How to visit the national parks without a campground reservation

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–and 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 national forests (NF) that will have alternative camping options, ranging from improved campgrounds to boondocking in un-designated campsites. You can use these options for first night camping followed by a strategy of obtaining a NP campsite the next day, or as your main campsite from which you can visit the NP by tow or toad, returning each night to you NF campsite.

It would be all but impossible to obtain a campsite in the NP after a day’s travel, arriving in mid-afternoon or later, since most NP fill well before noon, even on week days. A NF campsite will probably be your best bet, since most private campgrounds or RV resorts will lie outside the forest on private land and well away from the NP. They are also often filled by reservations for the summer months and have few–if any–first-come spots.

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 NF for campgrounds, identifying those that will fit your rig, and the location of the area office.
* Research also for which NP campgrounds (you cannot boondock in the majority of 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 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. (NOTE: You can camp anywhere in a NF providing you are not within a mile of an organized campground, are not blocking any roads (no matter how primitive), 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 8:00 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.

Check out my BOONDOCKING ebook (right column) for more tips on boondocking.


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