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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is it mandatory to make campsite reservations for National Parks?

Waiting for campsites at a NP
The slowly fading recession seems to have energized campers this season as campground usage is up and reservations become harder to nail down. This becomes a particular problem with those of us who procrastinate, make last-minute travel decisions, or find ourselves wherever our RVs lead us--most of the time without campground reservations.

But don't let that discourage you from visiting the national parks, you just need to practice some tricks and tips for increasing your odds of securing a campsite.

Many of our national parks (NP) are adjacent to or surrounded by public land, usually national forests (NF) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that will have alternative camping options, ranging from improved campgrounds to boondocking in dispersed campsites.

You can use these options for first night camping followed by a strategy of obtaining a NP campsite the next day. You can also use one of these alternate camping options as your main campsite from which you can visit the NP by tow or toad, returning each night to your NF or BLM campsite.

It would be all but impossible to obtain a campsite in the NP after a full day's travel, arriving in mid-afternoon or later, since most NP fill well before noon, even on week days. A public lands primitive or boondocking campsite will probably be your best bet, since most private campgrounds or RV resorts will lie outside the public lands on private land further away from the NP. They are also often filled by reservations and have few--if any--non-reserved sites.

Follow these tips for your best chances of getting a campsite when you have no reservation and with minimal hassle and stress.

  • Research the adjacent public lands for campgrounds and dispersed camping areas--easy if there is a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) available for download.
  • Research also which NP campgrounds (you cannot boondock in most NP) have sites large enough for your rig and confirm that some of them are held for first-come-first-serve campers.
  • Plan your arrival for a week day rather than a weekend and visit the office for the NF or BLM (if there is one) on your way in, where the staff can tell you which campgrounds still have open sites.
  • If all are full, ask for suggestions where you can boondock outside of an organized campground (dispersed camping areas). Ask for a MVUM (for now only available in NF) that will map those areas. If there is no MVUM you can camp anywhere that you can get off the road providing you are not within a mile of an organized campground and camping is not expressly prohibited by signs or fences.
  • Once you have secured a campsite, determine whether the campground or boondocking site is acceptable for a few days, within easy access to the NP, and whether spending time to secure a NP campsite is going to be worth the time and effort. If not--stay where you are and enjoy a campsite that will most likely be more private and quieter than one in the park.
  • If you decide to go for a site in the park, rise with the birds the next morning and plan to arrive in the campground of your choice very early--before 10:00 if possible--and get on the list for a campsite. Many of the most popular NP campgrounds will fill up very fast even on weekdays.
  • If the park does not have a sign up list, you will have to roam around the campground looking for signs that someone is leaving, then hang out until they do and leave something in the campsite--a camp chair or "Taken" sign--to save it until you retrieve your rig. 
  • After you snag a campsite, return to your previous night's campsite and retrieve your rig immediately and move to your campsite.
  • Each NP is slightly different how they handle campers without reservations. Obtain as much information as you can from their Web page or phone the visitor center so you are prepared and you will increase your odds of finding a campsite. Once you have tried this procedure a few times it will become easier, and you can save all those reservation fees and being locked into a rigid timetable.


  1. You can still disperse camp in a National Forest with a MVU policy -- each National Forest implemented the policy to fit the local needs and there are many variations of the basic policy. Read the map and the regulations carefully! You may find you are not as restricted as the internet pundits say you are.

  2. Camping within a national park is hit-or-miss in terms of enhancing your experience of the park. For some parks, camping in the NP campground can really take your park experience up a notch, while in others it seems like you've just paid for an experience that doesn't save you much driving time and is the same as - or worse - than one you can get right outside.

    i.e. There is free overnight street parking just outside of Zion National Park, less than 1/4 mile from the Zion NP campground.

  3. Yellowstone camping in Xanterra managed campgrounds take reservations but Park Service campgrounds are 1st come, 1st served basis. From around June 1 until Aug. 1 or later every campsite in YNP is taken every night. Probably near 2,500 campsites in YNP. No camping outside the campgrounds allowed and subject to fine.
    There are US Forest Service campgrounds outside the park at the East entrance (from Cody, WY) along the Shoshone River. Great fishing and wildlife viewing here, also.
    If you are going to YNP during the summer and expect to camp in the park, it is best to have reservations. If you get a Park Service campsite then you can cancel your Xanterra reservation with no penalty. You will make someone who didn't plan very happy.