Secret Sleeps, Tips For Snagging A National Park Campsite This Summer

Where will you pitch your tent in the national parks this year? Overlooking Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Kurt Repanshek photo.

There is nothing as traditional as camping out in the national parks for summer vacation. Reserving a campsite on www.recreation.gov can lock in a site long before you hit the road, but sometimes you just don’t get around to doing that. So what to do?

Here are a handful of suggestions for some parks across the country, suggestions that in many cases can be applied to other parks.

Acadia National Park

With only two campgrounds, Seawall and Blackwoods, competition in Acadia can be brutal. Blackwoods, on the park’s east side, is closer to the carriage roads and Park Loop Road, so it might tend to be busier than Seawall even though it has more than 300 sites.

But Seawall has 100 fewer sites than Blackwoods, so if you show up in July or August without a reservation (all sites at Blackwoods can be reserved, only a portion of those at Seawall) your best option would be to start looking early in the day, or head for one of the commercial campgrounds outside the park. A limited number of RVs can be accommodated at each campground.

Acadia's camping webpage

Blue Ridge Parkway

The long and winding road of the Parkway has its popular campsites, usually near major resort areas, such as Mount Pisgah Campground south of Asheville (also the Parkway’s highest) and Price Park Campground near Blowing Rock (with its beautiful lake). Though Price Park is the largest campground, it’s highly popular, so reserve online or get there early.

If you want the best camping experience on the entire Parkway, keep in mind that only A loop, mostly reserved for tents, has sites by the lake. It’s a real treat to pull your kayak up by your tent.

Other best bets near the Boone, North Carolina, area for fewer crowds and reservable sites are Linville Falls and Doughton Park—both with excellent trail systems, cool elevation, and easy access to High Country attractions. RV enthusiasts have numerous opportunities to choose from along the 469-mile Parkway. A quick search on recreation.gov points them out.

Blue Ridge Parkway's camping webpage

Denali National Park

Not surprising, in light of its location in Alaska, Denali isn’t as crowded as many of the other parks. But…the campgrounds that can be booked in advance, such as Wonder Lake, Teklanika River, Savage River and Riley Creek, are definitely the busiest and quickest to fill.

One recommended alternative is the Igloo Creek Campground located 34 miles down the park road. It and the Sanctuary River Campground cannot be reserved online, but are available for walk-in reservations up to two days before your trip. They are both tent-only campgrounds with just seven sites each. They both have vault toilets, but you’ll need to get your water from the creek.

Denali's camping webpage

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It takes a little extra effort to reach, but Ocracoke is a great destination for campers. Randy Johnson photo.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

If you desire to fall asleep in your tent or RV to the sound of the pounding surf, your best bets on the spur of the moment would be either the Ocracoke or Frisco campgrounds, as they’re farther removed from civilization, or at least as further removed as possible on the Outer Banks.

Ocracoke is more difficult to access because it entails a ferry ride to the island. From downtown Ocracoke the campground is three miles to the east and ten miles west of the Hatteras Inlet ferry terminal. Walk across the dunes to the campground and you’ll find grills, flush toilets, potable water, and cold-water showers. There are some spots for RVs, but no hookups.

Oregon Inlet Campground is close to Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk and so is usually filled to capacity every night once the summer season gets under way.

Cape Hatteras' camping webpage

Glacier National Park

Glacier can be tricky to snag a campsite without a reservation nailed down long before your trip. But there is a strategy that will help narrow your search and ease your nerves before you start driving to a specific site: the park’s website.

Visit the Campsite Status page of their website, and not only can you see where all the campgrounds are located, but the tools allow you to see when a specific campground filled up on a specific date last year.

That said, the further you get from the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Many Glacier the better odds you’ll have of laying your head down at a reasonable hour. Some campgrounds have limits on the length of RVs, or no room for RVs, so double-check the website.

Glacier's camping webpage

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Without a reservation, you likely will be locked out of the North Rim Campground in Grand Canyon NP this summer. NPS photo.

Grand Canyon National Park

Sadly, this park does not feature any “least-crowded” or underutilized campgrounds during the busy summer season. Mather Campground is full almost every night during June, July and August, and all holidays and weekends. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance and they fill up very fast. Arriving without a reservation during those times is not advised.

When the main campgrounds do fill up, you’ll be directed to the park’s Desert View Campground, where the 50 sites are first-come, first-serve. Most summer nights that campground is full by 3 p.m. or so. While this campground is 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, you’ll enjoy the added solitude.

RVs up to 50 feet in length can be handled in the Trailer Village on the South Rim. Full hookups— including 50 amp service and Cable TV—are available. Thinking the North Rim might be an option? Not only is it a long, long drive from the South Rim—212 miles—but it’s smaller with fewer sites and park officials say not only do they fill every day of their season, but the occasional cancellation is resold immediately. They turn away many people every day who do not have reservations.

Grand Canyon's camping webpage

Grand Teton National Park

There are two great options for snagging a campsite in this park with the breathtaking topography: the Lizard Creek and Gros Ventre campgrounds.

The 350-site Gros Ventre Campground along the park’s southeastern edge is huge, and it is the last to ever fill up and generally is a good bet if you’re arriving late in the day and worried about available spots. It’s quiet with big cottonwoods and the soothing sounds of the lazy Gros Ventre River.

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The view from Grand Teton's Lizard Creek Campground. NPS photo.

Lizard Creek with its 60 sites is on the far northern end of the park on the shore of Jackson Lake. True, you’re 32 miles north of Moose, but the peace and quiet in the spruce and fir forest and the starry skies overhead are worth the separation. RVers should head to either the Colter Bay RV Park, or a bit farther north to the Headwaters Campground and RV park at Flagg Ranch. Both offer full hookups; Headwaters has 50-amp service.

Grand Teton's camping webpage

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The nation’s most visited national park not only has bears, but it can also be a bear to get into one of the most popular campgrounds in summer and fall. Luckily, you can land a spot in an extremely popular, though out of the way, campground like Cataloochee with an advanced online reservation.

Other popular sites such as Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont—all near or on the park’s main drag, Newfound Gap Road (US 441)—permit reservations during much of the season, too.

Cosby Campground, a best bet for seclusion in the northeastern corner of the park not far from Pigeon Forge, permits reservations during the entire camping season. It’s generally less visited than the most popular sites. It’s also the park’s third-biggest campground with 157 sites and one of the loftiest in the park. In recent years stimulus funding has nicely upgraded this campground for the first time in decades, so it’s in good shape.

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Bear claw marks near Cosby Campground in the Smokies. Randy Johnson photo.

It also has one of the park’s best “big timber” nature trails and access to a variety of nice hikes. Last plus, it’s pretty accessible from I-40 near the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.

RVs can be handled at all but the Big Creek Campground, although check the park’s website for length restrictions.

Great Smoky Mountain's camping webpage

Natchez Trace Parkway

Three free, first-come, first-served campgrounds along the Parkway are managed by the National Park Service, and many more state and commercially run campgrounds can be found along the Parkway’s 444 miles.

If you like to mix history with scenery, grab a spot at the 32-site Meriwether Lewis Campground at Milepost 385. Some wonderful hiking trails lead out of the campground, nearby you’ll find some interesting history and the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis, who died here in 1809 under mysterious circumstances. The campground is set within hardwood forest, which is spectacular when the trees are adorned in their colorful fall foliage.

Cyclists have five campgrounds reserved just for them, at Mileposts 159, 234, 266, 327, and 408.

Natchez Trace's camping webpage

Rocky Mountain National Park

The park’s close proximity to Colorado’s Front Range ensures stiff competition for campsites in the five campgrounds. And, unfortunately, one of those—the Glacier Basin Campground—will be closed this summer due to Bear Lake Road reconstruction. Three campgrounds, Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, and Aspenglen, take reservations.

Aside from booking a reservation, you might eye the Timber Creek Campground with its 98 sites on the west side of Rocky Mountain. You can find it in the Kawuneeche Valley on U.S. Highway 34 approximately 10 miles north of Grand Lake. RVs are allowed at the Moraine Park, Aspenglen, and Timber Creek campgrounds, but there are size limits and no hookups. Check the park’s website.

Rocky Mountain's camping webpage

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You could find yourself sharing the Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with bison. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

While your odds of landing a spot in either the Cottonwood Campground in the park’s South Unit or the Juniper Campground in the North Unit are good in general, your odds go up if you head for Juniper. And, frankly, it’s a little quieter and this end of the park is less busy than the southern end, which picks up highway sounds and crowds from Interstate 94.

Both Cottonwood and Juniper can handle tents or RVs, and are first-come, first-served. Both have beautiful river views, and at Cottonwood Campground you might find yourself sharing the grounds with bison that meander through the area. Remember, they are wild animals and not bashful about defending their ground.

Theodore Roosevelt's camping webpage

Yellowstone National Park

Even though Yellowstone has more than 2,000 campsites spread across a dozen campgrounds, if you don’t land a reservation before you reach the park, you’re not likely to be a happy camper come sundown. Every campground in the park fills every night at peak season.

The somewhat-off-the-population-hub campgrounds are Slough Creek (23 sites near the northeastern entrance to the park), Pebble (27 sites, also near the northeast entrance), and Tower Fall (32 sites.). While they will be “less crowded” than, say, the 430-site Grant Village Campground, if you don’t show up early in the day you’ll be shut out.

RVs will find the only hookups at the Fishing Bridge Recreation Vehicle Park on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. There are more than 325 sites there.

Yellowstone's camping website

So, if you're planning to pitch your tent in a national park campground this summer, reserve before you reach the park, or try to be among the first-served.

Comments

Here are a couple of possible strategies that have worked for me in the past.

North Rim, Grand Canyon - DeMotte is a USFS campground located about 12 miles outside the park boundary. It's a delightful camp and I've found sites open even in late afternoon. A stop at the information station at Jacob Lake can tell if it's worth pushing on to DeMotte or not. If all else fails, the Forest Service allows dispersed dry camping on most of the Coconino. Again, check at the info station. Personally, I think one needs to be somewhat insane to want to camp or even visit the South Rim.

Yellowstone - I usually stop at a Forest Service camp south of Island Park (or find a place to dry camp) and then make a run for Yellowstone very early in the morning. I camp at Norris and have always been able to find a site if I'm there by no later than 8 a.m. It's a hassle. But it's worth it.

More and more, I find myself using Recreation.gov. I prefer the phone method and have always found their people to be very polite and helpful. In fact, one time when I called to reserve a site in Zion, the fella told me that South Campground had not been filling and he really thought I wouldn't need a reservation unless I was aiming for Watchman. He was absolutely right. Even paying a reservation fee is worth it sometimes if it means a good dose of peace of mind while on vacation.

(However, I'm somewhat baffled by recent discussions of reservation fees with Rec.gov. Back in January, I used the computer and reserved a site at Arches for a week in June -- and a place on the Fiery Furnace tour -- and there was NO reservation fee charged for either of them. If there is a fee, it must be included in the park's fees. My Golden Age pass was accepted and I received my discount. The only time I can recall paying a fee was last week when I used ReserveAmerica to hold a spot for me at City of Rocks which is a combined NPS/Idaho State Park area. The lady I was speaking with sounded like an Idaho parks employee and I got the idea the fee was an Idaho thing. Does anyone know what the real story is?)

Some great strategies, Lee. Of course, another would be to go during the off-season. Not only will you likely have your pick of sites, but you'll see another side of the parks' landscapes. Shenandoah, for instance, is much more "visible" after the leaves fall. A possible downside, though, is the water might be turned off.

And it can be COLD! (The older I get, the colder I get.)

Trouble is, that even the "off" season doesn't seem to turn off like it did once upon a long time ago. Parks stay busy until the snow starts to drift and seem to fill up again as soon as it begins to melt. It's all those blasted Senior Citizens who are infesting the parks now that they've retired.

Lee,

On page 3 of the Operating Procedures section of the National Recreation Reservation Service contract it says:

"The recreation use fee charged by the Agencies will generally include the cost of reservation services provided by this contract. However, a separate reservation fee may be charged, at the Agency’s discretion"

The language in the contract that pertains to recreation activities is basically the same. There doesn't appear to be any specific language in the contract regarding NPS policy on charging additional reservation fees so I'm not sure what the agency-wide policy, if there is one, would be. However, I think you might be on to something as NPS sites like Independence Hall and Frederick Douglass, that don't have entrance fees, do have a $1.50 reservation fee for free tours.

http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations/contract/Att_C-2_M4.pdf

http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/reservations/contract/

Sara, you've amazed me again. Thanks.

I knew that NPS and other agencies had to be paying the reservation companies in some way and you've explained it here. To my old head -- and battered pocketbook -- paying a fee for camping that includes the reservation fee is somehow much easier to take than seeing it glaring at me from the bill I'll receive.

I just returned from City of Rocks and learned that the camping fees there are paid entirely to the state of Idaho. Idaho even charges sales tax on campsite fees. When a visitor uses the reservation system, the visitor foots the bill. The governor up there has decreed that anyone using state services will pay the full cost and the state won't be left picking up any of the tab. Probably good management, but can you imagine the uproar if that happened in some of our national parks where visitors have become accustomed to certain "entitlements?"