Sunday, April 26, 2015

Four States, Six Campgrounds, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Montauk State Park
We didn't set out intending to comparison shop  campgrounds, but it kind of turned out that way. Four states -- Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma -- and six campgrounds, four of which were state parks (Montauk, Crater of Diamonds, Fort Richardson, and Snowdale) and two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Speegleville and Crane's Mill). Montauk was the baseline. Having spent two months there in the past year, it automatically became the default that everything else got compared with.

First, the online differences. More and more state park systems have updated websites that include the ability to do online reservations. How good are those systems? At this point, of the four states mentioned, Missouri's is the best. It's not unique -- it's basically the same system Michigan uses and is also practically the same as the online reservation system for federal campgrounds and recreation areas. You pick the park you're interested in, plug in the dates and type of site you're searching for, and the system shows you what's available. If nothing is open, it tells you that, too. You get to see a calendar that shows three weeks at a time along with a list of the sites in the park and their availability. If you spot a site that's open for the days you're interested in, you click on a link for the specific site and are shown a photo of that site as well as a capsule description (e.g., W/E Level Partial Shade Bathhouse 200 feet). It's a great system.

Unfortunately, the three states we visited after leaving Montauk are not as technologically sophisticated (or made poorer choices in selecting software packages) as Missouri. The States of Arkansas and Texas do have online reservation systems, but they're not particularly good. Arkansas gives you a description of the campground (x number of RV sites, y number of tents), indicates what amenities are provided (electricity, water, sewer), shows you a picture of a picnic table, and lets you make a reservation. You plug in the dates you want and it'll let you know if something is available -- but it doesn't tell you what it is, just that there is a campsite. The website says they do a senior discount but the online reservation form doesn't give you a space to indicate whether or not you qualify for one. It also doesn't doesn't have a space for indicating whether you want a walk-in tent site or a drive-in RV site. There is a Comments box, but the instructions for it just say for you to indicate any "special needs." That's where you get to guess that they want you to tell them whether you're RV camping or plan to walk in (literally) to a tent site. You don't have a choice in where you're going to end up camping; the park makes that decision. Nothing in the instructions for the Comments box indicates that's also where you're supposed to toss in the information that you're a geezer, which led to an interesting conversation when we registered at Crater of Diamonds. Arkansas state park personnel are as annoyed with the website as I was, maybe more, because they get to deal with the same complaints over and over and over, day after day.

Texas is slightly better. They do let you indicate what type of camping you're doing and what level of service you need if you've got an RV and want a site with electricity (30 amp vs. 50 amp). They do not, however, provide the option of picking a specific site, nor do they include any photos of the campgrounds. You're assigned a site by park staff. While we were at Fort Richardson, the folks there (very nice people, incidentally) said that if you've been to a park before, after you make a reservation you should call the park and tell the office staff which space you'd prefer.

And then there's Oklahoma. Oklahoma is still in the goose quills stage. Their website, to put it mildly, leaves a lot to be desired. It's confusing, it provides conflicting information, and it proved to be remarkably unhelpful. Apparently you can make advance reservations for some parks, but I never did figure out how. When I clicked on what was supposedly a link to get at the reservations page, things just looped. After going in circles a couple times, I gave up. We decided to be adventurous, just stop at the Welcome to Oklahoma information center and pick up state park information there. After all, we'd have several hours of driving between the time we hit the state line and when we got up to the Grand Lake of the Cherokees area -- lots of time for the navigator to pick a park to aim for. As things turned out, that method worked.

The Corps of Engineers uses so we had no problem figuring out where to go for the Corps campgrounds in Texas.

So how do the campgrounds we paid to stay at compare? In terms of amenities, Crater of Diamonds was probably the best, although if we'd been camping with larger equipment I might not be as enthusiastic. All the RV sites at Crater of Diamonds are full service, premium sites -- electricity, water, and sewer -- which meant using the showerhouse was totally optional for anyone with an RV that includes a full bath, which the Guppy does. The Guppy and my car both fit comfortably on the pad; we did have to disconnect the tow dolly and park it to one side. The pad struck me as a bit short for anyone with a long trailer or a Leviathan, but I don't know if the pad length was typical for the campground as a whole. One of the things I'd done was note the Guppy's length when I described our equipment in the Comments section of the reservation form. It's possible park staff assigned the site based on that information; other sites could have longer camping pads. One of the nice things about Crater of Diamonds, speaking of pads, was it had a defined tent pad area as part of each camp site.

I'm not sure how enthusiastic I would have been about the showerhouse, though, especially if I got stuck using the "accessible" shower. But this was something I've noticed in most of the showerhouses: the handicapped showers have a distinct lack of some common sense items. like a hook on the wall on which to hang your clothes or your towel. They're also designed in way that practically guarantees everything in that shower is going to get wet, not just the person showering. Then again, that's a flaw that the non-accessible shower stalls tend to have, too. Out of the six campgrounds, there were only two where it wasn't an issue for me.

One thing that annoyed the heck out of us at Crater of Diamonds was their check-in procedure, or lack thereof. When you arrive at the park, the first signage you see says campers must check in at the office. The office closes at 5. When we went to the office building, there was a list posted of "late arrivals" that gave the specific campsite number. However, despite it being a large bulletin board with a lot of empty space, there was no park map posted nor was there a map specifically of the campground. There is signage, but it's not particularly well-designed. There is also, as far as I could tell, no campground host. Why no map on that bulletin board? I don't know -- maybe someone figured that would make too much sense.

I also wasn't particularly favorably impressed the following morning when I went to check us in. First, I got to go in frustrating circles with the woman working the cash register over the senior discount business -- I didn't appreciate being told I should have said I was a geezer in the Comments section on the reservation form when the form tells you to describe "special needs." I wasn't aware being eligible for a discount was a special need. I could understand her annoyance -- if I was irritated by the process, so must be a zillion other park visitors. After you've had to deal with the problem hundreds of times, you're going to get irritated by having to do it again. But please acknowledge it's the fault of the design of the site instead of blaming the customer for failing to read a web designer's mind. Then, there was a complete and total lack of any information about either the park itself or the local area. One of the things that Montauk State Park does is hand every camper an information packet: there's a copy of Montauk Talk, a newspaper that provides information about past activities at the park, describes events scheduled for the current season, has a park map, and is loaded with ads for various local businesses; a copy of a park map; and a flyer for events happening within the next few days, like mill tours or naturalist talks. What did I get at Crater of Diamonds? A receipt. Period. Not even a copy of park rules. It felt . . . odd.

The other quibble I have about Crater of Diamonds is security. There is no host, and the only park personnel we saw in the campground was a maintenance guy driving through in the middle of the day. So what do you do if there's an emergency or the campers a few sites over turn out to be loud, drunken louts? Who knows? It's a mystery.

On the plus side, Arkansas offers a geezer discount to everyone regardless of where they're from. So does Oklahoma. Texas State Parks only give discounts to residents of Texas.

Speegleville Park
The other parks all offered both water and electricity at their RV sites. After leaving Crater of Diamonds we spent two days at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground, Speegleville Park on Waco Lake. The site was nicely designed, close to level, and seemed well maintained. The park was clean, the grass was a normal height, and we saw contractors working on routine maintenance while we were there. A crew was going around checking campsites, and that same crew also powerwashed the showerhouse. The only drawback to the site we'd reserved was it was farther away from the showerhouse than we'd prefer; if we camp at Speegleville again, we'll know to pick a different site. Of course, one of the major attractions of any Corps campground is the low rate -- we've got a federal geezer pass so get a 50% discount. Our onecomplaint about Speegleville wasn't the campground itself but the online directions on how to find it. Whoever did the description must not have consulted a map printed after 1970 because the instructions made no sense based on the current configuration of the highway.

Of course, the directions to the other Corps campground we patronized weren't much better. They don't bother mentioning that it's about 14 miles from where you turn on to a state highway and the entrance to the park, which is weird because they do tell you how far it is for the first couple turns you have to make after getting off I-35. That leaves the highly erroneous impression that the last stretch isn't very long. You keep expecting to see the park coming up any time and instead it starts to feel like you're going to be in New Mexico before you get there.

Crane's Mill Park, Site 25
The second Corps campground we stayed at was Crane's Mill on Canyon Lake. It has the potential to be a really nice park. Unfortunately, this is a location where the Corps has issues -- and, based on the reviews I read (after we'd already been there, unfortunately) it's had issues for multiple seasons. It is a park that really highlights the folly of relying on campground hosts as your primary maintenance staff. Most hosts are retirees, geezers, people who may or may not be in the best shape physically or still have a decent work ethic (assuming they had one to begin with). The showerhouse at Crane's Mill went for 8 straight days without being checked or cleaned. How could I tell? Among other things, one of the sinks got really messed up the first day we were there and stayed that way for over a week. I don't know what happened -- maybe someone decided to bathe a filthy chihuahua in it -- but there were odd stains and mud. And those stains and mud stayed there for over a week.

Sign at the top says no dog showers
Bathing dogs in the showerhouse is apparently an ongoing issue at Crane's Mill. There were signs on the doors to both the men's and women's sides warning you not to wash your dog in the showers. Very strange. Who on earth would decide that a shower at a campground would make a good dog wash to begin with? The shower nozzle is placed high enough and sprays wide enough that anyone bathing a dog is going to be bathing themselves, too. It's a mystery.

The other maintenance issue at Crane's Mill was the grass. It was practically tall enough to bale when we arrived; it didn't get mowed until a week later. By then, there were thistles four feet tall on some of the campsites. We were lucky -- our site was thistle-free -- but the height of the grass did bother us a little. After all, Texas is notorious for snakes, ticks, and fire ants. When I'm running around in sandals and high water pants, I don't want to be walking through a hay field. Once the contractor arrived for what was obviously the first mowing of the season, he did a good job, but maybe the Corps needs to revisit that contract and change the dates so mowing either starts earlier or happens more often.

As it happens, both incompetent camp hosts and overgrown campsites were complaints mentioned on Trip Advisor so they're apparently ongoing problems at Crane's Mill. Interestingly, Canyon Lake is one of the Corps locations where their advertisements on ask for a 6-month commitment. I'm think that's just too long. The Corps does have a policy of requiring a minimum of 90 days, but 6 months? That's an open invitation to (a) shrink the size of the applicant pool and (b) allow camp hosts who are in place to get very, very lazy. After all, it doesn't take a whole lot of brain cells for even the most incompetent host to figure out that once he's set up on the host's RV site at a campground, it's going to be hard to dislodge him before his time is up.

Despite the shortcomings we noticed at Crane's Mill, we stayed for 9 days. It was a good location for playing tourist in San Antonio and in the hill country, it was close to where the S.O.'s nephew lives, and our actual campsite was quite nice. We were on two different sites -- 4 nights on one, 5 on the other -- because when we asked about extending, it turned out that someone had reserved the site we were on. So we moved to a walk-in (aka first come, first serve) site. I didn't get a close look at the tent camping area (it's a considerable distance from the RV area), but the RV sites are all nicely designed. Most have long pads (75 feet), the utility hookups are in a good position, there's both a fire ring and a barbecue grill, and the picnic table is huge (10 feet long) and is roofed over to provide shade. There's also a lot of space between the sites if you pick one on the outside of the loop. The ones on the inside of the loop are a little tighter, but still have more space between them than the typical campground or RV park. The site was so close to level that the S.O. had to do minimal blocking under the Guppy. It's another place I could see staying at again despite its shortcomings -- that geezer pass does compensate quite a bit for the flaws.

Fort Richardson post hospital
From Crane's Mill we headed north to a Texas State Park, Fort Richardson. It's also a State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark. The fort was built in 1867 as an occupation fort during Reconstruction, but gets interpreted now as a frontier fort intended to help keep the Indians in check. There are several original structures remaining at the fort -- the post hospital, the commandant's house, the magazine -- and two reconstructed barracks buildings. The campground is walking distance (the park is not real big) but out of sight of the fort buildings. The campsites are a mix: there are primitive tent sites, there are RV sites (including four full serve), and there are mini cabins, including a couple with air conditioning. Texas is like Arkansas in that park staff assign camp sites: you find out where you are when you check in. However, as noted above, if you're familiar with a park, you can call and request a specific site. Fort Richardson was the only place we camped where we had a pull-through site, which was convenient -- it meant not having to unhitch the tow dolly. It's a nice park; we'd camp there again if there's ever a reason to be in that part of Texas.

From Texas, we moved on to Oklahoma, the state where we left finding a campground to chance. When we stopped at the information center, we picked up a guide to camping and outdoor recreation in the state. It included descriptions of the state parks. Combined with the highway map, it led us to try Snowdale State Park. It was in a convenient location (only a few miles off US-69) and we figured that because it was a Tuesday there'd be space available. As it turned out,we were the only RV campers at the park.

Snowdale State Park
Snowdale was interesting because it's tiny -- less than 40 acres. It's on the lower end of the Lake of the Cherokees and has a small beach and a boat landing. It's open seasonally (April through November) and, according to the camp host, is always busy on the weekends. I believe it. It would be a great little park for a family get-away. It has 17 RV sites, all with water and electricity, and a bunch of tent sites. The concrete pad for the RV was totally level -- no blocking of any sort required. It also sits right next to a housing development. There was a high fence providing a visual barrier between the camp sites and the McMansions, but it still felt a little weird.

Snowdale, incidentally, had the best shower of any I experienced in our travels. The showerhouse is not new and definitely showing its age, but it was designed in a way that meant the stuff I wanted to stay dry was actually going to stay dry and that water from the shower wasn't going to cover the floor in the dressing area. It's another campground that I'd stay at again, although given that it's a first come first serve park, I don't know if I'd try for a spot there during the summer.

At some point I suppose we should try out a private campground, like a KOA, but given how cheap we are, I don't see that happening any time soon. Can't see spending $40 or more per night when there are so many nice state and federal campgrounds available for a lot less money. Even at full price a typical state park is half what a KOA would cost. And then when you toss in the geezer pass for federal sites. . . we're a lot more likely to find ourselves boondocking in a Walmart parking lot than we ever are to end up paying to park in a privately-owned campground.


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