Comforts of Outdoor | US Forest Service

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Editor’s Note: The Great American Outdoors Act provides the Forest Service with new opportunities to improve outdoor recreation for our visitors, including repairs and upgrades to vital infrastructure.

Secured to a tractor trailer, the second part of a new vault toilet moves up the remote roads of Stanislaus National Forest en route to installation at Highland Lakes Campground in late summer 2022. (USDA Forest Service photo by Cheryl Laughlin)

Sometimes the awe of trees sweeping up a mountainside or incredible rock formations around the bend command all the attention amidst the allure of the national forests and grasslands. But sometimes it’s the simpler comforts that bring joy—like the beauty of a new toilet and hand-held water pump in California’s Stanislaus National Forest.

These updated amenities are part of the Southern Sierra Campground project, which includes five sites where day restrooms will be replaced and upgraded. The project is supported by funding from the Great American Outdoors Act.

A small group of curious campers watched as workers installed the upgraded facility at Highland Lakes Campground. What they probably didn’t realize is that the model is a next-generation safe toilet that drastically reduces odors compared to older models.

“This technology uses sunlight to heat the roof, which draws airflow into the attic chamber,” said Kat Baker, assistant forest engineer. This means more air flows up and out and less unwanted odor lingers inside.

On the lane, native cows claim their right-of-way in the Stanislaus National Forest before migrating and allowing the big vehicle to pass to take the vault toilet further up the hill to Highland Lakes Campground. (USDA Forest Service photo by Cheryl Laughlin)

The structure also offers improved resistance to vandals and natural factors such as falling trees, branches and snow – a serious problem in the area. Older metal-cased toilets often give out due to heavy snow cover. Having been installed during the summer months when the ground is easier to dig, this next generation toilet will still be going strong when Highland Lakes Campground reopens in June 2023.

“The precast concrete and layout makes the vault toilet resistant to rot and degradation while providing access for people with disabilities,” Baker said. “All of these factors combine to address some of our most common maintenance requests and allow us to reallocate facility maintenance resources to other needs.”

Bringing the new toilet down steep, narrow roads to the campsite also attracted onlookers. The crew even encountered a herd of cows lingering on the road. As soon as the cows had moved on, the large team carrying the parts hauled themselves up the hill.

Text: A crane moves a domed concrete pit unit across a wide hole

Earlier in the day, a crane moves the 4-foot-deep concrete pit over the site of the previous toilet at the Stanislaus National Forest campground. (USDA Forest Service photo by Cheryl Laughlin)

“This is a three-ride project,” said Nicole Thompson, a civil engineer with the Forest Service. “They bring the concrete vault first, then the wall unit and finally the roof. That way they don’t get stuck if the load is too heavy.”

The road is so narrow that branches had to be cut down in some places so that the truck could drive through.

Ron Linzey of San Andreas, California made his first visit to the campground at the same time as the installation.

“It’s nice to see maintenance going on and campgrounds tended to,” Linzey said. “My wife always makes sure our campsite is close to a good toilet, especially with small children. And we hope to be the first to use this new device.”

In addition to replacing the new toilet, a smaller project is being carried out further down the mountain. A water hand pump from the 1980s also needs to be replaced. The Stanislaus National Forest has 17 hand pumps that offer visitors the convenience of clean water throughout the forest.

Forest service technicians round out a recently completed facility in the forest

In addition to new toilet facilities, the project team installed a new water pump in the Stanislaus National Forest to provide campers with a convenient supply of fresh water. Forest Service Civil Engineer Nicole Thompson (left), Assistant Forest Engineer Kat Baker (center) and Forest Engineer Tim Hughes (right) pause to appreciate the new convenience thanks to funding from the Great American Outdoors Act. (USDA Forest Service photo by Cheryl Laughlin)

“With all these projects, big and small, there are a lot of moving parts,” Baker noted. “It’s pretty cool to see projects get done through everyone’s hard work. The smiles of the campers say it all!”

The USDA Forest Service will invest nearly $55 million to support 41 projects in California and Hawaii as part of $503 million in GAOA-funded investments in Forest Service-managed areas statewide. Explore overviews of work in the Forest Service Project Dashboard.