We recently got an email from a reader named Drew. Drew and his family had just completed a more than 6,000-mile RV trip around the West. In a gentle chide, he used his trip experiences to point out something we might have missed. “You have been crying about RV overcrowding for three years (or more) and there is definitely some of that. But every RV park we stayed in along the way—and there were many with many different brands—there were always open spaces. Even in the KOA next to Mount Rushmore. Some were actually almost empty!” It got us to thinking: Are campgrounds suddenly uncrowded?
You gave us numbers
We popped the question to you. Last week we ran a poll asking this: “Are you finding more available campsites in the last few weeks?” We got almost 2,300 responses. A chunk of respondents (48%) either hadn’t been out to see, or hadn’t paid attention if they were. But of those who had seen it for themselves, there was a telling story in the numbers. Those who said they had found more available campsites amounted to a 62% “yes” vote. In other words, nearly two-thirds of those who were looking said yes, campgrounds had more spaces than usual.
Of course, our poll didn’t take into account where folks were traveling. Perhaps there are some areas of the country where campgrounds are uncrowded, and others where there’s “no room at the inn.” So we set out to get a handle on it. Here’s what we found.
“We could have found last-minute space almost anywhere”
From the viewpoint of some of our RVtravel.com writers, Drew’s experiences were the norm for them. Drew told us, “We pre-booked every stop, but could have found last-minute space almost anywhere.” Drew’s travels took him through the West, but even in the upper Midwest, things don’t seem tight. Our regular RV and gadget reviewer, Tony Barthel, has been on the road and he reported to us about his experiences. “We were in Detroit to visit the Henry Ford this summer,” Tony says, “and were one of two RVs in a park that had hundreds of spaces.” OK, that’s for one park. But how about the rest of his run? “I have yet to have any issues making a reservation,” Tony reports.
A potentially contrary view from the Midwest comes from Indiana. Matt Rose, with the Indiana Campground Owners Association, wrote to us: “I can only speak for Indiana campgrounds and will tell you that business levels have been, and remain, high. Many member campgrounds report having their best summer ever. I am hearing that due to higher gas prices, many Indiana campers are not traveling to national parks, the Smokies, etc., and are opting for trips closer to home, including our state’s private campgrounds and state parks and recreation areas.”
Deep in the heart of “TACO” country
How about farther south—say Texas? We asked Brian Schaeffert, who speaks for the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO). Were there uncrowded campgrounds deep in the heart of TACO country? “It depends largely on where you want to go and when you want to go, as to the level of availability. Overall, our camping nights are very steady by summer standards. Many parks are still very full of folks (staying monthly) who are trying to find permanent housing, adjusting to a job move, or waiting for economic times to settle a bit.”
We got the feeling that those nights that are “steady by summer standards” might suggest spaces are fairly available. We base that on his further musings as to why there could be a fall-off in crowding. “There are some factors affecting daily-weekly travel. Certainly, fuel prices have shortened a lot of people’s plans, but not canceled them,” observes Schaeffert. “We are fortunate that fuel prices in the South are about as cheap as you will find in the country, with many stations now offering gas for $3.99.”
Inflation, too, seems to be weighing in as a factor. TACO’s Schaeffert also told us, “Overall inflation is also a factor, mostly how it is affecting new entries into our industry. The dealers have seen a real drop-off of traffic in their stores—rising interest rates and less discretionary income is weighing on people’s minds and pocketbooks.”
What about public campgrounds?
What about government sites? Do they show uncrowded campgrounds? We called on RVtravel.com writer Randall Brink for his observations. He told us, “I checked into the usually busy USFS Sam Owen Campground [for reservations for] July 24. Recreation.gov showed the campground virtually empty.” Sam Owen is a usually popular park on the shores of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille.
And other government campgrounds? “On June 25, out of curiosity, I logged on to ReserveAmerica.com,” Randall says, looking for spots at Idaho’s Farragut State Park. “I was immediately able to obtain a reservation for a full hookup spot at the state park campground, right on the lakeshore. There were many open spots throughout the campground through that weekend.”
Our personal experiences in trying to secure a spot in many Northwest Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds has typically been a “last minute disaster.” Here’s a screenshot Randall took of the Corps of Engineers Albeni Cove Campground availability for the Pend Oreille River in Newport, Washington. The requested dates were for mid-July. When Randall did his look up it was July 11—just four days before the opening date on this shot. Not jammed—maybe even uncrowded.
The Golden State says “Don’t give up”
One of the major camping states, California, advises things are changing—at mid-week. Dyana Kelly is with the California Outdoor Hospitality Association. She tells us, “There is definitely some loosening mid-week. Weekends are still pretty busy. One of the things we are seeing is cancellations of reservations from guests more than 200 miles out but back-filling those spots with reservations for guests living within 100 miles of the park.”
California park owners also report people taking a shot at last-minute reservations. They typically see a surge of phone calls on Wednesdays, trying to book into the following weekend.
“All the crying isn’t justified”
We wish we could get a definitive handle on the question. None of the responding park owner associations could give us hard-and-fast numbers. But the anecdotal evidence seems to point that in at least some large areas of the country, campsites are not near as crowded as one might expect.
Here’s how reader Drew summed up his experiences: “Our 65-day trip ended June 10, so we were just shy of peak season. But all the crying is not justified if the parks are only full for two months. Go early or go late, or stay an extra mile away from the big draw—but there are spaces out there.”
How about your experiences? The good, the bad, and the ugly—we’d like to hear about them. Fill out the form below and include “campground conditions” on the subject line. Please include photos if you have any. Be sure to tell us where you had your experiences.