Custer's Gulch

Ray Zobel, left, inspects trenching for the utilities needed for new campsites being installed at Custer’s Gulch RV Park and Campground.

Preparing for summer opening is tricky business for Northern parks, and much of it depends on the weather.

This year is especially challenging for Ray and Elaine Zobel and their son, Ryan, of Custer’s Gulch RV Park and Campground in Custer, S.D.

Not only are they gearing up for what could be their busiest season ever, but they’re adding 30 full-hookup RV sites and two bathrooms to their 62-site park, which they hope to have completed in time for their May 15 opening.

When WOODALLSCM.com (WCM) caught up with the Zobels in mid-February, they were closely monitoring their contractors’ work on everything from building their new campsites to the timing of planting new grass to ensure the greenest possible landscape.

“Ray has been an integral part of our expansion,” Elaine Zobel said. “He drew out the maps for the expansion. But any time you tie (new campsites) into your sewer or septic system, you have to get your plans approved by the state.”

While construction of the park’s new campsites was progressing smoothly at press time, the Zobels said they wanted to hold off on taking reservations for their new campsites until after they are completed. They are hopeful that once the sites are completed, they will book up quickly.

Their park, which features aspens, ponderosa pines and large grassy areas, is located on the land where General George Armstrong Custer camped during his Black Hills Expedition of 1874. The park is surrounded on three sides by the Black Hills National Forest and is only 20 miles from Mount Rushmore and 16 miles from Wind Cave and Jewel Cave national parks. The Crazy Horse Memorial is only 10 miles away.

“Our plans for expansion were made after three years of seeing more and more campers come to the Black Hills,” Elaine Zobel said, adding they want “to provide a service to local campers as well as tourists who have been flooding this area during the summer months.”

But even without adding new campsites, the Zobels and their dozen work campers spend weeks preparing for their annual May 15 opening with tasks ranging from hiring work campers to cleaning the park’s grounds and five cabins to turning on its water pump, chlorinating its water and checking its water lines to make sure there is pressure at every campsite site, as well as at the park’s bathroom, shower and laundry facilities.

Before opening, the Zobels also have to take two different water samples and have them tested by a laboratory in Rapid City, which sends the test results to the South Dakota Department of Health. The state also conducts its own random water tests at the campground throughout the camping season.

While the Zobels were busy overseeing construction of the park’s new campsites, the Quigley family was working with its staff at the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Harrisville, Pa. to unpack hundreds of boxes of items for their 1,600-square-foot camp store.

“You have to open the boxes and scan every item, and price them and stock them onto the shelves. It’s quite time-consuming,” said the park’s co-owner Gary Quigley.

Gary Quigley

Gary Quigley

When WCM spoke with the Quigleys in mid-February, they had recently hired a new activities director after promoting the park’s previous activities director to the position of general manager.

Quigley said they find it difficult to hire people for the summer season in early winter because most people don’t want to interview for a job they can’t start until several months down the road. They usually end up doing most of their hiring in late February and early March, while focusing their staff training on late March and early April.

While the Quigleys’ advance planning for their April 15 opening includes the creation of lengthy pre-opening checklists and staff assignments, involving everything from grounds cleanup to making sure every department is fully stocked with all the supplies they will need, it’s hard to avoid “the sprint” that takes place the last couple of weeks before the park opens — partly because of the weather.

“Because of the freezing weather, a lot of things you just can’t do until right before you open,” Quigley said.

He added that it’s been unusually cold late into the spring season in western Pennsylvania in recent years. “We have had snowy, cold, freezing weather even into April and into the first or second week of May,” Quigley said. This can make it not only challenging but costly to prepare the park and its rental units for opening.

“We’re up to 25 rental units with only three that don’t have plumbing. You can’t turn water onto those things until the week or two leading up to the opening,” he said.

If the weather is still freezing, he said, they may have to turn on the heat in each cabin to keep the pipes from freezing, a costly proposition when the cabins are unoccupied. “We might be paying $10 to $20 a day to heat those things. That can add up when you’re talking about 22 units,” he said.

Still, Quigley said his family’s park is better prepared for opening this spring because of the unusually mild weather they experienced last fall, which enabled them to remove more leaves than normal. “The weather stayed rather nice and dry for quite a while after we closed. We worked like crazy to try to get the leaves cleaned up while they were dry. We were able to get 80% of the leaves cleaned up in the fall, which will make it easier to clean the grounds this spring. But our workload will still depend on the weather,” he said.

“If it heats up too rapidly,” he added, “the snow will melt and our ground will turn into mud, which makes a huge mess. It’s a real roll of the dice in terms of springtime and what you can get accomplished. But there’s no sense of complaining about it. Just deal with it and do the best you can.”

Michelle Johnson, who co-owns and operates Schatzi’s 4 Seasons Resort in Wisconsin’s North Woods, said she requires her seasonal campers to help with spring cleanup. “Site clean-up from fall leaves or branches is a busy spring activity,” she said.  “Our campers are responsible for their own site, but they’re all so happy to be back at the campground they’re happy to do so.”

The 77-site park, located in Gordon-Wascott, Wis., caters mostly to seasonal campers.

“By contract, we say our season runs from May 1 to October 1. We do our best to open as soon as we can and stay open longer,” noted Johnson. “In the fall, we usually make it to the second week, around October 15, but we’ve learned, ‘Don’t go any further.’ Once we hit 30 degrees or colder for a few days in a row, the water lines will freeze. There’s usually a good week or two before that happens in October. But not everyone will make it up to winterize their camper. We don’t want anyone’s internal camper lines to freeze.”


Michele and Mark Johnson, center, co-owners of Schatzi’s 4 Seasons Resort with a couple of their seasonal campers.

Johnson added that shutting down and clearing the park’s water lines properly for the winter is critical to avoiding problems in the spring. “It takes a couple of days for us to get the water lines cleared for the (winter) season,” she said. “It’s more than just turning the water off. It’s a bit of a process: It includes turning off the circuit breakers; draining the pressure/expansion tanks, and hooking up a compressor and going site to site to clear the lines. The year the campsites were put in makes a difference, too. Our older area has what is called ‘curb stops’ at each site with an underground open/close valve about five to six feet down. We have a rod we use to get down there.”

Water lines to the bath and pool house and rental cabins also require attention, including draining the water heater, emptying the sinks and toilets and pouring anti-freeze into them, as well the shower and floor drains and drinking fountains.

Failing to properly drain and prepare a park’s water lines for winter can lead to problems come springtime. “If it’s not done (properly) and a water line breaks, the campers will have no water in the spring,” Johnson said. “The hardest part is determining where the break is. It’s very costly. We had an issue with this and finally determined it was a line to one of our cabins that was leaving everyone with just a trickle of water.”

But if the waterlines are properly winterized, turning the park’s water back on in the springtime is relatively easy to do. “Sometimes there are air pockets between sites, depending on elevation. But once things are running smoothly, it’s done for the season,” Johnson said.

Swimming pools and splash pads are another matter, however. While Johnson’s husband, Mark, is a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) who maintains their swimming pool and splash pad during the camping season, they hire commercial pool specialists to handle both the opening and winter closing of their pool and splash pad. “The pool and splash pad are usually closed down by Labor Day,” she explained. “In no way, shape or form is a commercial pool mechanics the same as a home pool. It is an elaborate system, to say the least. Closing and opening is costly but necessary to be done by professionals. We learned that lesson!”

Other park operators say it’s important to ensure that rental cabins and other rental accommodations are thoroughly cleaned and debugged.

“Our parks complete deep cleans throughout the year, and before opening for the season is no exception,” said Kelly Jones, vice president of operations for The Jenkins Organization, which operates a dozen Jellystone Park and Great Escapes RV resorts across the country. “In the Spring, we also have our parks’ preventative bed bug measures, including heat treating all the units and using pet- and child-safe dust around them.”

Jones said the weeks before opening are also a good time to ensure that reservation management systems are up-to-date with the latest information and pricing. “For people with reservation systems such as Campspot,” she said, “make sure they update any events in the systems and check dynamic pricing and unit types to make sure everything is still accurate.”

And while everyone is expecting a busy summer camping season, Jones said it’s also important for park operators to make sure they don’t spend too much of their income on pre-season cleanup and preparation efforts.

“In the Spring, it is easy to overspend and not manage your budget. Make sure to keep an eye on it,” she said.

The Quigley’s have shared their spring cleaning list, you can access it here: WCM Spring Opening Checklist 2022 2