In a few weeks, the sprawling Hillman Ferry Campground near the north end of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky will swell with visitors until it resembles a small city.
Hillman Ferry has 380 campsites, plus bathhouses, electric and water hookups, laundry facilities, a swimming beach, a boat ramp, a fishing pier, a fish-cleaning station and, among other amenities, a well-stocked camp store, where customers have access to everything from rental bikes and ice cream to loaner DVDs and coffee pots, according to a feature in the Louisivlle Courier-Journal.
The gatehouse is routinely manned and monitored, making this popular camping destination something akin to a woodsy, gated community. On most summer weekends and every summer holiday weekend, it will be humming at or near capacity.
Mike Laney and his family visit early and late in the season, avoiding both the summer crowds and the heat.
“We come a couple of times a year — once in April and once in October,” said Laney, who had set up camp with wife Suzie and dogs Sidney and Lola on a point with a dazzling view of Kentucky Lake. Suzie Laney was visiting a nearby quilt show, so Mike was relaxing with his pipe and a book while the dogs lounged on tie-out leashes. (Hillman Ferry has a leash requirement for pets.) Like most of their neighbors, the Laneys were lodged in a hard-sided camper.
Theirs was a relatively small model, but some of the units surrounding them would have rivaled a Greyhound bus.
The Laneys are from Evansville, Ind., and are regular campers who also like to visit Indiana’s Harmonie, O’Bannon and Pokagon state parks. They make an annual summer trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Suzie enjoys the fishing while her husband minds the camp and the dogs.
Asked if he’d been fishing at Kentucky Lake, where the crappie spawn is on, Mike Laney said: “No. My wife’s the fisherman. The only thing I know about fish is what comes wrapped up at the store.” Camping season generally peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but most campgrounds are now open and will remain so through October. Some are open year-round.
For many, camping has become something of a high-tech pastime. Tents are interspersed among RVs, hard-sided campers and pop-up travel trailers. Satellite dishes and video players are nearly as common as campfires and Coleman stoves. Take a stroll through any developed campground and you’ll likely see an assortment of gear and creature comforts that would be right at home in the suburbs.
At another lakeside site, Richard Wieneke was tidying up his camp while his wife, Myong, was wading to her knees and casting for crappie.
The Wienekes are from Kevil, Ky., and were making their second camping trip in the 33-foot Sedona travel trailer they bought last year. Richard Wieneke is an experienced camper, his wife a newcomer. He recalled that while serving in the Marines he would simply check out a tent and some minimal gear and head for the woods.
The Sedona has a television, microwave, shower, heating/air-conditioning system and other goodies. “This is much better,” Wieneke said. Regardless of the equipment, camping remains enormously popular throughout Kentucky.
The Department of Parks runs 31 campgrounds, where 201,497 “camping nights” were registered last year.
“That was the number of sites that were occupied by one or more campers,” spokesman Gil Lawson said. That translates to 674,258 individuals who stayed at state park campsites in 2009, a 5% increase from 2008.
“As far as (state parks) are concerned, we’ve had campgrounds for a long time,” Lawson said. “They’re a known quantity. People have their favorite parks and even their favorite sites, and they come back year after year.” Camper numbers also were up at the Land Between the Lakes, which has four major campgrounds and two smaller primitive camping areas. Backcountry camping also is allowed (with a permit) throughout most of the LBL’s 170,000 acres.
LBL spokeswoman Denise Schmittou said last year’s registered campers exceeded a half-million, an astounding number that represented a modest increase from 2008. Of those, 488,266 used the fully developed sites and 16,891 were recorded in the check-in boxes for the primitive sites.
Backcountry campers purchased 7,123 permits, but there is no way to know how many actually spent a night in the backcountry. Camping needn’t be expensive if you don’t buy a fancy rig. A few basic supplies are all that’s needed, and the daily fee for a developed campsite (water and electric) is around $20.
Mike Laney was happy with the value at Hillman Ferry. “This is one of the most inexpensive places where we camp,” he said.