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Best Ways to Get a Campsite at the Top Ten National Parks

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter February / March
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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 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 4 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 7 AM PST on January 15th, 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

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

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

  • Yosemite Valley - Catch views of one of the highest waterfalls in the world as well as meadows, cliffs, and unusual rock formations in the valley.
  • Glacier Point and Badger Pass - Glacier Point offers a commanding view of the Yosemite Valley. From mid-December through early April visitors can enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing at Badger Pass.
  • Tuolumne Meadows - Take the Tioga Road Highway 120 East and you will be rewarded with a 39 mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows.

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

Hot Spring at Yellowstone National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Upper Geyser Basin - If it's geysers you're after, Upper Geyser Basin is your spot. The basin has more than 100 geysers within a one square mile area.
  • Midway Geyser Basin - The basin sits on a hill overlooking the Firehole River. The runoff from this geyser creates streaming, colorful trails in the river.
  • Yellowstone Lake - This is the largest freshwater lake at an elevation over 8,000 feet in the country. It spreads 20 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south.
  • Mt. Washburn - A trail leads up the mountain to a lookout tower near the 10,243 foot summit. This is a great place to spot bighorn sheep.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

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

Grand Teton National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Cathedral Group turnout - This turnout offers a great view of the three highest peaks in the Teton range: Teewinot, the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen.
  • Teton Glacier turnout - About 4 miles north of Moose Junction on Teton Park Road, this turnout highlights the largest glacier in the park.
  • Snake River Overlook - This overlook is along U.S. 26/89/191. Ansel Adams took a famous photograph of the Tetons from this site.
  • Signal Mountain Turn - off the park road south of Jackson Lake Junction. A fairly narrow paved spur road climbs to a parking area, then a very short walk to the summit gives an excellent 360 degree view of Jackson Hole.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

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

Yaki Point at Sunset, Grand Canyon National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • South Rim
    • Hike along the trail that follows Hermit Road.
    • Desert View - Take in canyon and Colorado River views from this historic Watchtower.
    • The Trail of Time - 1.3 mile walk along the rim with displays of rocks from the layers in the canyon, set along the trail according to their geological age. One large footstep on the trail equates to 1 million years.
  • North Rim - Open mid May to mid October.
    • Bright Angel Point at sunrise or sunset.
    • Drive to Point Imperial - the highest view point on either rim.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

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

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Hike - Go for a hike on many of the Park's trails, including the Appalachian Trail.
  • Morton Overlook - The overlook is close to a mile above sea level offers spectacular views.
  • US 441 - This highway runs north to south through the park connecting Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina and offers several pull offs that have great views. The highway has steep grades and tunnels.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

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

Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Keys Ranch Guided Tour - a 90-minute tour of the Desert Queen Ranch, once run by the Keys family. The Desert Queen Ranch tour is a great way to see the landscape of Joshua Tree National Park as well as learn about a thriving community that once resided in the area.
  • Skull Rock - Located along the main park road, Skull rock is a popular destination for park visitors. Get a feel for the structure and layout of Joshua Tree National Park by hiking around here.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

Eight campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park are first come, first served:

7. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana

Glacier National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

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. Read Best Things to do at Glacier National Park for recommended one up to six-day visits on what to see and do, so you don't miss anything.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

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

Hall of Mosses, Olympic National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Hurricane Ridge - A 17-mile stretch of winding road through dense forests and alpine ice-covered peaks.
  • Rialto Beach - One of the most beautiful beaches looking over the Pacific Ocean. Try to catch the sunset at this destination.
  • Hoh Rain Forest - Drive southwest on US 101 to see this beautiful rain forest with amazing trees and wildlife. Make sure to bring clothes that can get!

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

All Olympic National Park campsites are first-come, first-served, except for Kalaloch campground:

9. ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah

Zion National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • The Narrows - The Narrows is an extremely popular off-trail hike. The route follows the North Fork of the Virgin River, along the floor of a very narrow canyon with impossibly high walls. This trek is one of the park's most amazing destinations. The full hike is a 16-mile one-way trip and a permit is required. It involves wading, so wear footwear and leg coverings that can get wet!
  • Zion Canyon Scenic Drive - This 6 mile road leads you through Zion Canyon and past incredible rock formations, and colorful sandstone cliffs rising 2,000 to 3,000 feet from the canyon floor. The road into the canyon is closed to private vehicles from April 1 until mid November. There is a free shuttle during this period to access the trails and the lodge along the scenic drive.
  • Kolob Canyons - Kolob Canyons is a less-crowded area of the park that contains beautiful red-rock canyons, incredible overlooks, and lush scenery. A visitor center is located at the entrance to Kolob Canyons, just off of Interstate 15.

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

  • Lava Point is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. It is first come, first served.
  • Watchman Campground is located 0.25 mile from the South Entrance. Part of the campground is available on a first come, first served basis. It can fill up as early as 10 AM and normally is full by 2 PM.
  • South Campground is 0.5 mile from the South Entrance. It's open March through October and is first come, first served. RV Sites are also available.

10. DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, California

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

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.

Snapshots of What to See and Do

  • Devils Golf Course - Go to Devil's Golf Course for an incredible unique looking salt pan on the floor of Death Valley. Its name was supposedly derived from a line in the 1934 National Park Service guide book to Death Valley National Monument, which stated that "Only the devil could play golf" on its surface due to the harsh grain of the halite salt crystal formations.
  • Zabriskie Point - Zabriskie Point is one of Death Valley's most popular sites, surrounded by a labyrinth of eroded badlands.
  • Badwater - Hop over to Badwater to witness North America's lowest point. Badwater offers a 360 degree view of vast salt flats that stretch all the way into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.

Read Best Things to Do at Death Valley National Park for one, two and three day visits

First Come, First Served Campgrounds

All of the campgrounds are first come, first serve except for Furnace Creek Campground between mid-October and mid-April where reservation are required.

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1 comment(s) so far...

We are camp hosts at Indian Creek Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Our office is open at 8 am and we are around most of the day. July and August are our busier months. Sometimes people are lined up at 7 am. Come early for the best sites and to be sure you get one! Stop at the office and we will send you around to find a site. Don't skip the office as it is likely there is someone already looking and tagging a site. There is a procedure for picking your site. Indian Creek is a beautiful, rustic campground. Our maximum length is 35 feet, which includes your tow vehicle or toad. We have very nice vault toilets and a food storage box for every site. We welcome all of you and hope you will visit Indian Creek. No cell service

By MadConnie on 4/4/2014 5:45:47 PM
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