In our four years, we have stayed overnight at 125 different places, not all of them campgrounds. Since you know I love statistics and trends, let's break it down.
We have stayed at 42 state parks/state recreation areas, 42 private campgrounds/RV parks, 26 federal campgrounds or camping areas, 8 private residences, 6 city campgrounds, and 1 fairground.
The 26 federal campgrounds break down as follows: 9 Corps of Engineers campgrounds, 5 national parks, 4 national forest recreation areas, 3 national wildlife refuges (2 of which were while volunteering where there was no public campground), 3 Bureau of Land Management areas, 1 national scenic river, and 1 national seashore.
As Linda & I went through all of the campgrounds trying to figure out our favorites, we wrote down a list of 35 that stood out. Of those 35, all 9 of the Corps of Engineers campgrounds were on our list. Of the remaining 26, 16 were state parks, 3 were city campgrounds, 2 were national forest recreation area campgrounds, 2 were national park campgrounds, 1 was a national wildlife refuge campground, and only 2 were private campgrounds.
Here is what we can tell from that group of 35 campgrounds. In a whopping 19 of those campgrounds, our campsite was either on a lake or river or had a view of a lake or river. Another 9 of those campgrounds had campsites on water, even if ours wasn't. Although our sites did not have a water view in those 9 campgrounds, it was an easy walk to the water. And 6 of the remaining 7 campgrounds were in parks with a lake or river or waterfall. Hmm. Guess we like camping near water. :)
In addition to the water, our favorite campgrounds had large, private sites, with lots of space between sites. That's why only two private campgrounds made our top 35, and they only made it because of the particular sites we had. Both our sites in those 2 campgrounds were on rivers, and both had decent spacing between our site and other sites.
Let's see. What else? Oh yeah. Our favorite campgrounds are far from interstates and heavily traveled roads. No traffic noise. Though Linda likes having a grocery and supplies nearby, and she likes to have cell service, she admits that our best camping is the most remote camping. :)
Another factor is how much we could interact with nature from our campsite. How many species of birds could we attract to our bird feeders? How much wildlife could be seen in the campground or park? Were there hiking trails close by? How convenient was it to launch a boat? What were the photo opportunities like?
Though I would love to have full hook-ups everywhere we go, we don't often find that in the campgrounds we like the most. So hook-ups, while nice, aren't even a big factor anymore - we'd prefer to go without as long as the campsite meets our other criteria.
Okay, so let's list our top ten campgrounds from the last four years.
Looking back at our Campground Reviews, those ten might not have been our highest rated campgrounds. In fact, in our Reviews, we gave several private RV parks higher ratings due to amenities and full hook-ups that in the long run, might be more important to others than to us. I might go back and re-score the reviews at some point. :)
A couple of notes. It is always important to remember that most of the time, in the campgrounds we like, the particular site makes all the difference in the world. Though we try to judge the entire campground, our site gives us our "feeling" and upon another visit at a different time in a different site, our "feeling" could be much different. :)
Next, at our number 9 choice, Tickfaw State Park, we didn't really get to explore and see the park. Our time was limited and we had rig problems when we were there, but based on the little we saw, we "think" we would have loved everything about it. :)
Finally, the Devil's Garden Campground at Arches National Park, our number 10 choice, doesn't necessarily meet our criteria for being a great campground, but we had to put it in our top ten for the views, the quiet, and just the fact that it sits in one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. :)
Okay, so the above list is very subjective. And I had been thinking about coming up with a little more objective rating system that better reflects what we think is important in a campground.
So today I came up with a scoring system based on the following criteria.
View - Based on view from our campsite. View of trees gets a .5, view of water gets a .7 or .8, view of nothing but other RVs gets a 0. (Maximum 1 point)
Spaciousness - Based on space between sites. The more space between sites, the higher the score. (Maximum 1 point)
Privacy - Site spaciousness is a big factor, but this has more to do with the site setting and the privacy of the awning side of the rig especially. Highest scores if we can see no other RVs from inside, high scores if we can see no other RVs from under our awning, and a score of zero if RVs are within a few feet on both sides or in the rear. (Maximum 1 point)
Quiet - This is about traffic noise, airplane noise, boat noise, construction noise, generator noise, etc. It's not so much about other campers talking or having a good time. If we can hear nothing but the sounds of crickets and frogs and the crackling of a campfire at night, then a high score is warranted. (Maximum 1 point)
Natural Surroundings - This simply means the campground looks like it was cut out of the natural surroundings. Big parking lots get a score of 0. Campgrounds set among businesses or neighborhoods also get lower scores. (Maximum 1 point)
Nature Activities - Can we birdwatch and wildlife watch from our campsite, the campground, or the park? Are there hiking trails near the campground or in the park? Is there a lake or a river to launch a boat or do some fishing? Can we see the sunset or sunrise from our campsite or within the campground? (Maximum 1 point)
Those first six criteria, though not weighted, are the most important to us.
Social Activities - Usually private RV parks don't score high in the first six categories, but they can make up ground if there are social activities where we can meet new people, hang out with others with similar interests, and have a group meal or two. (Maximum 1 point)
Cleanliness - This is just an overall feel for the campground. How are the bathrooms/showers? Is there trash along the roads, in campsites, in firepits, etc.? Is there peeling paint and a general lack of maintenance? Private RV parks tend to do a little better in this category. (Maximum 1 point)
Big Rig Friendly - This encompasses not only site size, but accessibility. How far off of a good road is the campground? Are there tree clearance issues on the way in or in the campground? Are roads getting to the campground straight or curvy and are they flat or do they have steep grades? How narrow are the interior roads and how tough are the turns? How much room is there to swing a trailer or large motorhome into a back-in site? (Maximum 1 point)
Pricing - This is a pretty objective category. Free gets a full point. :) Up to $10 will get a .8 or .9. From $10 to $20 will get a .7 or .8. From $20 to $25 will get a .6 or .7. From $25 to $30 will get a .5 or .6. Over $30 gets a .5 or lower. Of course, scores might vary a couple of tenths either way depending on value. (Maximum 1 point)
The following categories, hook-ups and basic amenities, are factors for us, but they are minor factors so they aren't weighted as much as the other categories above.
Electric - Pretty simple. 50 Amps gets .3, 30 Amps gets .2, 15-20 Amps gets .1, and no electric gets 0.
Water - Water hook-ups at the site gets .2, ability to take on water in the fresh tank gets .1, and no water in the campground gets 0.
Sewer - Sewer hook-ups at the site gets .2, a dump station in the campground gets .1, and no sewer hook-ups or dump station gets 0.
Laundry - Nice on-site laundry with more than one washer/dryer gets .2, poor facilities or single washer/dryer gets .1, and no laundry gets 0.
Toilets - Flush toilets in a bathroom gets .2, pit toilets get .1, and no facilities gets 0.
Showers - Showers with hot water in bathhouse gets .2, pay showers or no hot water gets .1, and no showers gets 0.
Now, factors like convenience to groceries/fuel and cell phone coverage are important to us, but not important enough to change the scoring of our campgrounds.
Also, we don't give any extra credit for pools or beaches or cable or Wi-Fi or exercise rooms. Those might be a lot more important for others, but they aren't for us.
So, our top ten list above was based just on our memory and subjective "feeling". Using the more objective criteria scoring, the top ten list looks like this:
1. Stephen C. Foster State Park, Okefenokee Swamp, Fargo, GA
2. Piney Grove COE Campground, Bay Springs Lake, Booneville, MS
3. Corinth Recreation Area, Smith Lake, Bankhead National Forest, Double Springs, AL
4. Coon Creek Cove COE Campground, Kaw Lake, Kaw City, OK
5. Cottonwood Point COE Campground, Marion Lake, Marion, KS
6. Isaac Creek COE Campground, Alabama River, Franklin, AL
7. Hardin Ridge Recreation Area, Hoosier National Forest, Monroe Reservoir, Heltonville, IN
8. Tickfaw State Park, Springfield, LA
As you can see, the top seven stayed pretty much the same. However, Goosenecks State Park and Devil's Garden at Arches dropped out. Though those campgrounds are in the top three in views, they dropped just out of the top ten by a few tenths of a point due to lack of hook-ups.
However, if we look at just at the top six criteria categories - view, spaciousness, privacy, quiet, natural surroundings, and nature activities - Goosenecks and Devil's Garden as well as Squaw Flats in Canyonlands National Park and our boondocking site in Lockhart Basin just outside of Canyonlands all are in the top ten. So, in looking at only the very most important criteria to us, we end up with four places with no hook-ups at all in the top ten. :)
Denton Ferry RV Park snuck in this top ten list as the only private RV park. It sits on the White River in Arkansas and you can wade in from your campsite and fly-fish. However, our riverfront site made all the difference in the world. No riverfront site, no top ten. :)
Heron Lake State Park got into the top ten because there are some huge sites with lots of privacy. It was a bit buggy and the weather wasn't great when we were there, but the campground managed to score high in our criteria.
Using the scoring system, the highest score was 8.9 and the lowest score was 2.5 (the fairgrounds). But there wasn't a whole lot of separation. The top ten scored from 7.9 to 8.9. But there were another 50 that scored 7.0 or better and we would stay at any of them again. :)
As for categories of campgrounds, it is clear that we love the Corps of Engineers (COE) campgrounds. We've only stayed at nine, and four of them were in our top ten (on both lists).
Next would be a toss-up between the National Forest Recreation Areas and the state parks.
Who says you can't get forty-foot rigs into the state parks? Sure, you have more options with smaller rigs, but there are lots of state parks that can accomodate big rigs and many are remodeling their campgrounds to make it easier. And don't always believe what you read on the park websites about rig length limits. Often, a phone call directly to the park will provide different information. (The same goes for federal campgrounds.) :)
Of course, the private RV parks, with just a few exceptions, fall to the bottom of our list because they don't score well in the top six criteria categories. But the thing with private RV parks is you can stay longer and get good monthly rates if you are watching the budget. They usually have full hook-ups and many have lots of social activities. Though RV parks are not our favorite places to stay, we do enjoy being at the Escapees parks during holidays, with Sumter Oaks and SKP Saguaro being far better than the other two we've visited - SKP Resort and Rainbow's End.
So there you have it. A lot more information than you probably care about. :)
There are such subtle differences between campgrounds. And even with my new scoring system, there is still that very subjective "it factor" that we talk about so much. It's that little feeling that makes one campground better for us than another with the same exact score. We just know it when we feel it. And sometimes, it is just the campsite itself that makes the difference.
During our four years, we've certainly determined what we like. And although an occasional RV park is nice, we'd much rather be stuck out in some remote area with nature all around and far away from most signs of civilization. :)