More and more national parks have implemented reservation systems to better manage the record numbers of travelers who have visited the parks in the last few years.
Reservations are available for many parts of a park visit — from getting an entrance time into a park to getting a campsite to being part of a guided tour.
To make your trip a success, you need to know what parts of your visit need reservations, how to make them, how early you need to make them, and what your alternatives are if reservations are no longer available for what you want to do.
To make things a bit more complicated, every park is somewhat different in terms of what can be reserved and when — but the information isn’t hard to sort out if you know where to look.
And while most parks are still able to accommodate visitors without reservations, the most popular places in the most popular parks book up early, and mid-December is a critical time for booking in early summer. While you’re at it, don’t forget to plan ahead and book your RV early as well. RVing popularity is still at an all-time high and it may be difficult to find a suitable rental if you wait until the last minute.
I’m a retired park ranger, and have worked with reservation systems in some of the busiest parks in the country (going back to the days before the internet) and helped take parks into the online reservation process. Because the reservation system in the NPS is evolving and expanding so rapidly, I reached out to the federal government’s reservation provider, Recreation.gov, for their input and assistance to make sure we’re all up to speed.
Time To Do Your Homework
You need to get familiar with the ins and outs of the appropriate reservation systems for all aspects of your trip now so when the time to book comes, you’re ready.
Summer Campground Reservations Start To Open Up In December
Recreation.gov, website or mobile app, is the place you need to go to book a national park campground site. Not all campgrounds take reservations, but the ones that do are here.
Most parks open reservations six months in advance, with a new month’s worth of reservations being released around mid-month. For example, for North Pines campground in Yosemite, I can make a reservation for early April now, but for April 15 through May 15, I need to come back on December 15 at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time — Recreation.gov tells you when the reservations will be released. It’s critical for you to know that not all parks use the same release schedule, so you need to track the release schedule for the reservation you’re interested in.
Get Help Picking A Campsite
Recreation.gov does a great job of helping you select a campsite. You’ll see a map of the campground, a photo of each site, and see info on whether it’s suitable for RVs or tents, whether it offers accessibility for those with disabilities, and info on the availability of water and other amenities.
The vast majority of parks that have camping offer sites for both RVs and tents. The NPS often attempts to accommodate people camping in tents by having a separate area within a campground, or by designating a campground unsuitable for RVs as a tent-only campground. (Tents don’t keep out sound, so a bit of seclusion helps make for a better night’s sleep.)
If you’re going to be renting an RV from a reputable site like RVshare, consult the owner for their recommendations as well. They will most likely be familiar with the area and accustomed to helping their renters select the prime campsite.
How To Compete For The Most Popular Campsites
For the vast majority of recreation opportunities, six months is way more than adequate lead time to ensure a reservation is available. But let’s talk about what it takes to be competitive for the most sought-after reservations.
For extremely high-demand campsites in the most popular parks, you need to be online at the very instant the reservations become available. The most popular sites will be reserved immediately. Plan where you want to camp down to the very campsite, be online the moment the reservations are released, and hope for the best.
The “Seasons and Booking” tab is your friend here. It lists the exact time and date a reservation will become available, so you know when to be online. Most open at 8 a.m. Mountain Time as that’s when the Recreation.gov Contact Center opens — and they strive to provide access to those who prefer to call an agent rather than make a reservation online. This isn’t always the case, so it’s best to review your plan prior to the day you need to make your reservation.
Pro Tip: Weekends have higher demand, so you’ll find less competition for a site if you’re willing to book it for a weekday. Friday nights can have high demand, Saturday the highest, and Sunday a bit less.
Finding Out Which Sites Are In High Demand Requires Research
How do you know if you need to go through the process of competing for a popular campsite, or whether you don’t need to rush? You need to know the demand at the park. That’s not easy to determine online. Of course, you’ll want to check out the park’s website for camping information, but you probably are going to want to contact the park to see what the demand is to determine whether you need to go through the hassle of being online the moment the reservations are released.
Another way is for you to monitor when sites book up in 2022 as you plan 2023 travels.
All that said, Recreation.gov does a very good job of guiding you through the planning and booking process and recommending smart alternatives should your desired spot be unavailable.
Some Parks Are Using Timed Entry Reservations
In a few busy parks, during peak season, you may need a reservation just to enter the park if you don’t have accommodation reservations. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier have adopted a timed entry system for day users — people without overnight accommodation reservations (camping or hotel).
If you’re visiting just for the day, you’re going to want to see if you’ll need a timed entry reservation, and when that reservation becomes available. These restrictions are in effect only seasonally in select parks, so check NPS.gov to see when and where they’ll be in effect. Keep an eye out for other parks adopting timed entry. It’s working well for all involved, so expect the practice to spread.
Oh, you’re still going to have to pay your entrance fee, it’s not part of the timed entry system.
Pro Tip: Many park entrance stations aren’t open overnight, even if the parks are. If you plan your arrival before the entrance station opens, there won’t be a line. You may end up paying your fee on the way out, or not at all, and you won’t wind up be waiting in line.
Timed Entry Reservations Have Been Introduced For Congested Areas
Acadia National Park has developed a reservation system for accessing the Cadillac Summit parking area within the park, which is implemented during the summer season. It has two reservation windows, one that opens 90 days ahead, another that opens two days ahead. Haleakala has a similar system for viewing sunrise at the summit — booked well in advance. This is similar to the timed entry system used by other parks, but just for a limited portion of the park. If these systems continue to be effective, look for other parks to emulate them.
The Most Competitive Reservations Use Lotteries
Some parks have wilderness permit reservations that can be booked online. In fact, some of the most coveted reservations in the NPS are wilderness permit reservations in select locations. The demand is so great that rather than having an online rush when the reservations become available, you have to compete in a lottery for the opportunity to make the reservation. The same principle applies to getting in the lottery — know where and when you want to go, know when the registration for the lottery begins and ends, and register on time. The lottery prevents the logjam of everyone trying to get a reservation at the same time, but you still need to pay attention to when the lottery opens and closes.
Concession Reservations Are On Different Systems
There may be private concession operations, like hotels, that require a reservation and they’ll have their own reservation systems with their own lead time for bookings. Say you want to take the Desert Princess for a cruise to Hoover Dam on Lake Mead — you’re going to need a reservation through the Lake Mead Cruises website.
And some facilities may be operated and booked through park partner organizations, so expect to encounter yet another reservation system.
What If You Just Want To Get Up And Go?
Even the busiest parks still maintain some first-come, first-served options, so check for those on NPS.gov. Check with the park on the time you should arrive. And remember, weekends will be busier.
If you’re not comfortable with just taking your chances on first-come, first-served, try Recreation.gov’s trip builder. Pick a starting point and an endpoint, and the trip builder will show you all the recreation possibilities along the route. While you may have your heart set on a national park camping experience, you may find that the U.S. Forest Service has a quiet little lakeside campsite available right on the way that will be a perfect getaway.
Recreation.gov’s trip builder allows you to find recreation opportunities from a dozen federal agencies including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Army Corps of Engineers (think campgrounds by reservoirs).
One could even plan an entire trip of visiting unknown and under-appreciated sites booked through the Recreation.gov trip finder. Recreation.gov also has a recommendations engine that will suggest other available places to discover if your primary destination is booked.
The sooner you become proficient at using Recreation.gov and NPS.gov, the sooner you’ll be able to plan your trip like a pro.
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