By Julie Chickery
National parks are among the most popular places for RV travelers. The National Park Service reported that it had more than 237 million visitors in 2020 at its 423 parks. Add record-breaking RV sales and rentals, and you have a huge demand for national park campsites. Unfortunately, that makes it even harder than ever to actually get a coveted reservation.
Here are some tips for scoring a national park campsite:
The first recommendation is the most well-known. You will have a better chance of securing a site if you can book your reservation in advance. How far ahead you need to plan will depend on the national park you are planning to visit. For example, the window to make campground reservations in Yosemite National Park is five months in advance. This reservation varies by park and sometimes even by campground, so be sure to check as soon as you know where you want to travel.
Avoid prime tourist season
If you have any flexibility in your RV travel schedule, then you’ll have a better chance of securing a reservation when you avoid the prime tourist season. The “Big 5” national parks in Utah are jam-packed every spring and summer, but we were able to secure a campground reservation in Zion National Park right after the campground opened in early March.
Be willing to move around
Another way to snag a coveted national park campsite is to be willing to move around. What I mean by that, for example, is for a one-week stay you might be able to get two nights in one site, one night in another, and four nights in a final site. These might also be in different campgrounds within the park, which can actually make it easier to enjoy sightseeing in various parts of the park.
First-come, first-served sites
Many national parks leave a certain number of sites open on a first-come, first-served basis. In this case, the early bird gets the worm. The Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah National Park has 30 first-come, first-served RV campsites.
Consider dry camping
If you are willing to forego the water and power hookups, many national parks have dry campgrounds – these are campgrounds that have no hookups but often provide potable water and dump stations. In addition, some national parks allow boondocking in dispersed areas within their boundaries. While it’s not free, since you’ll need to pay for a permit, there is some spectacular backcountry camping to be had in these parks.
Alternatives to national park campgrounds
When all else fails, don’t skip the trip! Instead, explore some of the alternatives to national park campgrounds. From state parks to private RV resorts, there are many other options near population destinations.