South Charlotte

Camping is proving to be the way to go

Capping off a bustling summer, area campgrounds are expecting a rush of locals this Labor Day weekend as budget-minded families – shunning expensive trips – instead opt for vacations closer to home.

From McDowell Nature Preserve in southwest Mecklenburg to Cane Creek in Union County's Waxhaw to Ebenezer Park in Rock Hill, park leaders say they're hosting plenty of campers from just a short drive away.

Families say high gas prices and the sluggish economy are reasons why they're marking the unofficial end of summer with a “staycation” – a vacation at or near home. Campground sites can go as low as $15 a night, families say, and they can bring their own food. Plus, kids have free rein to get as messy as they want.

This weekend marks Georgia Koepke's second camping trip this summer to McDowell, about 18 miles from her Ballantyne-area neighborhood. Her eight siblings and their families are coming, too. (All but one sister live locally.)

Koepke suggested the alternative to their usual beach travels after camping at McDowell with a group from her Glenfinnan neighborhood – and enjoying it more than she expected.

By renting tents, cleanup is minimal afterwards, she said. She clicked off a list of what she and her siblings will bring for the weekend: breakfast fixings, hamburgers and hotdogs for grilling, and – as 3-year-old daughter Gracie piped in – “water balloons.”

“Now with the gas prices, it's so expensive just to jump in the car and go (to the beach) for a weekend,” Koepke said. “This way, we can get the whole family together. We can afford it, it's close to home, and we don't have to take time away from work.”

This year marks the first time more Mecklenburg residents are using McDowell campgrounds compared to non-county residents, according to Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. Last year, Mecklenburg campers trailed non-county residents 7,029 to 7,375. For fiscal year 2008 – which ended June 30 – 7,835 Mecklenburg campers used the park compared to 7,187 non-county residents.

Mecklenburg campers are outpacing their out-of-county peers this weekend, too, said Woody Woodward, recreation coordinator supervisor at McDowell.

Throughout the summer, “we're seeing many more first time people recently,” Woodward said. “Instead of going to Myrtle Beach or the mountains or Disney, (they're) staying closer to home.”

At Cane Creek this summer, 161 of the 235 reservations for cabins came from Union County residents, according to county spokesman Brett Vines. County residents also outpaced non-county residents for campground reservations, Vines said.

The ratios are similar to past seasons, Vines said, although campground coordinators are hearing campers talk more about budgeting. “Some local campers have said it was easier on the pocketbook to come to Cane Creek,” Vines said by e-mail.

Early last week, only 10 of 69 camping slots remained open at Ebenezer Park in Rock Hill on the shores of Lake Wylie, according to Owen Cherry, a 19-year park ranger there. Most visitors are from the Charlotte/Rock Hill area, he said.

“We're just seeing an influx of people locally,” Cherry said. “We talk to the people when they register. A lot of people will tell you, we just can't afford to go anywhere.”

Sporting goods stores are seeing a rush, too. Michael Davis, supervisor for REI in Pineville, said the store has seen an increase in sales in car-top boxes for hauling luggage and gear on car trips: “A throwback to the old school family vacation.”

For the Robertson family, it's all about economic ease.

The south Charlotte family of six – two kids, mom, dad, grandma, and black lab Mitzy – made a return trip to McDowell Nature Preserve Campground in the Steele Creek area three weeks after their last trip there. The family thought about taking a cruise, but figured that would run them several hundred dollars.

Grandma Kathy Robertson found a tent for half-price from a sporting goods store, allowing granddaughters Sadie, 4, and Kaylee, 2, to adjust to camping at an early age.

And mom Sharon Robertson said, “They love to play with the rocks and the sticks.”