Hello friends, we have been holding onto this one for quite awhile, we have been over it, and over it again, but today is the day. Today we are going to review the Bulwagga Bay campground located on the southern end of Lake Champlain. We could not get our hands on a campground map so we made our own using Google. This campground is nothing like we have ever encountered before, and that’s not a good thing. Spencer used to come here as a young child for fishing expeditions, later on he came up as a teen to fish with friends, but now as an adult he is just filled with sorrow with just how run down the place has become. Kimberly came later on after Spencer’s disappointment evolved but she was not impressed with anything other than the friendly people she met, most who knew Spencer at one point in his life or another. As far as prices, they change every year, and typically we would just link to the price page on the website, but we can’t. Their price list is a poorly scanned document that changes from season to season and it would just be a broken link before long. The best we can do is link to the main page of the Bulwagga Bay Campground.
That said we absolutely love lake Champlain, and we do know several people still in this campground so we don’t want to be too harsh but at the same time we have to be honest. The place is so out of tune with reality that for years they couldn’t find anyone, who lived closer than South Carolina, to even manage it. Why? Well here it is, camper vs townsfolk is the big talking point for anyone who decides to visit, so with that we decided to give this one the theme “lets get ready to rumble”. Honestly, even without the catchy theme, if the broken glass bottles, and campground turmoil doesn’t turn you away, the water treatment plant and constant roar of the train probably will. So..Queue music…. and Hit it…
To start our journey it is worth mentioning that this campground is a man-made land mass constructed of loads of iron ore from the nearby Mineville mine which closed years ago.
The miners created these grounds to load the train cars using a drawbridge type contraption that stretched between the closest two points in the bay. The drawbridge is long since gone, sunk in the bay to create a type of makeshift reef or, if we are being realistic, they didn’t really feel like removing it and let it sink. However, the large pile of stones, used to support the train tracks, still remain and have not been touched, you know, another reef. New comers know the stones are still there mainly because every year, when the water level drops, someone always hits them when boating with their family. Then with the echoing of the large thump and crunch, across the lake, your breath stops as some poor soul destroys their boat engine by bottoming out. Until this yearly mishap occurs the end of this rock pile is simply marked by two random buoys so unsuspecting motorists have a 50/50 chance of going around them on the correct side. Our boat fell victim to these rocks once, luckily Spencer was just putting along so we escaped with just a few small dings.
That said this area has so many wonderful historic places to visit, and the view is absolutely gorgeous. If you look back, from the water toward the campground, you can see the majestic tree covered mountains with a single bare, black, iron ore mountain, from the old mine, nestled in the center like a lonely mountain from fantasy novels. Looking out, nearly two miles, across the lake is the bridge that connects NY state to Vermont which is completely lit up at night.
Next to that bridge is the old lighthouse with the image of Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer who the lake was named after, carved into the side. This region also tries to hold onto its strong native history which you can see just about everywhere you go in the Adirondacks. From the name Bulwagga, who was a native American woman, widowed at a young age, and so distraught she took her own life in the bay, to the lakes original name itself, Kaniatarakwà:ronte, meaning “a bulged lake” or “lake with a bulge in it”. You don’t have to look far to see both sides of history here, that’s why we love visiting the Adirondacks so much and we encourage anyone reading to visit them at least once as well. Everywhere you go seems to have shops set up with furs, skins, jerky, and other things that the original settlers, and natives, would have traded, or collected for themselves. Historical sites, ruins, museums, right down to reenactments all mingled in with modern establishments, it’s a very neat area.
The fishing is excellent, with a huge array of fish to choose from. Trout, Salmon, Bass, Perch, Catfish, Walleye, Northern Pike, Eel, you can’t ask for a better assortment and better experience. Most of these fish species, and all of the fish in the included pictures, have been caught right off of the shore in this campground. It all just really depends on the species, and time of year, but you can pull in land locked salmon fishing right off the dock in the spring. Anyway, the lake also seems to have its own set of fishing rules which may differ from the State laws, so make sure you check, and double check, seasons and permits since the DEC is very active here. Unfortunately boat fishing is slowly becoming a nuisance with Bass tournaments, drawing in crowds of people literally climbing on top of you, or almost running you over, each time they occur it seems. The lake depths range anywhere from just a foot to over a hundred feet deep, and some areas of the lake can stretch ten miles across. It also goes as far north as Canada so respect it, especially in the Spring. We can’t stress this enough, no matter what kind of boat you have, what kind of experience you have, people die in this lake every year. You need to have a lot of respect for this lake, the weather it creates, hidden structures, treat it good, keep it clean, and when it tells you that its time to come in you had best do it or you could find yourself suddenly in the middle of merciless four foot waves.
Getting back on track the lake itself is the home of Champ, the mysterious lake Champlain sea monster who is the long distant cousin of the Loch Ness monster in Scotland. Local towns, particularly this one, have shops with the monsters figure featured on their sign, they have Champ day which is a festival, and parade, celebrating the much rumored monster along with road signs listing people, and days, who have witnessed this rare spectacle. The campground itself is not so wondrous we’re afraid, the sand is black, since it is just piled up iron ore, and gets outrageously hot in the summer when the sun beats down on it.
You will not be able to walk across the beach without sandals since it will quite literally burn, and blister, your feet. After some time with this sand you will then notice your shins, and ankles start to itch, like you had a million little mites biting you. We aren’t sure if this is from the iron ore drying out your skin, or the little bits of metal causing a nettle type effect, or if its actually some kind of bug, but it is sorely unpleasant.
Most of the park is set up for RV’s, with running water and electric, but no septic. A few times a week, however, a truck will come around, that you pay extra for, with a semi-transparent water barrel on a trailer, to pump out campers human waste, driven by inexperienced maintenance men. We like to throw out the “pay extra” because nothing here is included with your outrageously expensive site, so bring your wallet. Anyway, if you think the smell from the barrel is bad, we know of at least two times the tank tipped over in the middle of the campground, due to insufficient wheel pressure and reckless driving. Then a few other times where the crew was driving with the hose unraveled, draining, on the ground behind them…seeping into the sand…in the hot summer…
To make matters worse, directly on the border of this campground is the towns water treatment plant where that tank, along with all of the weekend campers, tanks get dumped. That smell is terrible on the hot summer day with a gentle breeze from the north. It’s all you can smell for days after you leave, but that’s not nearly as bad as the smell you get from the water treatment plant two towns to the south that treats all of the water from the local paper mill. Then there are the seasonal campers who choose not to pay for the tank emptying service. They wait until after dark, dig a hole and let their tanks just slowly empty on the ground.
Moving on, with the water treatment plant bordering one side of the campground you have the railroad tracks sandwiching you in on the other side. These train tracks separate the campground from the road, and is frequently used all day, every day. Anything from passenger trains to 100+ car cargo trains so the noise is sometimes seemingly non-stop. Multiply that by a horn happy engineer, at 2am, it can make for a bad time, especially for tent campers who are perched closest to the train tracks. To make ourselves clear, on this matter, we completely understand the need of the train having to use its horn at crossings. Safety first morning, noon, and night we get it but we have heard these trains go off anywhere from a few toots, at the crossing, to literally a few toots lasting five straight minutes until the train is out of earshot, at the single crossing.
The campground beach is a joke, the deepest point comes well below the waste of an average size adult, just above the knees in fact, which also makes the water very warm. The beach is also a stones throw away, and down current, from the pipe that releases the treated water from the plant back into the lake. The beach itself, where children play, often times has broken glass all over the place in the spring, and early summer, from the locals. For these reasons everyone in the campground congregates further down by the “no Swimming” sign to cool off, where the water is deeper, and cleaner, leaving the lifeguards quite board sitting on the beach. The playground is kind of nice for kids, the pavilion is very well kept, and from the picnic tables you get a truly wonderful view of the lake. The Pavilion is open to the public along with the beach and playground, though, so there is constant turmoil, it seems, between campers and town folk about who is entitled to what.
…And with that, now it’s time for the inescapable politics of this place. We wouldn’t talk about it but it’s necessary in order to explain the rest of the campground so we promise to keep it as brief as possible. The campground is owned by the town, who uses the revenue generated by the campers to cut local property taxes so as you can imagine the campground gets very political often pinning camper against elected official in town hall meetings. This usually works out poorly for the campers since many people, except for local businesses, in town see the campground as an eyesore, and hate it despite the lower property taxes. More often than not the campers get the short end of the stick in order to appease the town. To be fair, the town council typically finds themselves in a juggling match, in order to keep their jobs, by “removing the eyesore”, while either trying to raise, or maintain, the high campground prices in order to keep the property taxes lower.
It’s a classic have your cake an eat it too scenario that ultimately resulted in a mass exodus three years ago, which left the campground barren, far less RVs than any of the pictures show, but now peaceful in many respects. In turn this hurts local businesses, since a large part of the cash flow comes from the campgrounds in the area, and new businesses only seem to be able to stay open two years, at best, as a result. Certain merchants in town openly talk about the unfairness with every customer that comes through the doors. In their mind we suppose they are getting their message out but if you’re not careful, your vacation can quickly be filled up with political chit chat by simply going to get supplies. Since all that seems to remain, at this point, is a “we’ll make them pay” mentality, on both sides, no compromises will be made anytime soon between the town and campers.
Now, getting back on topic, this campground, in all honesty, has nothing to offer except the lake, but this lake is huge with many other desirable places to go. At this campground, again, you are sandwiched in between a lake on two sides, a water treatment plant, and the railroad tracks. The campground manager is powerless to manage the campground, since decisions have to go through a committee. He can’t direct the maintenance workers, like asking them to pick up the broken glass on the beach, since they don’t work for him, they work for the town supervisor. Finally being the mediator between the campers, and the town council, all concerns from campers ultimately fall on deaf ears. Spencer has contacted the town personally for a few questions regarding the campground, some of the same questions he has for rangers at State campgrounds, and he was talked over, shouted at, and shrugged off.
Besides the playground, pavilion, and beach, that nobody uses, there is an old run down basketball court, that campers park their RV’s on due to flooding. In fact the park charges extra for winter storage while making you sign away all liability if anything should happen. They do this because the gates don’t close at the end of the season, the grounds are open to the public all year round so anything not locked down, like propane tanks, will disappear. Not to mention every year the campground floods leaving any unsuspecting camper in big trouble depending on where they are.
The town recently started renting kayaks, and boats, which is standard for other campgrounds but that’s all you really get here for extras. The seasonal campers, however, take a lot of pride in the campground, some of them have been camping here for fourty years, others are on their third generation, it is a very tight knit community. They have pulled together to raise money, basket raffles, dinners, etc… for different items on the grounds like a shuffleboard. The town, after several years, still has it listed on their site as a “bocci court”, leading us to believe that they still don’t know what they are actually charging money for here. A big BBQ pit was donated, and built by a seasonal family just out of the kindness of their heart. Their relative donated his time and cooked most of the meats for campground events so they built this pit, and donated it to the campground, in his memory. These things certainly add to the park, but unfortunately get occupied by whoever is renting the Pavilion from the town, at the time, because they are all in the same spot. Some of these seasonal campers are so dedicated and loyal to this property they rent two or three sites for the season, just so they can have their privacy, or keep the spot their relatives once had.
Certain townsfolk then come in like its their own private little business, which it technically is, but if you stand back and watch the drama unfold it’s like watching a live action version of the Outsiders where the Greasers and the Socs are in constant turmoil over their territorial borders. Rumor has it that they even had a town vs camper brawl at one point, at the pavilion years ago but, again, its a rumor at best so who knows. With all of the stuff going on here, it’s really quite silly and takes away from the general idea of camping. This place is more like a town, without representation, inside of another town, and you’re Clint Eastwood strolling in just looking for a hot meal and a shave.
Anyway, the campground does have garbage disposal but they, guess what, charge you extra per bag if you would like to use it. They have showers that, guess what, costs extra to use and has no temperature controls. The bathrooms are run down, not cleaned very often, and often are backed up or flooded. The camp store isn’t allowed to sell anything besides ice since it may conflict with local businesses. Remember, the town owns the campground so the town can’t do anything to hurt townsfolk including sell items that townsfolk may want to profit from. They aren’t even allowed to have a washing machine because it may conflict with the town laundry mat. The campground then has a bulletin board, at the entrance, where you can hire townsfolk to sell you firewood, and other items, at astronomical prices. If you do find someone selling, say, firewood, they have to be from the town because if not then they aren’t allowed bring it to you without a special permit that they have to purchase from the town hall.
The only other option is to travel outward for items as basic as a bag of marshmallows for your children. From what we have witnessed this seems to promote activities like drinking and driving in, and out, of the campground. We have personally seen people too drunk/high to walk, get out of their car after driving with kids running around, playing, nearby. “So why drive” you may ask, “stores are walking distance right”? Well yes, the campground advertises, on their town/campground website, that everything is in walking distance, which is true, but the nearest general store is just shy of a mile walk, from your campsite, so the question is how far are most people willing to walk for marshmallows?
Another feature this campground has is a boat launch, running along side of its dock. Most people can’t use it, however, since it seems to be always covered in deep sand. You would need to drive your vehicle 150-200 feet into the water, certain times of the year, to even have a chance of using it, but getting back out, with a load, is an entirely different story.
Further up the road is the town boat launch, which is much nicer, and you can then park your boat in the water, at the campground, if you are prepared for the sudden weather changes, just as long as you don’t connect it to the dock in any way. The few tent campsites, they do have, are mostly undesirable unless it’s mid July when its hot and dry. That’s because most of them are covered in tall grass, and thick mud from the nearby marsh. They have a single, very short, lean-to in the tent area, that they feature on their website, but the picture makes it look much nicer than it is in reality. Rumor, again, has it the lean-to was donated, and built by the local boy scout troop, years ago, but obviously doesn’t get the care it deserves. They do have a couple of tent sites on bare iron ore sand, mixed with tree roots, but those sites are very small with RV’s walling you in on three sides.
We unfortunately don’t have a list of preferred sites, because you have two spots to choose from, all you have to do is decide whether you want grass and mud, or tree roots and iron sand while looking in someones back window directly across from the bathrooms. You can probably pitch a tent somewhere else, since the campground is severely hurting, but most of the town council seem to be in a heavy state of denial so I wouldn’t count on it. If you are able to pitch a tent in a vacant RV spot we would recommend getting a spot on what they call the wall. That’s going to be the best place for you, the view, and the night fishing is great, but be cautious of the North winds, they can be strong in this particular spot. It’s also worth mentioning that there is a family of skunks that roam around there, who are not afraid of humans. Spencer shooed one away, with some difficulty, he managed not to get sprayed but the skunks just returned moments later like he wasn’t even there.
As much as this pains Spencer he gives this place a big thumbs down for camping, Kimberly gave it a thumbs down the moment the smell hit her face but when she entered the grounds the first impression removed all doubts. In short, with all of the inescapable politics, the conflicts, the smells, the drunk driving in and out, the nettle sand, this is not a place we would recommend going to relax. With that we would love to hear what you think in the comments below since this is the first time we have come across a campground owned by a township. With all of the conflicts that occur should a town own and run a campground in its own town? Thank you so much again for reading, sorry we couldn’t bring you a better campground, but we will find them ,they are out there. Peace, and Happy Camping!
-Kimberly and Spencer