No matter how extensively we travel, my kids’ favorite vacations are all national park camping experiences. And I couldn’t be happier. A national park vacation is appealing to parents, too: camping in a national park is affordable, beautiful, and accessible. Add free perks such as ranger-led nightly campfires and the Junior Ranger program, and you’ve got an educational trip as well.
To get the accommodations you want, however, you need to start planning for a summer national park trip early. The good news: as with many government systems, reserving national park campsites and lodging appears more complicated than it is. Here’s the simple version of how and when to make national park camping reservations:
How and When to Reserve Campsites
National park and national forest campsite reservations are made through Recreation.gov, which opens their booking window six months out (with a few exceptions). Many people make the mistake of thinking park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Most parks do offer at least one campground that honors drop-ins, in order to keep parks accessible to all, but visitors shouldn’t rely on this. Who needs the stress, right? Recreation.gov’s call center opens at 10 am EST, at which time new campsites open up on their site or via phone. Some campgrounds warrant calling to reserve exactly six months out (if you want a Yellowstone site on the 4th of July, for instance), but in most cases, a spring reservation for a summer’s night is sufficient. When possible, a good rule of thumb is to book on the day your date becomes available. According to Recreation.gov, the most popular dates and sites will book within 20 minutes of the call center opening.
Already missed your booking window for a popular weekend? Consider one of the U.S.’s least crowded national parks!
How and When to Book Lodge Rooms and Cabins
Another misconception: that national park lodges are run by the national parks. In most cases, lodges within the national park system are run by outside lodging companies. (For example, Aramark is the concessionaire at Olympic National Park, Xanterra at Crater Lake National Park, and Guest Services, Inc at Mt. Rainier National Park.) Booking can usually be made a year in advance, and off-season or last-minute deals can be had. Hint: it’s worth getting on their mailing lists.
How to Get Wilderness Permits
Even if you don’t plan to stay in an established campground during a national park visit, backcountry wilderness permits for national park backpacking need to be obtained. Requirements for permits vary, so you’ll have to do your homework. In most cases, permits can be picked up at the park’s wilderness center the day of departure into the backcountry, but in some cases, lotteries may be implemented, forcing families to be flexible and patient. If you want to get an early start on the trail, you may want to stay the night prior in a campground or lodge: check for walk-in sites that do not require reservations, such as Rainier’s Ipsut Creek, or backcountry programs, such as Yosemite National Park’s, that include a backpacker’s campground for free the night before and after your backcountry escape.
Making national park camping reservations might seem daunting at first, but the process is simpler than it looks. You can have a fantastic campground experience. Just be sure to plan ahead!