The songs of birds, flowing water, crackling fire and laughter. The clean smells of pine and morning dew. The taste of pure mountain air. Clear views across the outlines and intricacies of the Milky Way. The feel of soft moss, rigid bark and cool mountain waters.
These are camp vibes.
Now, I will preface this by saying that my family and I are avid hikers and outdoors types, but, when it comes to sleeping and settling in for the night, we are too in love with our creature comforts to be camping purists. We have all of the camp vibes without the desire to sleep in tents. In fact, we all but ruled camping out as a vacation option for this very reason. That is, until we discovered Kampgrounds of America (KOA).
We’ve long gone on family trips to the mountains of New Hampshire, a mere 4-5 hour drive north for us, and always a fun getaway full of exploration and adventure. But we always stayed at resorts or hotels, which were nice, but created a sort of buffer between us and the more pure experience and feeling of truly being in nature. Then, someone suggested we check out KOA. I’ve driven past the bright yellow KOA signs many times in various states, but my assumption was always that this was simply a standard campground with designated lots to pitch a tent. Nothing more. Not being one to ignore a recommendation, I started doing some research and quickly found that KOA was way more than I’d assumed it to be. I booked a trip and packed the family into the minivan for a five day adventure, still a little unsure of what we had in store.
We decided to really go for the road trip experience, and planned two nights at the Twin Mountain / Mt. Washington KOA in the White Mountains of New Hampshire followed by two nights at the Lake Placid / Whiteface Mtn. KOA in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It ended up being one of the most fun, relaxing, private and beautiful family vacations we’ve ever been on, and, a new tradition that we hope will take us to various KOA sites across the country for years to come. Here’s why…
KOA absolutely has its share of more traditional camping sites to pitch a tent or park an RV, but with some bonuses such as fire rings, picnic tables, utility hookups and even cable TV (in some RV sites). Some sites even have the perfect medium between roughing it and luxury, with canvas, tent-like cabins called glamping tents. KOA also offers cabins which run the scale from one room, utility free shelters to luxurious and private accommodations with multiple bedrooms, full bathrooms, kitchens and TV. As much as we’d enjoy RVing, we don’t have an RV, and, like I said, we don’t do the tent thing. The cabins seemed like the perfect option and turned out to be our new standard for vacationing.
We didn’t know what to expect, but when we pulled up to our first cabin at the Twin Mountain / Mt. Washington KOA in New Hampshire, we were all blown away. We opted for one of the deluxe cabins, which, it turned out, truly were a home away from home. This beautiful, new cabin, which sleeps up to six people, had a private bedroom with a queen bed for my wife and I, a bunk bed and a sleeper sofa for the kids and a full kitchen with a fridge, cooktop, sink, microwave and utensils, plates, cups, pots and pans. It also had its own running water, a full bathroom with a tub/shower and a small living area with a kitchen table and TV. Outside, we had our own stone patio with a bistro set, charcoal grill and fire pit for nighttime fires and s’mores. It was incredibly comfortable, private and a nice option for a young, loud family like ours.
We didn’t think it could get any better than that, but when we arrived at our next stop, the Lake Placid / Whiteface Mtn. KOA in New York, we found ourselves in an even larger cabin with a full bedroom with a queen sized bed, a spacious common area with a sleeper sofa, kitchen table, TV and sitting area and a kitchen and a full bathroom. Outside, we had a full private deck, fire pit and gas grill, and this cabin was comfortably private and set back in the woods. Apparently, there are even nicer cabins than this at the site, but we were more than comfortable and content.
Having cabins, and the privacy this kind of accommodation provides is something we hadn’t previously experienced. Now, we will likely opt for this option no matter where we go. When it comes to traveling with kids, it’s nice to have the creature comforts to fall back on. Having our own bathroom and kitchen really helped, and saved money on eating out, and while we encouraged our kids (and ourselves) to limit their time on devices and spend their time outside enjoying the beautiful surroundings, it proved helpful to have TV and Wi-Fi access to keep the peace on rainy mornings.
Another worry was that when you go camping with a large family you need to pack everything. Because we didn’t know entirely what to expect, we did just that, packing our own pots, pans, utensils, linens and food, on top of all of our clothing and gear. That’s a lot. It turned out, KOA provided most everything we needed, outside of some linens and obvious things like clothing and gear. The fully stocked kitchens will help us cut our packing in half next time, and amenities such as camp stores at each KOA location will help limit the supplies we pack as well.
KOA locations are like resorts themselves, but feel more like small communities of fellow travelers meeting up on their respective journeys. What’s even better, is that they take the idea of family friendly to a new level where we felt at home rather than feeling like a burden or annoyance, which has, in the past, been the case at hotels we’ve stayed at. The sprawling sites have so much to offer, from swimming pools (my kids second favorite thing), playgrounds, outdoor games and arcades, to bike rentals, organized family events, hay rides and golf-cart train rides (see picture below – the kids favorite). The kids could be kids here. As I mentioned before, there are even camp stores, of which the Lake Placid location had so much to offer, including an upstairs dining hall that served a full breakfast made to order and an outdoor snack shack which became our nightly ice cream spot.
Obviously, KOA locations are also built around various attractions, so each location was close to great hiking spots and natural wonder. The New Hampshire location was nearby two of the state’s most wondrous sites; Mount Washington and Franconia Notch State Park. Stunning vistas all around.
Lake Placid, however, was an entirely new destination for us, and, one that may be our new favorite. Both KOA locations we visited were great, but the Lake Placid KOA is a lot larger, as it is one of the corporate run properties. The location couldn’t be more perfect, as along the outside of the camp, and a short hike down some hills is Ausable Gorge, one of the most stunning stretches of the Ausable River. Beautiful! And, the Lake Placid area is much more developed and easy to navigate, with nearby attractions like the former Olympic village of Whiteface Mountain (where you can bobsled), incredible hiking trails and Lake Placid itself in very close proximity. We are ready to plan our 2018 trip already.
Along with my wife, nine and six-year-old daughters and infant son, we also decided to make this the first vacation we took our 90 pound Golden Retriever, Sully, with us. Luckily, KOA prides itself on being totally pet-friendly, even allowing pets in most of its cabins. There are multiple dog parks and walking trails in each campground, and Sully made a bunch of new friends. In fact, he had so much fun and spent so much time hiking and swimming in streams and rivers that we had to make an emergency vet stop in Lake Placid. Diagnosis; swimmers tail! Never even knew there was such a thing.
The KOA Experience
KOA brands itself as having something it calls “the KOA difference,” and, I have to be honest, it’s something I noticed in each and every facet of our trip. From the accommodations and amenities to the people working at each location, we found a place that we all grew instantly fond of. The people truly added to the experience.
Where hotels and resorts have shown us niceties in the past, many of those interactions seemed a bit forced, or the obvious results of simply going through the motions of minimum levels of hospitality. But at both KOA sites we visited, we were made to feel like family. I know, I know, that sounds incredibly hokey and unbelievable, but I actually mean it. In fact, if you ask my two girls what their favorite part of the whole trip was, I promise they’d both have the same answer; “Brad.” Brad and Becky are the hosts and owners of the Twin Mountain / Mt. Washington KOA. Brad was one of the friendliest people I’ve met along my travels, and an absolutely accommodating and welcoming human being. Every night, he’d drive for hours around the camp, carting around each and every child (there were a lot) in his golf cart train. As I said, my kids loved it. Little touches like this, and remembering and acknowledging everyone, even the dog by name, went a long way. Chip, who runs the Lake Placid location was just as accommodating. Service with a personality.
A major draw for me is KOA’s vast network of locations all across the US and Canada. There are nearly 500 locations. Name a place you want to visit in the US and I bet you’ll find a KOA nearby. This is particularly appealing as my kids grow older and we take longer and longer family vacations. Our big road trip dream is to head out west towards Yosemite and Glacier Parks. It’s nice to know that we can book similar accommodations at all stops on a road trip and know what to expect at each. Online or telephone booking was easy, and they even have a handy KOA app to help plot your journey while on the road. The KOA option is just as affordable as a hotel or resort, and many locations are open year-round.
I was obviously impressed by the KOA experience. It was the perfect blend of modern amenities, family fun and nature. You can call it glamping, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But we still caught those camp vibes. The mountains called and we came. It’s nice to have an option to “camp” and convene with nature while still having a warm shower to wake up to in the morning.
Disclosure: Kampgrounds of America provided accommodations for us at both locations