I got a spot at Governor Dodge State Park. Not for Memorial Day, as I had intended, but for August. And it wasn’t easy. For three hours last Saturday, I pored over maps, read reviews, studied pictures of each site (thanks to the Friends of Governor Dodge, which posts photos of each spot), debated over electrical hookups, regarded dimensions of the camp site and scrutinized distances to hiking trail heads, playgrounds and pit toilets. To make it even more complicated, I wanted a double site for my brother’s family.
I finally narrowed down the options with all my criteria and then logged on to Reserve America to get the woodsy double site with a view. And then I found out it wasn’t reservable. I cried out in frustration. The next site on my list had already been reserved, as was the third site. I went down my list, scratching off sites. The morning had started so full of promise – and now it was looking like I wasn’t going to be able to camp at Governor Dodge at all this year. I mean, for my first attempt, I deserved not to get a site just two months before Memorial Day weekend. But here I was, a full six months out and the only site I could find out of 300 were two smallish neighboring spots, one in full sun, one partly shaded in the “open” – ie. not wooded -area. A far cry from the lush, leafy, roomy sites I had selected hours before. I was disappointed and dejected, but I booked them anyway. I really should have put off Governor Dodge for my 2013 to-do list, but now I’m obsessed with getting in. I have to find out for myself why this park fills up so far in advance.
Rick Faherty, program assistant with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has three good reasons Governor Dodge is so hard to get into: summer, weekend, proximity to Madison. Apparently, city dwellers flee their urban environments every weekend – and most weeks – of the summer and besiege the nearby parks.
Still smarting from my Dodge loss last weekend, I asked him why the best sites are unreservable. “’Best’ is a matter of opinion,” Faherty says. That’s fair, but a woodsy site in August has more appeal to just about anyone than a full-sun spot. Not if it’s rainy and you want your gear to dry out, Faherty says. Ok, good point. He adds that the policy is in place to make sure that everyone has the chance to camp in a state park. I ask him if cars start lining up at dawn just for a shot at the handful of non-reservable sites at each park. He says that it varies by park, but very busy ones like Peninsula State Park start compiling the waiting list the night before.
His best advice is to reserve early. I am finally getting that part. Especially when it comes to Kohler-Andrae, Devil’s Lake or Peninsula state parks, he says. Otherwise, choose a smaller park that is not near Milwaukee, Madison or the Twin Cities. Faherty says he’s seen open spots at Rock Island State Park in Door County just days before a busy holiday weekend. This is probably because you have to take a ferry to the island and no cars are allowed.
Faherty himself often camps at the state parks (his favorite is Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island because it’s pretty and remote) and says his wife is in charge of making the reservations. He admits there are mixed reviews about Reserve America (there is a Reserve America S#cks Facebook page), but says that overall it’s a good system. Before reserveamerica.com, he says, people would just call up the state parks and say, “Got any spots? I’ll be there in three hours!” And the online system means state park staffers are not manning the reservation lines and are out assisting the campers who are already there.
Someone I work with recently said to me that no one camps at the state parks because it’s too hard. I wish that were true; then I’d have a lush, leafy spot at Governor Dodge. But, many, many people are obviously enjoying our state parks, forests and recreation trails. You just have to be a good planner – and enjoy the chase.