How to Reserve a National Park Camping Spot in High Season

We’ve officially turned the corner and entered summer’s lengthy days of high temperatures, sunshine and an uncontrollable desire to catch some z’s in a tent.

Unfortunately, this summer camping itch isn’t the easiest thing to scratch.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a national park, you’ve likely already hit a snag after seeing their campsites completely booked through the summer. However, this doesn’t mean you have to keep your tent and sleeping bag tucked away in the back of your gear closet—there are still ways you can camp at (or near) your favorite national park.

Roll the Dice

If you’re the gambling type, many campsites offer early-morning lotteries on last-minute cancellations or no-shows from the night before. Each park has different rules, but most of these sites are first-come, first-serve, so you’ll want to be at the ranger station or campground entrance as early as possible.

While this is a risk, many before you have successfully used the lottery to snag campgrounds in some of our nation’s most popular national parks—which we contend is as good as winning the actual lottery.

See the Forests for the Clearings

It’s no secret national parks can be crowded and popular during peak season. If you prefer a camping experience void of hustle and bustle, you can evade these hordes of tourists by opting for a more subdued experience at one of the United States’ other public lands.

Large acres of land managed by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management surround many national parks. And these beautiful areas contain vacant campgrounds long after the national parks have reached capacity. While many of these campgrounds are also first-come, first-serve, they often cost a fraction of what you’d pay at national parks–and sometimes you can snag a spot for free.

Trade Public for Private

Sometimes, you just need a place to park your stuff and don’t require the backcountry wilderness feel of a classic campsite. Or perhaps you’re traveling with family and want to make sure your campsite includes good amenities. If so, you’ll want to check privately-owned campgrounds to stake out your next tent footprint.

To compete with the national parks, many campground chains have stepped up their game in the last few years by offering ranger-style campfire programs and Wi-Fi (if you don’t want to completely get away from it all). And before you judge those camping with tablets, a recent study found that campers who had access to Wi-Fi actually spent more time camping than those who didn’t.

Go Web 2.0

While you love camping, odds are you hate trying to navigate your favorite park’s camping reservations page. Luckily, a few websites and apps have stepped in to help replace those clunky government pages with slick, user-friendly interfaces.

Sites like Reserve America make finding and reserving specific campsites as easy as a couple of clicks of your mouse. And the new app Moonlight integrates your camping reservation to help you plan your next adventure. Others like Hipcamp also allow private landowners to list camping opportunities in their database, AirBnB style.

On the other hand, if you REALLY want to get in on those primo national park sites, scour their websites for information on when reservations for the next season begin, and set yourself a calendar reminder to reserve a campsite as soon as they open.

Good luck and happy camping!

Casey Schreiner is the founder and editor of the most read hiking blog in California,

To read more great content like this, become an Active Advantage member.

Active logo Book your next camping trip

Discuss This Article