Along the roads past lakes and campgrounds in New York state, workers have been busy laying down fresh asphalt. Near Lake Cohasset, aging sewer lines are being replaced. Soon, dozens of frayed cabins that house disadvantaged children in the summer will receive makeovers, including new roofs, the New York Times reported.
A cabin at Camp Michikamau on Bear Mountain in Harriman is in need of a new roof. About 25,000 children visit camps in the park each summer.
The construction in Harriman is part of a push to address the backlog of deferred maintenance and infrastructure projects across New York’s state parks, which last spring received an infusion of $89 million from the governor and the Legislature for capital improvements. Adding private grants and federal funds, the total investment will be $143 million — the largest single allocation of capital money in the history of the park system.
“It’s important, welcome and transformative,” said Rose Harvey, commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “The parks have been underfunded for decades. We’re going to do a lot before you can see it and feel it. But it will vastly improve the quality of the experience for the visitor.”
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For the Bortle family, taking a vacation at Delta Lake State Park in the town of Western, N.Y., is tradition.
But, according to a report in the Utica Observer Dispatch, Amanda Bortle said they can’t help but reap the financial benefits, as well.
“We do local camping to save on gas,” she said.
Officials and campground owners point to the warm, dry summer and the ever-struggling economy for reasons why camping thrives in the area, and this year, the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Spokesman Dan Keefe said camping reservations are up 5% from last year.
“The economy is still tough, so people are looking for affordable options, and our state parks provide that,” Keefe said. “It’s a timeless thing to do in the summer.”
Both Delta Lake and Verona Beach State Park numbers for reserved nights were up, 574 and 126, Keefe said.
Mike Papp, chairman of Campground Owners of New York (CONY) and owner of West Canada Creek Campsites in Poland, said across the state campground attendance has increased.
Along with great weather and a goal to save money, Papp said more amenities at campgrounds have made camping more attractive.
“In the old days, if you had a swimming pool you were on top of the game,” he said. “Now it’s Wi-Fi, bounce pillows, splash parks. It’s a lot more than just camping and a pool.”
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Former N.Y. Gov. David Paterson found out the hard way just how passionate New Yorkers are about the outdoors.
When he tried to close dozens of state parks and historic sites as a means of saving money last year, a public outcry ensued. Paterson backed down, and the hikers, bikers and campers poured in, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported.
According to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the state park system played host to nearly 57 million visitors in 2010, a jump of 1 million visits over the previous year.
Booked nights for camping in state parks were down only slightly and 2009 was a record year for camping. With 178 state parks and 35 historic sites, New York’s system is among the largest and oldest in America.
“The robust park and historic site attendance in 2010 reflects the enduring popularity of the New York state park system,” acting Commissioner Andy Beers said in a statement earlier this year. “With so many people turning to affordable and convenient destinations for recreation and culture in these difficult economic times, New York is fortunate to have such high-quality and inviting state parks and historic sites across the state.”
One camper said furnished tents saved her marriage. A grandmother brought her six grandchildren to sleep in two tents under the stars. But for motorcyclists Donovan and Bonnie Wilson of Brantford, Ontario., camping in well-appointed white canvas became a necessity.
All were provided accommodations by ConTENTment camping, a New York company that has partnered with New York State parks to provide luxury tent accommodations, according to the Buffalo (N.Y.) News.
“When you’re on a motorcycle, you just don’t have the room to bring gear,” said Bonnie Wilson, 51. “That’s what’s so good about Contentment Camping. It has everything for you: bed, linens. You have a table and chairs. You’ve got the tent. That’s all the stuff you don’t have to pack on your motorcycle. That gives you more room, so when you come back to Canada, you can bring more clothing.”
The camping industry has called it glamping, this two-year-old trend toward luxury camping that can transform campgrounds into camp resorts with theme weekends, flat-screen TVs — and furnished tents. Today’s campers can still roast marshmallows, but after singing around the fire pit they also can curl up in a comfortable bed.
Even better for vacationers, camping — tent, recreational vehicle or cabin— remains a bargain when compared with staying in a hotel or a resort with walls. For people without an RV, or for those new to camping who may not yet want to invest in gear, the furnished tents also offer an affordable alternative.
“Who says camping is roughing it?,” said Pat Jenson, president of ConTENTment Camping, who has pitched her furnished white safari tents in three local state parks. “I thought I would strictly get families, but it’s been so mixed, with young couples and seniors. The tents are kind of like little hotel rooms.”
The struggling economy appears to not have diminished the demand for campsites. Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes outdoor activities, estimated there were 33.7 million campers age 6 and older in 2008, an increase of 7.4% over the previous year. RV camping, meanwhile, attracted 16.6 million people in 2008, up from 16.2 million in 2007.
“Camping appears to be recession-proof,” said David L. Berg, chairman of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and owner of Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine. “People may not return to a $300-a-night waterfront hotel room, but they will go back to look for a campsite nearby.”
“The camper of today wants it all, and if you have it they will come,” said Berg. “People expect Wi-Fi, but they still come to a campground for the experience. You can’t roast marshmallows in a motel room.”
Despite the fiscal crunch, New York state parks still may be the best bargain for vacationers who seek comfort while communing with nature.
“I’d rather pay $60 and sleep in a tent than a motel room, which leaves a lot to be desired,” said Donovan Wilson, 55. “Other people take these big holidays and they go to Australia or England. We hop on the bike, travel around and learn more about our local area.”
The Wilsons have motorcycled to the three New York state parks that offer Jenson’s furnished tents: Evangola in Irving, Four-Mile Creek in Youngstown and Golden Hill in Barker. Parks on the U.S. side of the border, they maintain, are more accessible.
“A lot of our [Canadian] parks have more sheltered, woodsy grounds,” said Bonnie. “They are more isolating. Here, everything is open and green. The water views are amazing.”
The standard Contentment campsite features one 10-foot-by-14-foot canvas tent that contains two single beds (with pillows, sheets and blankets), a bedside table and a sitting area with a 30-inch round bamboo table and matching chairs. A large cooler, two ground pads for sleeping-bag campers, a picnic table and fire pit/grill complete the accommodations. The furnished tents are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Reservations ($60 per night/one tent; $90/two tents; plus $9 reservation fee) are made through the New York state park system. The signature white tents repel water and heat. And as far as the Wilsons are concerned, the only elements missing are a cast-iron frying pan, lawn chairs — and maybe a John Grisham novel.
Hot showers, restrooms and laundry facilities are on-site, according to Angela Bertie, Western District marketing and public affairs coordinator for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
“Contentment Camping provides a service to patrons who might not otherwise camp,” said Bertie. “Get that first experience where everything is provided, and then build up your camping gear over time.”
“Campers usually stay close to home, traveling just one to three hours to their destinations,” said Jenson, whose tents also will be at the upcoming Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tenn. “My campers are coming from farther away, including Holland and Germany.”
Many of today’s privately owned campgrounds could make Martha Stewart squeal in delight with their food delivery, concierge service and chocolate-theme weekends.
“We’re certainly not Disney,” said Scott Crompton, owner of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park of Western New York in North Java, “but we’re shooting for that as an ideal. Our ‘Death by Chocolate and Ice Cream Lovers’ weekend in July is our most popular.” Crompton moved his family from Michigan when he purchased Jellystone six years ago. Since then he has funneled millions of dollars into improvements, including a 16,000- square-foot water park, new cabins and premium RV sites that include parking pads and stamped concrete patios. Crompton’s focus is on family entertainment.
“We wouldn’t do wine tasting, but we will do a 200-foot-long chocolate slip-and-slide during our ‘Death by Chocolate’ weekend,” he explained. “ ‘Kids Get Even — Slimefest’ weekend offers slime kickball and slime tug of war.
“We have a pet park, pedal-cart track and a track for the kids to ride their bicycles,” Compton said. “We want to be the best at one thing, and that’s young families, who don’t feel nickel-and-dimed after they have arrived.”
Deluxe cabins (ranging from $100 to $209 per night) feature fireplaces, screened-in porches, full kitchens and televisions with DVD players. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the 100-acre park, where young guests can exchange e-mails with Yogi Bear.
“We are seeing trends toward ‘togethering,’ ” Crompton noted. “About two-thirds of our bookings are group-related, whether family reunions, fire departments or hospital departments getting together for a weekend.”