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Are Car Campers An Endangered Species in National Parks?


Glacier Basin is a popular campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. photo.

Generations of Americans got their first taste of national parks via car camping, that venerable tradition of driving to a park and setting up a tent or two in a roadside campground. That genre of park visitation seems to be slipping these days, though, and at least one car-camping aficionado blames it on economics -- there's more money to be made in lodgings than campgrounds.

That's the point driven home in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times by Eric Bailey.

The past quarter of a century has seen a shift in lodging tastes — and as baby boomers have given way to Generations X and Y, the number of tent and RV campers in national parks across the U.S. has dropped 44%. Meanwhile, the number of visitors in fixed-roof park lodgings has barely changed at all.

The camping decline comes amid debate over how to balance nature's needs with the recreational agenda of national park visitors. (Brian) Ouzounian believes Yosemite's planning efforts "have profit motives written all over them." The valley now has nearly three times more lodging units than campsites, and in that he sees a socioeconomic plot, a push to place more valley visitors in expensive accommodations.

Campers, he says, are the underdogs: "We're at the bottom of the food chain. You've got a camping culture that's more than a century old, but the park service really doesn't want to hear from us."

If Mr. Ouzounian is right, that the Park Service is going along with the move to boost lodging at the expense of campgrounds, perhaps that could be linked to the soft visitation numbers the national park system has witnessed in recent years. More so, such a move possibly could result in a disparity of economic diversity of park visitors, as those of lower incomes who rely on, and even prefer, car camping are effectively squeezed out of the parks.

For his part, Mr. Ouzounian is pushing a campaign to draw Congress' attention to this perceived slight.

His latest effort is an online petition calling for the return of (Yosemite's) flood-closed campsites. His goal is to send the thoughts of 10,000 campers to Congress. At last count, he had collected more than 700 signatures and testimonials from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

Diane Mello wrote that camping provides a more "intimate" Yosemite experience than hunkering down in a hotel room. Joel Swan of Illinois spoke of the slippery slope if the National Park Service discriminates against those of modest means. Richard Conklin suggested that "John Muir is turning over in his grave."


This guy's complaints center on the reduction of campsites in Yosemite Valley. One of the largest campgrounds in the western United States is at Tuolumne Meadows. There's another large campground on the road to Glacier Point. But he wants to camp like his grandfather did right along the Merced River. Yosemite Valley is a small area. The campgrounds that were removed after the flood of 97 should not be replaced.

Having raised my children with tent camping, which included a small open campfire (this is no longer available in most campgrounds now) each night upon which to bond with hot dogs and marshmallows roasting. I still enjoy getting out of the urbs as often as I can. Age has caused me to shift from a tent to a hard body due to creature comforts. Cost of storage has caused me to sell the hard body and I have begun utilizing in park lodgings. At the Grand Canyon South rim a "historic cabin" at Bright Angel is under $70 a night, a motel type room in the wooded area at Yavipi is just over $100, and it offers Air conditioning. The North Rim has "fronter" cabins $100 and motel type lodging tho the price becomes beyond my budget.
In most cases the lodging at the parks is within reason if you compare to a Holiday Inn or the like. At Yellowstone, there are reasonable acomidations outside of the park. Also the Forest service rents remote cabins (several miles off the main road) I have enjoyed the seclusion of one of them near Flagstaff, AZ
If I use the tent I now have difficulties moving and enjoying the parks, If I use a cabin or room I can get around the park and really enjoy the of our natural wonders. As our population grows with seniors, empty nested, a few well located (blended in) cabins or rooms are a great thing .

I always loved the term "car camping". It's like, hey, let's load up our car with as much crap as it can hold, drive hours to the woods and then sleep right next to our car and everyone else's car, too! That's really getting away from it all!

Car campers still have the best option available: free camping in the National Forest as dispersed campers. You can still sleep next to your car, but you don't have to sleep next to anyone else's, and best of all, you don't have to pay 25 bucks.

Reform the National Park Service!

It's not the proximity to the venue that car campers are seeking, for the most part, it's the experience of NOT staying in a bed every night, with conveniences like institutionalized food, gift shops, over-crowded walkways and the ever present hunt for the almighty parking spot close enough to the lodge to enable one to lug in the suitcases without the associated hernia. Camping, whether it be backcountry, short backpacking treks, or dispersed in the national forest (or BLM lands) will continue, and maybe even thrive if the lands nearest the parks evolve towards total commercialism. And the further ones gets away from the development, the better the experience at the park will be, albeit slightly less convenient.

For many years my wife and I have been flying into various places from Baltimore to Las Vegas with a cooler and camping box. We rent a car and go explore national parks for our two week vacation. One of the highlights of these trips is to camp and be able to hike, often from the campsite. To wake up in the wild in a small tent, not in a box of aluminum. No tv, radio or even a cell phone just the natural setting surrounding us.

One time in Bryce with the camp sites full, and rv sites available, we were told that we could have rv a site if no one showed up by five PM. There should indeed be sites for tent camping. As global warming gets worse rvs and more hotels are surely not part of the solution.

I think that car camping is still great, although sometimes noisy or otherwise rude neighbors at campgrounds can make for an unpleasant visit. Even with that, I can recall few times where the behavior of those adjacent to my site marred my experience to the extent that I still remember it. What I tend to recall instead is the great time I had there, not at the campground per se, but at the park itself. The camping experience made the overall experience all the better (typically) as I spent hours outdoors that I'd usually spend in the room or a restaurant when staying in a lodge. Erratic weather, bugs in the tent, uncomfortable air mattresses, and strange noises outside of the tent notwithstanding, my experiences car camping have often left me feeling rather refreshed after struggling to sleep outdoors, ironically, and spurred me to have other unique and memorable experiences in the park that I was visiting. This is a way of visiting parks that should be sustained for generations to come.

So, perhaps park managers should consider raising the fee to car camp, as the cost for this does not seem to have kept pace with the cost for other lodging. Even a 20% increase would translate to only a dollar or two more per night at most campgrounds, a nominal fee considering that many of the "lower income" families who might balk at this increase are the same who will gladly drop $5 for a cup of coffee at [name of overpriced national coffee chain here] twice per week. Sure, there are many others who would balk at these increases (legitimately), but if the alternative is closing the campgrounds altogether in favor of hotels, I think an increase to keep car camping alive would be well worth it.

if the cost of camping is raised, it should only for those with hard sided units such as RV's, pop up trailers and the like.

realistically speaking, tent camping uses far less infrastructure (hard sided units use: dump stations! water! space demands! generator noise! increased ware and tear on park roads & bridges by heavier weights!) and if people are advocating a somewhat pay to play based scenario then i submit that there should be price structuring to reflect this discrepancy in resource use.

additionally, i'd say raise the senior pass price from $10 to $20 and use the difference to fund park campgrounds. if this age demographic really cares about the parks, they should be up in arms that congress didn't give them the opportunity to really support them... shame on anyone who complains about a pass that *would* cost $20 for life!

but i agree with frank:
"I always loved the term "car camping". It's like, hey, let's load up our car with as much crap as it can hold, drive hours to the woods and then sleep right next to our car and everyone else's car, too! That's really getting away from it all!"

jbojay, what campgrounds are you spending time in that do not allow campfires?

in my experience, it is inaccurate to say a campfire "is no longer available in most campgrounds now". even in periods of high fire danger, most BLM and USFS campgrounds continue to allow campfires because of the hazardous fuels reduction that generally takes place in these areas. i'm not sure about the NPS but i would imagine they are pretty similar.

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