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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.

RELATED

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. 

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Jim S.
1 day ago

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.

Adrian L. Cahill II
5 days ago

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.

Peggy Bradley
7 days ago

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.”

Terie
6 days ago
Reply to  Peggy Bradley

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.

Jim S.
1 day ago
Reply to  Terie

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

Mark miller
8 days ago

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 !!

Peggy Bradley
7 days ago
Reply to  Mark miller

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.

Mrs.
9 days ago

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.

Bill T
9 days ago

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.

Susan Steele
10 days ago

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….

Peggy Bradley
7 days ago
Reply to  Susan Steele

I agree 100%!!

William L
10 days ago

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).

Art
10 days ago

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%

Philip leja
10 days ago

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.

Vanessa
10 days ago

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.

Art
10 days ago
Reply to  Vanessa

Losing a site due to no-show is a non issue if you have to change sites every day with a new reservation number.

Chris
7 days ago
Reply to  Vanessa

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.

Lauren Baker
11 days ago

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?

Mike Smith
11 days ago

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.

Art
10 days ago
Reply to  Mike Smith

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

Justin Moore
11 days ago

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.

Steven
11 days ago

People are late. So what.
They paid for the site. It is theirs to use how they see fit. No one is hurt by this

Bill T
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven

Exactly.

Sue
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven

No one is hurt? What about people who actually want to camp and can’t now,because of your self important attitude?

Art
10 days ago
Reply to  Sue

Are we talking about late shows or no-shows? I get to my camp around 10pm and I’m glad I made it.

Bill T
9 days ago
Reply to  Sue

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.

Vanessa
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven

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.

Philip leja
10 days ago
Reply to  Steven

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

Owen
10 days ago
Reply to  Steven

Ok. Then 100% up front and nonrefundable

Sarah
11 days ago

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.

John Olson
11 days ago
Reply to  Sarah

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.

John Olson
11 days ago
Reply to  Sarah

Just a thought… this is RV Travel? Maybe Sarah is on the wrong site.

Mike
5 days ago
Reply to  Sarah

pack it in pack it out! no noisy GENERATORS!!!Running .

wanderer
11 days ago

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.

Art
10 days ago
Reply to  wanderer

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.

Gary
7 days ago
Reply to  wanderer

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.

Annette Espinoza
12 days ago

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.

wanderer
11 days ago

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.

Sarah
11 days ago
Reply to  wanderer

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.

Bill T
11 days ago

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.

Melinda
11 days ago

Exactly. People judge too quick. Sometimes an emergency or illness is last minute. Can’t help that.

Sue
11 days ago

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.

Vanessa
10 days ago

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.

John O
12 days ago

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.

Bill T
11 days ago
Reply to  John O

Absolutely.

alan W householder
12 days ago

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

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