Want a good campsite? Check out those run by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
When we set out in Artemis, the Airstream, 16 months ago, Jen and I felt that public campgrounds were about as desirable as Motel 6. Maybe less so.
At Motel 6, at least you get your own, somewhat quiet room. In developed campgrounds, there are always arm-chair revolutionaries arguing until 2 a.m. next door or families with babies that snap you from sleep at 1 a.m.
No, we eschewed campgrounds for peace and quiet from the start. We’d just boondock. Of course, there’s no choice but to compromise every few weeks by spending a night at a place with a dump station and electricity to charge up the batteries. But that, in our minds, was just holding your nose while you deal so you can return to the solitude of dry camping.
But then we discovered Riana Campground, a spot in northern New Mexico run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Riana is just an hour or so north of our house in Santa Fe, which is to say, we never should have stayed there—that close and you just go home. But last fall, after a beat-down of monsoon-addled, mud-slicked elk hunting in southern Colorado, we pulled into Riana intending to dump our tanks and head home. We ended up staying a week.
Poised on a sandstone escarpment above the crystalline waters of Lake Abiquiu, Riana has 54 sites, including 17 with electric, 15 walk-to tent sites, and nearly half that are walk-up only (meaning they can’t be reserved). That last bit is crucial because, as Jen and I cruised around the loops after emptying the tanks, we passed a site that had the best location of anything else in Riana. Actually, it might be the most stunning campsite I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t occupied, nor was it reserved. Best of all, it cost only $12.
We’d pulled into the lakefront-view site—non-electric—and with the trailer to our backs and the truck angled for blocking we might as well have been in the desert by ourselves. Here though, there was four bars of 3G, meaning we could live and work indefinitely. And Riana also has bathroom facilities, which equals luxurious hot showers. I love and appreciate the two-minute showers that a 29-gallon tank necessitates, but let’s be real: is there anyone who doesn’t like to suds and rinse without turning off the water if it’s available?
Prior to Riana, I’d heard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but had no real idea of the work they still do. Dating back to 1779, the Corps (or CoE), as they’re known today, took on military roles, such as building bridges and taking out supply lines during the Civil War, as well as clearing the beaches at Normandy. But their expertise also lent itself to civil, domestic projects including flood control and engineering for water projects. Today, the Corps employs 37,000 civilian and military personnel and is responsible for 24 percent of the hydroelectric power in the U.S. More to the point, they run over 1,800 campgrounds nationwide and host 360 millions visits a year at American beaches and lakes. Since the organization has mostly taken over dams and water projects, their sites tend to be in stunning settings—think, on the shores. Which is to say, if you’re after a good campground, it’s probably worth exploring the ones in the Corps of Engineers' stable.
The Corps is good at large-scale, concrete works projects, but they haven’t, apparently, figured out the internet. The organization’s website for finding CoE sites around the country is so obsolete that, before shepherding you into the quagmire, it recommends you buy their book, Camping With The Corps of Engineers. I was reluctant, but it wasn’t until I ordered a copy that I was able to surmise that New Mexico has exactly three CoE sites, the other two of which are down the hill from Santa Fe at Cochiti Lake. Yes, I’ve since visited, and yes, those campgrounds are as sweet—if not as sublime—as Riana.
We won’t ever give up the blessed wilderness of dry camping. But when we need a plug-in and easy access, I now page through the book for a CoE nearby sight. This summer, we already have plans to hit a few more along our way.