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.

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