Reader Participation Day: Should Campground Reservations Be Mandatory In The National Park System?

Should all national park system campgrounds be reservation only? NPT file photo.

Should campground reservations be mandatory in the National Park System, or should all campsites be on a first-come, first-served basis?

That is a highly debatable question, one that seems to ebb and flow not only with the seasons, but with proposals floated by various parks to implement a reservations system. Most recently, officials at Voyageurs National Park said they wanted to hear what the public thought about a reservations system for backcountry campsites.

There are, of course, pros and cons of a reservation system. For places such as Voyageurs, where you have to paddle, motor, or sail your boat to a campsite, the comfort of knowing you've reserved a site is welcome, particularly if you have a long day's paddling to reach it.

And at parks with small campgrounds that take a good amount of travel to reach, such as the 26-site Squaw Flat Campground in Canyonlands National Park, being able to reserve a site also offers peace of mind, knowing that after a couple hours or more of driving you'll have a site and won't be greeted by a "Campground Full" sign that forces you to go in search of someplace to stay, someplace that could be far, far away.

But then there are locals who worry that a reservation system means they won't be able to go to their favorite park on the spur-of-the-moment, but rather have to plan ahead to nab their favorite campsite.

And, of course, there are fears that a reservation system could turn into a campsite scalping system, where one person locks up a number of sites and then auctions them off to the highest bidder.

But reservations seem to work just fine in lodges. Indeed, I'd venture that if the question were reversed -- should reservations be mandatory in park lodges -- most folks would say absolutely! So why not in campgrounds?


Why different rules for campers and lodgers? Because they are different people with different cultures. Camping is the epitome of self sufficiency, of flexibility and improvisation. And among the campers tent campers are different from RV users. So they should be treated differently.

Why not have both, as I believe most NPS campgrounds do today? Those CGs that see heavy demand, like Yosemite Valley, people can make reservations (and even that must be done the day reservations open), while those few sites left open are usually claimed by 10AM or so, or they are gone. In other places the percent left open can be different and a few never fill, so why not leave it to each park management to set the policy, based on their own deep knowledge of the usage patterns? The NPS website does a great job of telling people when and if reservations are needed or available, by specific CG, and the local people already know it.

Yes, I would like to see reservations in place for all campgrounds. We still have not stayed in several parks because we got there to late.

I like the balance that is used in most parks currently. If I know I'm going to be camping in an area that is popular, and I don't make a reservation, then that's my own fault for being a moron. But at the same time, part of taking my time and enjoying a park means that I might not know when I wake up in the morning where I'm going to be at the end of the day. Having that flexibility is a big part of enjoying our parks.

I pretty much agree with Anonymous @ 9-19, 0714. Each park, and even specific campgrounds within parks, could, based on the specific usage exprienced, hold some number of sites for thoses arriving without reservations. And that numbers could change on a seasonal basis.

I don't mind the current system. It takes some planning, but I can usually plan my trips so I can arrive at the right time to get a campsite in the national park, even the very popular ones. Even if not, I generally have a back-up plan. While it's nice to be in the park, camping just outside the park still lets me access the park programs, like the evening programs.

However, I agree with "anonymous" that having a mix of reservable and first-come, first-served is the best system, and allowing the local park managers to determine that mix is advisable.

Here in my home state of Oregon, the state parks have a mix like this in most parks. About the only feature I don't like is that the company they contract with for the online reservation system charges a, let's say, "robust" fee for the use of it. Otherwise, it's a good system; you can even pull up online maps of the campgrounds to pick your desired site, check the availability of sites on a given day or range of days, and make the reservation. If a similar system were in place for NPS campsites, it would make for a great reservation experience, hopefully with only a modest fee tacked on!

I strongly support a system that takes camping reservations (RV and tent) and especially backcountry sites in our National Park System. However, I do see a need for some first-come/first-serve sites as well. Individuals, who get out on a last minute get-away or experience a change in plans, should have a shot at a campsite within our National Park System. Perhaps a 90% reservation/10% walk-up system would work (Understanding that each of our parks is unique and each should be able to tweak this allocation for better service to their patrons).I enjoy the convenience and peace of mind a camping reservation offers as I strive to make all my camping plans in advance, but sometimes this is just not possible. Also, weather, work schedules, and unexpected delays, can impact a planned outing and force a change a plans. In these instances, a first-come/first-serve camping site within the National Park System would be a possible plan B. Lastly, this past August, my 17-year-old son and I drove halfway across the country to backpack for a week in the Rocky Mountain National Park.It was a grand experience that neither of us will soon forget. Although, in the absence of a reservation system for backcountry sites, I seriously doubt that we would have taken this adventure with the risk of arriving at our destination and finding no backcountry sites available.

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Yes make it part of the system.

I favor reservation as long as the park service operates the campgrounds. If the operation of camp grounds is turned over to a vendor they will not honor the one half price to holders of the disabled pass.

No....not all sites. We are the type of rv-er that tends to never know 9-12 months ahead of time where we might be!!!! What happened to "let's go camping!" and heading out, knowing you will find a site when you get there.

I think campsites should be "reservable." Who wants to drive 3-5 hours to get there and the campsite is full?

No. It makes sense for some sites to be by reservation only, but not all sites. I once bicycled across the US staying in campgrounds along the way. If all the sites were by reservation only, it would have been nearly impossible to stay in a national park. It is not possible to plan exactly where you will be on the road weeks in advance. There is no logical reason to have 100% of the campsites by reservation only. A mix, as there is now, works for the largest number of people.

Nothing wrong with first come first serve. Here in the Smokies, they are using false arguments to charge a fee for backcountry camping. I now realize that the NPS is an inherently corrupt organization and distrust any proposal that imposes control of our public lands. They use fear tactics to manipulate folks into opening their wallets. Jarvis drive to make the parks generate revenue might curry him favor with Salazar but it sure isn't winning any friends with folks down South here.

How about a mix? At Zion, for example, Watchman campground is reservation while South is traditional. Black Canyon has two loops were reservations may be made and one where it's open.

My husband and I have been camping in National Parks for 30 years and have seen so many changes. The first time we camped at Arches NP we just drove in, picked out a site, and set up camp. We have not been able to do that there for years. Though nostalgic for the "freedom" of those days, it is unrealistic to think that it will ever be like that again. However, that being said, I would still like to see some sites available without reservations. As previous people commented, as campers we like to have some freedom to wander without reservations. And, yes, I make reservations at lodges all the time. But campsites are a little more individualistic and not all the same. It's always been fun to drive the campground and pick out that perfect site. And some campgrounds never fill so reservations would be silly. The campground at Mesa Verde rarely fills, Squaw Flat that was mentioned in the article doesn't fill in the summer (and it is wonderful then but don't tell anyone!), I'm sure there are others.