Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bulls Island Campground: review of campsites

Last year, I published a review of specific campsites at a campground in the Catskills, noting that selecting a specific site when making reservations is like taking a shot in the dark. My review included detailed notes on each site to help future visitors make their choice.

When we visited Bulls Island Campground along the Delaware River last weekend, I intended to take notes about each site, so that I could publish a similar review. As it turned out, however, the sites very distinctly fell into two categories: "good" and "great." More specifically, one group of sites are found within a mostly open area that offers little privacy between sites; while the other group are very private (and many sit right on the water).

Refer to the campground map at this link. Then draw an imaginary line vertically between sites 1/2/3 and sites 40/42/43/44. All of the sites to the left of that line are in a mostly open area that offers plenty of shade and beautiful tree cover, but little privacy (as pictured at right). The sites to the right of that line all offer much more privacy and seclusion. Sites 63-69 are the most premium locations, all right on the Delaware River (though sites 56-62 are situated similarly adjacent to the D & R Canal).

In short, there's really not a bad site in this campground. Some are great, but all are good. And this is reflected in the campground's popularity. They require a two-night minimum reservation on weekends, and are booked up well in advance. Tip: Call early on a Saturday morning; if they have availability, you can book for one weekend night (which is what we did).

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Catskills backpack: Trying out a new hobby

I've enjoyed camping as long as I can remember, even if there have been periods in my life when I haven't done much of it. Growing up, I often slept under the stars with friends in the state park behind my house. When I moved back to San Diego in 2003, I got involved with an adventure club and took frequent camping trips to destinations in southern California and Mexico. More recently, I met my wife when we pitched (separate) tents at Dutch Springs, a scuba diving park in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Despite my love of camping and the outdoors, however, my backpacking experience is almost nil. I did an overnighter to Kennedy Meadows in the Sierra Nevada with some friends in college, and hiked into Havasu Canyon with another friend in 2001, but those are the only times I've ever camped with nothing but what I carry on my back. The rest has all been car camping—which is more convenient, but also more limiting.

Car camping on the East Coast has seemed more limiting than it was out west, where (in my experience, at least) there is more wild public land where one can drive and camp anywhere (as opposed to designated campgrounds). Lately, my enthusiasm for camping has been tempered somewhat by the anticipation of loud music and partying unfortunately common in some campgrounds—which has made the prospect of backpacking more appealing. Living with limited square footage in New York, dealing with only what you can fit into a backpack—instead of a large pile of gear—also has its merits.

For me, the final push was seeing what I missed when my wife spent a week backpacking in western Colorado last month. After looking at her photos, it didn't take long before I became the proud owner of my very own new Osprey Aether 70 backpack.

Last weekend, we set out on my first "real" expedition (since the two trips described above were impromptu affairs, and the "backpacking" part of it was a means, not an end in itself). To ease me into the new hobby, we chose a seemingly easy trail loop in the northern Catskills, planning to summit Hunter and West Kill Mountains on a three-day/two-night trip.

The first half went according to plan; Spruceton Trail, which led to Hunter's summit, was wide and grassy, with only one steep section. But for the heavy pack on my back, it almost felt like a walk in the park. On the mountaintop, we shot some photos from the fire tower and enjoyed the wide views of the surrounding mountains. On the other side of the slope, we descended and picked out a lovely camp site in the midst of a pine forest. Not a soul around us; and despite our precautions hanging our food out of reach, not a bear in the vicinity either. For a newbie like me, though, it was still a tough day, and I barely had the energy to crawl into my sleeping bag at 8:00.

The next day, we continued our descent into Diamond Notch, the valley between the two peaks we planned to bag. At the bottom, the sound of rushing water lured us to Diamond Notch Falls (also known as Buttermilk Falls), a cascade under which I gladly showered, despite the cold water temperature. Here, we faced a dilemma. We could continue on with our plan, following Devil's Path Trail up West Kill Mountain, ending back at the road the next day—which would also mean a three-mile walk back to the car on the road. Or we could hike a short distance south on the offshoot Diamond Notch Trail, make an early camp, and then have a short and easy hike back to the car north on the same trail the next day. Cassie left the decision to me, since it was my birthday weekend, and I opted to stick with the plan and go for the greater challenge.

We soon learned that Devil's Path was aptly named.

If Spruceton Trail was an easy stroll, this was the opposite. Devil's Path was one of the steeper trails we'd ever hiked, and the backpacks made it that much tougher. And it kept going up. And up. And up. I kept looking at the map, trying to match the contour lines with the steepness of the trail to see when we'd get a break, but the ascent continued. And then the Devil stole my soul. Or at least my sole. My boots had many miles on them before this trip, and Devil's Path proved too much for my left one. Walking up the trail, the sole caught on a rock and pulled almost all the way off. I looked down in disbelief, and then looked at Cassie. Was that the end of our hike? Should we turn around? No. She urged me to secure it with duct tape and rope, which I did—and we were on our way again.

We finally made it to the summit, weary and sore. After enjoying the most gorgeous view of the entire trip from Buck Ridge Lookout, we faced the next challenge: where to camp for the night. Regulations prohibited us from camping above 3,500 feet or within 150 feet of the trail. The original plan was to descend westward from West Kill's 3,880-foot peak and find a suitable site below the 3,500-foot mark, filling up at a water source along the way (indicated on the map). But we soon discovered this was a good plan on paper only.

First, the "spring" shown on the map—which was also the last water source on our route—turned out to be little more than a trickle, and even that was nearly inaccessible amongst thick bushes. Second, the terrain was so uneven and the forest so thick that we could find no suitable site to pitch a tent—above or below 3,500 feet, within or beyond 150 feet of the trail. As the afternoon wore on and daylight started to wane, our bushwacking in search of a site grew more desperate. Finally, just as we started debating whether we could push all the way through to the road before it grew pitch-dark, we happened upon a secluded grove of ferns with a small patch of grass, where we pitched the tent underneath a fir tree. At that point, beggars couldn't be choosers, and we would have settled on just about anything; but the site turned out to be quite lovely.

We had no luck with water, however, so we were forced to ration what little we had left. That meant no side dish to go with our pasta primavera, and no evening powdered "cocktail" of Crystal Light pink lemonade (Cassie) or Blue Frost Gatorade (me). It also meant no coffee for me the next morning—my birthday morning, no less—which was the worst part. But we had enough water left over to get us through the last few miles of hiking the next day, which was all that mattered. Once again, I spent my last strength crawling into the tent before it was even fully dark out.

Devil's Path was as steep on the descent as it was going up, so by the time we got to the relatively level final mile in Mink Hollow, we were ready to reach the finish line. That last mile, though, was for me the prettiest scenery of the entire weekend (and not just because the trail was mostly flat). Tall, leafy trees rose high above a bubbling stream filled with moss-covered rocks. An enchanting setting that belied the brutal miles preceding it, and which I can't adequately describe.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, despite of—or perhaps even because of—the unexpected challenges. Cassie cautioned me against buying too much backpacking gear before the trip, in case I didn't end up enjoying it. But if the weekend was a test, I passed—and now I have a new hobby.

See all the photos from the trip

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Monday, September 1, 2008

What a difference a water release makes

In July, we spent a weekend camping in the Catskills, and went tubing down Esopus Creek. We had such a great time that we decided to do it again for Labor Day Weekend. The first time, the scheduled water release from an upstream reservoir was canceled, but we still got a fun ride through the rapids. This weekend, another water release was scheduled—and this time it wasn't canceled.

What a difference! Where the first trip gave us a fun ride, we got the aquatic version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride this weekend. It took every ounce of balance and maneuvering for me to stay in the tube, and even that wasn't enough. On our second run down the creek, I fell off within the first few minutes, barely hanging onto the tube and scraping skin off my side in the process.

I brought home a battle scar, but what fun we had! Quite the opposite of the lazy Shenandoah, the only other river I've tubed on. Everyone should try it!

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review of camp sites at Woodland Valley Campground

Previously, I wrote about how choosing a campsite online is a bit like taking a shot in the dark. A good campsite is scenic and private—but how can you tell online whether a site is either of these? How useful it would be, I thought, if a website offered reviews on each site in a campground?

So when we stayed at Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, located in the Catskills, we jotted down some impressions for each site. Such a reference is too late to be of use to me—and, with 300+ campgrounds in New York state alone, it's a drop in the bucket—but if at least one person finds it useful, then this blog posting was worth the time. (Please post a comment if you find this site and use this info to select a site.)

Download the Woodland Valley Campground map, and then compare the notes below with the sites listed on the map. Happy camping!

1, 2, 3 - Tiny, near road
4 - Next to road, but decent size
5, 6 - Small, close to each other, no privacy, but grassy
7 - Somewhat secluded
8 - Big and shady, nice view of stream, possibly nicest site in campground
9, 10 - Shady, nice, on stream, but right next to each other
11, 12 - Small, no privacy
13, 14, 15 - Lacking privacy
16, 17, 18, 19 - All good sized, but lacking privacy from each other
20 - Private, shaded, near stream
21 - Grassy, some shade, on the small side
22 - Small, across from bathroom
23 - Small, no shade, across from bathroom
24 - Pretty good
25 - Secluded, shady
26 - Nice site
27 - Shady
28 - Shady but close to road
29 - Big, partly shaded
30 - Big but no privacy
31 - Good size, shady
32 - Big but no privacy
33 - Big and shady but right next to road
34 - Pretty good
35 - Small
36 - No privacy
37 - Pretty big but next to road
38 - Nice, shady
39 - Partly shady but small, next to bathroom and road
40 - Next to road but nice
41 - Partly shady, nice, private
42 - Small
43 - Small but next to stream, pretty shady
44, 45 - Lacks shade but private and next to creek
46 - A bit small, lacks shade
47 - Small but shady, next to trailhead
48 - Very small and mere feet from road
49 - Tiny!
50, 51 - Small, lacks shade, on road
52 - Very small
53 - No grass, small
54 - Shady, woodsy, flat
55 - Small but shady
56 - Very small, right at entrance
57 - Grassy, nice trees
58 - Small, next to road
59 - No privacy, lacks shade
60, 61 - Next to road but very shady and good size
62 - Next to road but shady, good size, woodsy
63 - Small, next to road and recycling station
64 - Very small but woodsy
65 - Secluded, woodsy, very nice
66, 67 - Secluded, woodsy, very nice but not private from each other
68 - Good size, shady
69 - Good shade but next to road and ranger residence, lacks privacy

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Camping in the Catskills

Last weekend, we took a much-needed break from the big city and our busy lives to chill out in the Catskills. Pitching our tent at Woodland Valley Campground above Phoenicia, we went tubing down Esopus Creek, hiked a mountain and still managed to enjoy plenty of downtime at the campsite.

Friday night, Cassie cooked up what has become a camping tradition for us: mac 'n' cheese with chicken and Frank's hot sauce. The next morning, I cooked up my own camping tradition: breakfast burritos with scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese and avocado. The food highlight came Saturday night, when we grilled up some Beddar Cheddar sausages on the Smokey Joe. Yum!

The sites in the campground did not offer a great deal of privacy—many were right next to each other—but the place was unquestionably beautiful, a true "woodland valley." With a gang of college-aged boys drinking in the site next to us, we didn't get quite the peace and quiet we were looking for, but to their credit, they asked us to let them know if they got too rowdy—and they kept their word, quieting down when asked.

Camping in the Catskills
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On Sunday morning, we packed up our campsite and hit the trailhead at the end of the campground, intending to summit Mt. Wittenberg. Not long into it, however, we began to wonder if we'd bitten off more than we could chew. In a short 3.9 miles, we gained 2,500 feet of elevation in a steep ascent that included climbing as well as hiking. We finally made it, but two days later, I'm still feeling it.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Finding a good campsite online

When it comes to camping, the internet is a double-edged blade. While it enables you to get lots of detailed information about campgrounds—and even check real-time availability and book campsites via ReserveAmerica—picking a specific site or even a campground is in some ways a shot in the dark.

Much of the joy of camping comes from communing with nature and being in a peaceful, scenic setting. So there's nothing so disappointing as getting stuck in a noisy, crowded campground that looked good on the internet—or a crappy campsite in an otherwise good campground. There's no substitute for driving up to an uncrowded campground, taking a leisurely look around, and picking out the best vacant site. But in the areas within weekend camping reach of New York, booking online ahead of time is a necessity, especially during summertime.

So when Cassie and I made plans to go camping in the Catskills two weeks from now, I searched the internet for any site recommendations as soon as we settled on a campground (Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, New York). While the campground map could display locations of sites, it couldn't show how scenic a given site is, or whether it has ample shade. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed (though the search revealed an unexploited niche that an enterprising, web-savvy travel writer could fill... hmmm).

I'll have to wait until after our visit to publish recommendations for the campground's best sites. Based on a phone call with a park ranger, however, I can report to you and Google's spiders that sites 4, 5 and 6 lack shade of any kind, as does site 49; sites 33 and 35 have no trees in the actual site to which you can lash ropes, though they do have shade from overhanging branches; site 40 has only partial shade; and site 31 has both shade and trees (so I booked it).

Of course, looking at the campground map, you'll note that there are many other sites right along the creek. I'm sure those will make my Top 5, but for the weekend we're going, they were already booked.

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