Under the Stars

It’s a rite of passage, that first night under the stars, snuggled in tight next to your mom or dad, trying to sort out the scary, unfamiliar sounds outside your tent. Like fishing or baseball, camping is one of those things every kid enjoys and every adult enjoys passing along.


In fact, according to the Travel Industry Association, “One third of U.S. adults say they have gone on a camping vacation in the last five years, making it the number one outdoor activity in the U.S.”

Of course, like everything else in our 21st-century life, spending a night under the stars has taken on a slightly, shall we say, expanded meaning. For some, it’s still the tent-and-sleeping bag experience many of us had in our back yards or with our Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops. For others, that first night means snuggling comfortably under the sheets of a bed in a climate-controlled recreational vehicle (RV) or trailer.

How popular has this become? According to the RV Industry Association (http://www.rvia.org/media/fastfacts.htm), “Nearly one in 12 vehicle-owning households now own an RV, or 7 million households. Which means there are currently 7.2 million RVs on the road.”

Both experiences are valid, and both remain popular. To get our minds around what it takes to cater to both of these audiences, we spoke with Dan Weber, Park Manager for Golden Gate State Park and Thea Rock, Manager of Citizen Outreach for Jefferson County Open Space. Both organizations draw their clientele from the Denver metro area (they’re both located in Golden, Colorado), and both were willing to share their trade secrets. Here’s what they had to say:

Walk-In Camping
The folks at Jefferson County Open Space (Jeffco for short) offer what they call “walk-in” camping at three campgrounds: Sawmill (hikers only, 10 campsites), Sourdough Springs (equestrian only, 10 campsites) and Idylease (both hikers and equestrian, five campsites).

The three, relatively small campgrounds offer basic, three-night stays at no charge and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no electricity or plumbing, and water is available only to those hardy/patient enough to operate the hand-pump -- Jeffco staff recommends you pack enough water for your stay, and has rangers occasionally truck water in to keep campers hydrated and allow them to clean their sites. Firewood is offered free of charge to all campers (to keep them from cutting down all the trees), and other than compost toilets, food storage poles (cross bars -- please bring your own rope), fire rings and bear-proof trash cans, campers are largely on their own.

All of these services are in keeping with Jeffco’s open space policy of passive recreation.

“We define passive recreation as trail-based (hiking, biking and equestrian use) in the unincorporated area,” says Rock. “It’s not really too long of a trek (one to one and a half miles) to any of our campgrounds, and you’re certainly not going into the backcountry.”

But you are going to get a great pseudo-backcountry experience. When you’re at the campground, you really feel as if you’re in another world. No road noise. Not many neighbors. And unlimited wildlife viewing and hiking possibilities.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who are just getting into camping or for young families who want to try something a little more adventurous without the risk,” says Rock.

According to Rock, the best improvement made to the campground in the last ten years was adding a self-check-in option at the campgrounds’ parking lots. Instead of campers having to drive like madmen to get to the park office before 5:30 p.m., they can drive straight to the campground, fill out a three-part permit, drop one copy in the box, and put one in their car and one in their wallet. The rangers stop by daily to empty the box, check the cars, check on the campers, and report back to the main office. For those who want to, advance, phone-in registrations are also available.

If there is an emergency, the rangers know who’s supposed to be in the campground, and well-marked service roads allow them to drive directly to the problem area.

Not that the campgrounds are overflowing. According to Rock, their use has stayed steady during the last ten high seasons, and they rarely have anyone visiting in the winter months.

“We have lots of scout groups, civic groups, church groups and families who use the campgrounds,” says Rock, “but very rarely to the point of capacity. We have an aging population in our county and, as you get older, you lose the desire to sleep on the ground.”

And, just up the road is Golden Gate State Park, where RV, trailer and tent camping are readily available. Of course, it will cost $18 a night ($12 if you don’t need electricity).

RV & Trailer Parks
Just 30 miles from Denver, the 12,000-acre Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers hiking, picnicking, and camping among dense forest, rocky peaks and aspen-filled meadows. Famous for its Panorama Point, which offers up views of over 100 miles of the Continental Divide, the park is also home to Reverend’s Ridge Campground -- a full-service camping facility offering RV and trailer hook-ups, tent-camping options and cabin and yurt rentals. Reverend’s Ridge boasts 97 total campsites (55 blacktop, pull-through or back-in spots with electrical hookups and water), a camp store, shower building, flush toilets, dump station and more.

According to Dan Weber, Park Manager, the biggest challenge to operating Reverend’s Ridge is finding and hiring reliable seasonal staff to maintain the facility during its high season -- Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“It’s a budget issue more than anything else,” says Weber. “We have two full-time staff, and we just don’t have the money to spend on the amount of seasonal help needed.”

Tight budgets are nothing new to state parks. To battle the beast and continue to offer the same high-class camping experience, Weber and his staff have gone over their operations, changing the work day (at least one maintenance staffer is on site from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and removed any high-labor elements. Among the first to go were individual 55-gallon drum trashcans.

“We are going to a dumpster-only system,” says Weber. “Without adequate staff, we need to be saving time, and going out there three times a day to empty individual trash cans is just not effective.”

Weber also removed all of the raised rubber matting material in the shower building, except for in the shower stall itself.

“We took the raised rubber matting out because it was just a maintenance nightmare,” says Weber. “The water flowed through just fine, but the holes in the material caught all kinds of hair, toilet paper and other stuff and was just gunked up all the time. And, it took two staff members to lift it up, bring it outside and spray it down.”

Instead, Weber and his staff have gone with a spray-on coating with a bit of granular sand mixed in to provide a slip-resistant surface. He says the jury’s still out on whether or not that solution is a winner -- they’ve been dealing with bubbling and cracking issues for the last year.

Perhaps Weber’s best cost-saving idea was to create a Camp Host program, which offers long-term campsite rentals at no charge in exchange for 20 hours of volunteer/administrative campground work. Two host positions are filled each summer season with the hope of expanding to a third host by next year.

“These folks are putting out campground tags, selling firewood and just sort of being around to solve problems,” says Weber.

He has been seeing the same numbers for the last ten years. Of course, during the high season they’re almost always sold out and, without the addition of campsites, their numbers can’t increase, so who knows how much camping is growing in their area? One thing’s for sure, it’s not decreasing.