Sunday, January 17, 2016

Review: Car Camping, North Lees Campsite, Peak District National Park, United Kingdom

Peak District from Stanage Edge
Location: 30 mins from Sheffield (10 miles)
Website:  National Park or Campsite
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car camping
Grade: C
Stargazing: Good
Summary: Acceptable camping experience in the UK (my first)
Thoughts: After entering the park with little fanfare (the color of the terrain on my GPS changed from beige to green, if I'm not mistaken), I knew that I had to keep my expectations in check.  No park office, no visible change in land use, sheep eyeing you suspiciously -  clearly things are done differently here. As we zigged and zagged along the country roads, we had hopes that the vast wilderness that is the Peak District National Park would eventually reveal itself around the next bend. It does, but not in the way that we're used to. But that's okay. The UK is a small country with a relatively large population (compared to Canada), so one can only expect a certain level of solitude and remoteness. And maybe within the campground itself things would be different. Well it was, and it wasn't.

Sheep and grazing fields
- mainstays of UK National Parks
The flocks of sheep that greet you on the roadsides within the National Park were not welcome in the North Lees Campsite. No sir, gates and fences made their access impossible. A win for conservation! The camping experience, however, was consistently frustrating as the rest of the drive to that point. First off, the site was sloped, and quite dramatically so.  Good luck finding a level spot to sleep comfortably. Second, there is no demarcation of campsites. It's a total free-for-all. Where ever you'd like to stop walking/carrying gear, well, that's as good as any spot, friend. Thirdly, no demarcation of sites also means no privacy.  None. Nor are there many picnic benches to cook your breakfast (most people seemed to be happy to do so on the ground but we grabbed one of the few that there were).  Last, there are no campfires. Given that there are so few trees in the region to begin with, it's probably for the best. But yeah: "sigh".

Nice spot to wash dishes
Bears aren't an issue...
Sheep - you are fenced OUT!
Some good points that I need to bring up. The place is very tidy. You have nice shower facilities as well as running water for washing dishes (a bit of a hike from some of the "sites", so bring a container of some sort, like a bucket or camping sink). You also have recycling facilities and very kinds, friendly staff running the place.  And the connectivity to the splendid hiking trails within steps of the campground is excellent. Another bonus - you can walk to the pubs in Hathersage in about half an hour. In doing so, you'll stroll through quaint English countryside and maybe learn to appreciate it on its own merits, and not in relation to those of a totally different country that has no physical resemblance to the one you're living in, so you might as well stop whinging about it.
A second camping space that is a bit flatter

As a Canadian out on their first camping trip in the UK, I could have done worse than North Lees. Once you have acclimatized to the setting and your eyes have adjusted to the local scenery, you'll probably find that it does what it does pretty well. It's just different, that's all.

Interpretive sign maintenance varies...
Weather may vary as well
View from Stanage Edge

Peak District National Park
Mam Tor

Mam Tor was a gusty spot that day
Some trails veer onto private land,
but the signage will get you back
on track
Roadway carved right into
a drainage channel

Review: Grundy Lake Car Camping

Location:  80 km N of Parry Sound
Website: Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping with some pseudo backcountry
Grade: B+
Stargazing: Good, saw the Northern Lights both times I've visited.
Summary: Nice car camping with plenty of privacy and large sites
Thoughts: I was taking my chances when I pulled into Grundy Lake at 8pm on a mid-August evening. I didn't have a booking and I had planned to pull into one of the paddle-in sites on one of the three park lakes. It being as late as it was, my camping buddies and myself decided to take it easy and just grab whatever was available in the car camping areas. When you show up that late on a weekend in August with nothing booked, your expectations are low. Fortunately, Grundy PP doesn't do a lot of things wrong.

Huge car campsite in Radio-Free Area
The sites that we found were excellent. Not only were there sites in the radio-free area, those that were available were well-treed, sandy and private. We were stunned at the size of our site and that it was right next to the water. Lots of nice flat spots to set up a tent, amenities (water, toilets) were close by. And this was with zero planning.

View out on Grundy Lake from Radio-Free Area
The one problem the park seemed to be having at that time was a few rogue bears that were pillaging campsites. While there had been no dangerous encounters reported, the bears were having their way with any food that was improperly or semi-properly stored. It really just reinforces the need to ALWAYS lock your food away when you're done with it and keep your site free of food scraps and odors (including from toothpaste and deodorant).

We headed out on Grundy Lake to our canoe-in site the next day, but were pleased with the experience of "settling" for car camping. Great spot.

Park Statistics for 2014

Park Visitors, 2004 - 2014
I've been tracking park visit statistics in recent years and the results have been troubling. For some reason, the number of visits to most parks has been in decline. Ontario has added nearly 700,000 hectares of park land in the past 10 years, which means more of the province is receiving this higher level of legal protection. I think that most conservation enthusiasts can see this as a win. However, an area of concern also seems to be emerging; visitation to parks seems to have peaked in 2005, declining from the high of 10.5 million to the 2014 level of 8.5 million. Does this mean people are less interested in Ontario's parks? It's not clear.

Gas prices and the Canadian dollar have increased in that period, making visits from American tourists less attractive. The slim data available in the 2014 report seems to suggest this has been a factor with the share of US visitors dropping from 11% to 6% between 2006 and 2011 (the only two years where data were available). As well, the number of camping nights per camper has also recently dropped, from around 3.7-3.8 to 3.3. So campers that are still visiting seem to be staying for shorter amounts of time. One would expect this to be independent of factors such as gas prices or the CAD, and guess that perhaps it's possible that those campers who stay longer are the same who come from far away and make a longer holiday out of it. Unfortunately, this is a more recent phenomenon that occurred after the presumed drop in American attendance, with 2012 being the year that seems to be the start of this trend. Are campers not enjoying their stays? Perhaps these are weather related issues? I don't have the data on hand to make a guess.

The number of campers per visitor, which might indicate levels of interest in camping, have stayed pretty steady - a very slight dip in the years between 2005-2012, but recovering back to 2004 levels in 2013, 2014. This suggests that overall interest in camping is steady, and day visitors are continuing to do what they do, with no new motivation to stay the night.

Low attendance and interest can have pretty dire consequences for our park system. I highlight a few parks that have had pretty low visitation rates in my guide to Camping in Ontario. Sadly, some of the parks have recently seen changes in management or have been closed. For example, Mississagi is now operated by the City of Elliot Lake. Obatanga and The Shoals are representative of some gems that are no longer operating. This has resulted in a loss of accessibility to these protected areas, as even low-maintenance interior sites are blocked by closed park entrance gates. Hopefully this is something that will be corrected soon, but with continuing provincial budget deficits, it seems unlikely.

An even worse scenario would be for Ontario Parks to try to lure more campers in through higher-impact activities; the potential exists that, in pursuit of greater appeal, Ontario's parks current peaceful character suffers as a result of a rise in incompatible uses. I have faith in the wisdom of park managers, and hope that this won't be the case. My feeling is that the province of Ontario has undersold the immensity and variety of its park system, focusing more on promoting parks such as Algonquin, Bon Echo and Killarney; meanwhile, beautiful alternatives to these exist that are under-visited (examples include Quetico, Lake Superior and Temagami).

Fortunately some clarity about park interest will be available in 2015 and 2016's data. The Canadian dollar has plummeted in recent years, making it less attractive for Canadians to vacation outside of Canada, and much more attractive for the flow to start coming the other way. It will be interesting to see how this pans out and am interested in hearing your thoughts.