A rest between roads Tourism: Cherry Hill Park campground, nestled between Interstate 95 and the Washington Beltway, is ideal if not idyllic for many travelers.

July 27, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

People cross oceans and drive thousands of miles to camp in this former gravel pit, hard by one of the East Coast's busiest intersections.

They compete to be heard over the roar of 18-wheelers, and dry their bathing suits in air filled with rush-hour exhaust.

But there's a method to their seeming madness: For a fraction of the cost of a hotel, campers at Cherry Hill Park are about eight miles from the monuments and museums of Washington.

It's the biggest tourist accommodation in Prince George's County, claims co-owner Norman Gurevich, and the closest private campground to D.C.

On a midsummer's evening, Cherry Hill Park is alive with as many as 1,000 temporary residents housed in everything from Army surplus tents to custom-built, million-dollar homes on wheels.

"Basically, we're a hotel where you bring your own room," says Gurevich, the third of four generations of campground operators and a man with vision.

It was Gurevich who, a decade ago, looked at this nearly 60-acre site in the crook where Interstate 95 meets the Washington Beltway and saw lodging for up to 400 families a night on dirt and gravel streets named for famous parks.

He built it and they came, although not right away.

The recession of the early 1990s kept tourists and their tents, pop-ups and recreational vehicles close to home.

"The campers from Texas and California weren't traveling," recalls the soft-spoken Gurevich, shaking his head. "Until three years ago, we were struggling to keep our heads above water."

Now, the summer vacation season means 40 to 90 families checking into the park each day for stays ranging from a day to a couple of weeks.

In space 1405 on Badlands Gulch, the Loeb family of Reading, Pa., is discovering American history during a two-week vacation in their new 24-foot travel trailer. Where are they going? "Mom decides," says Dave Loeb.

Parked one road away, at 1317 Adirondack Run, Ruth and Larry Smith are playing with their two grandsons while the boys' parents attend a conference at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"You can't call this noise," says Larry Smith, a retiree from Austin, Texas, now residing on Any Highway, USA. "When we stayed at one park in New Jersey, they put us next to the train tracks. That's noise."

Pulling in across the camp, at 411 Crater Lake Vista, the Vinkes are beginning a four-week tour of the Northeast that will complement their 1980 tour of the West.

"We come from Holland. Everything is small," says Jacomina Vinke. "You have so much space here."

At 705 Appalachian Trail, the Weathers and Berg families are sharing a large trailer and a 2-inch-thick, computer-generated itinerary that will take them from Columbus, Ohio, to Canada and back.

Not everyone is so well organized. Each morning, the campground office is filled with new arrivals, eager to get started but only vaguely cognizant of the twitches that make Washington Washington.

"People aren't aware of the distances, that the Smithsonian is more than one building," Gurevich says. "Just explaining the Metro fare card and how it works is incredible."

The White House, the Capitol, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the Washington Monument -- the Cherry Hill staff has brochures for all of them and more.

Gurevich, always the marketer, touts the attractions in Baltimore and Annapolis, too: "Our job is to give them as much information as possible to see if we can get them to stay one more day."

Cherry Hill Park also is temporary home to families of patients getting lengthy medical treatment in the region, seasonal construction workers and park employees who work the April to October peak period, then tour the rest of the year.

Gurevich says he keeps out the riffraff by charging $27 to $34 a night -- pricey by campground standards.

It's worth paying, campers say, for a level site, utility hookups and cable television.

Then, too, there's the convenience of a Metro bus that regularly stops at the park entrance and takes campers to a subway stop three miles away. Gurevich says the park sells 10,000 Metro passes every year.

"It's great for out-of-towners," says Austin's Larry Smith. "A no-brainer."

But not everyone is looking to have their day in D.C. People who hang back can watch movies on the jumbo-screen TV, shoot a round of minigolf, play in the video arcade or swim in one of two pools.

And if you don't do the tourist thing, no one back home has to know.

In the park store, between the rows of convenience-store foods and the shelves of RV supplies, are souvenirs -- towels imprinted with the image of the White House, stuffed bald eagle toys and glassware with images of Our Nation's Capital.

"They're cheaper than in the city and we didn't have to lug them back on the bus," confides a woman from Los Angeles, who then volunteers the contents of her paper bag -- "shot glasses" -- but not her name.

"If anyone finds out I didn't get them in Washington, I'll be sooo embarrassed," she says.

Pub Date: 7/27/98

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