There are lots of options for free campsites when on a road trip in the States (or Canada for that matter). The obvious ones are the WalMart and Cracker Barrel parking lots, and we had our fair share of those. However there were several others that popped up that have interesting stories attached to them.
One of the biggest camping uncertainties that we face on the many times we’ve done this trip is, “Where do we camp on the two nights before our decent into the Grand Canyon?” Typically on the first of these nights we arrive fairly late in the evening, having made the drive from Page. It would be hopeless to get a campsite in the Mather campground of the main village. You have a chance if you show up early on the second morning, and that’s what we’ve done successfully on the last few trips. This puts you close to your early morning bus rendez-vous on the morning you start hiking. But that first night is always a crap shoot and you never know what to expect. This time around we arrived at the Desert View campground, 40 miles east of the main village hoping that a site or two would be open as has been the case in the past. No luck this time, though.
My strategy with full campgrounds is always go in, drive around and look for the “host”. If you talk to them we’ve always been able to salvage some kind of site. At times they have emergency sites put aside for people in the situation of arriving late and having nowhere to go. That wasn’t the case this time. However the host ranger came through, pointing out something that should have been obvious, but I’ve never thought of before. He said that if we took one of the southerly roads, we would in a few miles end up exiting the park and entering the National Forest. The policy is that you can camp anywhere on most National Forest areas, and the one surrounding the Grand Canyon was no exception. There usually aren’t facilities or water, but there are often very amenable sites for tents or trailers. He was kind enough to give us specific directions to a nearby road that led to very adequate camping. There was even a washroom at this site as it was the intersection of several hiking trails. So off we went, following his directions, and found an area where a dozen or so people were already camped, but there was plenty of room for more campers. What a find!! Never again do we need to approach that first night wondering where we will have to camp. This is a great resource.
I won’t post the exact directions here as I don’t want to swamp the area, but if you are seriously in need it is not too hard to figure it out with a minimal amount of research.
A week or so later we found ourselves in the Grand Tetons, near Yellowstone, and in the same situation. This time, all of the local campsites of all description were full to over capacity because of the eclipse. This was a prime viewing area, which, of course, is why we were there. Once again I went into a campground with a “No Vacancy” sign in order to ask questions. The first answers are always like, “We’re full. We can’t help you.” But you just keep asking and saying you don’t know what you’re going to do. As usual, this time the ranger gave me directions to an information tent set up down a lonely road in order to help with the overflow of visitors. Even there the initial response was, “We can’t help you,” but eventually they mentioned that there was a gravel quarry several miles down a side road that had been set up for overflow camping. It even had port-o-potties set up. We made our way there and found just over two dozen campers already set up, but lots of room to spare. As the day went on, more showed up and it got a little more crowded, but not to an uncomfortable degree. We were able to drive up to Yellowstone in order to see a few of the attractions there. (Old Faithful was a bit of an anticlimax.) We got back late at night because of a traffic stop on the way back to the campsite on account of a car having hit a buffalo. Not much left of the car and the buffalo was dead on the road, probably having been shot by the rangers because of its injuries.
Anyway, the next morning we witnessed the eclipse from our gravel pit campsite. And it was a fine place to do so, surrounded by the mountains of the Grand Tetons. I don’t think I could have asked for a better situation.
The night after we were led to another odd campground. Of course the overflow from the eclipse viewers was still an issue and even though we were trying to make tracks eastward towards Nebraska, that was also the path of the eclipse and the crowds didn’t dissipate. I thought some would start home that day and the campgrounds would thin out a bit, but that didn’t happen. We got as far as Douglas, Wyoming and checked the nearby KOA. No luck, but again with persistent questioning the owner mentioned that the town had a city park where they allowed overnight free camping. I had read about these, so it didn’t seem so far fetched, and off we went. It wasn’t too hard to locate and when we got there it was basically a donut shaped parking lot with about six other campers, including some trailers and tents. We dropped the trailer at about 7 p.m. and went in search of food.
Finding a restaurant was a challenge, and we actually encountered another group who had followed their GPS to a dead end. There were also a large number of police patrolling the area and doing something that resembled a “raid” at one of the restaurants that we found. We ended up passing on that one. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant (-The Four Seasons – which I originally thought was connected to a hotel-) owned by a really nice but somewhat strange guy. It was just him and his wife running the place. He served and she cooked. He seemed to have a habit of not clearing tables until they were needed, so the place was full of dirty dishes when we first got there. When we said we needed a table for eight he proceeded to clear and wash one large table, leaving all of the others. Our conversation with him was a little too enthusiastic on his part and a touch weird. But the food was excellent and surprisingly cheap and definitely worth a good recommendation. The service wasn’t quick, so it was later in the evening when we left and went back to our “campsite” in the park.
When we got there, we found the place was deserted except for our trailer and one new tent. Everyone else had cleared out. It’s important to explain here that we had no doubt that this was a park set up for overnight camping. It had restrooms, showers and even a small dump station for RVs. Then we noticed a sign that we’d missed when we first arrived, that there was no camping during the days surrounding the eclipse. We were very confused. We could understand why local campsites and the chamber of commerce might object to free camping normally, but to do it during a period where all of the campgrounds were overflowing in capacity just didn’t make sense.
Anyway, it was after 11 p.m. and we weren’t about to move unless forced to. We had nowhere to go and if those who had left had been told another place to go, we didn’t have that information. We expected to find a note on the trailer, but there was nothing.
I recommended to the boys that they just sleep on the grass as it was lush (-another clue that we missed-) and there was no call for rain. That way if we were rousted in the middle of the night it would be easier to move out. The police or whoever never returned to evict us, but it seems that we missed a part of the sign.
Several hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, as I was sleeping in the trailer, all of a sudden I heard a torrent of rain fall on the roof. I immediately woke and thought, “Oh damn, the guys are outside in the rain.” Then as quickly as it started it stopped. About a minute later it came back for about 10 seconds, then stopped again. A sprinkler system! I knew that this would be an unwelcome surprise for the boys, but thought that perhaps they had positioned themselves outside the radius of the water and would be OK. I figured that if they were in trouble they’d come to the trailer. A few hours late I got up and went outside to find several of the boys up and the rest sleeping in the parking lot between the trailer and the car. The sprinklers hadn’t hit them when I originally woke, but did a few hours later. They were on some kind of rotating system. So they got a rather nasty surprise when water suddenly erupted around them and they had to run to get away from it. Closer examination of the sign in the morning showed that it did mention the sprinklers in small print.
So that was our rather strange night in Douglas, Wyoming. It really all felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone, and we were anxious to get on our way the next morning.
Speaking of episodes of the Twilight Zone, there’s one more campsite that deserves mention.
On the second last day before our return we were determined to make good time and put ourselves in striking distance for an afternoon arrival. We made our target the Michigan town of Battle Creek, thinking that it was big enough to have several campgrounds we could use. And, in fact, our research showed at least two possibilities.
We got to Battle Creek a little later than we’d anticipated, and put the first campground into the GPS. It took us to a dead end. Not only that, but the GPS had strange symbols and colouring on it, like we were entering a top secret facility or something. I couldn’t imagine there being a secret facility in Battle Creek, the home of Kellogg’s. So we tried for the second campground. Same result. Finally, using a laptop and the old Streets and Trips program we found another campground.
We entered it and realized quickly that it was more a residential RV park than a campground, although one resident did point to an area where there was space for trailers and said that it was the campground. We went there and set up without too much trouble, but quickly realized that there were no facilities at all, including restrooms. The whole place had a strange vibe, with people driving in and out, and one car coming over to investigate what we were doing. Since we’d arrived late, there was no chance to pay for our site, and there was no sign of any office. Eventually someone walked over, explained that, yes, we were in the campsites, there was no restroom and, looking at our tents, said that tents were not allowed “because of the trees”. I asked him what he meant, and he said he didn’t know; that’s just what they’d told him. But he didn’t seem like he was going to stop us, and we didn’t have much choice, so we finished our set up and had a decent night’s sleep, always wondering if someone was going to rap on the trailer door in the middle of the night. Nobody did.
In the morning, we still couldn’t find an office, so we packed up early and got on our way. I didn’t feel too bad about not paying as I genuinely didn’t know how, and the campsite was just a patch of grass by the road. The whole thing was a bit spooky and we felt like we needed to get out of there. It got us an early start on the morning.
When you’re winging your itinerary, as we most definitely were, it is sometimes challenging to find a campsite. Occasionally it leads to some odd places. But when no sites seem obvious, there are almost always options.