Memorial Day Camping Up at Texas Parks

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June 22, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

Clayton Rhodes had a memorable bachelor's party this month – but not for the reasons you might suspect. 

Instead of ogling scantily clad women or cruising the big-city bar scene, he and four friends watched squirrels run around a campsite at Huntsville State Park just north of Houston. They report the unconventional celebration turned out to be a fun – and cheap – alternative. It cost them about $200 for campsite fees and food for three days of camping, fishing and boating. 

"You couldn't do a nice meal or even a night on the town for that much," said friend Nick Yaws. 

As the recession presses on, many Texas families and friends are saving money with low-cost vacations at state parks and national forests, according to the Houston Chronicle

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports overnight stays in state parks that allow camping were up 69% this Memorial Day weekend, compared with the 2008 holiday. Three out of four state parks reported more total visitors during the holiday. 

Parks and Wildlife officials already are reporting increased reservations for summer camping. 

"It makes sense that reservations are up when the economy is the way it is," explained Bryan Frazier, TPWD marketing specialist. "People are looking for more reasonable-priced vacations and our rates and fees are comparable or more affordable than other options." 

People also want to go to places within driving distance, and many of the state's 93 parks are within an hour's drive of a metropolitan area, he said.

Camping reservations also have spiked at private campground facilities. A recent poll of campground owners found that summer bookings were up about 20% over last year, said Brian Schaeffer, executive director of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO), which has more than 400 members. 

Owners say they are seeing more families and more people who live within a 50- to 100-mile radius, Schaeffer said. 

The association recently launched an online reservation site and "bookings are going crazy," Schaeffer said. "The bottom line is we've had a really good response to the 'stay-cation' concept." 

Recreational areas at the state's four national parks are seeing their share of visitors, too. Ratcliff Lake recreation area in the Davey Crockett National Forest, for example, has been 90% full every weekend since Easter, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Gay Ippolito. 

Recreation program managers for the Forest Service believe the bad economy has played a role in the increase, but they also believe that people are now taking the opportunity to rediscover how much they enjoy the outdoors. 

Paul and Jennifer Mitchell said they have planned four camping trips this year, each to a different state park. The couple, parents of two children, said they've always liked camping. They now do it more often because they are cutting back on big vacations, said Paul Mitchell, a manager for an industrial company. His wife is a stay-at-home mom. 

"You can save $300 to $400 in hotel costs alone for a three-day trip," he said. 

The couple said state parks are clean, well-managed and offer a wide range of amenities, including electric and water hookups, shower facilities, nature centers, playgrounds and swimming areas. 

Susan and Ken Wheeler will skip their usual summer vacation, a week-long stay in a cabin along the Frio River in the Hill Country in favor of smaller trips closer to their home in a Houston suburb. With their fencing business struggling through a four-month slump, the Wheelers have decided to save money. Their recent getaway at Huntsville State Park cost about $300 for three days of camping, boating, fishing and hiking.

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