Tom and Judy rate their camps

  • The Red Wing Iron Works in Red Wing, Minnesota.

By Tom Nichols

Our goal for our fifth year of adventure in The Epic Van is clear. We’re spending more time in the Four Corner states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.

And along the way, we will search for the best places to camp in The Epic Van and tell you about them with our four-star rating system.

Our secondary goal is to stay a few days once we find a great camp and enjoy daytime temps near 80 degrees.

As Judy often said during our months of colder camping in the South during February and March, “I want more (camp)chair time!”

We’re both satisfied with spending cold, defined as sub-50 degree nights, cocooned in The Epic Van, but we rejoice when the calendar turns to April and May.

As you know if you follow us, we haven’t been visiting one place for more than three days, unless we commit to volunteer.

We’re reining in our passion for seeing a lot of places and historical sites, at least from April to August.

Fortunately, Judy and I agree on what makes a great camp. We prefer to pay less than $30 a night and do most of our camping at sites that charge less than $15 a night for seniors. We’ve established an informal camp rating system during four-plus years of wandering. Here’s how we rate them:

One star

These camps are just a flat place to park, usually a transit point, though sometimes it’s a town center with historical interest, like Red Wing, Minn., or a curiosity, like the yo-yo museum in Chico, California. The best example of a one star camp is Walmart. It’s safe, and the noise is minimal, except for the grind of an occasional parking-lot sweeper or voices of employees who chat after their work shift is done. When no other options are available, we park overnight in truck stops, like one we used several times in Vaughn, New Mexico, along U.S. 60. I can sleep among idling diesel engines, though I’d rather not.

Two star

City and county parks offer bare-bones camping, providing bathroom, picnic table or an RV dump. City parks are usually quiet and often have a bit of grass and shade, like one in Douglas, Wyoming, or beautiful cottonwoods in Meade, Kansas. We used county camps on Whalen Island near Tillamook, Oregon, and a spot at Archie Knowles campground near Mapleton, Oregon, as commuting camps for day visits to the Pacific coast.

Two-star camps often have a single point of interest, like a BLM camp at Painted Rock near Gila Bend, Arizona. There’s an interesting petroglyph site within walking distance. There was wonderful solitude, views of the Sonoran desert and a place to dump the trash. What more could you ask for at $2 a night?

Three star

These camps have scenic quality, but don’t seduce you. Some national forest camps fall into this category, like the Gallatin National Forest south of Bozeman, Montana, or camps in the Coeur D’Alene national forest north of Wallace, Idaho. Sometimes there is highway noise nearby or neighbors camped a little too close by. Since retiring, I’ve become a bit of a snob. I’m guilty of objectifying our public lands. I am writing from a three-star, a dispersed camp site in the Prescott National Forest near the Groom Creek Horse Camp. It’s a spot I would have died to visit back in my work days. The photo shows the outstanding view, but if you turn around, you’re right on the forest road.

Four star

Once you enter, these camps excite. They give you a director’s chair to scenic treasures. Several of our favorites include Sage Campground in Badlands National Park and Croton Springs, a primitive roadside camp in Big Bend National Park (permit required).  Additionally, there’s Westport-Union Landing State Beach in Northern California, the only four-star camp we pay more than $30 a night to enjoy.

Four-star camp offer intangibles like the sound of a trickling stream as you sleep or the ease of viewing a magnificent signature tree, plant or wildlife from your camp chair. Sometimes, it’s the friendliness of camp hosts who make it special. Sometimes, it’s outdoor intelligence gathered from a camp neighbor or park rangers.  While at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, we met John, from San Francisco, who gave us some great ideas on how to explore river valleys and historic towns on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.

We also look for tangible qualities to rate a camp. An extensive trail network, showers, Internet access, interpretive programs, absolute quiet and low camping fees are nice, but not essential to win a four-star rating.

Our first four stars of 2019 go to Organ Pipe National Monument, a place filled with solitude, mountain vistas and spring color in the Sonoran desert. Make sure to hike a trail in the Ajo Mountains and enjoy it before intense heat descends in May.

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