Saturday, August 4, 2012

Tionesta Recreation Area Campground

Our sixth campground of our current RV adventure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tionesta Recreation Area Campground in Pennsylvania, is the least impressive of the trip, so far.  But, we have only been here one day, and we realize the campground is completely different than any we've stayed at in the past.  This campground is a unique usage of the space available to the Corps for camping, but we are nonetheless disappointed after only our first day here.  We weren't thrilled after our first day at Raystown Lake, either, but after spending several days there we began to appreciate what the location and the campground offered. We'll see how we feel after we spend more time exploring the Tionesta Recreation Area. The campground is located on Tionesta Creek a short distance from where it meets the Allegheny River. The campground is located below the dam across the Tionesta Creek which forms the Tionesta Lake above it.

We have several issues with the facility and its operation, one of which is our reserved campsite itself. Picking any campsite on-line is always the luck of the draw, or in the case of Tionesta, the drawing itself. Campsites picked on-line through, the Internet reservation system that handles the Corps of Engineers campgrounds, unfortunately may not always accurately match their written description. Such as the drawing that show the Tionesta Creek directly behind a row of campsites. We have one of those sites, number 38, and believe me, we can not see any water. I'm sure it's back there somewhere, but it certainly isn't close or even visible.

There are campsites here on the outer unnamed loops that are very well laid out, and very pretty, but the ones on the center loop, where our reserved site is located, are close together, muddy, and quite frankly, dirty. Most of the sites in our loop are very close together with no space between pads, and therefore, no privacy. They also do not drain well. There is mud everywhere as soon as I step off the sparse gravel camp pad. The inside of the upper loop is also tight packed with little room between campsites, great for family reunions but not for those who want to listen to their own music.

The differences between campgrounds begin right at the main gate. The unkempt flower boxes in front of the main gate is in stark contrast to every other Corps of Engineer entrance we've ever seen.  The front gate office itself is only manned from 11:00am to 6:00pm, Monday through Thursday, and from 2:00pm to 9:00 pm on Thursday and Friday. The gate is manned by a COE campground ranger instead of volunteer attendants.  The campground is wide open to anyone to walk or drive in at any time, day or night. Security consists of occasional evening tours through the campground by the Forest County Sheriff Department, although they don't seem to show up every night.

Speed bumps might help enforce the 15 mph speed limit, or perhaps keep it under 35 mph or so, which seems to be the normal speed once past the main gate. The exit speed appears to be higher still, even for those campers towing huge, fifth-wheel units as they head out.  The week-end drivers tend to be more cautious than the locals who zip through during the week, and for good reason; the campground is filled with children of all ages from Friday evening until Sunday, many of whom are on bicycles. I guess the speeding drivers don't expect to see campers here during the week.

This is a very popular campground for local residents, and campers from as far away as Pittsburgh and even eastern Ohio.  The lake and marina are on the lake itself above the dam, while the campsites are on Tionesta Creek below the dam. You have to leave Corps property to drive to the rim of the dam and then a few miles further to the ramp and floating dock that also serves as the marina office. Not having the boating area near the campground explains the constant flow of traffic through the campsites, but there is no alternative due to the nature of the creek itself. The boat launching ramp looks new and well maintained, but other than the floating dock, there are no other amenities. The lake appears to be long and narrow, more like a river, but very pretty and clean.

The fairly new toilet and restroom facilities are well kept, in the standard of other Corps campgrounds, even with the overflow weekend crowd. The campground has doggie-bag dispensers located around the campground for pet owner's convenience. One thing we notice as odd here is the lack of trash hangars to deter nocturnal scavengers. This is the first campground we've visited without the steel-pole “Critter hooks.”

Our bicycle-dodging, first evening walk is cut short by the overpowering campfire smoke that hangs heavily in the moist, night air. The elderly, official firewood vendor drives slowly around the campground in his gun-metal gray pickup truck with a little yellow flashing light on top. His magnetic stick-on sign proclaims “Firewood.” He does a very brisk business, stopping constantly to sell bundles of firewood. It would be nice if everyone drove as slowly as he does. Once back in our trailer, we turn on the air conditioner as our neighbor's fire-pit is just outside our kitchen window and the heavy, unpleasant smoke blows directly into our trailer. I don't know what kind of tree the firewood vendor was selling, but it certainly wasn't hickory.

Sunday begins our second day here in the valley campground at Tionesta Recreation Area. The temperature is 58 degrees and the skies are clearing after a day of intermittent rain showers. Ilse and I walk the campground and the Dam Trail after breakfast. We check out open campsites that are popping up around the campground as the weekend warriors head for home. We decide to either find a decent site or leave for another campground. We may have problems, though, the entire upper loop is without power due to the storm that rolled through last Thursday while we still over at Tioga Campground. A ranger we talked with said they had no idea when power would be restored. The Corps of Engineers Project Office and the Visitors Center located up on top of the dam are without electrical power as well.

We are in luck as Tionesta has a block of campsites that are walk-ups, or first come, first served that are not on the reservations system. They are located just past the entrance to the campground and are well spaced, clean, and have plenty of green area. Best of all, by Sunday afternoon most of them are empty. We talk with Ranger Garrison at the main gate and he politely informs us we may change sites once during our planned stay. Simply pick any site that is not marked as reserved and he'll be happy to handle the paperwork. We pick site 15 on the main entrance road as it has plenty of room, no neighbors, plenty of grass for the dogs, and it is dry. I drop my orange traffic cone in the center of the new site to stake our claim and we head back to our old site at 38 to hook up the trailer for the move.

An hour later we are set up in our new site, awning out with the dogs laying happily in the grass, watching the steady stream of RVs of every size and type as they head for home. A completely different world without leaving the campground.

The campground is practically empty on Monday morning. We watch a doe and her fawn slowly walk across the street in front of our campsite early in the morning the second day. Later, as we drive to the library in town, Ilse sees her first woodchuck, waddling hurriedly along the dirt access road . A small, brown rabbit mistakenly hops from between our trailer and the Toyota and stops directly in front of Taz, our Golden Retriever, and for a good minute, neither one moves. We all sit quietly, waiting for the rabbit to run, but he just sits there, frozen. The rabbit is hoping no one seems him even though he is only ten feet away. A really unique, memorable moment, but just as I lift my camera, a nearby camper starts his pickup truck and the magic is broken. The rabbit bolts for the safety of the underbrush while Taz simply sits and watches. 

Each campground has its own personality and idiosyncrasies, and perhaps in a different campsite we will begin to enjoy what Tionesta offers. Hopefully, with our new start we will enjoy our stay here after all. Besides, the pretty little town is only a quarter mile away and the library has WiFi.

Lake Tionesta

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