Kampground, America

A visual survey of KOA sites across the United States.

[Photo courtesy of KOA Archives]

In “A Short History of the Campsite,” published on Places last spring, I explored the complex internal geography of the American campground. I argued that the remarkable consistency of its organization since the 1930s — driving loops, parking spurs and individually furnished sites, with picnic tables and fire pits, arranged around a core of shared services — owes more to motorized vehicles than to campers themselves. And yet the most fundamental tenet of the camping experience, the illusion of the cleared site, allows each new occupant to imagine they are claiming a camping spot for the first time. Every summer, densely packed campgrounds settle into a familiar rhythm: people coming and going, setting up and breaking down tents, collectively re-enacting a deeply shared cultural fantasy of being away and roughing it, usually in plain view of others.

In this new visual survey, I turn my attention outward to examine the larger settings of American car camping, and in particular the nation’s 8,000 privately operated campgrounds. At state and federal parks, the campground’s decidedly suburban geography seems like a means to an end: access to landscapes with inherent scenic value beyond the campsite itself. Can the same be said for private facilities? Walmart’s decision to open its parking lots to overnighting RVers, free of charge, signals a very different attitude toward landscape.

View Slideshow

Chief among the private facilities is Kampgrounds of America, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer. From a single campground in Billings, Montana, in 1962, KOA grew to an empire of 900 franchises across North America by the end of the 1970s. The company modeled its operations on national motel chains such as Holiday Inn, providing an extensive network of facilities, easy highway access and a consistent menu of services. Today’s amenities include swimming pools, prepared foods, dog runs, mini putts, laundry rooms, wi-fi and even cable television. Not your mom-and-pop roadside operation, KOA rapidly emerged in the late ’60s as a coherent network on the scale of the federal and state park systems, revolutionizing the field with innovations like a national directory and a unified phone reservations system. KOA makes every effort to represent its operations in a cohesive manner, reinforcing the subliminal message that a camping experience can (thankfully, for some) be as interchangeable as a visit to McDonald’s or Home Depot.

Throughout its history, the company has taken an experimental approach to developing new campgrounds, with more misses than hits. Nearly two-thirds of its franchise locations have closed. 1 Some fail to meet KOA’s exacting service standards and lose their franchise status; others close due to insufficient business; some become trailer parks; and strategically located parcels, initially cheap to develop, are later sold at extravagant prices (a KOA in the Florida Keys recently sold for more than $65 million). Having successfully navigated the foreclosure crisis and rising gasoline prices, the company is celebrating its anniversary with great fanfare, opening 23 new campgrounds this year.

This slideshow is drawn from a virtual survey of all KOAs in the United States. Dropping in and out of different regions of the country via Google Earth, I visited hundreds of campgrounds in a single sitting, trying to discern patterns about the role of place in camping culture. What emerges is a kind of middle landscape of camping, situated along a surprisingly broad gradient of experience, from campgrounds with access to the protected wilderness of national parks (the Badlands), to the densely urban (New Orleans, Las Vegas Strip), to campgrounds so large they could themselves be considered small towns (Okeechobee, Florida). The unique perspective of the aerial image reveals sublime landscapes shaped both by human agency and by geological forces, a powerful contrast with the experience on the ground, where camping reveals itself to be a mundane activity conducted in a carefully prescribed setting: Loop B, Site 32.

Author's Note

Special thanks to Jessica Martin Gale for her help in precisely locating each KOA franchise in Google Earth.

  1. Of 1,170 total KOA franchises opened in the United States, 449 are currently operating. The average life expectancy is about 21 years, according to my comprehensive survey.
Martin Hogue, “Kampground, America,” Places Journal, July 2012. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/120702

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 07.04.2012 at 12:26

    Campgrounds have been an important part of my travel experiences since the earl 1960s as a hitch hiker and then later when newly married we set off in a used VW Beetle and a new umbrella style tent and traveled from Vancouver to the New York World Fair

    In the early 70s we graduated to a tent trailer and then in 1977 a travel trailer in Europe for 3 years

    A resumption to campgrounds once the children were gone including Mexico and Australia where "Big 4" cabins were used on several trips

    More recently KOA grounds in the USA have been utilised quite often with my small tent and a car when I'm on my own

    I enjoy meeting people and the fresh air.

    Camping sites have varied from free camping, parks, town, municipal, Provincial, State and National as well as on private land with permission

    My cameras have ranged from 35mm Agfa, Nikon Fuji and Olympus. Half frame Canon and Olympus. Digital Agfa Olympus Fuji Nikon Canon and Nikon.

    For links to my photos on Flickr


    click on the tent "tag" for more

  • 07.04.2012 at 14:52

    fyi: D70, who posted above, is the author of 2 photographs that appear in this slideshow, the koa in lubbock (tx) and the koa benson (az).

    my own personal experience with koa's is more a transient kind of camping- one night (and there have been several of these), on the way someplace else. however, as a tent camper, few- koa in badlands, for example- are actually worthy of longer stays.

  • 07.04.2012 at 22:12

    I have been camping all of my 50 years. My parents were avid Airstreamer's, even taking one to Alaska in 1964. In 1971, after the closing of my father's office, they purchased the KOA in Redding, CA. This embarked our family on quite a 10 year journey. My parents invested a lot of time and money into the kampground (sorry the 'k' is a hard habit to break) over the years. When they got out of it they had quadrupled their investment. They were very active in the Kampground Owners Association and my father was actually president one year. At the time when they sold the kampground it was the oldest in California that was still in the system (number 5-109).

    In the years that we have been traveling finds us stopping at a KOA from time to time. We much prefer a no hookup spot that might be more picturesque but it is nice to have the hookups on a regular basis.

    One of my photos of our trailer is in the slideshow at Stockton, CA (Flickr user: larock). This was on the way back from a trip to the Airstream International Rally. Ironically, on that trip we stayed at the 'KOA' in Redding that was no longer a KOA but a Reynolds resort.

    We do run a blog of our travels that anyone is free to peruse: www.casarodante.org

    Thanks for the article. Although my father passed away 10 years ago, I will share it with my mother whose boyfriend owns the KOA in Flagstaff, AZ.

  • 07.05.2012 at 23:27

    It's interesting to me that some of the Google Maps screenshots are real close and others farther out. Thus sometimes framing the actual Kamp site or in others the larger landscape. I wonder if it was purely an aesthetic decision? Which, when?

  • 07.06.2012 at 08:49


    the scale of each aerial image depends on the relationships i wanted to explore. in the koa los angeles / pomona, for example, i was interested in the asphalt surfaces that surrounded the campground itself (something you would loose by zooming out too much); similarly, in the koa missoula, it's great to see that the koa is located right in front of a large shopping mall. in the koa at new orleans, on the other hand, zooming shows the expanse of the mississippi river, and the proximity of the campground to it. same thing with the koa las vegas, where it's less about the proximity of specific casinos and more about the larger picture of the strip itself.

    as always, however, the campground itself stays centered in the frame for ease of reference.