Friday, September 10, 2021

How Do You Discover Campgrounds? (Or "Google Maps Is My Friend")

Google Maps is my friend--except, of course, when the app leads me astray. Being led astray has happened before. Once I found myself pushing my bicycle down a track that I could see used to be a gravel road but was now overgrown with brush and Iowa ragweed. I pushed on and eventually connected with a real gravel road, emerging from the bush just behind some guy's house. He certainly was surprised. Another time my wife and I were scouting out a county park, and Google Maps directed me onto gravel roads for about ten miles. I knew the campground we were headed for was on a paved county road, but the app took me off the main road. Sometimes it's hard to second-guess Google Maps while driving; however, Google Maps is a field of all camping possibilities for me, a place to dream . . . and to see photos and read reviews of my dreams. Although not always reliable, Google Maps is still my friend and confidante. 

One of my most common interactions with Google Maps also includes Facebook and Instagram. While scrolling through Facebook camping groups or Instagram posts from camping aficionados, when I come across a campground or area that catches my interest, I star that location in my Google Maps account. This has led my Google Maps "homepage" to look rather cluttered, but when I zoom in, the stars disperse yet still provide local possibilities when I'm researching routes and destinations. And, yes, I do sometimes remove a star if after more research I determine a campground is no longer viable for me. 

The reviews on Google Maps can be variable. Reviewer experiences and opinions differ, of course, but what time of year and how long ago the review was written are factors to consider when reading reviews. It is always a bit odd, though, to read two reviews a week apart, one stating the campground host was a jerk and the other called the host an angel. Summer is always a busy camping time, so comments regarding crowding are always date-significant. Information regarding the tightness of campsites to one another, how level the parking spaces are, or general facility maintenance are always helpful, especially if multiple reviews provide the same information.

Three campers I follow on social media are currently out and about with their single-axle trailers: one finishing up a Great Lakes tour, another currently in the upper Wisconsin area, and the third currently on the Oregon coast after finishing up an across-the-country tour. All these social media friends have posted from campgrounds, and I've not only enjoyed their comments and photos but have also starred some of their locations on Google Maps for future reference. It's reassuring that I don't have to start a trip stone cold, with no knowledge of a locality whatsoever. My most recent campground starred locations have been around the Great Lakes and in the Southwest, although I have been adding campgrounds in the South as considerations for possible winter trips. Let me provide a few examples.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Gordon Ehrensing photo)
Pictured Rocks area (Han Nichols photo)
Pictured Rocks from the water (Virginia Yurich photo)
One trip destination that checks several boxes for me is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The National Park website describes this Michigan destination as follows: "Sandstone cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls, inland lakes, deep forest, and wild shoreline beckon you to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The power of Lake Superior shapes the park's coastal features and affects every ecosystem, creating a unique landscape to explore. Hiking, camping, sightseeing, and four-season outdoor opportunities abound." I can't remember exactly how long ago I starred this site on Google Maps, but most recently Annie Wynn of  Wynn Worlds, stayed at Painted Rocks as a part of her Great Lakes tour. With her great blog photos and the photos and reviews and NPS link of Google Maps, this destination is growing in my mind as a place to visit. Looking at the map, I also see a number of other starred sites in the Lake Superior area and between the lake and my Iowa home. It almost seems like my trip is already planned!

Frequent comments from Google reviews of Pictured Rocks mention that this federal lakeshore is large and spread out. Planning is essential for a fuller experience, and seeing the lakeshore from the water provides a fuller appreciation. One reviewer said the following: "This was wonderful! Such beauty! There are so many ways to see Pictured Rocks. You first need to decide what type of traveler you are. Do you want to sit and see pretty views from a boat with a guide speaking over a microphone, or do you want to be active and kayak? Or do you want to do it all yourself and drive around to certain locations and see from the shore?  You need to get out into the water to see the beauty of the rocks."

Pines Campground (Alexander Kendi photo)
Saddle Campground (Kevin Edgington photo)
Village of Cloudcroft (Steve Hines photo)
During this summer's heatwave, I spent some time inside my air conditioned house, on my computer, and enjoying "camping" via Google Maps. Elevation was a theme during the heat; go high enough up into the mountains, and it will be cooler. Where, though? Stars started spotting a region in New Mexico, in the Lincoln National Forest, centered around the town of Cloudcroft (which is an evocative name!) There are a number of forest service campgrounds in the area, and they all emphasize the beauty of the high mountains, with a variety of campground development, from primitive to dispersed to modern camp facilities. According to Wikipedia, Cloudcroft is a small town that emphasizes tourism. "Cloudcroft is a village in Otero County, New Mexico, United States, and is located within the Lincoln National Forest. The population was 674 at the 2010 census. Despite being located in an otherwise arid region, its high elevation (8,676 feet or 2,644 m), one of the highest in the U.S., allows for a mild summer that makes it a popular tourist attraction in west Texas and southern New Mexico." Judging from Google Maps photos, Cloudcroft has a golf course, a snow skiing area, and Western style motels, bars, and cookeries. The national forest campgrounds are mostly higher up in the mountains.

Google Maps reviewers of the Cloudcroft area report on a number of campgrounds. One good example of a useful review came from the Pines Group Campground. Evidently, this campground and the Upper and Lower Fir campgrounds are close to one another and have been managed by one host--Don--for some years. Folks appreciate Don, who is friendly and provides good information, support, and maintenance. Host Don, of course, is a variable that can change. One reviewer provided good general information about the forest service campsites, though. "Cloudcroft is a great town to visit, particularly during the summer months when the rest of the SW is so hot. The summer temps are perfect, the views are spectacular, the people are friendly. What I like about the Pines Group Campground is that it is SO close to Cloudcroft and there is a very short (about a mile or less) hike from the campsite into town on the Osha Trail. The ONLY downside to this campsite is that you are sort of 'boondocking.' There is fresh water on site, but you have to carry it to your campsite or RV. There are no electric hook ups. There are no sewer hook-ups (though there is a pit toilet)."

Lake Jackson RV Park (Jill Wilson photo)
(Jill Wilson photo)
Lake Jackson (Ramon Navarro photo)
A third example of what I think would be a happy camping site (especially in the winter) is a city campground that was once an Alabama state park. Relinquished by Alabama to the city of Florala, Lake Jackson RV Park "sits on the shores of Alabama's only natural lake," which shares its shores with Florida. A small campground where reservations are made by phone call, the park looks like it could be crowded, but it also looks like a warm destination to escape the Iowa winters. The campground is still listed with Alabama state parks. One big "if," though, is how the area has weathered the recent hurricanes. Florala is a town of about two thousand people, and since the campground abuts the town, this could be considered an urban campground. Some of the Google photos indicate spaces might be tight. "Stretching along the shores of the beautiful 500-acre Lake Jackson, this compact 40-acre park offers swimming, a bike path and walking trail, excellent fishing, a scene picnic area, and a modern lakeside campground.The main attraction is Lake Jackson itself. Considered one of the cleanest and clearest bodies of water in Alabama, visitors can spend an entire day swimming, boating and fishing. The lake is inviting year-round for campers seeking to avoid those harsh winter months up north."

The content of Google Reviews varies, but the average rating is 4.6. One reviewer stated: "Florala State Park/Lake Jackson Campground - I would recommended calling and making reservations so you're sure to have a site if you want to stay at this campground.  The sites are close together and the grounds are not well kept.  There seems to be a lot of long term campers residing at the campground.  Campground bathrooms were cleaned every morning. The fees are too high. $36 for a standard site and the sites by lake are $40.60.  The small town of Florala is a quaint, with lots of history.  We did spend some time checking out the town." Personal opinion laces a few relevant facts. It's a small campground now run by the city, so reservations are wise. Other reviewers call the park clean and the rates affordable. Considering the reviews in general, it seems this is a small, busy campground and park on a beautiful lake. Day-use is a factor in how busy the area is. One reviewer states parking is limited while another says there is ample parking. One reviewer said, "I give this place credit it they have stepped it up from what it used to be." If I ever camp here, I think I need to head in with the expectation that this is urban camping, more busy even with the beautiful lake and cypress hiking areas.

My wife and I are heading out to a local state park in a couple of days, camping on one of Iowa's biggest lakes for two weeks. There are wonderful travel and camping opportunities farther away, though, and Google Maps is a wonderful means of exploration. I consider Google Maps to be my friend, and considering all the possibilities for online and smartphone doomscrolling, discovering and researching potential campsites is a very positive alternative. Although every journey begins with a single first step, perhaps in our modern times, every journey also begins with that first Google Maps search. Photos, reviews, links, and directions--Google Maps is a very helpful addition to vacation and trip planning . . . usually . . . 

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