Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Surviving July

Dispersed campers below Haystack Mountain
OK, July isn’t over just yet.  We still have three more days, including the 31st which is not only a full moon but a blue moon.  But wow, has July ever been busy.  From the 4th of July weekend on, our campground has been packed.  We’ve been completely full every Friday night and most Saturday nights, and we actually had to put the “Campground Full” sign up on Sunday, July 19. 

And it’s not just us.  Every campground along the south slope of the Mirror Lake Highway was full last weekend.  I spoke with two distraught dads after 8:00 PM on Friday, July 24.  The trailer was packed, the family was excited to go camping, and they just couldn't find a spot.  I advised them to go up and over the pass and try the campgrounds on the North Slope heading toward Evanston – or to just pull off on a dirt road and camp.

Yes, you can do that.  Our Forest Service reps tell us that people are allowed to camp pretty much anywhere along the Mirror Lake highway – which is one of the reasons they instituted the Recreation Fee program.  They call it dispersed camping, and a lot of people do it.  If you’re self-contained, or at least self-reliant, dispersed camping can be a fun experience.  The upside – it’s a lot cheaper than camping in an improved campground.  Your $6 Recreation pass covers you for three days.  The downside – there are no restrooms, picnic tables, or improved fire pits.  Also, no cool camp hosts there to answer your questions and sell you dry firewood.

Campers are actually just a small part of what’s been keeping us busy this July.  Washington Lake is located less than a quarter mile from the Crystal Lake Trailhead, which leads to several lakes and is extremely popular with hikers, backpackers, and scout troops.  According to the Forest Service, there is room for 57 cars in the trailhead parking lot.  It’s usually full by 10:00 AM on Friday. 

We were warned by the Forest Service that last year so many cars parked along the roads of our campground that trailers couldn’t get in or out.  So we’ve been very proactive about directing hikers to the overflow parking.  We answer a lot of questions about the hiking trails, give out a lot of trail maps and sell an occasional recreation pass.  Good customer service to be sure, but it’s more for the campers in our campground than for the hikers.  And it takes a lot of time.

We finally got a breather on Sunday, July 26.  Most of the campers left, and just a few arrived to take their place.  We actually had a chance to do some cleanup, and then to sit on our front porch and enjoy the afternoon.  We think the worst is behind us – at least until Labor Day weekend.  Wish us luck!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

First Come, First Served

Our first reservations came through last Friday.  Fourteen of our campsites are now reserved pretty much continuously for the rest of the summer.  So for the first time this summer, we had to tell people on Wednesday and Thursday that while we were not technically full, we had no sites open for the weekend.  And we had to explain the Forest Service concept of “first come – first served.”

Washington Lake is the only campground on the Mirror Lake Highway where most of the sites will accommodate large trailers.  As we well know, it’s a pain to hook up and haul a large trailer, and most of us won’t do it unless we know we’ll have a place to park it when we arrive in the mountains.  We’ve had several campers come to our campground hoping to pay for a site for Friday – on Wednesday.  If we were a capitalistic organization, we would take their money and hold their site.  Hey, if they didn’t show up, we’d still have the money, right?  But while we work for American Land and Leisure, a for-profit company, we are bound by Forest Service regulations.

The U.S. Forest Service policy intends to ensure equal access to the campgrounds for everyone.  This is why every campground has “first come – first served” sites.  To purchase one of these sites you have to arrive at the campground, move into the site, and pay for it.  These sites can never be paid ahead.  As Paul puts it, “Get possession first.  Once you’re in the site, we’ll get your money.” 

Many of our campers seem to know the drill.  On Friday we had four non-reservation sites come open.  The first trailer looking for one of these sites was in camp at 8:00 AM.  He selected his site, spoke with its current occupant, and proceeded to wait.  Check out time is 1:00 PM, and this particular camper had every intention of staying until then.  Why not?  He’d paid for the site, and it was a beautiful morning.  So the new camper waited.  By 10:00 AM we had four trailers waiting for sites to open, and when the fifth pulled in – a massive toy-hauler whose owner had tried to purchase a site the Wednesday before, we had to send him away. 

What advice can we give to someone looking for a first-come, first served site at Washington Lake?  Our crystal ball is still on back-order, so we can never predict availability and can never guarantee that a site will be available.  Historically, on a non-holiday weekend we fill up on Thursdays.  A few sites come open on Fridays.  We usually have several sites come open on Saturdays.  Arrive early in the week, and arrive early in the day.  See you at the lake!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Emotional Intelligence in Customer Service: Assume Good Intent

It was the Monday after a really busy holiday weekend.  We had spent most of the day Friday and Saturday directing the overflow traffic from the Crystal Lake Trailhead toward the overflow parking – and away from our campground.  While most were polite, we did get a few that pushed back.  “We bought a recreation pass.  We should be able to park anywhere in the canyon.”

So when we discovered the lone Toyota occupying a lakeside double site with a recreation pass posted to the site marker, we had had enough.  We wrote a note on the recreation pass that it was not valid in the campground and put it on her windshield.  We moved some belongings to the windshield as well.  Then we noticed that the car’s occupant was asleep in the back seat.  We knocked on the window, waking her up, and proceeded to advise her that she could not park in our $40-a-night campsite.

“I understand that,” she said.  “I stayed up all night and drove here at 3:00 AM so I could get a campsite for my family.  We come here every year, and I wanted to be early enough to get a double site.”  She continued, “It says on the recreation pass envelope to post it on the site post if you are camping.”

We looked.  Sure enough, that’s what it said.  The envelopes were dated 2009; and while the requirement to have a recreation pass in the concessionaire-managed campgrounds was lifted two years ago, the envelopes had not been changed.

We felt terrible.  We apologized profusely and accepted her payment for the campsite.  When she asked about firewood, we went to a campsite that had left a box and brought it to her – free of charge.  We believe we made it right with her.

The bad weekend may have explained our emotional reaction to her presence in the campground, but it was clearly no excuse.  We know better.  How much better it would have been to assume that she planned to camp and to wait for her to wake up before charging in with guns blazing.  If she hadn’t planned on camping, we could have then asked her politely to move. 

A good lesson learned as we proceed to manage this very busy campground.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Frank Review of Washington Lake

A guest post by Frank

Hi, I’m Frank, Paul and Cheri’s traveling companion.  You can read my story at The Story of Frank.  Last year I wrote the review of Shady Dell and Cobblerest to rave reviews.  OK, so there were no reviews, but here I am again to write about Washington Lake.

Washington Lake has 39 campsites.  Nine are on the lake; another eight are across the road from the lake, all campsites are an easy walk to the lake.  The campground is completely paved.  Each campsite has a concrete patio with a picnic table, raised fire pit, and dutch oven table.  Talk about luxury!  They forgot only one thing – water.  There is no water system at Washington Lake.  We send our campers to either Shady Dell or Lost Creek.

Washington Lake is the newest campground on the Mirror Lake Highway.  As such, it was built to accommodate larger trailers.  Most of the sites will fit a 32’ trailer easily; some sites will accommodate those 40 – 45 footers that have such a difficult time finding a spot in the National Forest.  So, to all of Paul and Cheri’s friends who couldn’t come to see them at previous sites because the sites didn’t have a spot large enough – now’s your chance.

But be warned!  This is a very popular campground.  So far they’ve filled up every weekend.  Fourteen of the campsites can be reserved at www.recreation.gov; the other 25 are first-come, first-served.  There are also five group sites, but since they haven’t opened yet I don’t know much about them.  I do know that they are only available by reservation, again at www.recreation.gov.

The campground sits at 9,980 feet according to Paul’s GPS.  It is surrounded by evergreen forest and some of the most famous peaks in the Uintas – Bald Mountain, Haystack Mountain, and the Notch.  The views are spectacular, the air is clear, and the stars seem to have all congregated in the skies about this delightful spot in the mountains.

To reach Washington Lake, head up the Mirror Lake Highway from Kamas.  Make a left turn toward Trial Lake just past mile marker 25, but instead of turning right toward Trial Lake, keep going up that road.  You’ll see a sign marking the right turn to our campground – the same road as the Crystal Lake Trailhead.  Paul and Cheri’s trailer will be the first one you’ll come to, and they’ll be the first to welcome you to beautiful Washington Lake.