There are so many beautiful national parks in the United States that are well worth the visit. If you enjoy camping, it allows you more time to explore the park, and an early start in the morning. How does getting a campsite work, anyway? Well, every park is a little different, so you will need to see their website for the particulars. Some parks offer some reservable campsites, which is great if you know your plans several months in advance. For those of us who like more freedom in planning while traveling, here are some tips for camping in many of the most popular national parks in the summer peak.
Get There Early
Don’t wait until the end of the day to find a camping spot or you may find yourself with nowhere to sleep. Many of the popular parks’ campsites book up by noon – some a little earlier, some a little later. I particularly like the national parks that list when each campground filled the previous days, giving you insight into when you should show up by. The sites that cannot be reserved are filled on a first come, first serve basis, so being there early gives you a better chance of snagging a site, and allows you more time for exploring after setting up your tent.
Keep Driving the Loop(s)
Although some campgrounds have you register with a ranger at a kiosk and the ranger manages who gets which site, others you need to fend for yourself to find. Many campgrounds are set up with wooden posts for each campsite, and when you want a site, you put the small paper attached to the pay envelope on a clip, which signifies that the site is taken. People typically have until noon to check out, so sites become available as people leave. The campsites are typically set up in loops, so if you don’t find a site on your first time around the loop(s), go around again. And again. And again. Eventually a site will become available, and you should take the first site you see. Be aware that as you pack up on your last morning, people will likely stop to ask you if you are leaving because they want your site.
Only Pay for One Night at a Time
The campsites that are first come, first serve usually allow you to register for one night at a time, adding days if you change your mind. If you pay for several nights, but decide to change your plans, you cannot get a refund, so paying for one night at a time allows you more flexibility. You never know what will happen – maybe the weather will be awful, you don’t like the park as much as you thought you would, or you will really crave getting back to civilization and a good meal.
The national park campgrounds are all different in terms of what forms of payment they accept. Some offer the use of a credit card, especially those manned by a ranger who finds you a campsite. Others, though, only take cash and do not have change, so be sure to be prepared.
Some campgrounds offer showers while others do not. Some have a pay shower, usually owned by a private company, close by. See the national park website for specifics, but sometimes there is no option to shower, especially if you choose a very inexpensive (sometimes free) primitive campground.
Have a Backup Plan
Sometimes a campground will fill up before you get there, so have a backup plan. There’s nothing worse than getting to a beautiful national park and wasting half a day trying to figure out where you will sleep that night rather than enjoying the park. Many parks have camping outside the park, often not very far away. Some of these campgrounds are run by the national forest, and others are owned privately. Outside some of the parks, there is National Forest land where you can camp for free when you follow the rules – see websites of those National Forests for details.
Don’t Rely on Phone Coverage
We get so used to having cell phone coverage available everywhere we go that we forget it is often nonexistent in remote places such as the national parks. Many of the parks are located far from civilization, so there are no cell towers close by. Sometimes you may get spotty coverage, but be sure you are not dependent on being able to use your phone for planning purposes as you may find yourself in a tough situation. With that said, some of the visitor centers offer free wifi, but not all.