What should a camping space feel like?

Last month I had a chance to pitch my tent in another one of our Florida State Parks. That would be Colt Creek State Park a little north of Lakeland, Florida. Lakeland is where I’m living these days and Colt Creek is by far the closest park to me. Lake Kissimmee State Park–a real fave of mine–would be the next closest but I wanted to try something new and get more familiar with the part of the Sunshine State where I’m living now.

It was a good trip for the most part. I found a part of the design concept for this park to be a little odd but found the park to be a decent spot to camp in spite of something I’ve never seen at any other park. And it made for a less-than-optimal camping experience, truth be told.

What I’m referring to is that all sites have a well-defined grassy area at the front of their lot covered with… I hate to let these words escape my lips, covered with grass! Yes, a charming mini-front yard for every camper! How novel!

Let me enlarge on this a bit: many of the parks in the Florida State Park system where I’ve camped–and I’ve been to an even dozen of them now–have a very authentic nature-y vibe that is–for this puppy–absolutely essential to having a good camping experience. I like it best when I’m so completely surrounded by trees and other green stuff that I can nap in my camping recliner and be shaded for just about the whole day. I like, I crave, the feeling that I’m completely surrounded, covered over even, with Mother Nature’s beauty.

But at Colt Creek I felt like I had pitched my tent in a friend’s yard, so off-putting was this unusual design element. And it was every space. There were lovely trees and lots of other natural stuff all around you but as far as your lot was concerned, the overall feeling was more like weekending in a suburban neighborhood.

To look at a larger issue that comes into play here, it’s one more thing that highlights the fact that accommodating RV’s is what drives the process of planning pretty much any park. And tent campers are, frankly, an afterthought. And essentially putting a flawless, well-manicured “lawn” in front of every space is probably a great thing to many if not most RV’ers. When you consider that many of them are essentially hauling a mid-sized apartment around from park to park, pitch signs emblazoned with the family name out front and literally throw down a carpet when they set up, the suburban feel at this particular park may be a very good thing to most folks. But it was very off-putting for this camper.

A stay in a State Park should not be like staying in the kinds of RV parks where snow birds live for the entire winter. And in every other park I’ve taken in, it’s not. (By the way, I’ve camped in every kind of park and Wildlife Management Area you can think of. I’m referring specifically to the facilities in our Florida State Park System in this piece.)

Colt Creek does have a separate space to accommodate tent campers, six sites in all. I generally like that. There are plenty of parks where this enhances the camping experience for us “real campers” who don’t live in air conditioned, aluminum mini-houses on our trips. But we all had our own “front yard” too in our part of the park; there was no escape for anybody!

Mayor Frederick Park at Turkey Lake is a good example of a park where a dedicated portion of the park for tent campers works well. That gem is in the City of Orlando Park System and I love it. It’s as bucolic and nature-y as any park I’ve been to and it’s pretty much the opposite of what I experienced at Colt Creek. I’m way overdue for a trip back to that lovely spot on the shore of Turkey Lake. We tent campers do have to haul our gear a very long way there but it’s worth it.

Here’s a photo from about seven years ago or so when I pitched my tent there. A quick side note, it’s a bit of a surprise that this park with the strong Nature vibe I crave is only about five minutes from Universal Studios.

I know this may come over to many as just a rant. But camping sites in State Parks shouldn’t make you wonder when the next HOA meeting is gonna happen! Really.

Guess it’s time for this camper to head back to Moss Park or the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area. No neatly-manicured lawns, nor treeless lots in those wildly-untrimmed, deliciously-overgrown, authentic Florida spaces!

“Bulldog Ben” Basile

© 2023 Ben Lawrence Basile
Photo credits Ben Lawrence Basile

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