photograph by Alan Garvick

North Carolina’s state parks are packed with opportunities: for adventure and leisure, recreation and education. Check out our Guide to NC State Parks.


It’s really quite complicated, although no one seems to understand this but me. We pull up to the campground, and I can sense my family shaking its collective head. Not this again. Please, Dad, don’t make this a big deal. A quiet pall falls over the truck, as if Julie and the kids are holding their breath. We creep along the loop road — it seems to be a rule that all North Carolina state park campgrounds are laid out along loop roads — peering at the empty sites. Picnic tables beckon. Smoke rises from recently extinguished campfires. Tension builds, until some brave soul says meekly: “That spot looks kind of nice. What about that one?”

I gaze out the window and smolder. Can they not see that the ground slopes just enough to tilt you off your sleeping pad? Do they not realize that around the next loop-road bend might be the campsite of our dreams?

If your family camps, you might have a relative who’s as difficult to please as I am when it comes to picking a campsite. And I am the worst. Choosing a campsite with me is like living inside the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fairy tale: This ground looks a little too rocky. This picnic table is a little too close to the tent. That tent site is at the base of a hill; if there’s a flash flood, the water will pour down that gully and swamp us all. 

Please, Dad.

What if the next spot has a better view? What if there’s a more private campsite where late-arriving guests won’t spotlight our tent with their headlights? What if there’s a better place to hang a clothesline? What if we just keep looking for another few minutes? And, yes, I know it’s almost dark. 

Complicating the matter is the game-show approach to scoring the best campsite, especially at state and national parks. The old-school way to snag a site at these campgrounds is to scout out a suitable spot — say, Loop C, No. 27 — and place a cooler or camp chair on the picnic table to stake your claim while you drive back to the campground office to register your find. Meanwhile, everyone else is on the hunt, too, circling the campground loops with lean and hungry looks. It’s a little like early pioneers racing for the good land in the old homesteading days: You have to move fast, make a quick decision, and stick to your guns.

None of which suit my style: I poke around from site to site, driving the loops time and again, mulling over the merits of C-27 vs. B-13. Even when I make a decision and plant my cooler on a picnic table like it’s the Nickens national flag, I second-guess myself. What’s the rush? Let’s take another loop around the campground. I’m like a dog turning around three times, trying to find a place to sleep.

My wife, my kids, my pals — whoever is unlucky enough to share my company at the time — wail in anxious desperation.

Please, man, could you just choose a spot?

If only it were that simple.

• • •

It’s a mighty fine time to be camping in Cackalacky, so I’m bracing for another few rounds of anxiety-producing site selection over the next few months. But despite the protests — I prefer to call it “whining” — of my family, I like to point out that my obsession has paid off big over the years. I’ve scored some doozy campsites. On Ocracoke Island one spring break, we backed a pop-up camper between a pair of tall Atlantic dunes that sheltered us from the cool April breezes. It turned out to be a wise move, as thunderstorms one night raked the camper with 40-mile-an-hour gusts, and the four of us huddled together in a single bed as hours of lightning lit up the inside of our meager shelter.

Cape Lookout National Seashore offers a host of camping amenities: easy access to the ocean, a super-soft floor to sleep on, and one of the state’s largest nightlights. photograph by Alan Garvick

Under the brow of Grandfather Mountain, our favorite campsite backed up to a deep creek bed paved with multicolored stones, where the kids would play for hours. There was room for a hammock, camp chairs, and our garish inflatable love seat. We scored that site at least a half-dozen times, although we were always there the week of Thanksgiving, when temperatures dipped into the low teens, so to be truthful, the competition for prime spots was pretty meager.

There was that site at Jordan Lake, the one with a view of the water through the tall pines, so close to the shore that you fell asleep to the sound of water lapping against the red-clay beach. The canoe camp at Merchants Millpond, shared with a dozen barred owls who couldn’t have cared less about the state park’s posted quiet hours. 

Temporary quarters, all of them. And all of them a permanent place in memory.

• • •

Once I’ve made the gut-wrenching choice between B-21 and D-14, everything gets easier. We all have our duties. My son, Jack, and I work on the tent, wrestling poles and pole clips and stakes. Julie and our daughter, Markie, pile up the bedding on the picnic table. It all flows like clockwork; we’ve done this dozens of times.

There’s something about putting down tent stakes and raising a cooking fly that feels like making an investment in a little patch of the world. There’s a sense of ownership and pride in making 300 square feet of dirt, pea gravel, and picnic table top a home, if only for a night or two.

Occasionally, I’ll catch a glimpse of another vehicle cruising the campground loop. Moving slowly, like a vulture gyring over a field. Looking for scraps. Trying to ascertain whether we’re pitching camp or breaking down the tents and heading home.  

I’ll suck in my gut and throw my shoulders back. Split a log with my bare hands. Maybe juggle a few axes. I don’t have to say a word; they know what it all means: That’s right, Buster. It’s the best lot on the block. And it’s all ours.

This story was published on

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.

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