There’s something really wonderful about pulling up to a National Park Service (NPS) property and having a ranger in a green uniform with that iconic patch on their shoulder greet you and direct you to your campground. A stay on an NPS property -- especially inside a national park -- is all about adventure and having fun.
There is a reason that NPS campgrounds are so popular. Stay overnight, and you don’t have to drive or go through entry points. You get to take advantage of all the park programs without breaking down your campsite. From coffee with a view in the morning to stargazing at night, it’s a fantastic time. You can stay in the stillness of the mountains on the Olympic Peninsula or right on the beach with the waves rolling outside your window at the Padre Island National Seashore.
But before you go, you’ll need to do some careful planning. Here are 11 tips for making the most of a national park RV trip.
1. Make A Reservation As Early As Possible
If you want to be in a park during the summer (or during the fall in the Southwest) you’ll need to do a fair amount of planning ahead.
Reservations can be made up to six months in advance and are filled on a rolling basis. That means that if you want a June 1 reservation, the earliest date you can make it is January 1. Make a note on your calendar to do this, lest the crowds beat you to your coveted site.
All reservations must be made at Recreation.gov. You’ll find a map of the entire campground with each site identified and a trailer icon for RV-only spots.
2. Make Sure You Know Who Operates Your Park
If you stay at a popular park, your campground may be operated by a private third-party vendor. This is true of some campgrounds in Yellowstone and Badlands. You’ll be told this when you make your reservation.
These campgrounds might not honor the National Park Service pass for reduced camping fees, have additional rules and regulations, and set prices for concessions. You’ll still be in the national park, just under different management.
3. Make Sure The Parks You’re Visiting Can Accommodate Your RV
The size of RV that can be accommodated varies from campground to campground, even sometimes within one national park. Be sure to check on these requirements in advance of your visit.
For example, at Olympic National Park, the Coho Campground can handle RVs up to 32 feet in length, while the Falls Creek Campground and Willaby Campground can only take RVs up to 16 feet.
Even large campgrounds like the Bridge Bay Campground (432 sites) and Grant Village (430 sites) in popular Yellowstone National Park only take RVs up to 40 feet. Fishing Bridge RV Park on Lake Yellowstone will be able to handle larger rigs at 172 sites when it reopens in the fall of 2020.
4. Find Out What Amenities Are Available
Campgrounds in national parks are frequently standard non-electric, meaning that they don’t offer electric hookups. There may not even be a water hookup at some sites. There will most likely be water spigots at the campground where you can pull your trailer to fill up your onboard tank or buckets and jugs, however. You’ll rarely have a sewer hookup, and there may not be a dump station on-site. Generator availability varies from park to park as well.
All of these details can be found on Recreation.gov. Read the campground page carefully before booking to find out what amenities are available.
5. Find Out Whether Cell Service Is Available
In many national parks, cell service may be nonexistent due to remoteness or natural features. There is no cell service in Big Bend National Park in South Texas on the Rio Grande River, for instance. The Rio Grande Village Campground (100 sites for RVs up to 40 feet) is standard non-electric, but you can put your canoe or kayak in the water right from the campground.
Recreation.gov now posts cell coverage quality icons by vendor based on data they receive. Note that the national parks and lands do not currently offer Wi-Fi, but they are considering it for the most popular parks.
6. Make Sure Your RV Is Bear-Proof
Do not feed the bears, and be sure to store your food in bear-proof containers. Bear-proof storage containers are required for a reason -- bears will open car doors to get to food! Food can be safely stored inside a hard-sided RV, but don’t leave your RV during the day with windows or vents open if you have food inside. Use the bear-proof food storage lockers, and always make sure your food trash -- including wrappers -- goes immediately into bear-proof trash containers.
Your ranger or camp host will be able to tell you about the bears at your campground and any additional precautions you’ll need to take.
7. Follow All Firewood Rules And Fire Restrictions
Building a campfire (and munching on s’mores, of course!) is one of the best memories you can make while camping. Note, however, that many campgrounds in national parks and on national lands will not allow you to bring in your own firewood because of invasive insects. Please follow those rules to keep the park’s trees safe. Your campground may sell firewood. Recreation.gov has campfire wood information for all campgrounds -- check the Need To Know tab when you locate a campground of interest.
Also be aware of the fire danger level. There may be restrictions on campfires, especially during the driest periods.
8. Take Advantage Of The Park Programs
Many of the bigger parks offer ranger-guided programs on the campgrounds. Some are planned, like crafts, nature talks and walks, and stargazing. Some are unplanned, including programs focused on wildlife. For many people, that’s the national park experience they want to have, and they feel they won’t find it anywhere else.
9. Make Time To Dine At A Local Restaurant
You may find a restaurant inside your park, especially if there is a lodge. This is the case in the biggest parks, like Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Zion, and Badlands. Plan to feast on local cuisine prepared from locally grown ingredients. It’s a treat!
10. Be Prepared For Sudden Closures
During the summer fire season in the Western states, campgrounds may close with little notice. You will lose your reservation. Because parks are booked so far in advance, there is nothing the NPS can do for you. The park may close while you are there. In 2018, many people from Glacier National Park came to stay at my campground when fires pushed them out.
Remember that this is all part of spending time in the great outdoors. National parks are not hotels! Know that in an emergency closing, you will get a refund for your reservation. See the section on refund policies on Recreation.gov for more information.
11. Consider Some Of These Alternative Experiences
- Can’t get into Glacier, Yellowstone, or Grand Teton? Pick a national park or recreation area that’s lesser known, like Custer National Forest in Montana or Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota.
- Consider moving during your stay in a national park if available spaces are scarce. I have plans to go to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota this summer. Despite it being a lesser-known park, the Cottonwood Campground on the North Missouri River is very popular, and the campground was nearly full. I found two different sites that were open for a night each. I’ll stay at one site on the first night and the other on the second night. There are no hookups, so it will be easy to move. This may not be a good plan for big rigs with slideouts and stabilizers, however.
- If you can’t get into your national park of choice, consider staying on other national lands -- national forests, national recreation areas, or Bureau of Land Management properties. You will likely have limited -- if any -- hookups. One of the most scenic places I’ve ever stayed was Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. They have a number of campgrounds for RVs with electricity, from busy loops to remote lakefront serenity. I stayed on Energy Lake, and it was pure nature heaven.
- Consider staying at a national park during the off-season. You can avoid the crowds at Yellowstone or Yosemite, for example, by staying in the fall. You have to be mindful of the weather, but it can be a wonderful experience that is easier to reserve. Some campgrounds stay open all year for intrepid winter travelers.
The National Park Service’s tagline is Bring Home A Story. Camping in a national park will be great fun if you plan ahead for peak season or travel during the off-season. Our country’s national parks are majestic and well worth seeing. Go find your adventure and enjoy the pristine beauty and solitude of a forest, mountain, or river. It’s the experience that we want to bring home from our RV trips.