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Get away close to home, camp out

STEELE CREEK -- Judging by the response at McDowell Nature Preserve, the great American campout is well under way. Yet the campgrounds at McDowell officially join partners and as many as 100,000 participants nationwide Saturday for the Great American Backyard Campout.

"We'll probably have 100 to 150 people," said McDowell organizer Woody Woodward of events that begin Friday. "We'll have several additional evening programs that night."

McDowell staff will offer a campfire cookout, scavenger hunt, fishing, a night hike, kayak tour on Saturday, stream hike and animal talk during the Great American event. The preserve also, as it has the past few years, will partner with the U.S. National Whitewater Center to offer paddling during the days and camping at night.

"The crazy thing is at the campground, because of the recession, our number of campers is running ahead of the normal rate," Woodward said. "The whole concept of 'staycation,' staying close to home but still getting away, we're noticing a lot of people doing that."

McDowell brought in 15,000 campers last year with half of that number being Mecklenburg County residents, and both figures were higher than in previous years. Since March 1, the campgrounds have been 80 to 85 percent full with 80 percent of the campers coming from Mecklenburg County, Woodward said.

Although McDowell recommends other area campgrounds when the sites are full, including Ebenezer Park in Rock Hill, those recreational sites, too, are seeing more campers.

"It's been extremely full," said Ebenezer park ranger Owen Cherry. "Just this time of year, price of gas, the economy -- people aren't going on extended vacations.

We're pretty much full on weekends in the summer," he said. "We don't need a special event to get up a crowd."

While also true at McDowell, the Steele Creek nature preserve still plans to promote its 56 camp sites at 15222 York Road amid its 1,100 acres on Lake Wylie. Options are available for primitive camping, tent camping or camping with recreational vehicles at prices ranging $12 to $46 a night. A limited number of rent-a-tent sites also are available.

In addition to water, grills, picnic tables, electricity and shady tree cover, McDowell also boasts a $400,000 bathhouse with individual restrooms and showers. The nature center also has exhibits on display.

The only thing McDowell might not have for campers, Woodward said, is a place to camp if they wait too long.

"If you don't make your reservations, you might be standing on the street corner looking for a camp site," he said.

To make reservations at McDowell, call 704-583-1284. For the nature center, call 704-588-5224.