By Bill Steiden
America’s national parks are due for a celebration. The first, Yellowstone, was declared in 1872, and it was President Woodrow Wilson who established the National Park Service in 1916. But President Theodore Roosevelt, whose term in office ended one hundred years ago this year, gets the credit for building the backbone of what became the National Park system, setting aside some twenty-three million acres for preservation.
A new book, The Wilderness Warrior, by one of America’s leading historians, Douglas Brinkley, traces Roosevelt’s role. And documentarian Ken Burns, whose The National Parks: America’s Best Idea premiered on PBS in September, put new focus on the history of the nation’s park system. The parks are gearing for a surge in visitation.
The theme of Burns’ program was that preserving the nation’s natural treasures for the enjoyment of all was a uniquely American idea, contributing in innumerable ways to the health and well-being of the country.
But there is a sad truth underlying the story of America’s national parks: Many of them are in danger of being loved to death. Although the system continues to grow, it operates with what is estimated to be about two-thirds of needed funding. Key functions once handled by park staff are now the realm of volunteers – or have simply been eliminated. A new flood of visitors, unless accompanied by added resources, will only add to the deficit.
Fortunately, some of the nation’s most popular national parks have a safety valve, one that every conscientious camper – and those who just don’t like competing with the crowds – should know about: their neighbors, the national and state forests. Sharing the same scenery and featuring some gems of their own, they often offer camping experiences that are at least as rewarding as those in the national parks on their doorsteps, and with facilities under far less stress.
A prime example is the many national forest campgrounds surrounding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. The park is the most popular in the national system, drawing upwards of ten million visitors a year, and its campgrounds take a beating, particularly those close to the main tourist routes through the park.
But you don’t have to venture far outside the park’s boundaries to find first-class campgrounds where you won’t have to settle for the last site on the loop, a worn-out restroom and an overflowing dumpster.
Among the best alternatives is Standing Indian Campground in the Nantahala National Forest near Franklin, N.C. With eighty-four sites, it has plenty of room, even on busy summer weekends, and at an elevation of 3,200 feet, it’s always far cooler than the surrounding valleys. Spots for both RVs and tenters line a trio of loops that include one along the beautiful Nantahala River, fresh from its mountainside source. Perhaps the best thing about Standing Indian is the trail system in the surrounding national forest. It’s one of a limited number of places along the entire Appalachian Trail where you can put together a backpacking loop, taking advantage of trails centered on the campground that connect an eastward bow in the trail. Easily reached on a day hike from the campground is the top of Standing Indian Mountain, the southernmost peak over 5,000 feet in the Appalachian chain. The views south into Georgia are unsurpassed. Also nearby is the Appalachian Trail’s mad scramble up Big Scaly, a stretch of trail immortalized in Bill Bryson’s raucous account of a comically flawed AT through-hike attempt, A Walk in the Woods.
The national park itself is an easy daytrip – close enough, but not so close that you feel overwhelmed and impinged upon by the overwhelming tourist infrastructure at its gateways.
Another all-too-popular destination is Rocky Mountain National Park, a resource that is increasingly in demand as metro Denver sprawls ever closer to the once-remote highlands. But Coloradans know that for a real getaway, the place to go is the park’s neighbor to the north, the oddly named Colorado State Forest State Park.
The state park, Colorado’s largest, is vast, stretching from its shared border with the national park on the south, most of the way to the Wyoming state line. Within or near its boundaries are peaks near 13,000 feet in height, as well as the stunning American Lakes chain (also known as the Michigan Lakes) and the beautiful Poudre Canyon. It’s also famous for its abundant population of moose.
The park has more than 170 campsites in four campgrounds and 60 more sites in dispersed locations. None has showers, but many have electrical hookups. For tenters, the prime attraction is the Crags campground, unreachable for RVs and trailers on a winding mountain road.
Though the parks border each other, the terrain presents some obstacles – the towering, scenic sort – so it’s about seventy-five miles from the southwest entrance to Colorado State Forest State Park to the western entrance to the national park. That’s not right around the corner, but it’s close enough to allow for a visit during your stay.
Distance is much less of a factor when it comes to finding an alternative to camping in California’s Yosemite National Park, which despite spacious accommodations is always jammed in summer. The south approach to the park passes through the Sierra National Forest, which has dozens of vest-pocket campgrounds in locations ranging from riversides to Sequoia groves that are appropriate for tents and small camping trailers.
Closest of all to the park entrance is Summerdale, just 1 1/2 miles away from Yosemite’s entrance. The amenities for the thirty sites aren’t grand – they’re limited to vault toilets and water spigots – but the scenery is. It includes beaver dams and some delightful swimming holes on Chiquito Creek. And early risers can take advantage of the fact that those who arrive at the national park before 5:30 a.m. can drive past the entry station, saving the $20 fee and the wait in line.
Other campgrounds are arrayed along the corridors of Highways 168 and 41. For RVers, there is Bass Lake – a clear, mountain-framed reservoir that is a favorite local vacation spot for residents of Fresno, fifty-five miles south. It’s about fifteen miles to the park entrance from the Cedar Bluff and Lupine National Forest campgrounds overlooking the lakeshore, which have a combined 110 sites.
So if the urge to explore America’s national parks strikes you in the coming year, don’t forget to explore the alternatives, as well. You may discover the best of both worlds.
If You Go
Standing Indian Campground
Nantahala National Forest
Franklin, North Carolina
Colorado State Forest State Park
Sierra National Forest
All photos courtesy of Colorado State Forest State Park.
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at email@example.com.