“It’s a tough life,” joked Suzi Dow after spending a day surveying campgrounds on the La Sal Mountain range, where they spotted, among other things, a cowgirl on horseback moving a herd of cattle. Dow and her husband Fred live in Bisbee, Ariz., but have spent a significant amount of time on the road since they first began the project 19 years ago.
Back in 1994, during a visit to Virginia, the Dows had trouble finding any information online about the Jefferson National Forest campground where they ended up staying. That experience prompted them to develop a website that would provide detailed and comprehensive information on all of the country’s National Forest campgrounds, Suzi Dow said. Their website, www.forestcamping.com, created with the blessing of the U.S. Forest Service, is now filled with hundreds of reviews and thousands of photographs.
Suzi Dow noted that she and Fred reached their goal a couple of years ago of visiting every one of the 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in the country, along with virtually every campground located therein (more than 2,400 in all). She said they are now in the process of revisiting some of the sites in order to update the information on their website. They also regularly receive tips from fellow campers regarding updates and corrections, she said.
The Dows’ current trip, which they bill as “the road less traveled,” is to follow the nearly 1,600-mile route of U.S. 191 from southern Arizona all the way up to the Canadian border. Along the way, they’ll pass through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. The trip, which started in mid-July, will take them through six national forests, four national monuments, three national parks and six state parks, Suzi Dow said, adding that when side trips are taken into account, this summer’s adventure will cover more than 2,000 miles.
Suzi Dow said they chose the U.S. 191 route at the suggestion of a reader.
“This is not a major commercial roadway but a route of two lanes better suited to motorcycle traffic than big 18-wheel trucks,” Suzi Dow said. “There are few roads that can claim a traveler will be able to experience vast stretches of open landscape one day and climb mountains that catch clouds the next.”
Fred Dow said the scenic qualities along U.S. 191 might surprise travelers.
“There are places where wind and rain have carved unbelievable formations and people have lived among those structures since before Columbus reached the New World’s shores,” he said. “Highway 191 is a humble road [that] no one thinks is worthy of a Scenic Byway designation. It is often overlooked by travelers, but we think it has so many possibilities.”
The Dows spent five days in Moab in late July, staying in their 31-foot motor home in a local RV park in town at night, then traveling to various target campgrounds during the daytime and documenting them.
Some of the campgrounds they are targeting this trip have been upgraded since their last visit to the area, Suzi Dow said, citing Oowah Lake in the La Sal Mountains as an example. She said they were impressed with the Oowah Lake campground, adding that it “has to be a tent camper’s idea of near-perfect.” However, they did note that the turnaround might need to be looked at by the U.S. Forest Service, as getting around another vehicle parked at site 11 proved to be a challenge.
Dow said she also was similarly impressed with nearby Warner Lake’s Aspen Grove campground, which they called one of the “most beautiful of any campground we have been to.”
Dow said they strive to keep the reviews on their website objective.
“Basically, in our opinion, there are no negative reviews. There are cases where we might say a campground is ‘under-maintained,’ [or that] campers should bring their own toilet paper, parking aprons are not level, or folks in an RV should be aware of long branches. But we never ‘rate’ a campground,” she said, adding that they have established an update and review process that relies on input from readers of the website.
Dow noted that their guide books and website only feature developed national forest campgrounds that have 10 or more designated sites and are accessible by at least a family sedan. She said they still collect much of their information the old-fashioned way, using pencil and paper, but they also take photos with a digital camera and enter their findings and digital images into an automated database from which their site’s web pages and a dozen or so related e-book guides are generated.
The couple’s days typically start at 6 a.m. and end at midnight, Suzi Dow said, adding that their time is generally divided between collecting research and taking photos during the daytime and doing computer work and handling correspondence at night. In addition to maintaining the Forestcamping.com website, the Dows have been posting regular updates on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/usnfcg. They welcome any and all interaction from their followers, she noted.
After they reach the Canadian border, Dow said they plan to visit grandchildren and other family members in Ennis, Mont., before heading back home via Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. They plan to revisit even more campgrounds during their return trip, she said.
Dow said the trip thus far has provided some nice surprises.
“One thing that has been a surprise to us is the variety of cultures we have already experienced on this trip,” she said. “There have been the mining-based, ranching, a dash of farming, the Navajo, Mormon, recreation-focused, and tourist-focused cultures.”
And Moab proved especially surprising, she added.
“Perhaps the biggest surprise was the number or diversity of recreational opportunities right here in Moab,” Dow said.