Wilderness Made Easy
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Outside magazine, April 1995
Wilderness Made Easy
Ten campsites you can get to in mere hours, but feel light-years away from the workaday world
It’s early on a Friday afternoon, and claustrophobia has set in: You have to flee the gray, crowded, frenetic city. But where can you go on a moment’s notice? Well, if you can figure out how to cut work a little before quitting time, you still have a chance to get deep into the woods–or at least what’ll feel like the deep woods–by nightfall. Here
The Spot: A clearing in a cool forest of ancient firs and giant ferns next to frothy Thunder Creek. The sites have a genuine Deep Cascades feel and yet are just a mile and a half from the trailhead at Colonial Creek Campground.
Things to Do: For grand views of Cascade giants, take the moderately steep, 3.2-mile trail from Thunder Camp to 3,600-foot Fourth of July Pass, where you’ll be face-to-midriff with the glacier-draped Colonial and Snowfield Peaks. Down by Colonial Creek Campground, the cold waters of Diablo Lake teem with rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden
Local Wisdom: Black bears are frequent visitors to Thunder Camp, so follow the usual precautions diligently.
The Way There: From Seattle, about three hours away, take I-5 north 64 miles to Washington 20, and then go east 68 miles to Colonial Creek. Thunder Camp is a mile and a half south along Thunder Creek Trail. For maps and a free backcountry permit (required), call the North Cascades Visitor Center at 206-386-4495.
TURKEY CREEK TRAIL
The Spot: Choose any of the small, gladelike clearings along the first mile and a half of the 18-mile trail that parallels Turkey Creek, which runs through the heart of this crazy quilt of savannas, blackwater bayous, and swamps in southeastern Texas, about two hours northeast of Houston.
Things to Do: The languid waterways of Big Thicket make it an ideal paddling destination. Some of the region’s best backcountry canoeing can be found on a 37-mile section of slow-moving Village Creek, which flows within a mile of camp. For guides, rentals, and shuttle service, call Timber Ridge Tours (rentals, $20 per day; guided tours, $30;
Local Wisdom: Steer clear in summer–if the unreasonable heat and unfathomable humidity don’t get you, the mosquitoes and biting flies will.
The Way There: From Houston, take I-10 east 100 miles to Beaumont, and then head north 27 miles on U.S. 69 to Farm-to-Market 420. Go east 2.5 miles to the Turkey Creek Unit Information Station (409-246-2337), where you can pick up maps, permits (free), and the trailhead.
CHAPARRAL PICNIC AREA
The Spot: These 20 drive-in sites are decidedly nonwilderness–they come complete with bathrooms, fire grates, and picnic tables–but are just a stone’s throw from scores of spirelike rock formations and 25 square miles of wild chaparral-covered hills.
Things to Do: If rock is your medium, head to the Balconies Cliffs, one and a half miles north of Chaparral. Here you’ll find routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.11. Check out Shake-N-Bake, a challenging 5.10, or if you’re new to the sport, head to Elephant Rock, on the trail to Balconies just a half-mile from camp, where you’ll find The Regular Route, a
Local Wisdom: Chaparral is closed to camping on weekends through May; if you feel the need to get there before summer, camp at privately owned Pinnacles Campground Inc. ($6 per night; 408-389-4462), an amenity-laden facility just outside the park’s eastern boundary. Also, be aware that some Balconies routes are closed in spring to protect nesting
The Way There: From San Francisco, three hours away, take U.S. 101 south 130 miles to the town of Soledad, and then go east 12 miles on California 146 to the monument’s west entrance. Here you’ll pay the $4 entrance fee and $10 per night for your campsite; while you’re at it, pick up a map and, if you plan to get vertical, a copy of Climbing Guide: Pinnacles National Monument ($18). From there, the Chaparral campground is three miles east along the main road.
PONDSIDE BACKCOUNTRY CAMPSITE
The Spot: A hushed, serene atmosphere in a mosaic of deciduous trees and 100-foot-high bluffs on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, Illinois’s only National Scenic River.
Things to Do Most of the action here centers around the river, which is ideal for canoeing, especially the stretch between Kinny’s Ford, ten miles north of camp, and Kickapoo Bridge in nearby Kickapoo State Park. For a boat ($34 per day) and shuttle service, call Kickapoo Canoe Rentals at 217-354-2060. Angling opportunities are also plentiful, with
Local Wisdom: Spring is prime time along the Middle Fork–not only will the river be running briskly (it can be quite low in late summer), but a stunning wildflower show will be all around you, highlighted by the showy bluebells that carpet the forest floor.
The Way There: From Chicago, three hours away, take I-57 south 138 miles to Champaign, where you’ll pick up I-74. Go east 24 miles to the town of Oakwood, and then head north for six miles on County Road 900 East. Turn right on County Road 2400 North and go a half-mile to the park office (217-776-2614), where you can obtain camping permits ($6 per
SMARTS BROOK TRAIL
The Spot: A clearing near a stream patrolled by an army of busy beavers, where you can watch the bucktoothed rodents while being serenaded by the trilling of what sounds like a million toads.
Things to Do: Since these are the White Mountains, hiking is king. There are endless opportunities along the Smarts Brook Trail, which winds through heavy stands of hardwoods and conifers as it follows its namesake stream. For the best viewpoint in the area, follow the trail northeast about three and a half miles from camp, where you’ll hit the
Local Wisdom: If you’re a fan of bracing water, be sure to bring a bathing suit, as Smarts Brook has many riffling pools that make perfect swimming holes. Be sure to steer clear of the beavers, though, as rangers are worried that their habitat has become increasingly encroached upon by not-so-low-impact day-trippers.
The Way There: From Boston, two and a half hours away, take I-93 north 120 miles to New Hampshire 49, and then go northeast for five miles to the clearly marked trailhead parking lot. The campsite is a mile and a half to the southeast, just before the trail narrows and begins to get steep. No permit is required; for maps, call the Pemigewasset
CLOVER LICK CAMPSITE
The Spot: An unmarked primitive campsite nestled among rocky ridges, misty waterfalls, and the jagged summits of the Allegheny Mountains, adjacent to Monongahela National Forest and 170 miles southwest of the nation’s capital.
Things to Do: Hard-core backpackers might scoff at the idea of hiking on an abandoned railroad right-of-way, but that may be because they’ve never visited the rough gravel trail that runs through the heart of the Greenbrier River Valley. The route winds through hardwood forests, disappears into the darkness of a 500-foot-long tunnel, and reemerges
Local Wisdom: The trail slopes gently as you move south. If you tend to hit the wall on the return leg of your rides, go north when you head out in the morning to avoid an end-of-the-day climb.
The Way There: From Washington, D.C., go west 100 miles on I-66 to I-81, and then south 110 miles until you hit U.S. 250. From there, go west 65 miles to County Road 1, and then south 15 miles to Clover Lick. Park in the trailside lot on the south side of town; the campsite, which is free and requires no permit, is 1.5 miles south along the trail.
The Spot: A cluster of car- and canoe-accessible campsites on the wildest part of a 40-mile designated Wild and Scenic stretch of the Delaware, where the nighttime calls of barred owls and whippoorwills aren’t forced to compete with the drone of road traffic, despite the proximity (two hours) to Manhattan.
Things to Do: Canoeing is one of the big attractions on the Delaware, particularly among the shallow riffles and quiet pools of the Water Gap area, through which there are access points about every eight to ten miles. If you don’t have a boat of your own, call Pack Shack Adventures in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania (rentals, $40-$43 per day,
Local Wisdom: If you’re an aficionado of big birds of prey, consider making this trip in late September or early October, when hawks and other raptors come through on their annual migrations.
The Way There: From New York City, follow I-80 west 85 miles to the Delaware Bridge exit (the last one in New Jersey) onto Old Mine Road, where you’ll find the visitor center. Continue north three miles to the campground ($8-$10 per night; 908-841-9575). For maps and more information, call the recreation area headquarters at 717-588-2435.
ROUND VALLEY CAMP
The Spot: A grassy, fern-backed meadow on the flanks of the San Jacinto Range, which rises with startling abruptness from the desert oasis of Palm Springs. Expect to see deer, coyotes, the odd mountain lion, and–since this is southern California–plenty of other nature seekers, but know that, come nightfall, 99 percent of the last will be on their
Things to Do: Part of the thrill of visiting Round Valley is in the getting there, as you’ll have to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, one of the largest and longest in the world. It carries you up nearly 6,000 feet to Mountain Station, at 8,516 feet. From there, it’s a 6.3-mile hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto–at 10,804 feet, southern
Local Wisdom: The rapid ascent into the high country via the tramway can have a downside: acute mountain sickness. Try to take it easy on the first day to give your system a chance to acclimatize.
The Way There: From Los Angeles, two and a half hours away, take I-10 east 100 miles to California 111, and then head south through Palm Springs. Turn right onto Tramway Road, and then go three and a half miles to the base of the tramway. The 15-minute ride costs $16 for adults, $10 for children five to 12 years old (kids under five are free); call
HALL VALLEY CAMPGROUND
The Spot: Eight drive-in sites at the bottom of a trail that leads to four-acre, sky-blue Gibson Lake, which is perched in a roadless area just an hour and a half south of Denver and about four miles from camp.
Things to Do: Gibson’s mythic 15-inch brookies are said to be chomping at every fly-shaped bit, but you’ll need a state fishing license ($5.25 per day, $20.25 per year). Pick one up on your way from Denver, along with any gear you may have forgotten, at Knotty Pine Sport Center in Bailey (303-838-5679). Wildlife abounds on the shore too, so bring a
Local Wisdom: Make sure to bring your camp stove: Last year’s dry summer gave rangers a scare, and they vow to ban fires this year if such conditions are repeated.
The Way There: From Denver, take U.S. 285 south for 44 miles to the town of Bailey. Continue west on 285 for 14.3 miles, turn right onto Forest Service Road 120 (Hall Valley Road), and then prepare for a bouncy five-mile ride to the campground. No permits are necessary, but there is a $6-per-night fee. For maps and more information, call the South
JUNIPER SPRINGS RECREATION AREA
The Spot: 79 drive-in sites infused with boggy tranquility among moss-draped forests of live oaks and whispering pines, yet just an hour from the frantic Walt Disney World kiddieplex.
Things to Do: A 37-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail takes off right from your vestibule, with grassy clearings, shallow ponds, and tea-colored swamps providing a backdrop for a rich collection of wildlife–look for four-leggers such as bobcats, foxes, and armadillos, and birds ranging from red-cockaded woodpeckers to the amazing
Local Wisdom: If your day hikes lead you into any of the area’s cypress swamps, keep an eye peeled for “logs” that may turn out to be water moccasins or alligators.
The Way There: From Orlando, head north 60 miles on U.S. 441 and Florida 19, and then go west on Florida 40 for three miles until you reach the Juniper Springs Campground. Sites cost $10.75-$12.75 per night; call 904-625-3147 for maps and more information.
Larry Rice lives in Illinois and is a longtime contributor to Outside.