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Camp Host Resolves Forest’s ‘Party’ Problems

July 7, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor’s Note: The following is a column written for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

At some national forest campgrounds this summer, all the local idiots have been out in full force, where they use campsites as their personal, late-night party pads to get smashed. 

At many other campgrounds, new policies are in effect that guarantee you can actually get to sleep and wake up refreshed, ready to hike, bike, fish, boat or explore. 

An example of the worst problems is at Gumboot Lake in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. 

An example of the solution is at Mono Creek Campground, nestled deep in Sierra National Forest. 

The gap between the camping experiences at these two locations couldn’t be wider. It is symbolic of the problems and transformations at many campgrounds across California this summer in both urban and rural areas, from Bay Area parks to remote national forests. There are hundreds of examples, but these two show the most striking contrast. 

Gumboot is a small, beautiful lake that is nestled at 6,800 feet west of Mount Shasta, just below a high ridge where the Pacific Crest Trail runs right over the top. There are four small campsites at lakeside where you are close enough to hear the trout jumping at dawn. Because there are no facilities, camping is free. When I first started visiting here, we’d camp, hike up to the rim for world-class views and fish out of my canoe during the evening trout rise. It felt like wilderness, except that you could drive right to it. 

In the past few years, everything changed. The biggest problem is that Generation X does not consider camping as a gateway to recreation, but rather as a social event with alcohol and drugs. At Gumboot, that means a party, sometimes with loud music from car sound systems. A little over a week ago, Siskiyou County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the situation when a 911 call from Gumboot described a 17-year-old with severe alcohol poisoning. Deputies showed up and then arrested one adult and four minors for a variety of substance-abuse crimes. 

Last year, two people lived in a tent at Gumboot for more than a month, generally creating discomfort for other visitors. A Forest Service enforcement officer finally kicked them out in mid-summer.

In the past year, I have received a lot of e-mails describing similar issues at remote campsites where you’re on your own. 

Camp Host, Camping Fees Cut Problems 

The opposite end of the spectrum is at Mono Creek Campground. This camp is also remote, located midway between Edison Lake and Mono Hot Springs at 7,400 feet on the west flank of the Sierra Nevada. There are 14 primitive sites. At one time, this camp was also a late-night party pad, used as an overflow area when the campsites at Mono Hot Springs filled up. That’s all changed. 

The Forest Service started charging for campsites and then installed a camp host who lives at the campground all summer. The camp host checks in with each visitor and makes sure they understand that a campground is for camping and that night is for sleeping. That stopped the parties. 

The camp was then put on the reservation grid and prices were raised, now at $17 per night. That’s high, of course, considering there’s no drinking water, flush toilets or showers, but it has priced out the types who want to live at a campground all summer. 

This system has worked so well that many rangers and camp managers, from Bay Area parks to remote national forests, are making similar changes. 

It’s not a perfect fix. With more campgrounds on the reservation grid, it means it is more difficult than ever to find a campsite for Friday and Saturday nights. 

In the Lakes Basin Recreation Area in Tahoe National Forest north of Downieville, for instance, Monday through Thursday, you can drive up to camps such as Lakes Basin, Packsaddle, Diablo, Salmon Creek and Sardine Lake, and often get a choice campsite. But the camp host is then likely to tell you that they are sold out for Friday and Saturday nights by reservation. You thus find yourself scrambling to find a site at one of the two other campgrounds in the nearby area that are first-come, first-served. Some can get squeezed out, and if you don’t know all the other spots in the region, you can find yourself stuck. 

The final result of this new approach is increased security, quiet time at night and an appeal to ethical campers. It comes at a price, of course, but most feel it’s worth it.

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