Written by: Timothy Fitzgerald and Harry Williams
02/04/2012 3:17 PM
Securing a campground site during holidays and the weekends at any of the top 10 National Parks is no easier than getting tickets to the Super Bowl. At least for most people. Fortunately, we've found tried and tested strategies that should give you the best chance of "getting in".
First step is to try the Recreation.gov website where they have rolled the former ReserveUSA.com and Reservations.NPS.gov reservation websites together. At Recreation.gov you can search campground availability and make reservations.
The catch is that individual campsites are made available for booking up to 6 months (rolling window) in advance and 5 months (block window) for Yosemite National Park, with Yosemite campsite inventory going on sale on the 15th of every month. So unless you are one of the tenacious campers who sits with your finger on the enter key at midnight on December 15th the year before, you can pretty much rule out Memorial Day camping at Yosemite. However there is still hope.
Want to work the system? We have spoken to the Rangers at the National Parks. With these strategies, even if you have missed the booking window, we've got you covered. Just don't tell them we sent you.
1. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park dazzles its visitors with natural splendor. The park boasts spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity, and has more than 300 species of vertebrate animals. It is visited by over 4 million people every year most of whom spend their time in Yosemite Valley a 7 mile long canyon cut by a river and then widened and deepened by glacial action. The park is a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Snapshots of what to see and do
First come, first served campgrounds
Camp 4 (aka Sunnyside) is in the Valley and offers tent sites only. Each morning at 7 or 8 am the rangers distribute any available sites. There is often a line of seekers. If the campground is filled, check out the following campgrounds outside of the Valley which are less popular than those in the Valley:
If you are interested in getting a site at a popular reserve-only campground call a few days ahead of your arrival date, you just might find a vacancy. Because of the extreme popularity of Yosemite campgrounds people are forced to reserve sites far in advance and often cancel at the last moment. Go ahead, give it a shot!
Be sure to check YosemiteSites.com for reservation information. The site shows you exactly how many tent campsites are available in each campground and information is updated on a daily basis.
2. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park was the world's first national park. Visitors come to explore the active geysers, hot springs, and other thermal areas, as well as the intriguing wildlife and natural beauty of the park. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk roam free and call Yellowstone home. Another World Heritage site, it is a great place to strap on your hiking boots and explore the many trails in a park that is about the size of Rhode Island. Do make sure you stay on the well established paths and trails to avoid breaking through the fragile ground into scalding hot water.
Seven of the twelve campgrounds in Yellowstone operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Most have RV sites with no hookups. If you are willing to roll the dice, this is a good option of scoring a site. The seven campgrounds are:
These campgrounds are self-registration so you drive around until you find an available spot and then fill out a form and put it and the money in a canister. They have volunteer hosts on site. Tower Fall, Slough Creek and Pebble Creek are typically the most popular and can fill up by early morning.
3. GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming
Why visit Grand Teton National Park? From stunning mountain vistas and shimmering alpine lakes to abundant wildlife and world class skiing, the question is why wouldn't you visit! A regal mountain range that stands at 7,000 feet above the valley floor, these mountains play host to coniferous forests and alpine meadows, often splashed with wildflower color. With lakes that are set against the foot of these grand mountains, Grand Teton offers picture book scenery and serenity.
Five of the seven Grand Teton National Park campgrounds and RV parks are first come, first served. The five are:
Jenny Lake Campground is a tent-only campground and very popular so you must be there first thing in the morning to get a site. Similarly Colter Bay's Campground sites fill by noon. Lizard Creek offers views of the Tetons and fishing and sites tend to fill by 2pm. Signal Mountain offers a mix of spruce and fir trees, hillsides, and lake and mountain views. Gros Ventre is the largest campground and is the last to fill.
The two other campgrounds Colter Bay RV Park and Flagg Ranch accept advanced reservations and we mention them as they are the only campgrounds with RV hookups. Colter Bay is an RV-only campground.
4. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona
As if it needs any introduction at all. Grand Canyon National Park is home to the mile deep (1610 m) canyon. The park is massive - 1.2 million acres to be exact. Visitors to the park are able to gain vantage points of the canyon by the North and South Rim. It is here that the vastness of this gash in the earth can be fully appreciated. Not only is this area a geologist's dream, it holds surprises for the intrepid adventurer either on foot, mule, river or air.
Desert View Campground on the South Rim is usually full during the early afternoon during the summer months, so get in before noon. There are no first come, first served campgrounds on the North Rim.
5. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, North Carolina, Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the United States, with 9-10 million visits per year. The popularity of the park isn't without legitimacy. The park has a world class diversity of plant and animal life, beautiful mountain views, and Southern Appalachian mountain culture.
There are ten campgrounds in the park. Mid-March through October, most of the campgrounds are available on first come first served basis. These include:
Go to the visitors center when you arrive at the park as they post the vacancies at the campgrounds. If the reservation campgrounds (Cade Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont) have open spots, they will offer first come, first served to fill them.
There are also a large number of private options that skim the park, and you can find campgrounds and RV parks along the Great Smoky Mountains with our Smart Search
6. JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, California
To those unknowing, Joshua Tree National Park in California seems nothing more than a large, desert expanse. However, it is 800,000 acres of a variety of plants, wildlife, and landscapes. For those interested in experiencing some of the most captivating geological displays and intricate ecological systems, Joshua Tree National Park, will not disappoint.
Eight campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park are first come, first served:
7. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana
Geologists would have a field day in Glacier National Park. The park, which sits on the northern border of Montana, is home to rock formations that date back anywhere between 1600 to 800 million years ago. Not surprisingly, glacier features such as lakes, valleys, and remnant glaciers abound. It is the perfect place to explore by car and on foot. Drive the Going to the Sun Highway and stop off at places that take your visual fancy. Hike up plateaus, to spectacular vantage points. A reward for adventurers.
Going to the Sun Highway - This drive is a must. The highway, which bisects the park east and west, crosses the Continental divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. Other highlights include cedar forests, windswept alpine tundra, and several scenic viewpoints.
Thirteen campgrounds in Glacier National Park offer around 1,000 sites. Eleven of them are first come, first served:
Get to the campgrounds around 9 AM to check in as people tend to leave the campground in the early morning. The most popular campground is Many Glacier.
8. OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Washington
Surrounding 1,441 square miles of the Olympic Peninsula, and offering three distinct ecosystems, Olympic National Park is a truly remarkable place. Within the park you can find beaches, rain forest valleys, glacier-capped peaks and an incredible variety of plants and animals. The Olympic mountain range is countered by the 13 rivers that disperse through park in every direction.
All Olympic National Park campsites are first-come, first-served, except for Kalaloch campground:
9. ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah
Unlike most other parks, visitors to Zion National Park walk on the canyon floor and look up to rock formations and high sandstone cliffs. Zion attracts backpackers, hikers, canyoneers, and climbers. Park highlights include high plateaus, a maze of narrow, deep, sandstone canyons, and remarkable rock towers and mesas. Within the park's 229 square miles, there is more than 15 miles of paved trails and a further 100 miles of wilderness trails in the backcountry to delight novices to experts.
10. DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, California
Don't let the name deter you; Death Valley National Park is one of California's most amazing attractions, offering over 3 million acres of diverse landscapes. Located in the Mohave Desert, it features some of the lowest, driest, and hottest places in the world! To some this might not seem like the most ideal vacation spot- but because of its unique environment Death Valley National Park has unparalleled scenery.
All of the campgrounds are first come, first serve except for Furnace campground between October and February where reservation are required.
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