After all this time on the road, we’ve gotten used to a certain amount of variability in the campgrounds at which we stay. We love some places; we tolerate others. We find some places to be warm and welcoming, while others feel much less friendly. We conclude that certain campgrounds can legitimately call themselves “resorts,” while others, well… not so much.
Oftentimes, we question whether our feelings, good or bad, would be different if some individual factor were altered – the weather, the price, the front desk person who checked us in.
We’ve been thinking about all of this recently because, over the course of just a few short weeks in February, our experiences at four different campgrounds ran the gamut from love to hate and everything in between.
Lost Dutchman State Park
After leaving Tucson, we headed for Lost Dutchman State Park just northeast of Phoenix. Like Catalina, it is very popular with RVers and extremely difficult to get reservations during the winter. I was thrilled when I scored an extended stay during February, but we were disappointed when we arrived to find our site was in the least desirable section of the park. It wasn’t terrible, by any stretch, but we had pretty high expectations based on others’ experiences, and, unfortunately, what we found was very different than what we expected.
The park apparently added our loop (containing sites 75 to 104) after the rest of the park was built, and they crammed as many sites into a tiny space as they could. Whereas other loops offer huge private sites with gorgeous views, the sites in our loop were much smaller, built right on top one another, and, oftentimes, were completely unlevel.
Anyway, while we were a bit disappointed with our site, the rest of the park was gorgeous. The benefit of the rather wet winter we experienced (and kept experiencing) is that it left our surroundings incredibly green….
The park offers several trails that leave right from the campgrounds. These walking trails lead to the larger day use section….
And if you hike those trails up into the Superstition Mountains, you get some beautiful views of the valley below….
We also used the park as a jumping off point to drive the famous Apache Trail – a 40 mile road that cuts through Tonto National Forest between Apache Junction and the Roosevelt Dam. The trail is steep, windy, and, oftentimes, features large drop offs with minimal guardrails. While the road does not require four wheel drive, most of it is unpaved and there are several fairly rocky parts.
I also headed off to Boyce Thompson Arboretum one afternoon for some horticultural goodness (thanks for the tip, Laurel.) This is the largest botanical garden in Arizona, offering numerous walking trails, sub-gardens, and quiet places to relax and enjoy the surroundings. I only wish I’d been able to visit about a month later when things would really have been in bloom, but it was still very pretty and well worth a visit.
Overall, we’d return to Lost Dutchman in a heartbeat. We’d just make sure we were a bit more discerning with our campsite choice.
Black Canyon Campground
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a big proponent of having reservations and planning ahead. I think it reduces our stress and helps us avoid questionable campgrounds. That point was driven home when I failed to make reservations for President’s Day Weekend and, by the time I realized that the gap in our calendar was over a holiday weekend (a rookie mistake for fulltime RVers), there were almost no sites available anywhere in Phoenix. I finally found a commercial campground halfway between Phoenix and Sedona and was happy to get anything.
Unfortunately, as one might expect, the campground wasn’t great. The roads were uneven and full of ruts, there was little organized landscaping, and weeds had pretty much overgrown everything else. RVs and cars were parked haphazardly and tarps and tents were mixed in with everything else. It just felt chaotic. More noticeable, there was junk. Everywhere we looked… junk.
Even with all of that, we probably would have stayed. We’ve certainly stayed in similar places. However, we both got a bad vibe from some of the residents and on our second day, when I took Thor out, as I was walking down the road, I could feel someone staring at me. I turned around to find some guy, sans shirt, standing in the doorway of a run down trailer just staring at me. Not the friendly, “wave to your neighbor!!” look, but rather the one that comes with the theme music from “Deliverance” playing softly in the background…
To which I responded: “Yeah… NOPE! We’re outta here.” We bugged out the next day, eating the cost of two more nights we’d already paid for.
Dead Horse Ranch State Park
We were already planning to visit Dead Horse Ranch State Park after our upcoming stay in Sedona. When we decided to leave Black Canyon early, I checked the state park’s website and, fortunately, there were some spaces available. I moved some stuff around to make it work financially and we headed for the park. This ended up being a great plan. Not only did we break even, but our views went from rundown trailers surrounded by piles of junk to this:
Next we headed to Sedona and found yet another weird campground. Not “scary weird” mind you, but rather “nuts weird.”
See, the problem with places like Black Canyon is that there are no rules, or the rules aren’t enforced, so everything quickly goes to crap.
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Rancho Sedona, a place that is so obsessed with making the place nice, that they make it feel like a prison camp.
They love rules. And not only do they love having rules, but they want to tell you about their rules.
All of them.
All the time.
Everywhere you go.
On flags and on signs and on leaflets and banners.
Rules, rules, rules.
And, more to the point, they treat you like an absolute idiot when they’re telling you about the rules.
The rules start before you even get to the entrance… 4 signs in a row telling you not to park or wait on the road outside the front entrance to the campground:
The way this campground works is, when you call to make your reservation, they tell you your site number and give you directions so you can drive straight to your site. They want you to drive in and get parked before going up to the office to check in. But it is vitally important that you not arrive before check-in time. And check-in time is 12 noon.
You got that???
No? You’re too dumb to be able to figure out when it’s 12 noon? Well, here’s a big (apparently custom made) clock outside the front gate to help you:
If you fail miserably and get here before noon, they’re gonna direct you exactly where to go.
And because you’re such a bleedin’ moron, there’s a bright yellow sign directly across from the clock sign showing you – once again – where you need to go while you await the magic hour…
…and a reminder that you are only allowed to proceed to your site after 12:00… Just in case you already forgot. Dipshit.
Also, no trespassing.
Ok!! At this point, you’ve waited until 12:01 p.m., you have successfully not parked on the road, and you have not trespassed. Congratulations! You have made it past the first 7 signs. Time to enter the campground!!
When you find your site, you’ll notice management has added a helpful stake at the back of the site to make sure your tail end doesn’t hang over their nice grass. More importantly, the sign notifies you that if you do what you usually do – carefully tie a blindfold over your eyes before throwing your house in reverse and punching the gas as hard as you can – running over everything between you and whatever wall/tree/lake stops you – you will bear the cost of replacing their $2.00 stake. So be careful, you clown.
Alright, you’re in your spot and you’ve destroyed nothing. Good work! Time to head to the office so you can – you guessed it – hear about more rules!!!
So. Many. Rules.
See the part at the bottom about the dogs? If you actually have a dog, they have a separate document with these same rules (I think, I didn’t actually read it…) that you have to sign and return to them so they can keep it on file. From what I can gather, dog owners are not to be trusted with rules. Management needs to spell the rules out, multiple times, CAPITALIZE A BUNCH OF THEM, underline some stuff, and use many exclamation points!! Then, they gotta make the dog owner sign it, all legal-like….
This is in addition to requiring the pet owner to pay an extra daily fee for the blessed privilege of even being allowed to have a pet in the first place (Don’t worry, we made sure Thor peed on every inch of that place. If we’re paying for it, he’s peeing on it.)
Anyway, we’re not done. They’ve got extra rules stapled to the original rules. And they helpfully put those extra additional stapled rules on yellow paper so you can’t miss them.
Alright, you’ve gotten into the park, you’ve parked in your space, and you’ve gone over their enormous list of rules (including such classics as “don’t shoot shit from your campsite.”) You’ve gone over the regular rules, additional rules, and pet owner rules. You have initialed and signed each page of rules, had your signature witnessed and notarized, participated in a bloodletting ceremony presided over by a shaman, and acknowledged the biblical-style consequences that will rain down upon your sorry ass if you screw this up. You are now – officially – checked in.
“Wow. That was stressful. Let’s take the dog for a walk….”
Nope… not down there…
And not here either…
These “No RV” signs were posted on the far side of the campground right before a private road with residences. That private development had its own enormous “No Trespassing” sign with a bunch of small print that I didn’t care enough to go look at. The bottom line is, the neighbors don’t want outsiders in their fancy neighborhood… and they, too, love themselves some signs!
“Ok then! Where can we take the dog?”
“How about here on the map… There’s a creek! That should be nice!”
“Oops, guess we can’t get to the creek by going through this area….”
“Or this one….”
“Oooh! Look! There are large flags! That must be the entrance to the creek!”
“Uh oh… more signs…”
There are 3 signs that say “Creek Entrance,” (because if one is good, 3 is better!) and then this:
“Ok, well, this is all getting exhausting. Let’s check out this other pretty green lawn over here…”
I mean, are a lot of random strangers showing up at this RV park in Sedona to play volleyball? Cuz I kinda find that hard to believe…
“Alright. What else is around here? OOOOH! Look at this. Four large comfy looking benches around a fire pit! Sweet…”
“Uh oh… what does the sign (on each and every bench) say?”
“Oh, I see. It’s a community fire pit where no one’s allowed to have fires. Of course! That makes perfect sense!”
“Hmmmm. Maybe we can go out the front gate of the property and find a place to walk the dog. Oh look, another sign. Do you think they own stock in a sign company or something??”
Wow! Could this place talk down to their customers any more? It’s like if the school librarian from my elementary school (Ms. Mitchell – God, she was terrifying…) got together with the North Korean army to open an RV campground. WTF?!?!
And the worst part of the whole thing is this place is EXPENSIVE! Like, really expensive. Like $60 – $80 per night expensive.
$60 – $80!
For a parking space!!!
I have a hard time believing people who are dropping that much cash on an RV site in ritzy Sedona are causing so much trouble that they need all these signs plastered everywhere.
I can count on one hand how many times we’ve had neighbors who kept us up at night because they were partying outside. Most RVers are pretty respectful, and certainly, most who are paying these kinds of numbers aren’t also doing kegstands at 3:00 a.m.
More to the point, I’m amazed that the park’s customers are OK with being treated like juvenile delinquents. Frankly, it’s kind of insulting. We certainly didn’t like it… and we’re not even mature adults!
Anyway, it was completely bananas.
And we were about to be marooned in this crazytown for several days, as we faced our biggest weather event yet! More on that next!
Where we stayed:
Lost Dutchman State Park, Apache Junction
Black Canyon Campground, Black Canyon City, Arizona
Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Cottonwood, Arizona
Rancho Sedona RV Park, Sedona, Arizona