Navigating the websites to book campsites at our national parks can be tricky. However, by following these three simples steps you can reserve the best places to camp this summer—even at America’s most popular national parks.
By Amy Whitley
If you’re planning a spring or summer camping trip to one of our national parks, now is the time to book your campsite reservations. Whether you’re hoping to camp in the Yosemite Valley or along the Virgin River in Zion, navigating the complicated and competitive online reservation system for US national parks can be tricky, but making advance reservations is worth it.
While most parks have first-come, first-served campground options, you’ll enjoy the peace of mind that comes from securing reservations using the parks’ online reservation system. Your planning needs to begin more than six months ahead of your trip, however, as campgrounds fill up quickly, making it necessary to reserve on the very first day available to you.
Here’s how to book the campsite you want in three easy steps along with some quick tips that will help you formulate a solid back-up plan if your first-choice dates are taken.
This is the fun part! Engage everyone in your camping group to submit their requests or requirements in a campground (such as desired amenities or views) and if you haven’t narrowed down your choice of parks yet, this is the time to do so. Search the official national park sites for campground descriptions and select your first choice. Remember, some campgrounds have few amenities (perhaps limited to pit toilets) and some are not open in all seasons.
During your research:
• Identify alternatives to your preferred campground, just in case.
• Aim for midweek visits for the best availability, and skip weekends or holidays completely if possible.
• Finalize your preferred dates, but have some back-up dates in mind if at all possible.
Using your first-choice dates, do the math to know when you’ll be allowed to book your reservation, so you can reserve it the moment the registration window opens. For almost all US national parks, that window is six months in advance, based on the day of arrival. The exception: Yellowstone National Park, for which you must book a full 12 months out.
Start by creating an account on recreation.gov, the online booking site for almost all national parks in the US. Again, Yellowstone is the exception. They use a private booking site (their official website will redirect you).
Plug your preferred campground and dates into the availability calendar to gauge current availability (remember, campers booking longer stays may have already removed your choice dates from availability) or use the “Build a Trip” feature to see potential sites within your calendar window.
Quick Tip: In addition to Yellowstone, which books 12 months out, Yosemite National Park also deters from the norm by booking exactly five months out, on the 15th of each month, at 7 am PST. To book at Yosemite, familiarize yourself with their official website and their booking site, recreation.gov. When booking, be prepared to quickly move to your back-up plan if your first choices aren’t available.
Make sure your computer is all ready to go for when your booking window opens.
• Log in early: Log into recreation.gov at least one hour before your window opens, so you aren’t surprised by a misremembered password or other technical problem.
• Check your clock: Make sure your computer’s clock is accurate, too.
• Refresh the page: You’ll need to refresh your page at just the right moment of booking, and yes, being off by a minute could mean a lost reservation.
• Double check credit information: You’ll also want to make sure your credit card information is loaded and ready the go, even if you don’t typically save credit card information on websites.
• Book your reservation: Once the booking page is live, enter your arrival date and nights. If your dates are available and you’re successful, you’ll be given 15 minutes to complete your reservation.
• Have your back-up plan ready: If you’re not able to reserve the dates or campsite you want, click immediately to your alternate campsites or dates and try again.
Are you already past your reservation window? Call the park’s registration line to find bookings that have been dropped or cancelled. You may have to do this regularly, but it can pay off in the end.
Just can’t get the weekend dates you want most? Spend those days enjoying restaurant meals and hot showers in a nearby hotel, lodge, or resort, then head to the campground on a Monday or Tuesday. Another option is to avoid summer altogether and enjoy the shoulder seasons at national parks: spring and fall are gorgeous in most US parks and you’ll love the extra elbow room.
Consider a private campground stay instead. Many are located conveniently just outside national park boundaries, and enjoy more luxurious amenities such as laundry facilities, mini-golf or on-site dining.
Look for ‘walk-in’ or ‘tent-only’ sites in national park campgrounds. Since fewer visitors desire these more remote sites, you may have better luck in parks where such sites are not rare. And you’ll enjoy more nature and privacy once you arrive. Even better: consider a backpacking trip and explore a park’s spacious backcountry. Permits are often required, but with a few exceptions at the most impacted parks, they’re not too hard to come by, and day-of passes can be secured with some effort.
Looking for a state park campground instead? The same ‘formula’ applies for securing state park reservations, with minor alterations. Instead of primarily using recreation.gov, you will be utilizing ReserveAmerica.com to find out the booking window for the campsite you’d like and to make reservations.
Enjoy planning your national park camping trip this winter, and best of luck to all who are looking to secure reservations for next summer!
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About the Author: Amy Whitley specializes in outdoor travel writing for families with children. She is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids, a family travel site dedicated to resort, attraction, and outdoor activity reviews for kids. Amy writes regularly for U.S. News Travel and Southern Oregon Magazine as is an editor for OutdoorsNW Magazine and Twist Travel Magazine.