Walk-up campsites are harder to find at Maine state parks

·5 min read

Jun. 19—NAPLES — Non-reservable campground sites at state parks are a godsend for those who seek them out, and a sheer delight for those who go where the wind takes them and dare to show up at a campground without a reservation.

But make no mistake, these first-come, first-served sites are not for those lacking a sense of adventure.

"You have to be more of a free spirit," said Wendy Conger of Bridgton, who nabbed a lakefront, walk-up site at Sebago Lake State Park Campground early in May with her husband, Don, and has been enjoying it ever since.

As the popularity in camping has increased, so, too, may the demand for these non-reservable, so called "walk-up" sites. That's even more likely considering the state cut the number of walk-up sites available at Maine's 12 state park campgrounds by 47 percent.

Fueled by people wanting to get outside during the pandemic, state park campgrounds saw record numbers the past two years. They had 315,000 campers in 2021, a 12-percent increase from 2020, which was a new record with 280,362 camping visitors.

Because of that demand, the Bureau of Parks and Lands decreased the number of first-come, first-served sites at state park campgrounds in 2022 from 195 to 103, said Jim Britt, the Bureau's spokesman, to provide more sites for the reservation system.

Some state parks, like Lake St. George and Bradbury Mountain, now have as few as four walk-up sites. Lily Bay State Park on Moosehead Lake dropped its non-reservable sites from 16 to nine. Cobscook Bay State Park, another popular campground, cut its walk-up sites from 23 to 13.

Camden Hills State Park — a big park for people randomly stopping by en route to Acadia National Park — had its walk-up sites cut from 23 to 11.

At Lamoine State Park, where seven out of 62 sites are non-reservable sites, it's mostly locals who use them — and love them, said Park Manager Joe Howard.

"I came from the Florida State Park system, where most of the campsites are reserved by out-of-staters. I'm really impressed to see a lot of Maine residents who know about the walk-up sites and use them," Howard said.

Sebago's allotment was decreased from 45 to 26, and even before the decrease the sites went fast, said Sebago Manager Owen Blease.

"I think most of the time it's people traveling through the area, maybe they are a little bit more adventurous and their plans are not fixed. They are flying more loosely," Blease said.

Most commercial campgrounds do not set aside non-reservable sites for walk-up business, said Kathy Dyer, the executive director of the Maine Campground Owners Association. Dyer said it's possible none of the 180 Maine campgrounds that are part of the association provide for walk-up business.

At Loon's Haven Family Campground in Naples, you either have a reservation or you're out of luck.

"I know very few campgrounds that do that. Holding sites for the 'maybe' would be losing money," said Billie McNamara, Loon's Haven operations manager

From the campers' viewpoint, it takes a certain amount of fortitude to pack up all your camping gear and drive off on vacation with only the chance you'll score a campsite.

"It's a little bit nerve-racking," said Anna Goodfriend, who lives a half hour from Sebago Lake campground and secured a non-reservable site with water views last weekend to enjoy with her 5-year-old son.

"It would have been a huge bummer if I didn't get a site. But I also appreciate that these are available. I'm so grateful. Camping has been so busy. Otherwise, I'd have no chance."

During prime camping season — the last Saturday in June through the third Saturday in August — campers can stay at any park for up to 14 nights. However, there are no night restrictions before June 22 and after Sept. 5. Campers who grab a non-reservable site during that time, take advantage of the chance at a longer stay.

Many Mainers who target the non-reservable sites will jump sites when one comes open in order to get a non-reservable site, in order to stay longer during the shoulder seasons.

That's what Richard Daigle and his wife, Dottie, did after they came from Greene with their RV the day Sebago Lake State Park opened in May.

That mindset requires a willingness to fly without a plan. But Daigle said it's worth it. When it's all said and done, he and Dottie will camp in their RV by the lake for five weeks.

"If it's there, it's there, if it's not, it's not. It's the luck of the draw," Daigle said.

Lori and Lou Linscott have embraced that philosophy many times at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty.

"We're stalkers," Lori Linscott said with a laugh.

They live nearby in Searsmont where Lou owns an auto garage and Lori is a kindergarten teacher. Each spring before school gets out, they drive their RV with their Jeep hooked to the back just 30 minutes down the road to Liberty and park alongside Lake St. George at a non-reservable state campsite as soon as they can get one. Then they both commute to work from their favorite park for several weeks.

"I've heard of people fighting over sites," Lou Linscott said. "You take a chance. It might be taken when you get there. But that's the rule: First one there gets it."

"You need to be a grown-up about it," Lori Linscott added. "We're not that far from home if it doesn't work out. But when we're here, it feels like a different world."