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A subtle makeover

As more and bigger families go camping, Joe Robinson discovers how an artful mix of layout, accouterment and etiquette brings everyone together.

June 21, 2005|Joe Robinson

Ned Aldrich stoops down to illustrate with his version of PowerPoint -- an index finger in the dirt of a newly graded road at a campground he's rehabbing at Cedar Grove in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.

His office walls are granite slabs that rise from both sides of a compact canyon about 40 minutes beyond Grant Grove. Silver ribbons hurtle down seams in the towering ridges, and the Kings River rages past the campground like surf in a churning froth.

Aldrich draws twin arcing lines to show the shape of a "pull-through" driveway, a relic from an earlier era of campsite design that will be trimmed to minimize impact.

"We're going to chop one half of it, and then this will be the campsite right there," says Aldrich, who spent 15 years as a ranger before moving to the National Park Service's road detail.

The crew also will be removing chunks of timber placed around campsites in days of yore for a rustic effect, replacing them with granite boulders, a more natural decor than sawed-off tree trunks. Walrus-mustached Rick Phillips, dressed, like Aldrich, in ranger greens, explains how his team will move one of the granite behemoths.

"We read the rock how we want to bust it," says Phillips, a maintenance mechanic. "Then we drill into it two-thirds down and fill it up with water. We put a charge that looks like a 12-gauge shotgun shell in the water. There's a cone that has a primer charge on it that sits down on top of the charge." A firing pin is pulled, and two camp ornaments are born.

Aldrich and Phillips' camp make-over is part of the little-noticed hand of campground design. Call it "parkitecture," a minimalist mix of layout, accouterments and etiquette that blends campers into the woodwork -- and a social scheme quite unlike their worlds back home.

It falls to an invisible brigade of campground conductors, including designers and maintenance staff, to keep the accent on the natural experience when parks are under siege by an incursion of larger vehicles, more convenience and runaway technology.

Besides restoring the look of Moraine campsite, concessions will be made for more citified amenities and swelling camper tonnage. Stainless-steel sinks will be installed outside the restrooms for dish duty. Parking spaces at some campsites will be lengthened to accommodate more RVs and bigger vehicles, though the park will continue to limit rig size to 22 feet and maintain a no-hookups policy.

Eleven campsites within Cedar Grove and 14 in Grant Grove recently have been outfitted for larger groups, from seven to 15 people. "Supersites" are on the boards for some California state parks to fill demand for extended clan outings.

Designer challenge

Under the watchful gaze of conifers whose tops have been dancing in the afternoon winds for centuries, change is afoot, triggered by a demographic shift. The classic national park campsite was designed for the nuclear family -- mom, dad and 2.5 kids, back when the closest thing to a satellite dish was the Big Dipper, picnic tables seated six and there was parking for one vehicle.

The trend today across all parklands is a much bigger tent, thanks to multigenerational campers and ethnic diversity.

"We've had a resurgence of something that disappeared in the early 20th century, and that's the extended family, which might be a Korean caravan from Southern California with four matching vans or a big Hispanic family from Fresno," says Bill Tweed, chief naturalist at Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park.

The trend is seconded by Kerry Gates, supervising landscape architect for California state parks. "We're absolutely having bigger groups," he echoes. "There's now a much greater cultural group of users, extended families, who want to share their experience together."

Gates is experimenting with a larger picnic table, larger food preparation areas, and he's thinking about retrofitting some camping areas with yurts to accommodate more people. He notes "the social experience overrides the outdoor experience" these days in many state parks.

Most of the campgrounds in Sequoia Kings Canyon were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and '40s. Park officials have continued to tinker with the template laid down by the agency -- loop track, picnic table, fire pit, spigots and restrooms -- as they grapple with the unpredictable realm of human behavior and gauge camper impact.

They've gone through generations of fire rings and bear boxes to keep up with fickle visitors. But they also closed a 300-site campground and lodge in Giant Forest in 1970 when they concluded a sequoia grove and car camping weren't sustainable.

At Moraine, Aldrich and Phillips, clutching a squawking walkie-talkie, are waiting for 600 tons of base rock to creep up the canyon for the new asphalt loop and revamped parking spots. The duo stands amid heavy equipment and a ghost campground, with pavement dug up and ragged picnic benches tipped up on one end for removal.

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