Alaska Attracting More Campers to "Final Frontier" (2/11/2019)

Story by Ben Quiggle

Alaska Attracting More Campers to "Final Frontier"

Filled with wide open landscapes, mountainous terrain and a large variety of wildlife, a trip to Alaska is often on an RVer's bucket list.

Not just for RVers though, millions of tourists from around the world make the trek to Alaska every year to get a glimpse of untouched wilderness, according to Shannon Miller, executive director of the Alaska Campground Owners Association (ACOA).

That provides plenty of opportunity for campground and RV park owners in the state, she noted.

“As an association we include 48 privately-owned campgrounds and RV parks,” Miller explained. “Overall, the state has around 400 parks, although I don’t know how many are privately-owned versus state- or federally-owned.”

Over the past few years some park owners have seen growth of 2% to 3%, she told Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM). Noting that demand for sites during the peak tourist months of June, July and August has increased.

“We have begun to recommend that campers make their reservations quite a bit in advance,” Miller said. “That is a trend that we have seen over the last five years. Campers are having to book their sites well in advance to make sure they secure a spot.”

She explained that campers who come to Alaska are going to get a different experience than maybe they would in the lower 48 states just because of the landscape.

“We have awe-inspiring coastlines, towering mountain peaks, gorgeous glaciers and unique wildlife which make the experience like nothing else in the world,” Miller elaborated. “Campers can pitch their tents on the banks of one of Alaska’s three million lakes and spend the day hiking through beautiful temperate rainforest or stay in a locally-owned cabin or yurt for something a little different.

“In a state this big, beautiful and unpopulated, there’s no shortage of campsites and you’ll find hundreds of spots just within the shadow of towering Denali. Climbers can take advantage of the breadth of the mountain and rock-climbing opportunities that abound,” she continued. “Then if they head north there is world-class hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, or they can venture south to explore the epic glaciers. Alaska is a world unto its own and outdoor enthusiasts and novice nature-lovers alike find something to marvel at.”

While the fish population in Kenai wasn’t very good this past year, Laverne Eickman, co-owner of the Valdez Kampgrounds of America (KOA), said decent weather and the fishing traffic that she did have combined to help her campground do well in 2018.

Eickman said one of the busiest times of the season for them is around Labor Day because that is when fishing is the best. They close in mid-September. 

She said that they are not adding campsites in 2019 but are investing in improvements to the park’s existing sites.

“Visitors who want to come around the holidays or who have larger RVs should make reservations in advance,” Eickman noted, saying there is no place like Alaska to visit.

“You come to Alaska to see the beauty, the splendor, the bears and the fish. That is why you come to Alaska, because it is truly the last frontier.”

Josiah Martin, owner of Diamond M Resort in Kenai, said business has steadily increased over the last five years, except last summer, which was tough because fishing was down.

“We were able to make up for it in our shoulder season of June and August,” he noted. “So, overall it was a steady year. We were anticipating more, but the fishing wasn’t the best.”

The resort has 79 full-hookup sites. It is one of the only private Alaskan campgrounds that is open year-round, according to Martin.

“If you’re crazy enough to camp in the winter with us, then we’re happy to take you in,” he explained. “It’s not very common, but we get about five campers that will stay the winter with us because they’re transitioning to the area. They may have bought property up here and are building a house or something and they are in the between stages of moving.”

Bob Johnson, marketing director for Great Alaskan Holidays, an Anchorage-based RV rental company, said the company stocks about 400 Class C motorhomes, mostly products from Winnebago and Thor Industries Inc., that the company rents out to folks who want to see the Alaskan frontier.

“For all intents and purposes, we sell out every summer,” Johnson said.

He shared one of the secrets of visiting Alaska: If you don’t have to go in the peak months of June, July and August, you will run into fewer tourists, spend less money and it won’t be extremely cold.

“Traveling in the shoulder seasons is a pretty well-kept secret,” Johnson mentioned, saying that for them the shoulder seasons are typically mid-April and May and mid-September and October.

“It’s cooler, but just as beautiful,” he noted.

Johnson said seeing the state in an RV allows travelers to go where they want, stay as long as they want and see what they want.

“Most of our customers want to see Alaska with some mobility, which a motorhome gives you,” he shared.

Interestingly, Johnson said the company doesn’t have a lot of problems with people trying to take the rigs too far off the beaten path. He said he thinks most people are reluctant to ruin their vacation by getting stuck.

RV renters pick up their rigs in Anchorage and typically travel north to Denali National Park or as far north as Fairbanks. Many go to Valdez or Seward.

“Many people spend their entire vacation on the Kenai peninsula,” he stated.

While Johnson didn’t want to say how much business has increased over the last few years, he said it has been increasing steadily since the country recovered from the Great Recession.

Living in Alaska can be difficult because of how spread out it is. The basic necessities, like milk and bread, are more expensive, according to Eickman.

“Groceries are not grown in Alaska,” she said. “They have to be hauled over the road. So, there are things that come from other places that everybody uses every day and they don’t realize how they got to Alaska.”

Once those products are in the state, many people have to travel hours to buy them.

“If I want to drive to a nice big grocery store it’s a six-hour drive for me,” Eickman said.

Her husband, Tim Eickman, said camping in Alaska is different because the campgrounds don’t have the same things to do that campgrounds in the lower 48 have.

“Alaskan owners don’t have all the amenities that maybe owners at other parks may have,” Eickman shared. “In the lower 48 they have swimming pools and all kinds of other amenities. It doesn’t work in Alaska. So, we are more about the outdoor experience than about the amenities.”

Tim Eickman also added that visitors need to be aware of wildlife when they’re in Alaska. It’s not uncommon for a bear to wander through the campground, but most visitors don’t view that as a bad thing. 

“They get out there with their cameras and we keep telling them they are wild animals, but they will walk up and try to get a picture,” Eickman said.

He said the biggest challenge for his campground is finding good help.

“The biggest thing is getting employees and people that will help you with a good attitude,” Eickman said. “We are very particular about our camper’s experiences, so we want to have good staff around all the time.”

Miller explained that another challenge for Alaskan campground owners is offering dependable Wi-Fi service, since many parks are located in remote areas of the Alaskan wilderness.

She noted that private park owners also have competition from state- and federally-owned parks, while explaining that the location is the main driving force behind the attraction of coming to Alaska, but that marketing also plays a role.

“A lot of the parks have easily maneuverable websites, with online booking links and other things that make it easier for the camper,” she highlighted.

Martin said campers are attracted to Alaska because of its wilderness and opportunities for adventure.

“There’s so much of Alaska that’s just untouched,” Martin said. “And so, the big things here are fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, that’s really the big three for our area.”

Campers will find that rates at parks are just about the same as in the lower 48.

“If there are parks that charge more it is probably due to the higher costs of living in Alaska,” Miller explained. “But most of our rates are on par with other states.”

Martin said the biggest challenge of running a campground in Alaska is the short season. Because of his park’s dependence on the salmon run on the Kenai river, Martin said July is really when the park makes its money.

“Our June and August rates are slightly above the national average, but our July rates have just skyrocketed,” Martin said. “August rates are $65 per night and July is $95.”

With the campground full in July, he said that the park’s facilities are pushed to the limit. 

Brian Laviolette contributed to this report. 

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