Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Between a Good Time and a Great Time

My wife and I both grew up camping, so we want our boys to have the same love of the outdoors, and fond childhood memories that we have because of camping.  We have found with a little planning we can turn potential good times into great times.

Each summer we plan various trips around Northwest PA and usually at least twice a year we make it the cabin my Grandfather built, that my Uncle now owns.  It's a wonderful place full of rich memories for me, and in all honestly "cabin" is a bit of an understatement.  The building could easily be used as a full time residence by nearly anyone that doesn't mind a bit of a drive to the grocery store.  All the same it backs up against 100's of acres of timber property, with a network of old logging roads, 4 wheeler tracks, and even the remnants of a small gauge railroad track used to mine sandstone and soft coal, we've affectionately named "the dinky track."  There's a mid century fire tower nearby, underneath of which is an old USGS marker which would have been used to map the mountain years ago.

To supplement the trips to my Uncle's cabin, we have branched out looking for campgrounds to take the boys.  Since we don't own a proper tent for all of us, and the idea of sharing a tent with boys as young as ours leaves a bit to be desired, we try to go to campgrounds where we can rent a cabin.  This has made the searching very tough, and cost us more money than typical camping trips, it has also taught us invaluable lessons about what we like in a campground.

Not to overstate it, but I LOVE Google maps.  I will use Google searches to trackdown a couple prospective campgrounds, but Google maps tells the real story.

Our 2011 camping trip is a tremendous example of this:  Robert had just turned 6 and Aiden was about to be 1.  After a successful trip to my Uncle's cabin, I found Pymatuning Campground, Pymatuning State Park, Andover OH.  This location stuck out, because of the Yurts they had available to rent.  A Yurt is a round tent with a peaked ceiling.  At the park they have them erected on a wooden deck with a covered picnic table.  Inside, two futon style bunkbeds, plus a sink and small refrigerator.  The brochure pictures look amazing, but that's really easy to do.  What does the Google satellite image show us?

In the above screen grab you will see a double driveway entering the park.  Near the top center you can make out 4 round white dots.  A single dot with a driveway, two dots with one driveway, then another single dot with a driveway.  Those dots are the Yurts.  You'll notice how close those are to the road, and the lack of tree cover in that section of the campground.  Couple that with the multiple paved spurs off of the driveways and this is obviously the section of the campground that is much more RV park then campground.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this is good information to have prior to booking.  If you like big woods, long hikes, this might not be the place.  However, there was a clean, guarded beach, plus some flea markets nearby and the ever popular Pymatuning Deer Park.  So we packed walking shoes instead of hiking boots, plus swim trunks, and we had a grand weekend.

In 2012 with our boys a year older, and Aiden in the full thralls of the terrible twos, we made the decision we'd try just one night, but we wanted a much more secluded location.  Our plan, over the course of one week, was to spend a couple nights at my Uncle's, then branch out to a campground in the Allegheny National Forest.  We quickly discovered that Willowbay was the only Forest controlled campground with cabins available.  That was fine because as Google Maps showed this area had exactly what we wanted.

The primary driveway leaves the main road and serves all the campsites, plus the boat dock at the end of the campground.  If your eye follows the driveway, there is a parking lot near the center of the picture.  To the left of that parking area there is a thicker wooded area between the road and the shore.  It is in that wooded area where they have installed 10 simple one room cabins.

The cabins have a bunk bed and a twin bed.  You must provide your own linens, but each cabin has electricity.  From where the above picture is taken there is a walking path to my left, and on the other side of the path is a primitive campsite for tent camping that is directly on the water.  If you are at all into canoeing or kayaking I would highly recommend Willowbay. I would say for an ideal experience rent the cabin to have a dry comfortable place to sleep, then for a few bucks more rent the primitive site nearby.  Now you can leave your canoe in the primitive site, and have the benefits of the dry cabin when night falls.

While planning for our 2013 outing I was taking a drive around Oil Creek State Park.  Robert is getting to the age where the historical stuff is starting to get neat, and Oil Creek offers me miles and miles of trails.  On my drive I stumbled upon a sign for Oil Creek Family Campground.  The entry sign left me a little flat, but on their website I discovered they have several cabins for rent, at very reasonable prices.  My next question:  What does Google maps show me? 

Obviously heavily wooded, so I like it off the bat.  To the right of this picture is nothing but State Park land all the way down to Oil Creek.  In fact there is a hiking trail that connects the campground to the network of trails in the State Park.  It may only be the middle of January, but I think we have found a campground to book for 2013.

Spend a little time on your computer, scouting new locations, and your time away from home will be well spent.

Happy Camping
Scott M

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