Dancing Hawks

Happy Campers: These campgrounds make it easy for your kids to connect with the outdoors

AMC Outdoors, June 2005

Oakhill Kid Hikers by Fred ShirleyThey are rugged, adventurous, and inquisitive—perfect candidates for a weekend camping trip. They can also be whiny, impatient, and unable to keep up—a sure-fire disaster-in-waiting in the woods. “They” are kids. And if they’re your kids, you’ll need all your backcountry know-how and parenting skills to survive an overnight and still be on speaking terms the next day.

I know, because I’m on the cusp of this new adventure. My girls, ages eight and six, are champing at the bit to go camping. Well, truth be told, it’s only my youngest, Brynne, who’s fired up about the prospect of a night under the stars. Maddi, my eight-year-old, is predisposed to creature comforts. And therein lies the dilemma, for us and many families. Not everyone is going to be on the same page. That’s one reason experts advocate getting kids into the woods before they know enough to complain. The earlier, the better, so it becomes second nature, and an outdoors overnight seems as normal as syrup with pancakes.

And camping with your kid imparts essential life lessons—self-sufficiency, stewardship, cooperation, humility, and respect for the land and for Mother Nature.

A final reason? It’s cheap. The most expensive campsite on our list is $31 a night, peak season. That’s a far cry from your basic B & B. Plus, you’ll find them nestled in beautiful forests, beneath mountains, and along ocean beaches.

We sought out the best quiet, kid-friendly, and primitive (well, some of them are primitive) campgrounds that provide an easy introduction to the outdoors along with fun recreation opportunities nearby. Here are 13 of them that will keep both you and your kids happy for at least a weekend. Make your reservations now, and don’t forget the bug spray.


1. Macedonia Brook State Park
Experience: This 2,300-acre park features 51 rustic sites (with pit toilets and picnic shelters) in four distinct areas along a long access road. It also boasts a marvelous section of western Connecticut’s Blue Trail system as it traverses 1,350-foot Cobble Mountain. Hike up the overlook on the white-blazed Cobble Mountain Trail for picture-perfect views of the surrounding hardwood forests and across the Harlem Valley to the Taconic and Catskill Mountains—a favorite during foliage season. Small streams will test your skills as a fresh-water angler (two sites within the campground, numbers 38 and 39, sit on the banks of Macedonia Brook). You won't find a better spot to wet your line.

Location: Macedonia Brook Road, Kent

Fee: $11 per site per night

Season: Mid-April to Sept. 30

Contact: 860-927-3238, www.dep.state.ct.us/ stateparks


2. Swan’s Falls Campground
Experience: There are few outdoor moments more rewarding than watching your child wake up under a canopy of evergreens, surrounded by the scent of fresh pine and the sounds of songbirds and a babbling tributary. At Swan’s Falls’ 18 campsites, alongside Maine’s Saco River, those moments happen by the bushel. Add a peaceful night’s sleep, a lazy canoe paddle on the Saco, maybe a hike in the nearby White Mountains, and a satisfying dinner by the campfire, and you’ve got yourself a near-perfect family outing. Staff and volunteers are also on hand to provide camping and Leave No Trace tips.

Location: Fryeburg

Fee: $6 per night ($5 for AMC members, $3 for children under 15)

Season: Mid-May to mid-October

Contact: 207-935-3395

3. Seawall Campground
Experience: A little off the beaten path, Seawall Campground on Mount Desert Island is an oasis of calm in high-traffic Acadia National Park, quite the opposite of its companion site, Blackwoods. The spacious, individual sites are dotted with evergreens, but still within a short walk of the ocean. Explorers will want to trek the 120 miles of hiking trails and bike the 45 miles of carriage roads in Acadia. The Wonderland Trail is a 1.5-mile loop ideal for young campers just a mile from Seawall, but feels a world away from civilization, with its wild array of plant life and ocean views. The campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so plan accordingly (the lines form early in late July and August). For the more daring and skilled family, Acadia also boasts some of the most dramatic climbing locales in the Northeast, with sheer rock faces overlooking the Atlantic.

Location: Off Route 102A, four miles south of Southwest Harbor

Fee: $20 for drive-in sites, $14 for walk-in sites

Season: Late May through September

Contact: 207-288-3338, www.acadiamagic.com

4. Lily Bay State Park
Experience: Spectacular sunsets and striking views of Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake at 117 square miles the largest lake in New England make the long drive to this remote campground well worth your while. This 925-acre park in Beaver Cove on the eastern shores of Moosehead Lake offers 91 campsites, a boat launch, swimming, abundant wildlife, and a shoreline hiking trail. Fishing for trophy brook trout and landlocked salmon is a popular pastime, as are kayaking and canoeing, though strong winds can make for rough waters. For more organized family pursuits, like mountain bike eco-tours, visit The Birches (www.birches. com) in Rockwood, on the lake’s western shore.

Location: On Moosehead Lake, nine miles north of Greenville

Fee: Maine residents, $14 per night; Non-resident, $19

Season: Mid-May to mid-October

Contact: In-season, 207-695-2700. Off-season, 207-941-4014, www.state.me.us


5. Tully Lake
Experience: Though owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, this quiet, reflective area near a shimmering 200-acre lake in central Massachusetts is managed by the Trustees of Reservations. That’s important to know, since the Trustees are dedicated to providing peaceful escapes at their properties throughout the Bay State. With just 35 well-organized sites—16 of which are right on the waterfront—Tully Lake offers a splendid mix of activities or, if you prefer, isolation. The lake is a paddler’s dream (canoes and kayaks are available to rent), but also allows neophyte anglers to cast their lines. Hikers will love the Tully Trail, a wooded 18-mile loop that runs up Tully Mountain, past a series of waterfalls, and also connects to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which crosses the state from New Hampshire and Connecticut. There’s also more than a half-dozen miles of mountain bike trails close by, and volleyball and horseshoes in the campground’s recreation area. And you won’t need to scavenge for firewood or drag in a cooler full of ice—both are sold on-site.

Location: 25 Doane Hill Road, Royalston

Fee: $20-$25 per site for four people, $4 for each additional person

Season: Daily Memorial Day to Labor Day, weekends only from Labor Day to Columbus Day

Contact: In season: 978-249-4957. Off-season: 978-840-4446, www.thetrustees.org


6. AMC’s Cardigan Campsites
Experience: You want to have options when camping with kids. Cardigan’s got them in spades. The 15 individual campsites and large group campsite are a short walk from several outhouses and, equally important, Cardigan Lodge. The lodge gives parents a reliable contingency plan, in case the campfire meal is a disaster. But beyond delicious home-cooked meals, you’ll also find a summer swimming pond and more than 50 miles of top-notch hiking trails for all abilities, some of which lead to the top of 3,155-foot Mount Cardigan. There’s also a captivating mix of themed weeks, from environmental education to musical performance, along with naturalist workshops.

Location: 774 Shem Valley Road, Alexandria

Fee: $20 per night ($17 for AMC members)

Season: Year-round (fewer sites available in winter)

Contact: 603-466-2727, www.outdoors.org

7. Jigger Johnson Campground
Experience: The stately conifers that dominate Jigger Johnson also lend a cozy, protected atmosphere to this campground, one of a half-dozen fine ones along the famously scenic Kancamagus Highway. But with 74 large sites, flush toilets, and coin-operated showers, this campground also gives first-time campers easy access to the White Mountain region without giving up too many “modern” amenities. What it may lack in outright primitive-ness, it makes up for in numbers (it’s the largest campground on the “Kanc”), which means more kids and more chances to meet new friends. In addition to stellar fishing in the Swift River and Douglas and Rob brooks, the campground offers weekend interpretive programs. If the weather turns sour, nearby North Conway is loaded with distractions to keep the kids entertained.

Location: Route 112, 13 miles west of North Conway Fee: $18 per site per night; no reservations (firstcome, first-served)

Season: Late May to mid-October

Contact: 603-447-5448, www.campsnh.com/jiggerjohnson.htm

8. Moose Brook State Park
Experience: With the majestic Presidential Range as the backdrop, this idyllic 56-site campground on Moose Brook attracts campers with an experience almost too serene to believe. The campground, nestled within a 774-acre state park, is the perfect base for family adventures in fresh water fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. It’s near the Presidential Rail Trail, and a short drive to the meals and evening programs available at AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. A variety of sites, from wooded to grassy, offer a nice selection, so ask beforehand if you’re making reservations. Mom and Dad will also appreciate the showers and camp store.

Location: Jimtown Road, Gorham Fee: $15 per site per night

Season: Mid-May to mid-October

Contact: 603-271-3628, www.nhstateparks.org


9. AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center
Experience: Criss-crossed by a lovely stretch of the Appalachian Trail, the Mohican Outdoor Center on Catfish Pond (part of the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area) is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including black bears, snakes, and seemingly countless species of birds. AMC staff and volunteers present numerous recreational and educational programs throughout the year, ranging from beginning rock climbing and beginner backpacking to SOLO Wilderness First Aid and fly fishing, for members and non-members of all ages (be sure to inquire about the Summer Family Camp programs). Walk-in campsites are available, though fires are only permitted at the group site. As with Cardigan, prepared meals are offered in season.

Location: Blairstown Fee: $12 ($11 for AMC members)

Season: Year-round

Contact: 908-362-5670, www.outdoors.org

10. Hidden Acres
Experience: New Jersey gets a bad rap from folks who don’t look past the state’s infamous turnpike. But Hidden Acres—a secluded patch of 50 acres minutes from the beaches along Cape May—makes for a tranquil escape from the stereotypes that haunt the Garden State. When the kids aren’t swimming in the park’s natural, spring-fed lake, chances are they’ll be preoccupied at one of the two playgrounds, or playing bocce, shuffleboard, basketball, horseshoes, or miniature golf. A recreation building—with pool tables and video games—provides a nice respite on rainy days. On-site management enforces quiet hours, which parents will appreciate. Nearby attractions range from miles of beach-walking and boardwalk amusements along the Jersey shore to the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center (www.capemaywhalewatch.com).

Location: Route 83, between Routes 9 and 47

Fee: $31 per site per night

Season: Mid-April to mid-October Contact: 609-624-9015, 800-874-7576, www.hiddenacrescampground.com


11. Allegany State Park
Experience: With more than 65,000 acres, New York’s largest state park presents a happy dilemma: Where to stay, what to do? The Quaker Area features 189 campsites and 230 cabins. The Red House Area has 130 campsites and 144 cabins. Both feature lakes with sandy beaches, bath houses, picnic areas, and trails that extend in every direction to huge stands of old-growth forest, Bear Caves (formations on a hillside cliff area), Thunder Rocks (giant boulders for climbing), and the Stone Tower (for late-night star gazing). “The fishing is tremendous, with perch, trout, bullhead, bass, the occasional walleye, and enough sunfish to keep the kids happy all day,” says long-time AMC member Anthony Onello of Massachusetts. Motorboats are banned from the park’s lake, leaving waters clear for swimming, too.

Location: Quaker: I-86/Route 17, Exit 18, 11 miles west of Salamanca. Red House: I-86/Route 17, exit 19, 7 miles west of Salamanca

Fee: Fees vary, depending on services: $13-$21 weekday, $16-$24 weekends and holidays

Season: Year-round

Contact: 716-354-9121, www.nysparks.state.ny.us/ parks


12. French Creek State Park
Experience: If it’s diversion you want, you’ll find plenty at French Creek, the “Orienteering Capital of America,” in southeast Pennsylvania. Choose from 201 sites, some with electricity, with shower and toilet facilities nearby. Among the 40-plus miles of hiking trails that snake through the park’s hardwood forests is a self-guided orienteering course for map-and-compass enthusiasts, as well as two disc-golf courses in the woods surrounding Hopewell Lake. Cast for trout and other panfish species at Hopewell and Scotts Run Lake (human- and electric-powered boats are permitted on Hopewell), or attend an environmental education program. Birders should keep an eye out for migratory species frequenting the park’s woodlands, streams, lakes, and wetlands.

Location: 843 Park Road, Elverson

Fee: $12-$15 without electricity, $14-$17 with electricity

Season: Year-round

Contact: 610-582-9680, 888-PA-PARKS, www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks


13. Willoughby State Forest
Experience: For a truly “primitive” camping experience in a hands-down stunning area, Willoughby State Forest in Vermont’s incomparable Northeast Kingdom is an excellent choice. The challenge is abiding by the state’s “primitive camping practices,” which means your site must be 100 feet from water, 200 feet from the trail, and 1,000 feet from traveled roads. There are no campsites per se—you’ve got to make your own. Your reward? You and your kids find a sense of wilderness almost unparalleled in New England. Choose from a multitude of great hiking options along the region’s twin towers—2,751-foot Mount Pisgah and 2,648-foot Mount Hor. For a two-wheel diversion, take the family mountain biking on the roller-coaster Kingdom Trails network (www.kingdomtrails.org) in East Burke.

Location: Between Routes 5 and 5A, just north of West Burke

Fee: None

Season: Year-round

Contact: 802-748-6687, www.vtfpr.org

- Brion O'Connor

Photo: Paul David Mozell