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 Search for Bicycles, Beaches and Booze!
The sign was rickety and swung loosely on rusty chains. Chips of paint flittered down here and there, littering a sidewalk already dotted with cigarette butts and broken bottles. It was old, surely, but it still said clearly in green paint “Iguana Bicycles.”
We stood there, our heads cocked curiously, chewing on our lips with perplexity, muttering “huh” under our breaths. We had passed it no fewer than three times and would have sworn that the small bicycle shop, tucked into the side streets of Tulum Pueblo, didn’t exist. But there it was, right where the friendly locals said it would be. “Huh.”
We started the morning with fruit, yogurt and thick coffee at our hotel, Cabanas Copal, a tired resort of rustic cabanas with an unequaled location on the white-sand shores of the Caribbean Sea. No electricity, rickety walls and a thatched roof of palm fronds, but the ocean purrs all night long and the sun rises between swaying palm trees and above a glittering, pulsing sea right outside the bedroom window.
The view of the sunrise and sea from our cabana…
After breakfast, we decide to make the (by most counts) 3km hike into town to find a bike rental. The weather was perfect, sunny and 80 with that constant, salty breeze that one can find only in the Caribbean’s wintery season. Though shorter than the hike into town from our home in Lander, and despite the fantastic weather and tropical scenery, it seemed MUCH longer. But the bike path from the mini-village on the beach and the town proper was brand new and very fine, and very crowded with bikers ranging from locals going to work to tourists out for a morning cruise to hardcore bikers out to get in shape for triathlons.
Our goal was to find our own bikes to rent, and rumor had it there was a great place in town that kept its beach cruisers in good condition. But after walking there and muddling around unsuccessfully to find the Iguana bicycle shop, we decided it was time for a beer and a bathroom.
We stopped at La Llorona, a fairly new restaurant with a more-established Mexican handicraft store and a bungalow hotel on the beach. There, we ate some of the best sauces on homemade tortilla chips, drank some cold beers, chatted up the owner and asked a local about the bicycle shop. She pointed us in the right direction with more detail than our wayward rumors, and we set off.
After securing transportation, we headed back for an afternoon on the beach at Mezzanine, a posh beach hotel near the Tulum ruins that features a swanky Thai restaurant and 2-for-1 margaritas during happy hour(s). We sat and relaxed in the sun and watched the extreme kite boarders play in the opaline seas before heading back to our own Cabanas Copal and lounging on the beach with Coronas.
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