Camping inside a national park can be a wonderful way to get to know a place. Many of the facilities are lovingly created to give visitors up-close encounters with what makes a particular park great: in Arches, you get to sleep in the nooks and crannies of slick rock and in the shadows of the arches; in Yellowstone, you sleep surrounded by elk and bison while listening to the lullabies of wolves; on Assateague Island, you can camp right on the beach. It doesn’t get much better than that.
But I often hesitate to make a commitment to NPS campgrounds, not because of a fear of wildlife or poor facilities, but because of my fellow campers. When they leave home to embark on an adventure, even the most upstanding of people can sometimes forget that while on vacation, you still have to be respectful of those around you. Parents who would never let their children wreak havoc in a restaurant at home suddenly let their offspring run rampant and uncontrolled through a geyser basin. People who have the utmost respect for the wildlife in their backyard are suddenly throwing rocks and honking at bison to get their attention for a better photo. Homeowners with manicured, private, fenced-in yards back in New Jersey will wander right onto the back porch of a national park local just to see an elk or because “I can’t see the stars from my hotel room” (this actually happened to me when I worked in Yellowstone and lived in Gardiner, MT, and the guy was so upset that I didn’t seem to want him standing next to my back door).
And campgrounds are no exception. But here is a short list of No-Nos for those of us who want to stay inside a national park in the future, inspired by the incidents I have observed most often while traveling:
1) Don’t stay up all night drinking and loudly reminiscing about your Greek experience in college or that one hunting trip about which you remember nothing, which must mean it was epic, right? Nobody else in the campground wants to hear about your glory days. That’s what national forest campgrounds are for (I’m kidding. Sort of).
2) Don’t wash your dirty bowls in bathroom sinks, especially if there’s a GIANT SIGN on the door that says, “Please do not wash dirty dishes in the bathroom sinks.” As someone who has worked for both the National Park Service and a concessionaire, I can honestly say that this rule isn’t there to inconvenience you or somehow weed out the experienced traveler from the novice, who actually follows the rules. Simply, the plumbing in park bathrooms are inevitably old and/or cheap (for valid budgetary reasons), and getting in there to clear out even the smallest food bits is difficult and costly (parks are already severely underfunded), especially in the high season. They most often provide a whole dishwashing tub right around the corner just for you, but if you think it’s too cold or too inconvenient, eat at a restaurant next time.
3) Don’t run your generator at 4 am. The rest of us are just as cold/hot/hungry/sleepless/bored as you are, so grow some stones and deal with it until quiet hours are over.
4) Don’t let your children sing songs in their tent all morning long. You might think it’s adorable and a way to distract them while you’re doing other things, but your neighbors resent you. Tents may provide some privacy, but they definitely are NOT soundproof.
5) Don’t leave your cars keys somewhere in your tent where you can roll over on them and accidentally set off your car alarm. Period.
6) Don’t answer your cell phone and proceed to stand next to another campsite because you don’t want to disturb the people at your own site. No one wants to hear your vapid conversation when you should be enjoying the natural beauty of our national parks.
7) Don’t leave food out. This is a big one that people never seen to grasp. It’s a serious danger in grizzly country (as in, people and bears both die). But it’s also dangerous to less aggressive wildlife in other parks, as well as being a general nuisance. You won’t think those magpies ravaging through your goods are quite as funny when a park ranger slaps you with a hefty ticket (and not paying it will result in a federal warrant issued for your arrest, so keep that time mind).
The temperature in the cave is about 40 degrees warmer than the air above, and as the Ranger explains that we should bring jackets down with us, he looks out the frosted window into the blowing snow. “Ah, nevermind,” he says, shrugging.
And so we go, through a door that looks more like a WWII bunker than the entrance to a cave, and we begin to descend…
slip sliding down slick rock, wet with drops of water and the smoothness of overuse
a quarter of a mile down, slipping through subterranean slot canyons and in between the tight squeezes of the center of the Earth
hundreds of thousands of years of architecture spreads out before us and crumbles below into the abyss, colored by limestone-clouded waters and the idle hands of exploration
and the drip drip drip of rivers of rock echo through the narrow alleys and the sinewy tendons of stone climb the walls of this urban underground of stalactite skyscrapers.
Great Basin National Park, located in eastern Nevada near Route 50, is open all year round, with limited facilities in winter. Some tours of the Lehman Caves, actually one large limestone cavern first recorded by Absalom Lehman in 1885 and used as a playground ever since, are offered all year. Inquire at the visitor center for more information.
I am in love the with the cool summer breezes and the clear glacial waters and the green green green of trees that go on forever.
I love the moss and the mush and spongy earth and the little ponds that collect after the rains.
I love the fog that drifts through in the early mornings and creeps back to bed with you as the sun goes down.
I love that there are giant, hand-sized slugs.
I love the endless wet and the rivers that meanders through every step of the landscape.
I love that the trees are massive and the summers brief and the snows still thick in the heat of July.
I love the mountains that fill my memories with everything I have always imagined mountains should be.
I love everything about Mt. Rainier and the Northern Cascades.
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