Why Are Vermont's Most Popular Campsites Empty?

Jul 6, 2015

Vermont State Parks had a busy weekend for the Fourth of July holiday. But they’re also trying to figure out why some of the most popular campsites in the system stay vacant much of the summer.

Burton Island lies just off St. Albans Point, so it’s only reachable by boats or kayaks. If you don’t have your own, you can take the Island Runner ferry, which carries campers, day users and park staff a few times a day.  There’s a marina, a camp store and a nature center. The only vehicles on the island are park service trucks and ATVs — not counting bikes, scooters or garden ways carts that campers use to bring their gear to their camp site.

But the reason for the island’s popularity is the isolated, waterfront camp sites with stunning views of Lake Champlain.

Melissa Quinn is fishing off one of the many docks. She visited the island for a day seven years ago and now comes up from Connecticut for a week-long visit every summer with her husband, dog and boat.

“That’s one of the things we really like about it, is the fact that the lean-tos are right on the water and you can swim with your dog, at your site,” she said. Because she comes every year, Quinn knows the ins and outs of the reservation system.

Of the 2,200 camp sites in Vermont State Parks system, the dozen waterfront sites at Burton Island are by far the most popular, and are booked for the entire season almost immediately. But some of those sites sit empty part of the week.

“You really have to get up and be ready to go online like at 9:00 a.m., otherwise we’ll be at an inland spot,” and she added, “which just isn’t as cool.”

“It blocks in pretty fast, particularly for Burton Island,” said Park Ranger Gene Giard. “When the inventory for a month opens up, that first half hour there’s a lot of competition on the phone and online to get the waterfront sites.”

The State Parks dedicate one day per month, the 15th, just for reservations for Burton Island because demand for the sites slowed down the call center and the website.

Midweek no-shows for popular reserved campsites prompted Vermont State Parks Director Craig Whipple to send an email park users this winter, looking for feedback as to why people book the sites for days they don't plan to use.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Of the 2,200 camp sites in Vermont State Parks system, the dozen waterfront sites at Burton Island are by far the most popular, and are booked for the entire season almost immediately, according the Vermont State Parks Director Craig Whipple.

But some of those sites sit empty part of the week. That prompted Whipple to send an email park users this winter, looking for feedback as to why people book the sites for days they don’t plan to use.

While the email generated lot of responses, Whipple said they’re still digesting the feedback and aren’t ready to make any changes. Some cited the weather; campers don’t come if it’s raining. Others say they don’t like being required to book for four days, when they only want to come for the weekend.

"We have people out here who might have wanted a waterfront site, they're told we're full. They get out here and they set up on a site that's not on the waterfront, and for the first couple of days, they see nobody there." - Park Ranger Gene Giard

Giard says empty waterfront sites leave other campers disappointed. “We have people out here who might have wanted a waterfront site, they’re told we’re full. They get out here and they set up on a site that’s not on the waterfront, and for the first couple of days, they see nobody there. And they ask, ‘There’s nobody there, why can’t I move there?’ If the people who reserved those sites were in communication with the ranger about their plans, they might be able to let others take advantage of those sites."

Giard says online reservations make it hard to know how long people actually intend to stay, but a new system under development might help campers find shorter windows to book. And keeping sites filled on weekdays is a challenge for all of the state parks.

Still, with these sites so popular, the State Parks would like to see them occupied. Whipple said if people want to camp there, they should be willing to come mid-week.

On a recent rainy Wednesday, Michelle Palmer and her friend Jennifer Neugeth were visiting from Rhode Island with their families.

The camp store and restaurant awaits customers on a rainy afternoon. Online reservations make it hard to know how long people actually intend to stay, but a new system under development might help campers find shorter windows to book.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

“We booked it in January. We couldn’t get a waterfront site, but we were able to get two sites side by side. So it wasn’t too hard to book,” Neugeth said.

They’re huddled in a lean-to, cooking on a camp stove. They sheepishly admit it’s not their site.

“We’re actually squatting,” she said. “We’ve only been taking advantage of the view and sunrise and sunset,” Palmer added.

They say they know they have to leave before the people who booked the site arrive later in the day, but they’re happy for the refuge from the rain while they can get it.