Our Campgrounds Are in Desperate Need of an Overhaul

Overcrowded camp site with colorful tents on forest floor
James Kaiser

California’s New Brighton State Beach broke me. With every campground around Big Basin redwoods full, I dropped $35 for the park’s last vacant site only to find myself “camping” behind someone’s house in a residential subdivision. The glow from their TV, not my fire pit, lulled me to sleep.

California is extreme, but my experience illustrated a coast-to-coast crisis: We’ve outgrown our national and state parks campgrounds.

The “Meinecke System” of public campgrounds—one-way loops with parking spurs—was laid out in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the National Park Service (NPS) undertook the $2 billion “Mission 66” program to upgrade the system “to the new age of automobile tourism.” Since then? Zilch.

“Mission 66 was the last ‘consistent, ambitious, system-wide development program,’ ” reported the NPS in 2020. What’s changed since the ’50s? Start with RVs, trailers, trucks the size of toolsheds, generators, bikes, portable loungers, full kitchens and myriad apparatus produced by the $890 billion camping industry that’s buffaloed the average camper’s footprint beyond John Muir’s worst nightmare.

Oh, yeah, people. According to an NPS study, 2014 to 2018 saw a 22 percent increase in annual camping households and a 72 percent bump in those who camp more than three times a year. That was before the COVID-inspired surge in outdoor recreation.

The NPS system spreads more than 6 million annual overnight visits across just 502 “front-country campgrounds” (i.e., car camps) with 16,648 campsites. More than 40 percent of those sites are located in six marquee parks (Yosemite, Glacier, et al.), leaving parks like Arches in Utah with just 50 sites. No wonder campgrounds have become such cheek-to-jowl zoos that 11 percent of people recently surveyed said they simply opted not to camp rather than face the hassles at NPS campgrounds.

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The 2020 Great American Outdoors Act won’t build new campgrounds—it’s devoted to backlogged maintenance. President Biden has asked for $2 trillion in infrastructure funds and in June proposed $2.8 billion for outdoor recreation. Part of that should be used on a well-funded national program that isn’t afraid to knock down a few trees on the way to expanding a 20th-century idea to meet 21st-century growth. Airports, highways, bridges? Absolutely. But while we’re printing money, let’s not neglect those places accessed by the roads less traveled.

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