Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Why you can’t get a campsite at a state park

By Andy Zipser
If you do any amount of RVing in state or national parks, you know what to expect: You drive in after a long day on the road, you look around and see that half of the sites are empty—but nope, nothing’s available. Everything, you’re told, has been booked. But guess what? Come back in the morning, and most of those sites are still empty. What the heck is going on?

A Colorado audit provides answers

An official Colorado audit is providing some answers, which aren’t pretty.

  • Lack of staff training in reservation software.
  • Staff setting aside sites for friends and family—or worse, making a few bucks on the side from cash-paying campers.
  • A reluctance to enforce policies.
  • Fear of antagonizing campers who show up too late, too soon or end up on the wrong site.

All of it adds up to millions of dollars in lost revenue for a park system looking at annual budget shortfalls, not to mention thousands of frustrated campers who can’t understand why they’ve been locked out. Worst of all, there’s no way of knowing how representative Colorado is of the rest of the country, where similar problems abound.

What we do know

But let’s get to what we do know. The 30-page performance audit of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), which manages 4,200 campsites across 32 state parks, was released May 25. Among its key findings:

  • 36% of the sites were closed for at least one night between Jan. 1 and Sept. 7 last year, at a loss of $1.9 million in forsaken site fees. Of the 374,000 nights that those sites could have been reserved, nearly 53,100 were not available during the camping season; 12% of the closures were for more than a month. Full-hookup sites, which have a minimum standard nightly fee of $41, accounted for the most closed sites.
  • Although park managers are allowed to lower campsite reservation fees to encourage occupancy, overall demand was up 16% from the prior year—yet 136,517 reserved nights were discounted a total of $836,921, without any recorded justification. The combination of lost and discounted site fees, plus unjustified refunds for canceled reservations, cost the CPW $2.8 million in just eight months, equivalent to 19% of the revenues it did collect from campsite reservations. Meanwhile, the agency is expecting an annual budget shortfall of $11 million by 2025.

No-shows frustrating for campers

But it wasn’t just site closures that were frustrating campers. A related problem—to which, alas, the auditors gave only minimal attention—is the one of campsites remaining vacant due to no-shows. The audit notes that it reviewed a random sample of 25 reservations—out of thousands!—and found “three (12 percent) instances where the campers did not show up at their reservation start time and did not notify park staff that they would be late or would not be able to fulfill the reservation.” Park staff, the auditors added, did not cancel any of these reservations to make the sites available for rebooking, “which means that the campsites remained vacant.”

WHY DID THESE PROBLEMS OCCUR? Partly because park managers and staff were poorly trained—or not trained at all—in using the state’s reservation system. Partly because of deliberate misuse and favoritism, with campsites closed to benefit family or friends. Moreover, as one park manager told the auditors, “There is definitely a risk that an employee could close a site for personal gain.” Partly because of a desire by staff to avoid confrontations with campers: 28 park managers (in a system of 32 parks) stated that staff would close sites “in anticipation of customer service challenges (e.g. people camping at the wrong site, campers showing up on the wrong day, or campers wanting to stay longer).”

Ironically, the problem of sites left empty because of no-shows—some of which may have been booked for as long as two weeks—was seemingly addressed back in 2015, when CPW first published a policy that park staff would resell sites if campers did not show up to claim their reservations. But while the agency’s reservation system includes a no-show function to enable staff to enforce the policy, that function was disabled “because CPW does not consider its publicly stated policies to be enforceable because they are not regulatory documents.”

CPW adopted a no-show regulation but kept it disabled

As the auditors pointed out, that’s a hollow rationale indeed, since CPW has other policies that are not regulations that it nevertheless enforces. Worse yet, CPW last November adopted a no-show regulation—negating its earlier rationale—but inexplicably decided to keep the function disabled unless regional managers requested it be turned on. And according to CPW staff, “regional managers have not requested to have the no-show functionality enabled,” and CPW staff “have not asked if regional managers want the functionality.” Don’t ask, don’t tell.

As a result, “27 park managers who responded to our survey stated that they do not release sites” when no-shows occur. “Instead, to prevent customer service challenges, park staff leave the sites empty in case the campers do show up before the end of their reservation.”

A light at the end of the tunnel… for now

Damning—and embarrassing—as these findings are, CPW didn’t dispute either the facts or any of the auditors’ six recommendations to fix the system, so perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And while a couple of the recommendations won’t be implemented until next year, one that CPW agreed to implement immediately is the long-overdue no-show policy. “CPW has already turned this feature on” within the reservation system, the auditors reported, “and direction has been provided to staff on how to use” it.

You have to wonder what the feds and other state park systems would turn up in a similar audit, how much lost money they could regain—and how many more RVers would be able to book sites that they currently can’t get.


Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. On June 21, he is also publishing Turning Dirt, a step-by-step primer for those determined to buy a campground or RV park. 



  1. In our area in Central Alabama we have seven known rental company’s that are renting campers out to people who don’t understand camper code of ethics and they are leaving trash broken bottles in campsite going in bath houses turning all the water on and stealing people stuff of tables etc. But some people rent a hold section by the month then advertise making it hard to be able to get in

  2. We spent last Friday night at a State Park. We were unable to make a same-day reservation so I called ahead and inquired about walk-in availability. I was told that ten sites would be open at the 1:00 check in time. We were able to secure one of those ten sites, but as of our departure at 9:30 the next morning we saw many empty sites. Of the 200+ sites in the campground over 15% remained vacant.

  3. Just make your reservation early. For people who “don’t show”, cancel their reservation 10am by day two, unless they call to say they have a problem and will show up on day xxx of their reservation.

  4. In our Area in Alabama the new thing there are over 6 people who are rental campers and they are renting many spots at one time and the park has become a problem people are renting them and don’t understand camping code and are stealing staying outside all night messing with people stuff leaving hot water running in bath houses all night and have put a bad name to the State Park.

  5. Something not addressed in this article is a phenomenon we experience here in an Iowa State Park where I am currently Camp Hosting and working for DNR part-time: 1) Folks reserve a site for more days than they actually intend to use it (generally in order to guarantee a campsite for a holiday weekend or special event.) It sits empty (albeit it is paid for) until they arrive, and that is frustrating for folks drive looking to camp here and see the empty site. 2) We have 25% of our sites as “Walk-In” sites, and once a camper identifies an available walk-in site, registers and pays for it (first-come-first-serve basis,) they can stay up to 14 days. So for example, June 21st was the “magic day” to find a walk-in site in order to camp over 4th of July weekend. So many sites are “booked” and paid for, but sit empty, and will probably remain empty until next weekend. Very frustrating for folks again, who drive thru and see empty sites. Tough situation. I hope this park goes all “reservable.”

    • FCFS benefits many people, so no, they shouldn’t be 100% “reserve only.” Enforce a rule that if you reserve a site, you must be camped there on the first night. If you’re not, you lose your reservation and the first nights campsite fees. This helps keep people from reserving multiple days to save a site for just a weekend. It also opens up sites that are no shows.

      • The problem there is “they” have someone drop off a tent or a rv, but never physically show up till the weekend

  6. They need to make at least 20% of sites first come first served I live in Wyoming it’s ridiculous the amount of site reservations that say full and are sitting empty !!

    • Interestingly I just wrote about Iowa, and what a disaster walk in sites can be! I guess there is no perfect solution as long as there remains campers who live spontaneously.

  7. This is not true. You can get a campsite/camper site at a state park. We camped at state parks in South Carolina and the Kentucky/Virginia State line the past two weeks. You may need to change where you want to travel, but there are many campsites available at state parks if you widen your search.

  8. The best that we can do is to make a reservation and keep it. However, we all know “life happens” and no one can know the circumstances of any late show or no show. Not everyone is rude or inconsiderate so stop making assumptions. Enjoy your travels and don’t sweat the small stuff. If someone is a no show so what. Plan your trips as best you can and if you can’t get a site last minute that’s the way things are.

  9. In NY your reservation is paid in advance, so if you don’t show, they’ve been paid. However, there should be a rule if you don’t show up or notify the campground within 24 hours, your site would be opened for resale to last minute customers. It might not show up online, but the camp office WOULD know they had no-show campers- – – That’s the biggest problem….

  10. Upon reading about no-show campers I think that a ‘rule’ for poker players in Las Vegas would work. The rule is that if you are not in your seat(camp site) when the cards have been dealt(reservation time), then your hand is folded(reservation cancelled).

  11. Went to Yosemite for a week and tons of sites were no-shows. There’s a good reason, there’s a big lottery campground and if you win there’s no reason to go to the paid site. Also there’s no financial incentive to cancel a site when the cancellation fee is 100%

  12. One of the issues that I have at state parks is that you are allowed to go there and book the campsite for 2 weeks. You don’t have to be there for those two weeks as long as you have a tent or RV setup. So all go to one of these State campsites expecting to be able to use the campsite Monday through Friday for my job. But all that’s there is little to set Kitty tents and people hoarding Campsites.

  13. Policy: Call and inform of not showing up or delay, after 24 hours of expected arrival lose the site and any fees paid in advance. In other words go to the end of the line.

    • The other issue is people reserving spots every weeked across the state “in case” they want to use it.
      Most people cant afford to tie up camp spots for the entire summer due to cost. Yet State tax dollars are taken from everyone. The reservation systems are 100% BS. Hey its nice out lets go for a hike or fish or camp…Sorry we didnt make reservations 4 months ago.

  14. My question about reservations is this. Is the reservation fee for the whole cost of the site for the whole time book? or is it just for the first night? or just a flat fee regardless of number of nights book?

  15. Just make 1/2 of each campground for reservation only. And the other 1/2 for first- come, first- serve (FCFS). I bet those FCFS will fill up fast, and fewer revenue lost. Plus more happier travelers too. Everyone wins in this scenario. Making all campgrounds reservation only leaves too many issues. So compromise by offering FCFS sites as well. Try it, you might just increase your revenue.

    • I like this idea. Also the cancelation fee is 100% so why bother cancelling if the person knows he’s not gonna be there?

  16. I discovered another factor booking a site in a Maryland state park for this past weekend. The reservation system only allowed arrivals or departures on Fridays or Mondays. Didn’t matter how long you really wanted to be there, you had to reserve the site to fit those windows.

      • Are you just showing up last minute? Obviously the “late arrival or no show” had a reservation. It seems reservations are now becoming the “norm” and not “the exception”. Even when we camp locally, I make a reservation to ensure we get a site. Travelling without a reservation is a “hit or miss” thing these days and no one should be surprised if they can’t get a last minute site.

    • But did they? If a reservation for one night and they don’t show no problem if they paid for it. If for a week and they only paid for the first night and never come in then revenue and opportunity lost.

    • Actually you missed what they were saying that the campsites get reserved but they don’t have to be paid for until arrival. Or the camp sites for paid for and then they canceled and we’re never made available again

  17. There should be more camp sites for tents and fewer for RVs. Hell, there should be designations camp sites for people without a vehicle at all. I’m honestly tired of all the huge RVs hogging up the parks.

    • I am not sure where you are looking, but there are many more national forest and national park spaces for smaller campers and tents then big rigs. Our 31 ft “hog” fits in very few camping sites and we are going to go “smaller” with our next purchase because of more site selection. The BLM also has opened campsites recently that have specific sites for Class B or car campers with “tent pads” as well as RV sites. I have also seen tents camping in RV sites while tent sites go unused. I’m honestly tired of people just complaining about anything. Most people we meet no matter if they have a tent or an RV are good to know. Cant we all just get along in the great outdoors.

  18. So… a study which blames ‘staff’ instead of poor management and procedures. Thanks, that’ll help. Then they wonder why they’re having trouble keeping staff.

    • The recreation.gov site stinks. It doesn’t refresh often and the 100% cancelation fee is a disincentive to communicate ahead and open the site for a no-show.

    • Leadership, accountability and common sense are the usual casualties of bureaucracy. The users of the system need to make their voice heard in as many ways as possible.

  19. If I’ve paid (full price) in advance for my reservation, then that site should be left open for me in case something happened and I’m getting there late – -or not at all. No revenue loss for the park, but if I paid for it, it should be mine to use or not use.

    • For a public facility, no, it should be released to people on site or on a waiting list. You have no ‘right’ to tie up a public good and yet not use it. Too many other people had to stay home or pay double to park farther away, for you to be that selfish.

      People go decades without ever having to no-show without notice. Even when there are issues on the road, you can usually make a call before the gatehouse closes. If you habitually no-show or expect to roll in at 11 p.m., you should start using truck stops instead of public recreation parks.

      • Exactly. Otherwise, a bunch of rich people can just book whatever they want and keep it from the rest just in case they decide to use it.

    • Agreed. If you have paid for the site (public or otherwise) in advance, at campgrounds that don’t refund or charge extra because for last minute changes, then the site is still reserved for the duration of my reservation. With the number of RV’s on the road today, advanced reservations are a necessity and no one can predict future travel interruptions. With more and more campgrounds changing their reservation criteria to include on demand pricing and horrible refund policies, if they are going to keep my money anyway, because I can’t make it last minute or will be late, why would I cancel just to help them line their pockets? Serendipitous travel will be curtailed at least for the near future, especially for those who travel with midsized to large RV’s. If I have paid for it already it better be there at the end of my long travel day especially if there were unscheduled delays. Call me selfish but if you travel for months at a time to see this great country with a 35 foot rig flat towing a car, looking around for a open site late in the afternoon is not an option for us.

    • No, you should have the courtesy of informing the park if you are going to be late or no show. You wouldn’t get away with it if you booked a hotel room and didn’t show up.

    • Have you never heard of telephones, cell phones, email? What happened to respect? Common courtesy? I have had to call campgrounds and inform them of a days delay or cancel all together. Why? Because it is the thing to do.
      If the campground has a policy that you notify them within 24 hours following expected arrival of any delays or lose all monies and claims to the site you might learn manners.

  20. Over the course of the past ten years I’ve seen almost all first come first serve sites disappear everywhere. At the same I’ve noticed the number of vacant sites due to no shows increase. And of course this has happened at the same time demand has exponentially increased! Everyone scratches their head and wonders what gives? Why don’t the entities managing these campgrounds crack down on the no shows? Why don’t they penalize them?

    My answer to the question is a question – why am I the only one who sees the elephant in the room? Consider that the work load for the park staff is cut in half if half the sites are unoccupied. Yet the revenue remains the same assuming the no shows failed to cancel. It’s a win/win for the park staff and a lose/lose for the campers paying their wages. Call me cynical – but It’s a sign of the times.

  21. Nothing and I mean nothing will serve everyone’s needs so what’s the solution it is what it is and you can complain and offer solutions all you want but it won’t help because campers wants to go camping, more demand that can’t
    serve everyone that wants to camp, so bite the bullet and do the best you can with what they have available, and maybe just maybe there will be a solution but don’t count on it

  22. From anecdotal to factual. No show policies need to be clear, rational and enforced. Training employees and consequences for improper or illegal conduct. I suspect (anecdotally) that 49 other states could benefit from annual performance audits of these customer service functions.

  23. You could probably have reported that the parks system is run by a state or federal government entity and that would say it all! I can’t think of a single thing run by our elected officials that is managed properly. Of course, I live in California where everything is in top shape! Right!

  24. First thing I would do as Colorado Governor is fire my head of Parks and hire someone who is competent. Whoever that individual is has no clue how to run a multi million $ large organization from the standpoint of controls, auditability, and accountability. The “buck stops here” is applicable, especially with the fraud and financial losses sustained.

    Next, I would ensure that those individuals that were intentionally perpetrating fraud for personal profit via kickbacks, etc. were prosecuted for their crimes.

    It’s a government run organization, so I have my doubts any of that has happened. Does anyone know if there have been consequences?

  25. We don’t even bother with state parks in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nebraska. They are horribly run. And in CO & NM, they charge you for every vehicle with a motor. So a 5er or trailer one vehicle, but a motorhome with a toad, extra vehicle charge of $8 or more. Their politicians and park managers know nothing about RVing. Sad state of affairs!

    • Well, you are missing out on some great parks then. Also, I think you don’t understand the $8 fee. I’m pretty sure it’s the day use fee, and many states have it. You don’t have to pay it if you have an annual pass. You can decide based on the length of your stay whether it’s cheaper to pay by the night or buy the annual pass. Keep in mind that the annual pass gets you into all of the state parks, not just the one where you are camping. In any case, “Sad state of affairs” is a bit overwrought. New Mexico is an extremely poor state, and I don’t think you will get a lot of sympathy here for having to pay an extra $8 a night for the $40,000 vehicle you tow behind your $100,000+ coach.

    • I’m not sure you understand the $8 fee. I think that is the day use fee which is in addition to the camping charge unless you have an annual pass. You have to do the math based on your stay to determine if the annual pass is a better deal. Also, New Mexico is a very poor state. You wouldn’t get much sympathy around here even if you were being charged an extra $8 a night for the $40,000 vehicle you are towing behind your $100,000 motorhome.

  26. I think that only half the State Park Campgrounds should be reservations and half first come first serve. Finally retired we discovered that in Arizona their State Parks are nothing more than beautiful RV Parks….The snowbirds reserve ALL the sites, in ALL the State Parks at the 2 week limits, and then just move from Park to park all winter long. There should be limits as to how many weeks in a calendar year you can stay in any Az State Park so us true “campers” can still go camping.

  27. No shows are a problem for camp hosts. We have to hold the site open until 12:00 noon the day after check in before we can cancel the reservation. If a camper is staying one night, nothing can be done. Recreation.gov needs a way to penalize no shows. Things come up, I understand, however I have turned away many campers when I do have sites open.

    • Well said. If there is no show or phone call by, say 6 p.m., the site should be released to live human beings who are nearby and trying to camp.

  28. As a followup to this story, a full disclosure of the process and cost of “reservation” software for these government divisions would maybe begin a fix. A good start would be Recreation.Gov. Without fail when a voice discussion takes place about just how bad their system is for the user, the response is “we know,” followed by the give up phrase, “it is what it is.”

    Use the Rec. Gov. “Contact” function and ask … Software Provider & Cost? A copy to your congressperson might also help get to “it was what it was.”

  29. CPW’s parks are a shining example managing parks for their convenience and campers be damned. A baby DMV if you will.
    They went to a 100% reservation system a few years ago. No first come first served sites in any of their parks. I think this a huge disrespect towards campers. A park never has to turn campers away from an empty FCFS site. The parks love the 100% reservation because now they don’t have to hire money handlers and they can employ imbeciles at the parks. Doesn’t matter if there’s no Internet at the target park. This policy takes away all flexibility for the camper.
    Sadly my neighboring home state, New Mexico, has gone to the same system this year. Our jewelry shopping governor is absolutely clueless about how to run the state parks. I’m not sure what CPW’s excuse is.

  30. We knew all this before politicians wasted more of our money on an audit!
    No accountability or consequences for bad behavior with everyone today.

    Another wasted resource apatheticly handed over, and left in the hands of a failed government entity.

    Until society is more worried about right and wrong and real consequences for politicians that waste our resources and money, it will only get worse.

    Thank God we still have some semblance of a free market to vote with our dollars. Although, the Government takes about half of that too in some form or another.

    Sorry no solutions or quick fixes.

    Maybe an RV convoy?!

    Safe travels….

  31. I recently had to cancel several state park reservations in Michigan. They now charge not only a cancellation fee but a percentage fee based on how far in advance you made the reservation. Since I’m a planner, my reservations were made over 6 months ago – a 40% fee!!! So it cost me about half of my initial reservation cost to cancel!! I don’t think this encourages cancellation….

    • It’s not meant to encourage cancelation. It’s meant to discourage people from making a whole bunch of reservations as soon as they become available and then canceling most of them once thier vacation plans are finalized.
      It’s just an unfortunate side effect that honest people with legitimate reasons to cancel get penalized.

    • Making you pay when you make the reservation will help. Instead of paying 40% to cancel, you pay 100% not cancel even though you won’t be using the site.

  32. If it is lost revenue parks are seriously concerned with, as it appears in this article, then they should charge the full price for the reservation at the time of booking. This would provide a better incentive for folks to cancel. This would seem to be a win win for the campground but not so much for the serendipitous or last minute camp planners though. Likewise, the online reservation systems need to have booking cancellation features available and easy to use. I should be able to cancel an online reservation as easy as it is to make one at any time. A first come first served approach for state and federal parks I believe, would only create a huge mess given the number of RVer’s on the road these days.

    • I’m not sure where you stay but every state and federal park I’ve made reservations at charged me the full fee at the time of the reservation. See my comment above about the cost to cancel in one state!

    • Arizona state parks have it right, I believe. They charge full reservation up front with an added $5 (sometimes $10) service fee. Then you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance if the reservations date with only the $5 or $10 fee as nonrefundable.

      Their campgrounds are well filled and every time we stay in one, there are very few, if any, vacant sites on any given night.

      Yes, people can still not show up but after the 24 hour advance window, no refunds are given, so they paid for the site. I would suggest in those cases, no-call, no-shows should lose their site for walk-in / same day / one night arrivals.

      Otherwise, it’s a better system than a lot of places we’ve stayed. But no matter what, none of these campgrounds will have a system that pleases everyone. We can only hope the stricter cancellation policies will discourage no-shows.

      • I concur on AZ state parks being easy to cancel. 2 years running our plans to stay 2 weeks at a SP needed to be canceled due to health issues. A simple call to reservations got me a full refund minus $5.00.


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