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The joys of RV camping: finding the right spot to park your motorhome, travel trailer, or pop-up camper

The fragrance of pine trees permeates your national park campground site. After savoring the trout you caught this afternoon, your family toasts marshmallows over the glowing fire pit. In the background, someone gently strums a guitar. Tomorrow you'll go on a ranger-led hike and watch a slide show at the amphitheater. You' re at peace with nature, and it doesn't matter that your site lacks hookups.

ANOTHER SCENARIO: YOU'RE spending a busy week visiting an area's tourist attractions. However. you've decided to stay at the campground today. Your youngsters are delighted to try out the swimming pool. grab a hamburger at the snack ban and play a round of miniature golf. You've checked out the campground grocery store for those hot dogs you forgot. Tonight a band will perform. Next weekend, if you decide to stay, they're having Christmas in July, when everyone decorates their RVs.

Maybe it's winter, you're retired and want to defrost. The desert warmth sounds good. You check in for the season at one of Arizona's huge resort campgrounds catering to the 55+ market. You'll enjoy state-of-the-art exercise centers, whirlpool spas, indoor and outdoor heated pools, lighted tennis courts, the putting green. But they offer lots more--craft shops for woodworking, silversmithing, and ceramics, on-site restaurants, card and billiards rooms, computer centers, grand ballrooms for dances and dinner theater, and hundreds of organized special events. A few days on site. and you realize the hype you heard is true. You'll never get bored.

America's more than 15,000 campgrounds come in many sizes and personalities. A park exists to fit every budget and wish list of activities. Keys to finding your favorite campground are recognizing where you want to go, deciding the style of camping you prefer, and knowing how to do a little research.

PUBLIC CAMPGROUNDS

National park campgrounds are ideal for those seeking spectacular scenery and plentiful activities. Campers find these campgrounds at most national parks with the exception of metropolitan areas and historical sites. Some, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, contain several busy campgrounds.

Most provide picnic tables, grills, flush toilets, individual parking spaces, and waste dump stations, Some have electric or water hookups, hot water, and showers. What you'll also find at most national park campgrounds are evening and daily activity programs, particularly during weekends or summer months. In wilderness and forest areas run by the national government, campers find very limited services--picnic tables at individual sites, pit toilets, running water nearby.

Most federal campgrounds are on a first-come, first-serve basis: some take reservations. For a listing of parks taking reservations, visit http://reservations.nps.gov/parklist.cfm. To make reservations in national park campgrounds, call (800) 436-7275. Call (877) 444-677 for information and reservations for U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds.

State campgrounds vary from primitive (with picnic tables and pit toilets) to deluxe with full hookups, scheduled activities during summer months, nature centers, pools, boat rentals, and guarded beaches.

A few cities maintain municipal campgrounds open to everyone. Most of the northern parks close for the winter.

PRIVATE CAMPGROUNDS

You'll find private campgrounds near major attractions, in cities and towns, along the interstates, and close to national parks and forests. These vary from basic facilities to resorts where you'll want to spend a week or a season. Some have their own golf courses or are attached to casinos. Those located on large lakes or the ocean often provide boating facilities and rentals.

Remember that northern private campgrounds may shut down from early to mid-October to mid-April. Southern campgrounds may reduce activities between May and October because of the heat.

Two chains worth noticing are KOA Kampgrounds and Yogi Bear Camp Jellystone. Both have online sites with complete directories. KOA and Yogi Bear printed directories are free at the campgrounds.

KOA's 500 campgrounds are mostly in the United States and Canada, with some in Mexico and Japan. They offer clean restrooms with hot showers, laundromats, playgrounds, swimming pools, convenience stores for RV supplies and groceries, game rooms, and cabin rentals. Many have snack bars or restaurants, spas. recreation halls or fields, and planned activities. A few, such as the New Orleans West KOA and San Francisco North KOA in Pomona, California. provide tours of nearby attractions. The web site is www.koa.com.

Yogi Bear's Camp-Resorts (www.cam pjellystone.com) have more than 70 locations in 24 states and Canada. All Camp-Resorts are independently owned and operated, so facilities vary. Typical ones have swimming pools, playgrounds, snack bars or restaurants, and general stores. Other recreation ranges from boat rentals, miniature golf, and volleyball to game rooms and fishing. Some have gift shops selling Yogi Bear souvenirs. The Camp-Resort in Missoula. Montana. features Yogi Bear visits.

Cal-Am Properties' six RV resort parks in Arizona are among the elite in the active adult market. They resemble communities rather than campgrounds, offering daily, weekly, monthly, three-month, and yearly rates. Four of these campgrounds are in Mesa, with one in Gold Canyon and in Sunrise. Call (888) 940-8989 or visit www.Cal-Am.com.

With sports facilities and weekly organized activities, plus quiet pursuits like cards, crafts, and reading at the library, seniors at Cal-Ann resorts always find something of interest. The Mesa Real park has a beauty/barber shop and travel agency.

Mesa seems to be a hotspot for seniors, with a number of community-style parks. Other senior-oriented RV parks are found scattered throughout Arizona, Florida, California, and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

In Central Florida, Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground is the ultimate for families. All ages enjoy the park's Hoop-De-Doo hoedown musical revue with all-you-can eat dinner. Mickey's Backyard BBQ has an all-you-can eat buffet with Disney characters, while Trail's End Buffet is cafeteria style. Sites have picnic tables, charcoal grills, and paved driveways. Recreation includes two arcade game rooms, two heated swimming pools, hiking trails, a white-sand beach, and bicycle and watercraft rentals. Campers also enjoy the petting farm, trail and pony rides, nightly Disney movies, and campfires with Disney characters. Call (407) 824-2900 for details.

Coast to Coast Resorts offers a comprehensive program of benefits for those who purchase a site at one of their affiliated private membership campgrounds, which number nearly 1,000 all over North America. This becomes your "home resort." Members stay at the network's campgrounds for as little as $6 a night. Coast to Coast members are eligible to receive discounts on RV/auto/homeowners insurance. car and RV rentals, telephone calling cards, airfare, restaurants, and hotels.

Coast to Coast, founded in 1972, is the world's oldest and largest membership camping and recreation system, with nearly 200.000 members at three levels. To view the program, go to www.coastresorts.com. Or call (800) 538-8136.

RV CAMPING BY THE BOOK

FOR RESEARCHING CAMPGROUNDS, A good source is Woodall's, whose directories come in national, eastern, western, and seven regional editions. Woodall's rates campgrounds on a scale of 1 to 5, with one rating for facilities, another for recreation. You'll find an online edition at www.woodalls.com.

The Trailer Life Campground & RV Services Directory comes only in a national edition, giving brief descriptions of 15,500 campgrounds. II ranks private and some state campgrounds from 1 to 10, paying attention to recreation facilities, cleanliness and physical characteristics of restrooms and showers, and visual appeal and environmental quality.

Both the Trailer Life and Woodall's directories can be ordered by calling (877) 209-6655.

Members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) can receive 11 regional campground directories at no charge.

One site worth checking out is www.go campingamerica.com, which gives access to 650 RV campgrounds. These are listed in alphabetical order by state, town, and park name. Under advanced searches, you can track features you want, such as parks in Florida with modern hookups or disability accessibility. This web site also lists addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers for each state's private campground associations and addresses for various directories.

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