Friday, May 13, 2022

RV Parks *Exist* -- What Does That Mean for Camping Travelers? A Personal Experiennce Narrative

Airstream Basecamp at Oasis RV Park at Aztec Hills
Full Moon at Oasis RV Park at Aztec Hills, Arizona, the Sonoran Desert
I enter the restroom-shower building in a small RV park. It's a blue building, the paint not new but still solid, unpeeling even if a bit faded. The roadways in the park are a reddish gravel and sand mixture, the edgings a countrified uneven scraggle of grass and weeds, mown at least once this spring yet now sporting a few leggy yellow spring flowers. A young boy about nine years old with a newly trimmed blond mohawk haircut is looping the park on his bicycle. A mother with an infant in a baby chest carrier is at the swing set with her lanky early-teenage daughter, pushing while her daughter pumps, both of them chatting and laughing. 

Inside the restroom-shower facility, the continuous sound of trickling water attracts my attention. One cracked toilet commode has a leaky trap; however, the toilet even though cracked is not leaking onto the floor. The next commode is uncracked and silent, but the seat is bandaged with white duct tape. The room is clean, worn, and waiting. The RV park likewise--worn, casually lived in, and friendly--as is the manager (and perhaps owner), a later-middle aged, gray-haired, energetic woman whom I had to telephone when we arrived because the office was closed. "I live in town," the manager's voice had said. "I'll be there in seven minutes."

Arriving in no more than seven minutes, my wife and I were efficiently processed, the lady pointing out several sites available and asking us which one we wanted. "Are you leaving early tomorrow, and which way will you be heading?" she asked. When we said we'd be driving east to Iowa, she provided directions and then said the accommodations building was always open. Guiding me to the pull-through, she gestured me to stop when the trailer was properly aligned with the hookups. Registration was completed from a clipboard, outside and covid-safe, and a quick run-through of hookup procedures were provided as she pointed out the specifics of the space we chose. We were home for the night.

On my wife and my recent trip from southeastern Iowa to the city of Carlsbad in southern California's San Diego County, we spent five overnighters each way in our sixteen-foot Airstream Basecamp. Out of those ten overnighters, one was in an Iowa state park, one in a federal national forest campground, two in Kampgrounds of America facilities, and six stays were in private RV parks. Only one camping spot was used both out and back. Our routes out and back shared some of the same roads but also were each unique in both stops and travel, especially in our Midwest and High Plains sections. The states we crossed were Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Some of the states, such as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, we just nipped a corner. My favorite joke of the trip was my wife's as we passed through Texhoma, Oklahoma, which is right on the border of Texas and Oklahoma. "Because they're right of the border, they took half of each state's name to make their town's name--TEXas and OklaHOMA," I said. "That's better than OKLA-ASS," my wife said. That gave us a good laugh as we traversed the city both on the trip out and back. We spent thirteen days driveway mooching at my wife's parents' house, plugged into their home 110 system to keep our 12v refrigerator running and our batteries charged.

Pacific Ocean, Carlsbad, California
The view from Ocean St., Carlsbad, California
Pacific Ocean, Carlsbad State Park, California, CampInn
A CampInn at Carlsbad State Park Campground (with a 6-month in advance reservation)
With the recent upswing in camper sales, due in large part to the desire for people to travel safely during the pandemic, there has also been an increase in the move to create more RV parks. (Quickly, what is the difference between a campground and an RV park? A campground is primarily for recreational use for up to two weeks. An RV park, almost always privately owned, caters to both travelers and to permanent residents. Often permanent residents will build decks or porches next to their RVs. Skirting or small flower gardens may trick out the RV, making the "mobile" recreational vehicle facility appear much more like the mobile home parks that have become so common in the last seventy years or so. Even though RV parks are being built, there is opposition and fear expressed from many communities. "Opponents to new RV parks roll out the traditional boogeyman fears of higher crime, increased road traffic, and the large numbers of “undesirable” transients in their rolling ghetto-mobiles invading their peaceful streets," was one articulation. It's okay to build more RV parks, just not in our backyard is another sentiment. Some RV parks enforce the "ten-year rule" to try to maintain a more upbeat look--not renting spaces to RVs that are over ten years old. (There is some controversy regarding this "resort RV park" policy. Follow this link to read more.) One full-time RVing couple with a blog wrote an article about RV parks: "5 Reasons We Avoid RV Parks (And Where To Camp Instead!)." Reasons for avoiding RV parks, according to the article, include crowding, distractions, expense, noise, and "consumerist culture." 

Driveway mooching; Airstream Basecamp
Driveway mooching for thirteen nights in Carlsbad, California
Although in general I agree with the "avoidance" article because my main reason for camping is to get out in nature and relax, I have to say that for our trip to the Pacific Ocean and back, RV parks provided a safe and quick option for a good night's sleep and a chance to shower, cook a meal, and stretch the legs. We even met and chatted with a few people and discovered some interesting facts. There are a lot of "mom and pop" RV parks. They may be a bit run down, but they are friendly spaces that provide a wayside stop for travelers or a longer, more permanent stay for workers, families, or retirees who live full-time in their RVs, vans, or travel trailers. My wife and I liked some of our camping spots more than others, but for all of them we appreciated the opportunity to roll in, hook up, and to use the showers. In order to save time, we used shower-toilet facilities when easy, minimizing our hookups to just the 30 amp plug-in. This saved us time when leaving and also allowed us to only use dump stations twice during the trip--one the night before arriving at our Carlsbad location and once the night before getting back home to Iowa. (When staying in Carlsbad, except for two nights, for most nights we stayed in our parents' house.) 

I researched our routes out and back, using Google Maps. First I found the quickest route, and then I began modifying that route; for instance, I didn't want to drive through Kansas City, Missouri, and re-routed north and west through the Topeka and Wichita, Kansas, area. We decided in Arizona to skip the elevation climb through Flagstaff and to take the Phoenix route. That ended up taking in some 6,000-foot elevations on the Mongollon Rim anyway, but on the route out we weren't sure how our Nissan Pathfinder would pull the trailer. (We are happy to report that the rig worked quite well.) On the way back, we kept to our lower Arizona route to avoid wildfires. We also routed a Phoenix pathway to avoid construction shutdowns on Interstate Highway 10. What we discovered is that there are many small, older RV parks around, many of them near small, rural towns, and that these small RV parks are friendly places that meet a variety of patron needs. They may not be the best locations to commune with the great outdoors, they may not be the poshest spots to camp, and some may be more cramped than you like. However, we were able to enjoy our cruise across America, having a specific destination each day after driving usually six to eight hours each day. 

When finalizing our destinations, I'd look carefully at the Google Map photos and read reviews. Our daily distance traveled was between two hundred and four hundred miles, the usual being closer to three hundred. Using the three hundred mile gauge, I'd find a town on or near the quickest route and then search for "RV parks near" and then type in the town. I also would google "campgrounds near" a town but sometimes the campgrounds would be further off the travel route, more in the boonies. These sites, I'm sure, were probably more scenic, but our main focus was getting down the road. RV parks seemed to be nearer the main roads. 

Below is a list and brief description of the campgrounds and RV parks we stayed at during our there-and-back-again journey. For travelers wondering about travel opportunities, these descriptions may provide a sampling of the possibilities out there.

Nine Eagles State Park, Lamoni, Iowa

Leaving on a Tuesday afternoon, we decided for a short first day of travel. We chose to camp our first night at Nine Eagles State Park, a bit over 125 miles from home. The shower/toilet facility was still closed, but we easily got through the night, even though it was windy and rainy. This was our first time at Nine Eagles, and we found the lake not accessible from the campground--we couldn't find it anyway. We also discovered in this first stop that if we're interested in putting in the miles, not to choose a campground too far from the route. Nine Eagles was about ten miles of narrow country road from our main route, which lost us time. RV Parks are usually closer to main routes of travel. However, we were on the road!

All Seasons RV Park, Wichita (Goddard), Kansas

A little over a mile from our route, All Seasons RV Park consisted of primarily permanent residents, and by that I mean folks who have built wooden decks and porches for their RVs. A couple of empty spaces for overnighters were kept open, however, right next to the shower house. We were quickly checked in, given the shower house combinations for the door locks, and left alone. The RV park set our expectations and general experience of RV parks for the trip--a clean, older facility with no picnic table and little space between rigs. It was a quick and easy pull-through, though, with a nearby gas station, and we were quickly on the road the next morning.

Kampgrounds of America, Tucumcari, New Mexico, Airstream Basecamp
Tucumcari KOA, New Mexico

Tucumcari KOA Journey, NM; Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA Journey, AZ

I've written about Kampgrounds of America before ("First Impressions"), and my Southwest experience with KOAs remains the same--consistently predictable with upkeep and cleanliness . . . and predictably not a "woodsy" experience. For the trip out, we stayed in two, and I had to look at my phone's photos to remember their distinguishing features. They were pleasant, though, and the pull-throughs were flat and accessible. We did get to see our first Airstream Basecamp in Holbrook, even though we didn't get an opportunity to chat. On our trip back to Iowa, we didn't stay in any KOAs, yet that wasn't intentional. For a roadside park that keeps its standards consistent, KOAs are a good bet. We hit a couple two nights in a road, and they put us up for the night and got us down the road.

Airstream Basecamp, Sonoran Desert, Nissan Pathfinder
Oasis RV Park at Aztec Hills

Oasis RV Park at Aztec Hills, Dateland, Arizona

Oasis RV Park was our last stop before arriving at Carlsbad, California, and our first overnight stay after leaving Carlsbad. It's in the middle of the desert, and I wrote an article about our first stay upon reaching Carlsbad. ("Arizona Desert Basecamp Overnighter") This RV park certainly is in the desert in the middle of nowhere, yet there were a surprising number of folks staying there long term. Our first arrival was quite an unexpected event, as chronicled in the first article, linked above. Our return stay was hotter, yet at least we knew this little oasis really did exist as we headed down that gravel and dirt road into the desert. The owner and his wife kept the park clean, and it was interesting to see how their work routine began at dawn, when the day was coolest. 

Mongollon Rim, Arizona, Canyon Point Campground, Airstream Basecamp
Safely nestled in for the night at Canyon Point
Mongollon Rim, Canyon Point Campground
Canyon Point Campground

Canyon Point Campground, Forest Lakes Estates, Arizona

After our first night on our return trip at Oasis RV Park, we decided to camp in the forest on the Mongollon Rim in Arizona at six thousand feet in elevation--a big change from the desert sojourn the night before! Canyon Point Campground is a federal campground in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The campground was closed on our way out but opened its season on May 1. We arrived on May 2, so there were a few minor glitches in our registration, but nothing noteworthy. (Believe it or not, we had trouble giving our camp fee to the staff. I finally told my wife Sandy, "I'm tired and don't want to wait around to pay. I'll just take a nap in the road, and they can wake me up when they want their money!" Luckily, someone showed up to collect.) It was windy, but we enjoyed the Ponderosa pines and the cool air after the desert. We could see that if we had more time on our trip how we could locate more scenic campgrounds. We were lucky Canyon Point was just off the road.

Hidden Valley Mountain Park, Tijeras, New Mexico

In several ways this was our least favorite park on the trip. It met the basic requirements of close to our route and clean, with an easy pull-through. However, the park didn't tell us when we registered that the nearby shower house was out of commission because of sewage repairs. We had to hike a long distance to an upper shower house, which they didn't even tell us about. We learned that the park had just been sold to a larger company. The park is laid out with the chevron pattern for RVs, so this park had many of the disadvantages of tight spacing and little landscaping without the amenities or sense of personal commitment that other small RV parks had. My main memory of this park (other than a friendly cat) was seeing in the hills above large, expensive homes with decks overlooking the valley below . . . which was stacked with RVs, ours among them. The irony of that contrast made me a bit sad--beautiful hilltop homes, a beautiful valley below, and a sardine scrunch of RVs "nestled" among the junipers growing in the dry, red soil. We were off early the next morning, though, no harm done.

Seven Winds RV Park, Liberal, Kansas

This is the RV park that I described at the beginning of this article, the one with the duct-taped toilet seat. Liberal, Kansas, is in southwest Kansas, where Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado are all in close proximity. In many ways Seven Winds was the most worn of the RV parks we stayed at on this trip, but in many ways it was also the sweetest experience. The manager was efficient, friendly, and helpful; the park was clean and peaceful; and with this park and the next night's (also in Kansas), we were given a look at how many Americans have found a home with "Mom and Pop" in these little, rural RV parks. The woman who checked us in was both professional and personal in her interactions. The southwest Kansas spring weather was hospitable, although the manager did tell us that we had "just missed some wind," which reminds me that the local town did have some tourist stop about Dorothy and Oz. Hmmmm. It was heartening, though, to see that some folks have found an economical way to live--most likely out of necessity--that includes a full-time residence in recreational vehicles (including 5th-wheelers and travel trailers) that are built more for shorter-term use. 

Mill Creek Campground, Paxico, Kansas

Our last stop on our trip home, Mill Creek Campground is about ninety miles west of Kansas City (either one, Kansas or Missouri). It reminded us of Seven Winds, perhaps a bit more renovated but both still next to the railroad tracks. Perhaps it was because of all those miles of driving, but we were never bothered by passing trains in any of the parks we stayed at. Railroad noises and road traffic noises are not uncommon in RV parks. Mill Creek and Seven Winds were both rural parks in rural communities. We found them quieter because they weren't near the interstate highways. Like most of the parks we stayed in, the pull-through was a composite of gravel, sand, and dirt--not bad except when it rained (as it did here), and then the it was easy to track in reddish footprints. Here at Mill Creek, we met a nice young maintenance man who asked us if we needed any help.  "We've got on-demand hot water," he said, "so don't worry about running out when you shower." The owner, who lived on his farm on the hill above the park, said to call if there were any problems. We cooked dinner and then went to bed early, since it had begun to rain. Up early the next morning to try to beat the rain, we still spent much of the trip home with light fog and misting rain. 

Love's Travel Stops, Gallup, New Mexico, Airstream Basecamp
A convenient gravel overspill truck lot on the other side of Love's
RV parks definitely have a place in the camping world, both for travelers and for full-time camping. If my wife didn't have her consulting business, we could have taken more time for the trip across the country. We wouldn't have had to pay so much attention to cellphone signal strength and internet receptivity. We could have set our destinations for scenic camping spots and traveled with the 2-2-2 travel model in mind (two hours of driving, arrive by 2 P.M., and stay two days). Because our destination travel was solely our final destination in Carlsbad, California, we spent longer hours traveling (but not very long hours), and it was a delight to discover little privately owned RV parks all across our nation. That made our trip easier, and we didn't have to spend our nights in Walmart parking lots or Love's Travel Stops with the big rigs. No, I didn't get a photo of every place we stopped--in part because arrival at some of the Mom and Pops gave us a chance to just let go, to drop our on-the-road vigilance. If kids are playing on the swings and dogs are lying in the middle of the street, it's okay to relax, right?

After this trip, we feel more comfortable with our traveling routine and with our new Airstream Basecamp 16, which we bought in 2021. We now know that the larger campgrounds, such as KOAs or "resort RV parks" have spaces for overnight travelers. We also know that there is a bit of adventure in discovering small, private RV parks to stay in for the night. We might expand our travel options by trying out some overnighters at truck stops or other parking lot options. It's nice to have opportunities and options when traveling down the road. Those worn yet clean RV parks tucked away across America? Perhaps that's what tried and true service experience looks like. Sometimes it's just plain nice to be mollycoddled.

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