Camping at a New York State campground is a balance between nature and comfort at an attractive price point. You can reserve and research online, though until you’re there, you’re not quite sure what you’ll get.
We had a lot of questions and everything turned out fine, so this is my effort to share what we learned to help others plan or prepare their first trip.
Over the July 4th weekend we went up to the Adirondacks with some friends and booked several nights. Our criteria was to find a site near Old Forge and Blue Mountain Lake that had boat rentals and swimming. This placed us near the towns and hikes that I remember from my years as a Scout. Old Forge in particular stood out in my mind for its lake, ice cream parlor, and vintage movie theater.
Out of a half dozen options we chose Limekiln Lake. It was one of the only sites with space on such a popular weekend and turned out to be an excellent choice.
That’s not to say that we had a short list of options. New York State has dozens of campgrounds with tent, RV, cabin and “rustic cabin” sites. There are roughly 40 in the Adirondacks alone. NYS Parks manages all the sites except those in the Adirondacks and Catskills, which are managed by New York State DEP.
Sites are reserved through this third-party site called ReserveAmerica. They charge you $10 per reservation and in our case you could only book one site at a time. The interface displays the essentials: price, availability, map of sites, and booking limitations. It even has an option called “Camping This Weekend” which shows you availability for a quick weekend getaway. Prices are around $20/night for tent camping and $80-100/night for cabins with a big weekly discount. There’s a PDF guide to NYS campgrounds that goes into more detail.
When reserving, it’s good to know the booking window. For all the New York City-area parks out on Long Island, the summer weekends book up months in advance, probably right when they become available. For DEC campgrounds, bookings start 9 months in advance. Elsewhere in the state there is usually no problem with availability unless it’s Memorial or Labor Day Weekend.
One thing we hadn’t considered when looking at the website that the campsites are not all uniform in size. Some are nicer than others, and by the time we reserved, all the ones with lakefront views were taken. Calling the landline of the campsite ahead and talking to the park rangers would have given us some insight into which ones to choose.
Regardless of our choice, which included a neighboring swamp, the sites are nice and kept clean and dry. The surface is sandy soil, which helps with drainage. Each site includes:
- Space to park one or two cars
- Space for two tents
- Picnic table
- Grill and fire area
- Tree cover
- Bear lockers*
*Bear lockers are bomb-proof metal boxes large enough for several coolers and cooking supplies. Bears are wild animals and being in contact with humans and human sources of food causes them to become dependent. This makes them more likely to have to be put down for threatening humans or even to be accidentally hit by a vehicle. Thus, these lockers protect both humans and bears by discouraging the animals from finding human food.
Each site is also within walking distance of:
- Flush toilets
- Clean running water
As someone who has done plenty of camping in the woods, it’s nice to spend a weekend in a tent and not have to cut your fingernails to get the dirt out. Access to running water for cooking and cleaning is why. These aren’t the world’s best toilets, but they’re clean, well-lit, and have running water to wash your hands.
Each site is within driving distance or a long walk of:
- Beach and boat rentals
- Trash and recycling facility with warm running water
As much as I wish you could get around these campsites solely by walking like a true mountain man, a desire to keep things private and surrounded by trees makes it impractical to fit everything in one small space. A car is often needed to get from the gate to your site and usually from your site to any of the camp’s shared facilities.
Having a big trash facility with recycling for propane canisters, beer bottles, cans, and big sinks for washing dishes was the best surprise of the trip. I’m used to heating water and painstakingly rinsing dishes in tubs. Being able to use soap and warm water made things feel more like home.
This is where the Adirondacks really excel when compared to other camping areas. At Limekiln Lake, which was way larger than expected, there are:
- boat rentals
- hiking trails
Curfew is at 10pm and things get really quiet, still enough to listen to the loons on the lake. Since you’re in the Adirondacks, there is no ambient light and you have a great view of the night sky. It’s a perfect antidote to spending too much time in the city.
Within 15-30 minutes driving, there are:
- picturesque little towns with ice cream stands, shopping, and summer treats
- small grocery and hardware stores
- easy day hikes, we went up Bald Mountain, for example (see photos below)
- the Adirondack Museum
- dining and a vintage movie theater
There aren’t many other places in the country with the same mix of wilderness, modern comforts, e.g. running water and toilets, and small town amenities.
In short, you’ll find what you’re looking for, if what you’re looking for is nature and small-town charm.
Here’s the best part:
No cellphone service
It’s vacationing like our mid-20th century forefathers would have experienced.
If you’re looking for a “digital detox”, you won’t really have a choice. Where we were, we had to drive nearly 20 miles to Old Forge, the biggest nearby town before we could make a cellphone call or use the internet.
Hope you remember how to use a payphone!