The internet offers a wealth of information - but the trick is knowing what you need, knowing how to search for it, and double checking everything!
I could offer a list of doís and doníts - but I thought it would be more entertaining to describe a trip that I am planning for my family right now. My attempts include all kinds of pit-falls as you will see!
I came across all sorts of useful websites (as well as some real loosers), so this article is interspersed with all sorts of links. There are two different kinds of camping trips. The camping trip where the campground itself is your goal, and the camping trip where you choose camping as an inexpensive alternative to a hotel while traveling.
The first type of trip is simple to plan and research, but a trip dependent on location, timing, and convenience can be much more complicated. This is the type of trip I am planning now, so join me in my research if you please! My youngest son needs to see a specialist at the UCLA Medical Center in a few days. A trip into Los Angeles can be quite a project with three kids - even coming from Santa Barbara, which is only a few hours away. We decided to make it a short family vacation instead of a long day stuck on the freeway in rush-hour traffic both coming into town and leaving.
OK, so where do we start? There are a few important points to consider.
The first thing I needed to do was find out where we need to go. After three calls to the UCLA Medical Clinic I was finally able to get a mailing address including the zip code. Why is the zip code important? There are several mapping services online which offer maps and directions based on addresses, cities, or zip codes. Zip codes are short and simple - my favorite way to go! My favorite service is provided by Lycos. Click here to check it out.
After I found the location of the clinic I started searching for campgrounds in the Los Angeles area. This was easier said than done. I began my search using Metacrawler.com (this searches several main search engines at once and is good for non-specific queries). I used the query "Los Angeles campgrounds" and came up with nothing of interest. You can often improve your results by changing your search terms - but I felt my query was correct, just not my results.
I then switched to the Netscape search engine and found a listing of private parks that were not very close to my destination. My family prefers public campgrounds for both location and price. We donít like to camp next to the freeway. The Looksmart search engine was not helpful either. The first link it offered was to Hotels.
I was getting a bit frustrated, but was not ready to give up. I then went to the
search engine and tried again. Lycos also came up with useless information for the first
15 listings, but after that I found links to sites with camping information. These links
led me to the GORP web page.
(Great Outdoor Recreation Pages). Unfortunately, GORP was
providing information on
I returned to Lycos and did a search to find the main website for the California State Park site. There is a small link to the search engine on the left hand side of the page reading "Find a Park". This site provided park information searches by Name, Park, City, Region, and County. I quickly searched for parks in Los Angeles County and was given a large list of links to every park in the county. Many public parks do not have camping facilities so I began visiting each page in search of the right spot for my family. I ran across several parks that offered camping but were not near the location I sought.
Then I found
Castaic State Park was really the only other option I noticed. I checked with the map again, and found the park was 38 miles from where we are going. I was not satisfied with this, so I returned to Lycos.
I decided that I would look for camping in the Angeles National Forest. I used the term "Angeles National Forest" and found the page with no difficulty. Unfortunately, the information provided by the Federal Government was absolutely useless for my needs. No links, no camping information, no maps.
The next link for
the forest lead me back to GORP.
I found looking for information at this site like panning for gold. The information may be there, but it sure is a lot of work finding it. I was finally able to find a link to a site provided by the US Forest Service - one that actually provided content but had not come up by using a search engine. HmmmmmmÖ The US Forest Service offers many campgrounds on the Angeles National Forest, but the nearest site is more than 65 miles from our destination.
Next up was the Motel 6 of the camping world - KOA. I assumed that they had their very own web page, so I started off by going to http://www.KOA.com. The site was there and was easy to search. Of course the closest KOA was 50 miles from our destination and was $25.00 per night for a tent site (ouch!).
Generally you canít find a National Park with camping near a large urban area, but I decided to give it a try. I went back to Lycos and searched for "National Park Service". I easily found the site and after a bit of experimentation I clicked on "Visit your Parks" and found an alphabetical listing of recreation areas. This wasnít much help, but I then clicked on a link entitled "Find on Map". I selected California as my state of choice and found that there was a National Recreation Area in the Santa Monica Mountains. The park page gave basic information on the area, but had a link titled "Camping" near the top of the page. I soon discovered that all of the camping in this National Recreation Area was run by the State Park system ( I was starting to feel like I was going in circles). As I viewed the camping page, I realized that the National Park Service provided more information on State Park camping in this area than the State Parkís website.
OK, now I had to go back to the California State Parks website. The National Park Service site had great information, but nothing on the campground locations. After going back to the Lycos mapping service I found the Malibu Creek State Park to be just under 30 miles from the clinic. The park description sounded nice so it was time to get back on the phone again. This park uses a national reservation system (yuck!) but I am willing to check it out.
The reservation site was simple to use, but their database information was baffling and you have to register at the site before you can get the per night camping fee. Also, you have to enter all of your camping dates before being asked to register - and then have to reenter it after registration. After I saw the camping fee I was pleased - $9.00 per night. However, the ticket company also charges $7.50 for the privilege of making a reservation. Something about that just seemed like a big rip-off to me.
I decided to call Malibu Creek State Park and ask if the campgrounds were generally full on the days I was seeking. As we wanted to camp on Sunday through Wednesday I was hoping that we might be able to come in without reservations. The Park answering machine stated that the fees were $12.00 per night, $14.00 per night on weekends, and that summer fees would be an additional $2.00 per night. Now I was completely baffled.
After speaking to a person (rather than a machine) I discovered that the State Park System was using a new company for reservation services. The camping fees were $12.00 per night. The park paid the reservation fee - so the cost was the same whether you used the reservation service or not. The reservation service had provided a breakdown of the fees that included a surcharge, so the fees they listed were inaccurate. I was quite pleased to discover that I could make a reservation without paying extra and returned to the reservation company website to reserve a campsite.
After submitting all of my information, an error in the reservation site promptly
crashed my brouser. I returned to the site after restarting my computer only to find no
record of my transaction. I did not want to be accidentally recharged for the same trip,
so I contacted the service via email. After getting no response for a few hours I returned
to the reservation site to check if my reservation was listed. It was not, so I scoured the
site for a phone number. The link labeled "Contact" led to an email address, but I was able
to find a phone number after I clicked on "Help". I called customer service and was told that
it takes 24 hours for the reservation to appear and the man said he was unable to access the
information because the internet data went to a separate database. This is pretty darn
inefficient for an internet service, but what can you do - Reserve America is te only game in town.
I checked the reservation site several days after I had made reservations and the information was still unavailable, so I gave up and made reservations (again) by phone. The California reservation number is 800-444-7275. I would recommend using their phone system until they have found a way to make their website more functional.
Unfortunately, this experience is not terribly unusual for finding campground information. Be persistant and you'll find what you are looking for (eventually)! So how did the LA trip go? Click here to read all about it!