Saturday, December 9, 2023


California upends state park reservation system. Is relief in sight?

If you’ve read for any length of time, you know some of our readers’ “pet peeves” center on thoughtless campers. OK, maybe they’re not even campers. Rather, folks who reserve campground sites, then don’t even bother to show up to claim them. For those wanting a site and can’t get one, it’s a major burr under the saddle. Now California has written up new laws regarding its state park reservation methods. And maybe, just maybe, in one state it will be easier to find “room at the inn.”

Flake-out policies with no teeth

state parks reservation systemFor years, if somebody reserved a spot in a California state park, they had to put down an $8 reservation fee and whatever the cost of the site fees would amount to. What happened if they didn’t show up? At noon the day after the slated arrival, the reservation would be canceled. The person would lose their reservation fee, get charged an additional $8 for a cancellation, and forfeit one night’s worth of site fees. And scads of people do just that.

Under a new law, the sting will be a bit higher for those who flake out on their promises. Come January, the state park reservation system will mandate anyone who makes a reservation and cancels out or doesn’t show up within the first 24 hours loses it all—reservation fee and any money put down for site fees. Let’s say somebody reserves five nights at a $40-per-night site. If he doesn’t turn up within 24 hours of the arrival day, he’s out $208: $8 for the reservation fee, and $200 for the site.

The teeth aren’t quite as sharp if good faith is involved. Cancel out at least a week in advance, all the money comes back, less the reservation fee. Cancel out two to six days before the start, forfeit the cost of the reservation for the first night plus any reservation fees. And those who are “chronic” no-shows? Those who poop out on three reservations in a calendar year can be banned from using the system. That ban will hold until a calendar year has elapsed since their third renege.

Other changes that should give sites more availability

Making sites more available is a new twist in the state park reservation system. People won’t be allowed to reserve a site for more than seven nights in a row during peak season. Nobody can reserve a site if they’ve spent more than 30 days in that same “unit” in a calendar year. A unit is a park or a beach, for example.

So what happens to the money of those bad boys who do the no-show? “Forfeited reservation costs … shall be deposited into the State Parks and Recreation Fund, established pursuant to Section 5010, and may be used, upon appropriation by the Legislature, for purposes of deferred maintenance projects.” We presume those would be projects in the parks!

Site lotto fever!

state parks reservation systemThere’s yet another change coming in California’s state park reservation system, but you may have to wait until 2025 to see it. “On or before” January 1 of that year, the department is ordered to set up a reservation system “for up to five of the most popular units” of the state’s parks. These will be “units” that have shown the most interest by campers, based on reservations in the prior six months. Instead of envisioning a bunch of folks hovering over their keyboards at a given time, competing for a reservation by who’s fastest on the computer, now picture them waiting to see who wins the lottery for coveted parks and beaches.

Instead of awarding campsites to those “fastest on the switch,” the state will draw winners for the most popular parks. So which of these “popular” units will go to the lottery system? As of this week, media folks at California State Parks told us these were the current “top” reserved units: Bolsa Chica State Beach (Orange County); Pismo State Beach (San Luis Obispo County); Half Moon Bay State Beach (San Mateo County); Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (Del Norte County); and finally, San Elijo State Beach (San Diego County).

The lottery system will run until 2029, and then will end—unless the legislature decides to act and make it a permanent affair. Four years of relief? Maybe the idea will spread to other park systems throughout the country.


Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña went from childhood tent camping to RVing in the 1980s when the ground got too hard. They've been tutored in the ways of RVing (and RV repair) by a series of rigs, from truck campers, to a fifth-wheel, and several travel trailers. In addition to writing scores of articles on RVing topics, they've also taught college classes for folks new to RVing. They authored the book, RV Boondocking Basics.



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Liz (@guest_258317)
1 month ago

Wyoming does the no show 24 hour loose your money and the three strikes your out. If you think of using another name remember you have to provide trailer/rv or car (tent campers) license plate number!! I thought it was great! I think we only had 2 no call no cancel no show in the 4 months we volunteered there

Betsy (@guest_257055)
1 month ago

Hope other states take note of CA’s new system. CA finally got something right.

Neal Davis (@guest_257032)
1 month ago

Sounds like a good idea that was actually implemented. 🙂

Rach R. (@guest_256953)
1 month ago

Site Lotto Fever. Yes, CA’s State Park Reservation System is a mess. The Site Lotto Fever? Now that is downright scary. We may never get a spot at our fave parks. No-shows, yes it’s sad to see so many sites unused. But, folks line up every morn to see what’s available. What a mess! The State is just to push everyone to higher priced luxury campgrounds.

Rich K. (@guest_256882)
1 month ago

I’d love to see this sort of thing go nationwide. Even better, I’d like to see campgrounds reserve at least a part of their sites for a “first, come, first served, no reservations” basis, with a maximum stay of one week with no renewals.

Philip Wood (@guest_256824)
1 month ago

After listening to the whining, I am still convinced that technology is and had always been our friend. Sometimes it gets a little or maybe a lot messy. People have always been convinced that the old ways were the best. I am convinced that 2023 are the good old days and the best days are ahead of us. The greatest thing about our nation is that you are free to complain, free to not live where you don’t want to live, and not to go where you don’t want to be. I am 83 and have been an RVer for decades and still have not seen it all.

XGarys (@guest_256752)
1 month ago

I’ll never set wheels in that evil state again so it’s no skin off my back.

Will B. (@guest_256836)
1 month ago
Reply to  XGarys

Bought our rig there, drove it back to Texas, haven’t been back. We’ve been everywhere, just not back to CA. Oh, wait… my mistake. We boondocked at the American Girl Mine outside of Yuma. Realized later that it was actually in CA. Okay…well, public land, but CA didn’t get my money!

wanderer (@guest_256668)
1 month ago

Delighted to see an agency finally starting to ban repeat no-shows. And limiting time spent in one park in a year. Although, 30 days = 10 weekends. Still lets people use their local park as their personal cabin. Maybe a 3 weekend limit would be more fair to others getting locked out of the parks.

Lotteries sound like a pain in the neck, but, there are just far too many people wanting to use the parks to have them locked up by regulars too often. Let other people have a chance.

For those who want to have a regular place they always go camp, the private sector needs to step up and offer more parks, and the great state of California needs to make it easier to build and permit these.

Jim Johnson (@guest_256660)
1 month ago

Hopefully there are some deliberate loopholes for personal emergencies or weather – if not a refund, a voucher for a future visit. A sudden illness or injury, or something like a wind storm between the park and my current location would delay my arrival or cancel the trip. Otherwise, what I read here is a good step in the right direction.

Split Shaft (@guest_256765)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Johnson

It is not the same thing, but cruise ships sail whether on board or not. Loopholes are just that, a way to keep abusing the system and folks cannot vacation in the park of their choice.

Mitch Reeves (@guest_256655)
1 month ago

One more comment, we had families book a site using their name, wife’s name, kid’s names, or other family member’s names.

Virginia (@guest_256698)
1 month ago
Reply to  Mitch Reeves

Agree. They need to use the license number of the camper itself as ID — not a human’s name. I could make a list of pseudonyms for all year!

Mitch Reeves (@guest_256653)
1 month ago

Worked at Lassen National Park as a camp host for a season. On any given day there was at least a 10% to 20% “no show”. By using a “senior citizen” discount the campers were only charged at 50% rate. For some people the modest fee for making the reservation and not keeping it was just the “cost of doing business”. I agree that the fee for “no show” should be higher, but there needs to be an easier way for those that had “circumstances beyond their control” cause a delay or need to cancel to get a refund. I know that could be abused, so the recommendation that if you are a “frequent” “canceler”, you can’t make any more reservations.

Paul B. (@guest_256645)
1 month ago

California doing something right??? Well, I guess it could happen but I fear this will ultimately be used to put the lucrative reservation system into the hands of friends and families of whoever writes the laws. Can you say, ‘plutocratic kakistocracy’?

Leonard (@guest_256608)
1 month ago

When we book state parks in Arizona, we book and pay in full a year in advance. I have zero issue with this, and would be happy if there was a no refund policy if we were to cancel within 5-7 days. This way if I am a no-show the park or campground still gets 100% of the camping fee for the duration my spot is open. I really do not understand why any park would offer any refund a day or two before you are to arrive. I get it, emergencies come up, however this is open to interpretation and can certainly be “gamed” by some. Unless there is a significant financial penalty for last minute cancellations, this conversation will needlessly continue.

Last edited 1 month ago by Leonard
Gordon den Otter (@guest_256607)
1 month ago

Parks Canada has used an interesting system for all its reservable campgrounds. On the day reservations open, you have one half hour before opening time to get onto the web site. Then at 8:00 a.m., they randomize all those in line. Latecomers get put at the end of the line in the order they get there.

This is much more fair than “fastest fingers” (even though I benefitted from the old system!), and also allows them to regulate the load on their system. Parks Canada previously used a lottery system for a few very popular restricted areas (e.g. Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park), but this new system is much better.

Maybe the US National Parks should look at something like it.

Bob M (@guest_256606)
1 month ago

Anytime our government gets involved with something they cause more problems.

Duke m (@guest_256628)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob M

Amen to that

Dave Green (@guest_256712)
1 month ago
Reply to  Duke m

Without government, we’d still be living in caves wearing bearskins. Dealing with bureaucracies is the price of civilization.

Cancelproof (@guest_256761)
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Green

I think you over simplify it Dave. Sounds like a Just End Oil uber liberal utopia. No oil, no plastics, no cars, no rubber, no propane, no light bulbs. Bearskins and torches dipped in whale grease for fuel to light the cave. Which politician was it that invented the light bulb? Discovered rubber? Invented plastic? I can give govt the assist occasionally, but they never score the goal.

Chuck Woodbury
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob M

Bob M. So you are saying “anytime” the government gets involved? Do you think that maybe, at least sometimes, the government does things right? Or are you sticking with ANYTIME as in “every time?”

Heckman Kenn (@guest_256675)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob M

Hello. I’m from your government and I am here to help you.

Joseph Phebus (@guest_256685)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob M

Yeah, I used to think that when I was about 15. Then it occurred to me my widowed grandmother with a 5th grade education, was able to put my dad through school , pay off her house and have adequate retirement even though she scrubbed floors for a living, due to social security and Medicare. Then I realized there are countless firefighters, policemen, and military service members, employed by the government, that put their lives on the line. Then I looked around and saw the millions of miles of roads that enable commerce, began to appreciate the parks and recreation opportunities that government workers make possible. Then I visited places without a functional government…. ’nuff said.

Last edited 1 month ago by Joseph Phebus
Cancelproof (@guest_256855)
1 month ago
Reply to  Joseph Phebus

All good points JP. The safety net has a few new holes it since your Grandmother used it but no question, it did work for quite awhile.

What places with non-functional Gov’ts have you visited? Serious question. Thanks.

Mitzi Agnew Giles and Ed Giles (@guest_257079)
1 month ago
Reply to  Joseph Phebus

Thanks Joseph. That needed to be said. Plus, governments do occasionally keep us out of wars. Not 100%, but better than nothing.

Tom (@guest_256738)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob M

If the government wouldn’t be involved would there be a park (fed, state, or local government agency)? Kind a a silly statement not to have government involvement. Just go to private park.

Craig Seitz (@guest_256604)
1 month ago

Good to see someone is finally listening.

Tom (@guest_256600)
1 month ago

Hope this will help with no shows. It’s amazing to show up at a full park and see the empty sites. Financial penalties should sting.

Bill T (@guest_256598)
1 month ago

Charge the full price on booking and if they don’t show oh well. The CG keeps the money.

Herman (@guest_256626)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bill T

Plus, after 24 hours of no show, the site could be used for new reservations or for first come, first served!

Michelle Traynor (@guest_256460)
1 month ago

Good ideas. But. if my state did this I would want them to give residents a one week jump on securing a reservation.

Virginia (@guest_256699)
1 month ago

I agree, but wonder what that would do to tourism?

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