By: Jennifer Grambs // Photos: Jeff Grambs
What’s really behind that yellow sign at KOA when the summer heat no longer sizzles and the days get shorter?
What’s a camper to do when summertime is over and autumn’s changing landscapes beckon?
These are the questions my husband and I asked ourselves when we left our home in New York City during Labor Day weekend, the official end of summer, and began a road trip that would take us to the South Dakota Badlands and transport us into the fall.
Reinforced with happy memories of a previous cross country trip, Jeff and I wanted to reconnect with some of the KOA campgrounds that had been our temporary homes during summer vacations. Along the way, we hoped to experience again the historic places and colorful people that had made our warm weather trips memorable. But this time we would do it all through the perspective of another season.
Ask any KOA campground owner — I’ve chatted with many — and most will tell you what we already know. Camping in the fall is spectacular. Eighteen hundred miles from home, we have returned to campgrounds we’ve loved in the past (Badlands/White River KOA) and sought out new ones like Grand Island KOA. Along the way, we’ve been thrilled by an old-fashioned state fair, explored the Sand Hills in Nebraska and the monumental artwork in Alliance called Carhenge that’s made out of 38 vintage American cars to replicate England’s Stonehenge. And we always return to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, always with KOAs as our home bases.
What we know for sure is that camping in the fall is different in the best sort of way. For example, what was most memorable when we started our trip during the chaos of the Labor Day holiday was the crowds. Oh, also the heat. And a palpable rush to get in everything fun before summer ends. Even finding sites in a campground was difficult. Not having reserved in advance, most were filled, and I have to admit that we ended up driving much further than expected before we got to unroll our sleeping bags.
Then, suddenly — it seemed to me, miraculously at the stroke of midnight on September 1st — everything changed. It was as if the KOA Yellow we’d been following throughout the summer metamorphosed into what will eventually be the reds and golds of fall. In reality, it was simply that life on the road got easier. A month earlier, KOA campgrounds had been bursting at the seams with families who now were in back-to-school mode and relegated to weekend camping.
In their places, a new breed of campers surprisingly has grown out of the changing natures of our technological society: people in many professions can transform their campsite into a work station by plugging into KOA’s Wi-Fi. Freelancers like me, who don’t work 9-5 schedules, can just as well meet work deadlines from a tent or cabin (deluxe or otherwise). Businesses can be run out of an RV, as was the case in the Badlands KOA we visited. Home-schooled families can take their children on the road as they discover that travel is an education onto itself. This is a new kind of camping community I hadn’t noticed before that mixes well with the retirees and their well-appointed RVs and the occasional, pre-winter traveler.
By the time we arrived at the Grand Island KOA, fall had already happened. The evidence was right in front of us when we checked into the Grand Island Journey KOA on the last day of the Nebraska State Fair. Our neat-as-a-pin cabin abutted a cornfield almost ready for harvesting. This was the first time I saw for myself corn stalks, maybe not as high as an elephant’s eye, but certainly head level with me. Walking our dog Roxy to the dog park, I could have reached out and touched those ears of corn that would soon fill gigantic silos that line the highway.
This campground is a tidy, pretty place where even the little bullfrog that hopped into the shower room with me felt at ease. Comforting, too, was the knowledge that all the water we used came from the Ogallala Aquifer underneath us.
Getting to the Fair was an easy drive of a few miles along the Henry Fonda Memorial Highway and over the Platte River. Fonner Park, where the event is held every year, was a jubilant place with everything you’d expect a Fair to have: a gigantic Ferris wheel, buildings filled with everything farm and ranch related, award-winning animals, cookie eating contests, rodeo prize-winners and celebrity singers, and lots of comfort food like corn dogs and drummies.
It was hard to leave. We drove toward the Badlands across the Sand Hills of north- central Nebraska where, if you like prairies, you will marvel at the unusual mix of grasses and dunes that make up about a quarter of the state.
As we drove toward the South Dakota Badlands, I admit to worrying that seeing it in the fall might not live up to the summertime viewing I remembered. Badlands National Park, 240,000 acres of astonishing landscape, holds a special place in my heart. The Badlands/White River KOA is on the edges of the park and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. So, the simple act of walking out of your tent, cabin or RV each morning is bound to give you a glimpse of the nearby treasures you’ll see up close throughout your day.
Having observed that mystical land before, but always in the bright sunshine of summer months, I wondered how September’s shadows might affect my vision of the precarious formations and prairies. I needn’t have worried.
The autumn light was magical. Its early-season glow seemed to lure families of Bighorn sheep to come close to my outstretched arms. It sharpened every aspect of the Badlands that we explored, particularly the 84-person town of Interior with its tiny jail, tinier post office and colorful locals who hang out at Cowboy Corners for food and fuel and will gladly chat.
There’s a little white church just north of Pine Ridge with a history that will break your heart. I’m certain autumn’s light shines with particular care on the sign that reads “St. John Church”, especially if you’ve read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Up a steep dirt road behind the Red Cloud Indian School is an old Lakota Sioux cemetery where you’ll find the grave of the great chief for whom the school is named.
We sat on a bench visiting a new friend who works at the nearby school and told us about Indian life on the reservation. For the 600 children who are educated there, autumn is all about a new beginning for each child. It’s been that way for 125 years.
The rewards of camping in the fall are moments like these. Yes, you should try it.
Jennifer Grambs is a journalist who has published three books about traveling in the United States as part of the American Traveler series.
Jeff Grambs is a photographer with a website at GrambsPhoto.com and former broadcast news writer.