By Glynn Wilson –
WASHINGTON, DC – The New York Times magazine recently commissioned a woman who has never camped in her life to travel around in an RV and write about her experience. The trip was a disaster and the story was a Covid nightmare.
Why would they do something like this and actually publish the results?
It was a biting Manhattan slap in the face from Frances McDormand as Fern in the Oscar-winning film “Nomadland” to campervan advocate Bob Wells and more than a million Americans who have chosen camping as an affordable, peaceful alternative being crammed into noisy, crowded cities or the suburbs of the American megalopolis?
The editor refused to publish my comment, suggesting that he might have been better off assigning the play to someone experienced in doing the story justice. As a longtime news reporter, formerly a writer for the Times, and now a full-time camperman living and loving life, I was a little more than offended. If they had ever driven into Yellowstone over Beartooth Pass on a pristine fall day and by a fire with light snow falling on the buffalo, camped and patiently munched on the cold vegetation while the trout leapt into the nearby creeks, they would maybe not feeling so smug about their pro-Big City perspective.
The best places to camp in the mid-Atlantic region
Incidentally, you don’t have to go that far west of Greenwich Village to find incredible tranquility as you sit in a camp chair sipping your favorite beverage and enjoying a breathtaking view. A few years ago, about four years into my camping life, I found inspiration reading America’s first freelance writer Washington Irving and landed at one of the best campgrounds I’ve ever seen, Croton Point Park on the Hudson River northwest of New York City . It’s a large riverside county park with beautiful mature trees not far from where George Washington’s army captured Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War.
It is right next to Croton Point Station, the last stop on the commuter line for locals to go into town for work or play. $28 gets you a round-trip ticket, $2.50 for boarding a subway card and bus transfers, and views of the Hudson River for most of the ride. On this trip, I took the Staton Island Ferry to photograph the Statue of Liberty at sunset, then drank a beer in a paper bag and watched the bright city lights on the way back.
Along with all the perks of camping in the American West, there are adventure gems to be found in the East as well.
It has been my primary purpose to explore them for the past eight years, with the added goal of staying as close as possible to Washington, DC, the center of the universe in terms of political action and power.
As you can see, not only am I an avid camper – my choice for vehicle, home and office being a Roadtrek RV converted as a media van – I keep myself updated on a unique news site of my own invention on the state of the art Democracy Inside the Beltway Up to Date, NewAmericanJournal.Net. Don’t freak out. It has a travel part.
Now I’m going to let you in on a few secrets of camping in the DC area, things you might stumble upon yourself if you take the time. This will save you a lot of hassle and hours of googling.
If you want to visit and see some of the wonders in the nation’s capital, there’s really only one place you need to know. Even the Europeans who ship their RVs across the Atlantic to Baltimore Harbor to see America come here first, to Greenbelt National Park, a large campground in the woods along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just 10 miles north of the Washington Monument. The place is not that well known and sometimes seems to fly under the radar like a low flying spy plane.
green belt is even open year round when all mountain campgrounds in Virginia, Maryland and up north are closed for the winter. 172 campgrounds are open from late spring to early fall, and you can book yours on Recreation.gov for just $20 a night, $10 with the National Park Service’s America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass. All of the famous national monuments, Smithsonian museums and Greco-Roman neoclassical architecture are just a short subway ride south.
Another tip. Yes, you can take an Uber. But downtown parking is free on Sundays, when federal workers are off and Friday and Saturday tourist numbers are down, so you can drive yourself and order fish and chips, pints of Guinness and shots of Irish whiskey from The Irish Times on the Senate side of Capitol in just 20 minutes, on street parking at CNN, NBC Building and C-SPAN Headquarters. Or maybe you like the damn Maries and Oysters Rockefeller at the Old Ebbitt Grill over by the White House.
But like all National Park campsites, you can only book 14 days in a calendar year. So unless you plan on being a volunteer campground host like me, there are other places you need to know to camp long east.
Of course you can’t miss Skyline Drive, especially in the fall, in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. For camping, in addition to Big Meadows, I recommend Loft Mountain Campground to the south, although Mathews Arm Campground is closer to DC in Front Royal. It’s only an hour and a half drive from here if you get on the Beltway at the right time in the morning.
You could go further south to the Great Smoky Mountains.
But for my money it’s the best kept secret in the eastern United States Catoctin Mountain National Park and Cunningham Falls State Park on Catoctin Mountain north of Frederick, Maryland, south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in the same woods as Camp David. The place is on the Mason-Dixon line to escape the worst effects of global warming and climate change, just south of the actual Mason-Dixon line where even in July and August you can sit outside most days without the Mosquitoes buzzing around your head. It’s cool at night and in the morning, even as the heat domes hover over the draft-plagued West and East Coast cities.
While the mid-Atlantic region isn’t as scenically spectacular as the Rocky Mountains, it does have plenty of rain and has plentiful fresh water and the availability of local produce in the summer months.
Catoctin mountain also has the benefit of being a natural rain shadow where you can listen to the nine cones of thunder during the north and south summer showers, but stay cool yet dry as the clouds block the sun and the breezes blow by. Here I took inspiration from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and found Croton Point near his riverside home near Sleepy Hollow, where he is buried in the cemetery marked by the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless One rider became famous. Catoctin Mountain is just a four-hour drive through Pennsylvania to New York.
Washington Irving: The first recognized American writer
Free boon docking is a lot harder in the east than the west, but if you want to avoid the Walmart parking lots, there are a few spots in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest, including a small free Forest Service campground that follows a winding mountain road along an ATV trail leads. mainly used by hunters, called The Fort.
However, if you are looking for a mobile phone connection and WLAN, you are out of luck.
At Greenbelt, in addition to blazing-fast city Wi-Fi and camp host connections, we also receive 91 free TV channels from DC, Baltimore, and Arlington, Virginia. I also recommend the Greenbelt Coop for shopping at the Roosevelt Center in this interesting little town tucked away from the hustle and bustle of DC. This is life, not just progress, my friends.
Life in Nomadland doesn’t have to be a sad story like in the movies. Our favorite toast here by the fire is “to win” – that is, to win the game of life. We’ll see what happens in November.
I recently held a ranger program on visiting Washington, DC while camping in the Greenbelt. More pictures here:
Ranger Program: Welcome to Washington
I’m planning a trip west to spots in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico and California next spring.
For more RV, travel and camping stories, visit my new Facebook group, Nomadland East: facebook.com/groups/nomadlandeast
This story was commissioned and an edited version was first published on the RV Living advocacy website CheapRVLiving.com.