My ‘failed’ trip with the dogs to Parker Dam State Park
I’ll be the first to admit that my latest trip to Parker Dam State Park did not go to plan. It rained pretty heavily the entire time, and one of our dogs barked until we ultimately decided to call it quits and go home. We never actually ended up staying overnight in the cabin, despite the fact that we had rented it for multiple nights at the end of October.
That might be enough for some people to say that the trip was a disaster. Despite how I have titled this blog, I don’t actually think that our trip to Parker Dam was a failure. Sure, it was far from perfect, but it was a great first foray into cabin camping and taught us some valuable lessons about ourselves… and our crazy dogs.
Parker Dam State Park is probably my favorite park within the PA Wilds, which is good because it’s close to our home! It’s right along the I-80 Frontier landscape of the PA Wilds, and my husband and I can be there within 20 minutes. It’s close enough that it’s an easy trip even after work, but it’s just far enough away that it seems like a little treat each time we go.
Image: Inside the park office at Parker Dam State Park in Penfield, Clearfield County
Parker Dam was once described to me as a “picture-perfect cookie cutter” kind of park. It has a little bit of everything that you might be looking for: both modern and rustic campsites, cabins, a sandy beach, a boardwalk, trails for miles, a cute visitors center and small gift shop, and wildlife galore.
My husband, Jeremy, and I have camped at Parker Dam many times, but it’s always been in the tent sites. Our go-to is site 110… a rustic tent-only site, set a little deeper into the trees and far enough away from other campers that we never feel crowded. There’s no water or electricity at that site (after all, it is rustic), but there are hookups available at other sites and spaces for RVs if that’s more your camping style. What really sold us on tent site 110 was that it allowed dogs, and we’ve brought Nellie (our trustworthy and hike-loving 11-year-old girl who we lovingly refer to as a “generic tall dog”) and the late Midgie (our since passed dearly beloved corgi who had some mobility issues).
Image: Camping at tent site 110 at Parker Dam State Park in May 2020
But this trip was not to tent site 110, and it was not just with Nellie. Two things were different about this trip to Parker Dam: we were trying out staying in a cabin for the first time, and we were bringing our new year-old pup, Daisy, on her first ever camping trip.
Daisy is, to put it nicely, a high-strung dog. As a treeing walker coonhound, she is literally built for sniffing and chasing. At home, she spends a large portion of her day trotting from window to window, staring intently to make sure that our home is not attacked by chipmunks or songbirds or kids on bicycles or, heaven forbid, a mail carrier. Thanks to her, our household has remained safe from these dangers… and has also not known a second of silence.
Image: An unusually quiet and restful moment with Daisy (left) and Nellie (right)
In hindsight, I am not sure why we were so optimistic that Daisy would enjoy camping.
The drive itself to Parker Dam was uneventful, with the dogs each sticking their noses out the small opening in the car’s back windows. Nellie has been to Parker Dam a million times and Daisy has been there for a handful of walks, so both started getting more excited as we made the final turn onto Mud Run Road.
We drove up to the cabin section of Parker Dam, which I was pleasantly surprised to find had nicely paved roads and easy-to-access driveways for all of the cabins. Our cabin, number 12, was at the very end of the cabin road, near a loop called the Beaver Dam Trail. It sat not too far from cabin 11, the only other dog-friendly cabin in the park. Cabin 10 sat across the road, which is a handicapped-accessible cabin.
Image: Cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park, from the backside looking toward the main cabin road
A good number of the other cabins had cars parked in the driveway and lights on in the buildings. Although it seemed like there were quite a few people camping that weekend, it was quiet and didn’t feel at all crowded.
The cabin itself was quaint and rustic, but a large step up from the tent camping that we usually do. I had come a little earlier in the day to collect the keys from the park office and drop off some of our camping equipment beforehand, so there would be less chaos when the dogs arrived.
Cabin 12 was just one room, with two twin beds flanking a bunk bed in an alcove just off of the kitchen and living area. It had a gas stove and a full refrigerator, along with a large table and two benches.
Image: Inside cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park, looking at the stove and the table (with benches placed onto the table at time of photo)
I had turned the heat on when I brought the stuff, so the cabin was already nice and toasty when Jeremy and I arrived with the dogs later that day. Although I knew that it had gas heat when I booked it, I was surprised at how warm it could make the cabin. I originally thought that the fireplace was also gas, but it turned out to be a real wood-burning fireplace. We didn’t end up using it at all, but the cabin still smelled strongly of woodsmoke from the last person who was there. This was my only real “complaint,” though I hesitate to call it that because a smokey smell is to be expected when you’re camping.
The cabins at Parker Dam State Park don’t come with linens or cooking utensils, so I had brought those along with me. I rolled out our sleeping bags onto the twin beds, which had thin mattresses but were relatively comfortable. Again, I say this as someone who is accustomed to sleeping on a foam pad in a tent, so your mileage might vary. The bunks were sturdy, and I especially enjoyed that the two single twins had headboards with some storage space.
Image: Inside cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park, looking toward the bed area
Outside of the cabin, there was a picnic table on the front porch. There was also a fire ring, though we didn’t end up using it because of the rain. There was a gravel driveway up to the porch, with room enough to park two cars behind each other, and another gravel path leading up to a bathroom facility.
Image: Front of cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park, one of the two dog-friendly cabins there
I was surprised to find that the bathroom building was shared by only two cabins, ours and cabin 11 next door. Although the bathrooms were in one building, each cabin had their own lockable side. We used the key on our cabin keyring to enter our side of the bathroom facility. It was a cement floor with a sink and metal toilet. Farther back, there was a slightly separated area for a small bench and a cement shower space. Since we ended up going home early, neither of us showered there. However, I tested the water and it seemed to get decently warm. The bathroom itself was also nice and toasty from a small heater on the wall.
Image: Inside cabin 12’s side of a shared bathroom facility at Parker Dam State Park
Cabin 12 even came with a small box of fun things to do, with a label that said the box had been donated by the Falbo family: a puzzle, a board game, some cards, maps of the area, local tourism magazines and brochures, and a composition book that encouraged visitors to write about their experiences in the cabin. That was my favorite part, and I loved flipping through the pages to read what other campers had to say. I even added our own note into the book, detailing our “failed” cabin experiment with Daisy.
Image: A journal entry from a young visitor at Cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park
Right. Back to Daisy. Although the cabin was calm and quiet when I moved our camping supplies into it earlier in the day, it was chaotic as soon as the dogs arrived.
Because it’s a dog-friendly cabin, there must have been a million interesting smells from other dogs who had visited the cabin. Our pups sniffed every crack and crevice, trying to determine who had been in this newfound space. Nellie and Daisy rarely hang out with other dogs, so any other dog’s scent is worthy of a full investigation. Nellie, our older dog, was casually interested in the smells, but she eventually settled down and rested on her dog bed that we had brought with us. I suspect most dogs, like Nellie, will be vaguely curious about the smells but will calm down quickly. Daisy, however, was relentless.
Image: Daisy looking directly into the camera, along with Britt’s husband, Jeremy, and older dog Nellie in the dog-friendly cabin
Daisy jumped from bed to bed, which also scared her because the vinyl coating on the mattresses squeaked and hissed. We made some hot dogs on the stove, and we fed the dogs a couple to persuade them that the cabin was a happy place full of treats. This worked for a while, but soon Daisy was making what we call her “peeping” noise. I never knew a dog could make such a noise until I met Daisy. She seems to find the most annoying frequency and holds a very high, very persistent alarm sound. With wide eyes, she diligently paced the cabin to alert us that she was not a fan of camping: PEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.
Image: The face of Daisy, a sad little dog who just wants to go home
In our defense, Jeremy and I did our best to ignore her and give her time to settle in. After about two hours of laying on the bed and listening to our very insistent dog, we decided to call it a night. We packed up the dogs into the car again and drove down the now-dark cabin road back to our house. As soon as we hit the main road, both dogs were sound asleep in the back seat, exhausted and snoring.
Since Parker Dam is only about 20 minutes from our house, Jeremy and I did end up going back to the cabin again during our rental, sans dogs. We didn’t stay the night, but we did poke around the cabin a little bit more and walk around Parker Dam, which has some excellent trails. Even in colder or rainy weather, it’s a nice place to visit and enjoy the stillness of nature.
Image: A sunset over Parker Lake
We ended up packing up our things on the night of Halloween… so spooky! I took a few pictures of our cabin in the dark. I thought it was a pretty hauntingly beautiful photo until Jeremy pointed out the bright blue dog poop bag that was still sitting on the porch in the photo. (We’re big proponents of Leave No Trace and packing out all your trash, including pet waste, so rest assured that the poop bag ended up in a garbage can.)
Image: Cabin 12 at Parker Dam State Park at night
On our final drive back from the cabin, we stopped to snap a few photos in the cold. My favorite is a shot of the full-ish moon hovering above Parker Lake, with the bathhouse and concession stand on the beach. It felt like the perfect mood for Halloween.
Image: Parker Lake at night on Halloween 2023
We dropped our keys, as instructed, into a slot at the Parker Dam Visitor Center. Although we were a little sad that the trip didn’t go as planned, we know that there will always be other opportunities to camp and enjoy nature. We’re fortunate to have so much public space near our home in the PA Wilds. We’re also lucky that we live close to one of the few state parks that allows dogs into specific cabins, and maybe we’ll try again with Daisy once she’s a little older.
If you’re planning a trip with your pup, let my experience help you plan for yours. First, know your dog! If they’re not ready to handle a camping trip, think about hiring a sitter or at least having a backup plan if something doesn’t go as expected. Start with a short trip rather than a longer one, and choose a park that’s fairly close to home.
Image: Dropping the cabin keys off at the Parker Dam State Park office
Just like the Leave No Trace principles suggest, Plan Ahead and Prepare for your trip: think about your family dynamic (including pets), physical ability, location you’re going, weather conditions, and any equipment you might need to bring with you. Also know the regulations, especially if you’re traveling with pets… Fido (or Nellie or Daisy) won’t be allowed to travel with you to every location.
And if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time, don’t be afraid to try again. Whether it’s pets, kids, or even yourself, patience is a virtue. Sometimes it’s just not the right moment for a certain adventure, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t work out in the future. Camping is a skill, and sometimes it takes some practice (and some barking) to get it right. I’m not going to write Daisy off as an unhappy camper for the rest of her life just because this trip wasn’t a spectacular success.
Image: Nellie on a car ride to another adventure
All in all, the cabin trip reminded us of a valuable lesson: flexibility is key. Although we all start our trips with certain expectations, sometimes things just don’t go to plan. By being able to plan ahead for what we expected and roll with the punches for the things we didn’t expect, we still found joy in the surprises. We had a good time and had some laughs! Our trip might have been a “failure” by some measures, but it was still a treasured memory in one of our favorite places in the world.
Image: Rock sign at Parker Dam State Park
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