When Starlite Trailer Lodge owners Clay Borders and Perry Leeds originally went searching for a piece of North Carolina mountain property to call their own, purchasing the remnants of an old campground wasn’t what they had in mind.
The 74-acre plot of land they stumbled upon was trash-filled and run-down, not leaving much room to imagine its potential. But there was a special energy about the property that Clay and Perry couldn’t ignore, and more than 20 years later, that same energy thrives throughout the park and within the camping community that this once-neglected landscape helped create.
Today, RVers, vanlife travelers, and outdoor enthusiasts retreat to Starlite in Lenoir, North Carolina, for its natural beauty and welcoming atmosphere that’s a safe haven for all. Owners Clay and Perry, along with campground managers Joseph Atkins and Nathan Gillespie, share what makes Starlite special and what keeps campers coming back for more.
What path led you to start a campground?
Clay: It wasn’t on our radar of things to do. Perry and I were looking for a mountain property at the time. We came to look at it and thought it was super run-down and hard to visualize what this place could be. But even with that, we took a risk.
Perry: The park had many owners and name changes over the years and plenty of highs and lows. Fortunately, we came upon the scene at the right time, and it’s been a great ride, we love it here. The energy here, I can’t explain what it is, but we do attribute it to the Indigenous people who lived here.
Clay: We closed on the property in the late fall of 1998 and immediately started to plan the campground. We had major things that needed to be done. We were weekend warriors, and could only come up after our real jobs [in Charlotte, North Carolina] to work on it.
How did you decide to become an LGBTQ+-friendly RV campground, and what separates you from other gay-friendly camping destinations?
Clay: We didn’t always have the vision to make it gay-friendly. We had friends who were also gay and it caught on by word of mouth, so we decided to add it to our business model. We didn’t want to be an exclusively gay campground, but we wanted to offer the freedom that allowed people to be expressive.
We’ve come to the reality that there are many same-sex couples with children, and we’re catering to more and more families, gay or straight. We’re seeing people with little kids because our campground is clean and safe, and they can see different lifestyles.
We see that same-sex couples come here because they go to the other mainstream campgrounds and their kids get harassed or bullied and they don’t want to deal with that on vacation. It’s been an eye-opening experience to see how many people with families find us.
Can you talk a little bit about Starlite’s atmosphere?
Nathan: Generally it’s relaxed and community-centric. Everybody knows each other and interacts with one another. It’s a laid-back, calm, and tranquil location to find community. We’re slower than other campgrounds, giving people more of a low-key weekend.
We throw several parties and events throughout the year to bring the community together. One of the biggest events for us is Halloween. We have spectacular Halloween balls where we set up a big tent for everybody and convert our lodge into a dance floor.
What are the camping and lodging options at Starlite?
Clay: We have 85 sites total between our park models, RV sites, tent sites, and newly added vanlife sites. We have three general RV sites on the river with gravel pads and two premium concrete pad RV sites, also along the river. We have three tent sites and six new vanlife sites. Everything else is a leased site—some sites are leased for park models and others are leased for RVs.
Perry: When we decided to add park models, or tiny homes, it started slow but eventually caught on, and honestly snowballed. A lot of people didn’t want to be in an RV, they wanted to be in a tiny house. We currently have 68 park models, and we’ve sold every one of them.
Joseph: Nathan and I weren’t even here at the time, but looking back, that was the level-up moment for the park. It took us from an RV campground to a community—even more of a neighborhood.
Perry: I know one guy who’s been here for 24 years. We have a lot of long-term people that don’t necessarily live here but have had a place here for many, many years.
What amenities does your campground offer?
Nathan: We have the pool during the summer months, and we have the lodge, which is the common area where people gather. In the winter it’s nice because there’s a wood stove where people can come and play board games or watch TV. The lodge also has an outdoor patio with a TV and tables, and a full-sized commercial kitchen that’s available for anybody to use. It’s nice for campers to come and cook a hot meal.
We have the lake with two paddle boats and a canoe free to use. The campground is also a fun place to walk around. We have the river and a dog park that’s like something you’d find in a city.
What’s been your favorite part about creating, owning, and operating a campground?
Clay: As owners, we organically began to separate from our friendships that we had in the city when we were at our conventional careers and jobs, and became more and more reliant on the friendships we made within the park. Most of our best friends are park members or former park members now.
What additions to the park have you been the most excited about, and what plans do you have for the future?
Clay: The six vanlife sites are the latest project that we’ve completed and they took about a year to create. We created a place along the river specifically for the vanlife community where the front window of your van literally faces the water—it’s a cool space.
Joseph and Nathan were the cheerleaders for adding vanlife sites, and inspired us to proceed with it. Like anything in life you have to take risks; it cost a lot of money but we don’t regret it. All of these sites have 30-amp electric and water hookups.
Perry: One thing we’re starting to do this year is offer winter camping. Typically we don’t do winter camping because people buy a camper, but don’t understand the nuances of winter camping. But we get a lot of requests from people for winter camping, so we’re going to try it this year.
Clay: We stay open to opportunities. We don’t operate by a particular business plan. We welcome any opportunity that looks like it will enhance Starlite and the experience for our campers.
Who should come camp at Starlite Trailer Lodge?
Nathan: Anybody that’s open-minded and caring of others. As long as you meet those rules, it doesn’t matter to us who you are. It’s more about being a real human.
Joseph: Anybody looking for a place where they can find connections and meaningful, lasting relationships with people they can love and be loved by—those are the right people for Starlite.
Nathan: There’s something about the magic of Starlite. We call it the “special sauce.” It’s hard to pull away. Sunday evenings are a sad time around here because people are struggling to leave, it’s like when you try to leave family after having a really good time.
Joseph: We recently had a couple who never booked with us before but found us online, and said they wanted to visit because they had a lot of gay friends and knew it would be a safe place and clean. By the end of the weekend, they bought a place.
We see that happen all the time, whether it’s gay couples, straight couples, or individuals. They book for a few days, and by the time Saturday rolls around, they extend their stay and end up buying a place or staying for 2 or 3 months.