stayed here twice before the Kennebec Run because the dispersed campsites in La Plata Canyon west of Durango were all full, many of them with what looked like full-time residents. The campsites are kind of squished together in a way that eliminates any privacy whatsoever. And both times I was there another group of campers insisted on partying late and loudly into the night. Not recommended.

Chaco Canyon Campground: You’d think that since this is in a national park, it would be pretty nice, and since it’s out in the hot desert it would also be kind of empty in the summer. In my experience, neither is true. The last time I camped there was in August a few years back. I managed to snag the last available site—a picnic table in a clearing among the rabbit brush. No shade, no privacy whatsoever, and most of the neighboring campsites were occupied by what seemed to be Farmington rednecks. It was not pleasant. That said, Chaco is an amazing place, so it’s kind of worth it.