A New Player For National Park Camping – Pocket Parks Interview, Part 2

Read Part 1 HERE.

This is Part 2 of my interview with Tom Tash from Pocket Parks. Tom and 2 others established Pocket Parks with the goal of having self-serve tent campgrounds with online reservations. Acadia East Campground is the first campground to open on June 27, 2018. In Part 1 of the interview we covered a lot of ground about the inception of Pocket Parks and their first campground, Acadia East Campground. We learned that Pocket Parks mission is first and foremost about helping to get more people, especially younger generations, out into the great outdoors, and to make tent camping affordable as a vacation option. They also are focused on locating their parks near national parks, which have huge annual draws of visitors. In Part 2 of my interview, we look at the future of Pocket Parks, where they are opening campgrounds next, and discuss how they are incorporating technology to help keep tent camping affordable while offering a great value for the money. Let’s jump into Part 2 with Tom from Pocket Parks!

National Park Camping

Pocket Parks is working on additional campgrounds in several states, slated to open in 2019. Can you talk about the progress of these campgrounds so far?

Tom: We’re probably the furthest along with the Grand Canyon. We are narrowing it down to a few different properties and expect to close on the right spot hopefully this Fall. One thing that we learned from the Acadia process is that not only is not only state ordinance and laws and regulations different, but every county and every town has different zoning. It was fantastic that the property that we purchased for Acadia fit all of the restrictions and zoning guidelines, but some of that we figured out after the fact, so we were pretty lucky that it worked out. So now we’re doing our due diligence, working with the county planning commission near the Grand Canyon, and expect to be in the town of Williams. Williams is about 45 minutes to an hour from the South Rim, but the actual town itself extends to about 20 minutes from the (national) park. So that’s where we’re looking to be there. We expect to be ready for them pretty close to opening season for them which is early Spring/late Winter of next year.

Joshua Tree we don’t expect to be too far behind (Grand Canyon). Joshua Tree’s peak season is about from November through March. That’s where you have mid-70s days and typically hikers and rock climbers from Yosemite head south to climb in Joshua Tree. We’ve identified at least the region that we want to be with Joshua Tree. There’s only a few campgrounds outside of Joshua Tree (National Park) at all, so that’s an area that really could use some assistance there. The park service often talks about the fact that they (Joshua Tree) are one of the more difficult parks to get a camping site in.

And then Big Bend is a lot like Joshua Tree as well. It’s really hot most of the year and visitation is high from October until about March or April. And that is very, very remote, there are very few options down there outside of Alpine and Terlingua are two of the close gateway communities. Terlingua is actually called the Terlingua Ghost Town, so that shows you about how much is happening outside of the park there.

What is the 5 year goal for Pocket Parks?

Tom: Its a little loose, the plan has been a fluid document and pretty flexible while we have been sorting out this first year and half. Ultimately the goal is for us to have 250 camp sites within our offerings in the next 5 years. Acadia will be a lower number (of sites). Land in coastal Maine is far more expensive, there’s a lot more competition around here, and even things like cutting trees to be able to put in a road to the back of the (Acadia) property takes a lot of time. For the Grand Canyon area, we would be able to buy three times the property for about half the cost of Acadia. So that’s a totally different experience, it’s very flat and the terrain is very different. We’re looking at probably 30 to 40 acres near the Grand Canyon area versus the 9 acres at Acadia. Grand Canyon will probably be one of the larger units for us.

What is the 5 year goal for Pocket Parks

With the interest in the National Parks at an all-time high, and the facilities they have are bursting at the seams, what have been the reactions from the National Park Service about what you are doing?

Tom: I actually spent a lot of time working with the park service prior to this idea. But when it comes to Pocket Parks I haven’t really had a whole lot of communication with the park service yet, and that’s partially due to us just getting things up and running. But we do plan to reach out, especially at Acadia, to try to create a line of communication. We would love to be able to help the park service in offering up a site here or there for the various researchers and others who come to do scientific work at the national parks.

What sort of feedback have you gotten so far from campers at Acadia East Campground?

Tom: The feedback that we’ve had has been tremendously positive. Mostly out-of-staters tell us that they can’t believe that for $30 they get absolute peace and quiet and a night sky. That look of excitement, like wait, this whole area is our campsite? Where’s the next one, where’s the neighbors going to be? It’s been really neat. I live in central Maine, but even the first few nights that I stayed there when we were getting setup, it was really dark, it was really quiet, you could hear all of the critters. For me being semi-comfortable in the backcountry experience, the first night or so I realized that I wasn’t sleeping as well as I thought. It can be a little bit of a shock if you are thinking of a more traditional camping setup.

Your campgrounds do not have a host on-site, but the main entrance is monitored by video camera. How did you settle on this setup, and do you ever have someone physically walk through the campground on a regular basis?

Tom: I won’t say that there’s not a lot of trust that we have with the people staying with us, because there certainly is. We’ve had a lot of people say that it’s naivity, but I don’t think it is. To quote a boss I once had, she had a mini-fridge with beer in it: “I don’t care if you come in at 8 am and crack a beer, or you have one right before you leave, that fridge is here and you’re all welcome to it, and I’m going to treat you like adults, and I believe that people will take that respect and trust and use it wisely.” We have an information board there that really outlines what we expect and what we hope our visitors will abide by while they are there. I think for the most part people are going to appreciate the fact that we’re giving them this totally peaceful, private little space for $30 a night where they can have a real outdoor experience, and ultimately we know who was there, so if you leave a mess we know who it was.

Going back to the onsite person and security cameras, that was one of the bigger challenges for us. That was one of the most important things to establish on this first model, and outline what were we actually doing to ensure that it wasn’t just becoming a hang out for teenagers to drink or people to cause trouble and be rowdy. So there are a number of things that are going on there. We have the video surveillance is one, I’m able to see anytime anyone moves in the parking area. We live in a time where the technology is where it needs to be to be able to do something like this, and affordably. In addition to that, we’re going to be hiring a person to walk the grounds on a daily or as-needed basis. And myself and my other partners are able to go to Acadia at least once a week to check things out as well, as Acadia is our test bed.

Your campgrounds do not have a host on-site, but the main entrance is monitored by video camera. How did you settle on this setup, and do you ever have someone physically walk through the campground on a regular basis

Are your campgrounds available to use year-round?

Tom: That’s the hope. Right now for this first year at Acadia we won’t be open for the winter. It was a bit of a compromise with the state and local officials that at least for this year, we will not remain open during the winter until they can wrap their heads around how that works in a commercial business. After that, however, we should be able to iron out everything to be open year-round at Acadia. At the other sites, yes, absolutely. Those parks don’t really have a quiet season. We would like to be that option that’s there.

What else would you like people to know about Pocket Parks?

Tom: We want everyone that stays with us to have a new expectation and appreciation for tent camping. If we can help a new generation to continue to spark excitement around the real outdoors, a mobile device free outdoors, or something that’s really authentic, I think that’s better for the entire outdoor community as a whole.

Wrap Up

Tom Tash and his crew have started a great series of campgrounds outside of our great national parks.  I found the conversation extremely enjoyable and Tom is very knowledgeable and passionate.  Tent camping is an accessible form of recreation, and Pocket Parks maintains this tradition with affordable prices and great sites.  If you missed reading the first part, you can read it here:

Read Part 1

We also did a fun interview with a young couple who chose to go tent camping for their honeymoon.  You can read that here:

You Did What For Your Honeymoon?!

If you want to get into tent camping or take your skills to the next level and how to best outfit yourself with the right gear, check out my best-selling book “The Best Tent Camping Guide”.

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