Are Car Campers An Endangered Species in National Parks?

Glacier Basin is a popular campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. photo.

Generations of Americans got their first taste of national parks via car camping, that venerable tradition of driving to a park and setting up a tent or two in a roadside campground. That genre of park visitation seems to be slipping these days, though, and at least one car-camping aficionado blames it on economics -- there's more money to be made in lodgings than campgrounds.

That's the point driven home in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times by Eric Bailey.

The past quarter of a century has seen a shift in lodging tastes — and as baby boomers have given way to Generations X and Y, the number of tent and RV campers in national parks across the U.S. has dropped 44%. Meanwhile, the number of visitors in fixed-roof park lodgings has barely changed at all.

The camping decline comes amid debate over how to balance nature's needs with the recreational agenda of national park visitors. (Brian) Ouzounian believes Yosemite's planning efforts "have profit motives written all over them." The valley now has nearly three times more lodging units than campsites, and in that he sees a socioeconomic plot, a push to place more valley visitors in expensive accommodations.

Campers, he says, are the underdogs: "We're at the bottom of the food chain. You've got a camping culture that's more than a century old, but the park service really doesn't want to hear from us."

If Mr. Ouzounian is right, that the Park Service is going along with the move to boost lodging at the expense of campgrounds, perhaps that could be linked to the soft visitation numbers the national park system has witnessed in recent years. More so, such a move possibly could result in a disparity of economic diversity of park visitors, as those of lower incomes who rely on, and even prefer, car camping are effectively squeezed out of the parks.

For his part, Mr. Ouzounian is pushing a campaign to draw Congress' attention to this perceived slight.

His latest effort is an online petition calling for the return of (Yosemite's) flood-closed campsites. His goal is to send the thoughts of 10,000 campers to Congress. At last count, he had collected more than 700 signatures and testimonials from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.

Diane Mello wrote that camping provides a more "intimate" Yosemite experience than hunkering down in a hotel room. Joel Swan of Illinois spoke of the slippery slope if the National Park Service discriminates against those of modest means. Richard Conklin suggested that "John Muir is turning over in his grave."


This guy's complaints center on the reduction of campsites in Yosemite Valley. One of the largest campgrounds in the western United States is at Tuolumne Meadows. There's another large campground on the road to Glacier Point. But he wants to camp like his grandfather did right along the Merced River. Yosemite Valley is a small area. The campgrounds that were removed after the flood of 97 should not be replaced.

Having raised my children with tent camping, which included a small open campfire (this is no longer available in most campgrounds now) each night upon which to bond with hot dogs and marshmallows roasting. I still enjoy getting out of the urbs as often as I can. Age has caused me to shift from a tent to a hard body due to creature comforts. Cost of storage has caused me to sell the hard body and I have begun utilizing in park lodgings. At the Grand Canyon South rim a "historic cabin" at Bright Angel is under $70 a night, a motel type room in the wooded area at Yavipi is just over $100, and it offers Air conditioning. The North Rim has "fronter" cabins $100 and motel type lodging tho the price becomes beyond my budget.
In most cases the lodging at the parks is within reason if you compare to a Holiday Inn or the like. At Yellowstone, there are reasonable acomidations outside of the park. Also the Forest service rents remote cabins (several miles off the main road) I have enjoyed the seclusion of one of them near Flagstaff, AZ
If I use the tent I now have difficulties moving and enjoying the parks, If I use a cabin or room I can get around the park and really enjoy the of our natural wonders. As our population grows with seniors, empty nested, a few well located (blended in) cabins or rooms are a great thing .

I always loved the term "car camping". It's like, hey, let's load up our car with as much crap as it can hold, drive hours to the woods and then sleep right next to our car and everyone else's car, too! That's really getting away from it all!

Car campers still have the best option available: free camping in the National Forest as dispersed campers. You can still sleep next to your car, but you don't have to sleep next to anyone else's, and best of all, you don't have to pay 25 bucks.

Reform the National Park Service!

It's not the proximity to the venue that car campers are seeking, for the most part, it's the experience of NOT staying in a bed every night, with conveniences like institutionalized food, gift shops, over-crowded walkways and the ever present hunt for the almighty parking spot close enough to the lodge to enable one to lug in the suitcases without the associated hernia. Camping, whether it be backcountry, short backpacking treks, or dispersed in the national forest (or BLM lands) will continue, and maybe even thrive if the lands nearest the parks evolve towards total commercialism. And the further ones gets away from the development, the better the experience at the park will be, albeit slightly less convenient.

For many years my wife and I have been flying into various places from Baltimore to Las Vegas with a cooler and camping box. We rent a car and go explore national parks for our two week vacation. One of the highlights of these trips is to camp and be able to hike, often from the campsite. To wake up in the wild in a small tent, not in a box of aluminum. No tv, radio or even a cell phone just the natural setting surrounding us.

One time in Bryce with the camp sites full, and rv sites available, we were told that we could have rv a site if no one showed up by five PM. There should indeed be sites for tent camping. As global warming gets worse rvs and more hotels are surely not part of the solution.

I think that car camping is still great, although sometimes noisy or otherwise rude neighbors at campgrounds can make for an unpleasant visit. Even with that, I can recall few times where the behavior of those adjacent to my site marred my experience to the extent that I still remember it. What I tend to recall instead is the great time I had there, not at the campground per se, but at the park itself. The camping experience made the overall experience all the better (typically) as I spent hours outdoors that I'd usually spend in the room or a restaurant when staying in a lodge. Erratic weather, bugs in the tent, uncomfortable air mattresses, and strange noises outside of the tent notwithstanding, my experiences car camping have often left me feeling rather refreshed after struggling to sleep outdoors, ironically, and spurred me to have other unique and memorable experiences in the park that I was visiting. This is a way of visiting parks that should be sustained for generations to come.

So, perhaps park managers should consider raising the fee to car camp, as the cost for this does not seem to have kept pace with the cost for other lodging. Even a 20% increase would translate to only a dollar or two more per night at most campgrounds, a nominal fee considering that many of the "lower income" families who might balk at this increase are the same who will gladly drop $5 for a cup of coffee at [name of overpriced national coffee chain here] twice per week. Sure, there are many others who would balk at these increases (legitimately), but if the alternative is closing the campgrounds altogether in favor of hotels, I think an increase to keep car camping alive would be well worth it.

if the cost of camping is raised, it should only for those with hard sided units such as RV's, pop up trailers and the like.

realistically speaking, tent camping uses far less infrastructure (hard sided units use: dump stations! water! space demands! generator noise! increased ware and tear on park roads & bridges by heavier weights!) and if people are advocating a somewhat pay to play based scenario then i submit that there should be price structuring to reflect this discrepancy in resource use.

additionally, i'd say raise the senior pass price from $10 to $20 and use the difference to fund park campgrounds. if this age demographic really cares about the parks, they should be up in arms that congress didn't give them the opportunity to really support them... shame on anyone who complains about a pass that *would* cost $20 for life!

but i agree with frank:
"I always loved the term "car camping". It's like, hey, let's load up our car with as much crap as it can hold, drive hours to the woods and then sleep right next to our car and everyone else's car, too! That's really getting away from it all!"

jbojay, what campgrounds are you spending time in that do not allow campfires?

in my experience, it is inaccurate to say a campfire "is no longer available in most campgrounds now". even in periods of high fire danger, most BLM and USFS campgrounds continue to allow campfires because of the hazardous fuels reduction that generally takes place in these areas. i'm not sure about the NPS but i would imagine they are pretty similar.

Steve, I think it's offensive to assume that lower income people are lower income simply because they are wasting their money. Or, to be fair to your point, it's offensive to say that a lower income person has no reason to balk at higher prices just because their $5 cup of coffee impacts them more than the same cup by those who can afford lodging. Either way, you don't justify fee increases by making lower income people irrelevant.

Secondly, who said that the issue here is one of cost? The issue, if I read the article correctly, isn't the cost of maintaining campgrounds, but the profit to be made from lodges versus campgrounds. So, why make this a "raise cost of campgrounds a little to help pay for them v. losing these campgrounds altogether" issue?

As for whether campgrounds are used less, I have no idea. I think in Yellowstone (as only one example) that campgrounds are still pretty full during the normal periods of time, just based on the samples of reports I read, but I have no numbers to back that up (visitation is up significantly this year in Yellowstone - so, not sure how that relates to other parks or what the use demographics are this year).

No matter what, in Yellowstone, campgrounds still don't appeal to the lower class because they still cost about $18 a night, showers cost money (I believe it's about $3 a shower), and of course the entrance fees and the cost of getting to the park. It may appeal still to some lower middle class families - the larger the family, I suppose, the more bang for your buck. Last year, in late August (past the peak of season), certain campgrounds were more full than others, but I was staying in hiker/biker spots and never had a problem finding a spot (a worry, since Xanterra didn't allow any reservations for hiker/biker spots). I didn't notice that services were lacking in any respect. Perhaps, I am missing something. During my trip, I stayed in both concessions-operated and NPS-operated campgrounds.

If I had no money and wanted to go to Yellowstone, I would stay illegally with a worker in his/her dorm (I haven't done this, but I know how relatively easy it is to do if you have an in). But, for those who aren't so fortunate, I think the problems go beyond whether someone may have spent money on a $5 cup of coffee (and whether the poor are actually prone to do that, I don't know - but it doesn't really matter, does it? - it's perhaps more burdensome that the middle and upper classes are). (I mean, seriously, this reads like people who think that indigenous peoples deserved to lose all they had because so many became alcoholics.)

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Jim, I hear what you're saying (we've had a similar conversation before) but I don't think you can really speak for everyone who's considered to be "lower income". ("campgrounds still don't appeal to the lower class because they still cost about $18 a night"). I would say they actually do appeal to the "lower class" because they're the cheapest accommodations available in the park, hands down. On what are you basing your generalization that lower income people don't like campgrounds at Yellowstone?

PS - People do waste a lot of money -- if someone quit smoking they could afford an entire fortnight of car camping every year for the rest of their days.

I'll be staying in the park slums with my son at Yellowstone in a few weeks -- proud to be at the bottom of the rung. I'm so cheap I sometimes stay in a nearby state park or forest to save a few bucks, but $18 is still a great deal compared to the high-priced alternatives.

-- Jon


I'm basing it on the cost of a trip to Yellowstone against the income of a person who works at or below the poverty level. If that person is an hourly worker without vacation benefits, if that person doesn't have a job at all, if the person has a family, if the person has severe medical issues or medical costs, if the person lives far from Yellowstone, as most Americans do, then you will not find an easy trip to Yellowstone for you.

What is the federal poverty line for an individual?

$10,210 for 2007

How many people live below the poverty level?
Roughly 13% officially -

Those totals are believed to be significantly low for a whole host of reasons we do not need to go into.

I'd suspect you can make above the poverty level and be considered lower class, but let's just take this particular measure for our purposes.

How much does a trip to Yellowstone cost, staying the 3 days minimum it would take to see all or most of the on-the-road tourist sites in Yellowstone. Of course, that depends on how far you had to travel in the first place. I'd venture a guess that the average American is two days drive from Yellowstone, assuming they aren't seeing much of anything else. In my case, I'm four days of hard driving, and so two may be a low number. Anyhow, how much of a percentage of your income do you use? What's more, consider that a large number of people live far below the poverty line; others barely above it. Others lose income they have while they are in Yellowstone, some cannot pay rent while they are off vacationing. If you don't have a car, the costs rise. If you have to fly; rent a car; borrow a car from a friend.

It's not hard to see that Yellowstone and most other national parks are inaccessible to a significant number of people no matter what they spent their money on. In fact, you can see it would be a hardship for many making twice as much money, though conceivably they could find a way some of the time.

But, as for the issue of being frugal. Yes, I'm all for it. I don't smoke, don't drink coffee, have even lived in a house of fregans (people who eat from dumpsters). So, there are ways of saving money that I'd encourage anyone to do as a way to break consumerism, but that's not the issue. The issue is equity. There's no reason a rich person should be entitled to be able to waste all their money on all kinds of things and sleep however they want to sleep whereas a poor person is expected to be frugal, unless one thinks being rich comes with certain moral entitlements of largesse that poor people aren't allowed. If that's the case, it's hard to understand what the issue would be. Of course, fill up the lodges and take a poll of wealthy people to see what it is they want and what they're willing to spend money on. You could do a calculus that would maximize profits on a good from the greatest number of people with means. But, if people really believe that there is a public good in the parks, then the cost to poor people matters, and their particular behavior is irrelevant to any change in cost.

Yes, we have talked about this before; I have been frugal; I've found ways to go to Yellowstone at times; at other times, it was outside the realm of financial possibility for me. Now, I could afford to stay a week at the Old Faithful Inn (a few years ago, I was almost living out of my car). But, I don't think justifying my choices, justifying the choices of the poor is a reason for determining any kind of fee increase. I'd actually tend to think it works the other way around. Why are there people spending so much money so as to adversely affect the rest of us? In the parks, we see it in the price of lodging; in the cities, we see it in the cost of owning a home (in gentrification). People are being squeezed out because some with a great deal consume an awful lot. It's absurd that the good and bad choices of people without much to affect the whole system should be used to justify or not justify an increase in prices.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Car camping is for poor people (?) bull crap! Where did that come from?
For me the hotel situation in Our National Parks is out of control. I would like to see them all removed.
If it is the duty of Our National Park system to preserve and protect for future generations the wilderness experience, we have fallen way short.
P.S. I have not been to downtown Yellow Stone National Park in decades.

I don't mind the hotels that follow the Parkitecture style... giant log cabins with huge fireplaces in the multistoried lobbies... I probably won't opt to pay for them until the day I'm too old to get up off the floor of my tent, but they serve a definite need. Grand Canyon NP did a good thing in removing the Thunderbird eyesore a few years back -- I'd venture that's a slow yet eventual trend the rest of the parks will follow as well.

Jim I don't agree that spending the money you have is some sort of affliction to avoid. I choose to live in a house probably half the size I could afford if I found that to be important. Thankfully I don't. The equity issue isn't the fault of the National Parks, nor is it the government's sole responsibility to equalize everything to the point where we're living under Brezhnev rule. I believe that everyone in this country has a decent opportunity (albeit not equal, but decent) to earn a respectable wage and do pretty well. I see people coming into the U.S. with absolutely nothing -- don't even speak the language. Yet after a single generation many of them are sending their kids to the college of their choice. How is that possible when people whose families have lived here for generations are absolutely stuck in their communities, unable to read, barely able to speak passable English (or any other language for that matter) and have zero or negative net worth by the time they're 30? We can go down through the same topics again -- fatherless homes, lack of "outdoor sense" (the outdoor equivalent of "street sense"), etc...

If you made a list of the Top 20 reasons why people of limited income aren't visiting the parks, the price of admission and price of the campsite wouldn't be on it. The price of gasoline, however, would be on that list several times both directly and indirectly. In fact I'd wager that half of such a list wouldn't involve economics of any kind.

-- Jon

Tenting is not disappearing. It just depends where your are in the US will determine whether you will see more tents vs campers. Growing up in the mid-west we camped in a camper which only made sense since summer thunderstorms can ruin a trip because you can't cook in a tent. Also the mosquitos are awful. In the West where I have lived for the past 10 years you see more tents. When my daughter was young we tent camped and had a great time until my tent got sniffed by a bear in Yellowstone about 6 years ago. Since we go to bear country in Aug since it is cooler in the upper West I bought a small camper. It is very untrue that people who use campers need electricity, running water and concret pads. In the last three years I have not had any sites with water or concrete pads. Only in Zion have I used electricity (which I pay extra for). As for the dump station everyone whether they tent camp or use a trailer use the dump station it's called a Bathroom. When you tent camp and wash your dishes or go to the bathroom where do you think that waste water goes? It surely does not evaporate. Trailer's just happen to hold theirs in a tank and dumps it all at once. When ever I take my trailer I use buckets for my water (since to tow my trailer with a full water tank adds a thousand pounds to my tow weight and that sucks gas like you won't beleive I tow with empty tanks) that I use to wash my dishes and I use the bathrooms provided at the campgrounds because I don't like using the chemicals you need to use for the toliet I think those chemicals are dangerous so it is easier to use the campgound bathroom. Also being a single women it is safer to have a hardsided camper than to tent camp. So please stop complaining about trailers.

I don't think camping is going away as long as parents like myself take their kids camping. My daughter loves it and I am sure she is going to continue the tradition of camping when she has kids. Camping has been a tradition in my family for 4 generations and I think those of us who love to camp whether it is in a tent or a camper will pass that love onto our kids and as long as we do that camping will not die.


There's an interesting study that found in part:

"through factor analysis, entrance fees do not constitute a barrier to more frequent visitation of NPS units but that the total cost of a trip (hotels, food, travel) is perceived to be expensive. When individual expenses are combined into a broader "expense package," total costs become a barrier to people with smaller household incomes and to individuals with less education." (National Park Service Fees: Value for the Money or a Barrier to Visitation? Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Volume 23, Number 1
Spring 2005 pp. 18-36)

I think Merryland's on to something. It's not just to the price of admission and camping; it's the total package. And if you can't afford the gas (or can't afford to own a car for that matter), these other factors are a moot point.

The main reason I haven't visited a national park this summer is the price of gas. I can sneak around entrance stations and camp illegally (or legally in USFS land), but as a new teacher without a summer job, I can't even afford to get to the park in the first place.

If one can afford the $50-$100 for gas (plus car payments, plus insurance, plus maintenance) round trip from Portland to Crater Lake, what's another 20 bucks for camping?

Campers aren't at the "bottom of the food chain". That spot is reserved for those without cars or money for gas.

Car campers who can afford gas (and all those other costs) should figure out how to circumnavigate the system if they don't want to pay fees or can't find campsites. Maybe some of us ex-park types should write a guide on how to get past the entrance station and camp illegally. I often wonder why no one illegally camped in some of Zion Canyon's side canyons. It would be free and peaceful and could be done without impact. Any entrepreneurs want to finance a book?
Reform the National Park Service!

You know me Frank, always looking for the next big opportunity. Count me in. My life savings are at your disposal, such as they are.

Maybe we could channel Ed Abbey from the great beyond to write the Forward.

no, no more ed. he's overplayed, showing up on interp signs and whatnot... he needs his rest... he's done his time...

You all apparently missed the stat in the article. Tent and RV camping is down in the National Parks by 44%. If there' less demand, why increase the supply of campsites, particularly in Yosemite Valley, which is the location that the man featured in the article is so incensed over. The average age in this country is getting older and older folks don't want to sleep on the ground. And RV's? When gas is $3 per gallon? I always wonder at the economic logic of people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on an RV and think they're saving money. I look at an RV and think I could spend X number of nights in a nice lodge for the price of that RV.

It would be interesting to see a study on which form of lodging is gentler on the environment. Campgrounds use lots of square footage, perhaps more than housing the same number of people in a lodge. And they create more wildlife management problems in bear country. But lodges use more water and electricity, need employees, who need housing, etc. etc.

Arizona has had extreme fire regulation due to drought here.

my sentiments also

If I could use the ground I would not need to use the Lodges, but when I use the ground to sleep on in the morning I wonder if I had slept in it and this was the resurrection and I was having to pay for my transgressions with the pain.


My point about certain quote/unquote "lower income" families and their willingness to spend $5 on a cup of coffee was this: The price of coffee as a raw commodity for sure has nothing to do with camping, but what people will pay for someone else to brew it and put cream in it might. Perhaps those who are willing to pay $5 for coffee that could be made for 1/10th of that price (or less) at home, might not mind (or notice!) if campground fees were bumped a bit. Even if they did notice, if they knew it was in the best long-term interests of the park and park service, perhaps they might not even complain about it. Chances are they would complain, though, and not see the irony of gladly spending $5 on coffee, but not wanting to pay a nickel more to help preserve a great way of visiting parks.

I understood your point perfectly well. My point is that it's an irrelevant connection to be making. Whether people should or shouldn't be frugal is one thing; the reasons why prices are raised are something else. Whether you've misspent your money or not and happen to be poor, you have reason to be upset if public goods are out of reach because someone decided to raise prices. How you do or don't spend money is an entirely different issue; and as I said in a couple of responses, it may ironically be an issue that relates to the way people with means spend their money (when people create new markets for designer coffee, cars, trams, hotels, and wifi in national parks, those create costly infrastructure realities for everyone; but as long as we pick on the relatively insignificant spending choices of the poorest people, we're not going to realize why supposedly public services continue to cost more and more to maintain).

As an individual, I can say, "Gee, I could have gone to Yellowstone and camped if only I hadn't bought those damn designer coffees." Of course, that's doubtful (as the numbers show, those below the poverty level don't have the discretionary funds needed to make do). But, I don't fight that point. I fight the claim that people who are now in the predicament of not being able to afford a campsite, a tent, and all the goodies that go along with camping (which, I agree with the poster above is not really an activity for most poor people - the costs of the equipment alone kept me from it for many years), don't have legitimate reason to complain when someone raises prices - regardless of how they spent their money.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The best memories of life come from camping. I have been in all of the lower 48 states and across Canada. It would have neverbeen possible for my family to afford to travel like that without a tent as lodging.

We would just load up and go. Buy an annual National Park Pass and you never knew where you could visit tomorrow or next week.

I now find it harder to find places that accept tents. They have expensive lodges that I can't afford or RV only sites.

I have wanted to take off and share some of my favorite places with my nices and nephew but can not afford to do so. I have three tents ranging in size from 2 man to 10 man but have trouble finding places to just visit without having to make reservations or have an RV.

They are still my Parks!


Tent camping is not down 44%. It is at the same level as before, with about 90% occupancy. The flood just reduced the number of tent camping sites available, so the total number of nights is down. Never trust a statistics, before you have seen how it was made.

A no-registration-required of the same LA Times article (i think...) is

I got it -- turn the golf course into more camping space. They can keep one hole as a driving range for historical purposes and the people clamoring for tent space will have somewhere to go.

-- Jon Merryman

The quote in Kurt's piece says that tent and RV Camping 'in the National Parks' is down 44%. There weren't floods in all of them. The floods and the reduction in campsites was only in Yosemite Valley, not even in the rest of Yosemite. One of the largest campgrounds in the western U. S. is in Tuolumne Meadows in the Yosemite high country.