Nature is as close as your telephone

Essay by David Feela

Recreation – September 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

MAYBE THE HOUR IS TOO LATE; maybe nobody is working the desk, but someone should dial for a wake-up call.

Hopefully the switchboard operator will send it directly to any national or state park employee who is responsible for implementing the 1-800-reservation system used for campers attempting to stay overnight in public campgrounds.

Hopefully a few groggy voices will answer, slightly irritated, wondering why their sleep had to be interrupted for something as silly as a wake-up call they will swear must be a mistake.

You see, we should be irritated, too, since our state and national parks have opted to go into the motel business. If you don’t believe me, pull into almost any state or national campground early on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (just before the weekend) and count the number of camping sites already paid for by people who are still at home sleeping at the very moment you are treading on their reserved ground. Don’t, by any means, try to put up your tent for the weekend. Some wild-eyed stranger a day or two later will probably inform you that you are camping in his spot.

Recently I pulled into a campground in the White River National Forest near Marble, Colorado. A large sign just beyond the pay station declared, “Sites 8 through 38 Are Managed Under the Reservation System,” though I noticed only seven sites generously set aside for people like me, who attempt camping without any foresight. I thought, for an instant, perhaps I had accidentally ventured into a KOA.

I prepared myself mentally to negotiate a short-term lease as I drove around the circular access road, studying the tiny white plaques clipped to brown posts announcing that every camping site was reserved for either Friday or Saturday through Sunday. Why, this isn’t a KOA, I said to myself. This is a Holiday Inn done in a forest motif. I continued driving along what must have been a dirt-carpeted corridor, sequential posts arranged like numbered motel rooms, expecting a maid to push her cart out from behind a shrub at any moment. Very clever, I thought. Now, where have they hidden the pool?

It’s just plain dollars and a lack of sense that allows people to believe campers on public lands are better served by being able to reserve pieces of our wilderness areas as if they were planning to dine out at an expensive restaurant. The Park Service, burdened with the bureaucracy of running our public parks, has obviously jobbed this responsibility off on a private company that rakes in a $7 non-refundable fee for every telephone reservation made — just for answering the phone and handling Park Service paperwork — and the Park Service then collects its additional per-night camping fee.

Reservations can be booked as many as 90 days in advance, allowing vacationers in theory to spiritually occupy their, say, 4th of July campsites in early March, even before the spring equinox. This isn’t camping; this is a speed-dial telephone race. Have your charge card number ready, though: They don’t take personal checks.

How does the Park Service justify pressuring the public into making a plastic charge card promise as a prerequisite to having an outdoor experience? They would say, we campers forced the system on ourselves: So many, many people want to use our parks at the same time that there’s literally not enough room for everyone to converge at the same place, without having to turn some of us away. If you recall, two vacationers in Bethlehem had a similar problem, though even they managed to find a spot to pull off the road for a night or two. And it ended up making a better story.

THE FACT IS THE PARK SERVICE’S reservation system caters to those who vacation with itemized itineraries and travel agents, not people intent on spontaneously and creatively exploring and discovering the magnificent natural resources an unfamiliar area has to offer. The Park Service, like American Express, wants to make one thing clear: Get a reservation; don’t leave home without one.

This is wrong. These are public lands, for goodness sakes, not private hotels and motels. If you want a reservation to vacation, call a Howard Johnson’s. Towels, ice, and a tiny bar of soap ought to come with the deal.

Maybe as taxpayers we should fund a bill to purchase neon green “Vacancy” and “No Vacancy” signs for our public campgrounds. Maybe we should raise a bigtop over the trees and build a mountain of bleachers, because more than one campground host has quietly told me, “It’s a circus out here on the weekends.” Or maybe we should install parking meters at each site that curse very loudly when your hour is spent.

Excuse me, is that a Ponderosa Pine I hear ringing?

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Cortez, Colorado.