A few times a year, we set a special alarm. We arrange ourselves that day so that we can be in front of a computer at the right time to get the permit we’re hoping to snag. Our adrenaline is pumping, just as it did when we were teens furiously dialing, hanging up and redialing into busy tones with high hopes of scoring Pearl Jam or U2 tickets before they sold out.
That’s what it feels like to reserve campsites in national parks, where attendance has steadily been climbing in recent years. It feels like trying to get into a rock concert before WiFi. When you actually get the sites you want, when you want them, it feels like reaching the summit of a long, challenging climb. It’s that good.
Getting a campsite for tent camping or RV camping inside a park takes planning, because each park has different reservation windows. Zion National Park allows you to reserve a spot just two weeks ahead of your arrival, while Yosemite National Park opens reservations six months out.
And then there are some surprises. While checking into our spot at Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, we listened as an unhappy camper discovered his name wasn’t on the ranger’s reservation list. He had reserved his spot “a few days ago.” We were shocked, because we had booked our site months out. Sure, you could roll the dice and try to score a last-minute walk-up site, some of which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. But with kids, that’s a gamble many families aren’t willing to try.
We highly recommend planning. Know your dates, window-shop the campgrounds you want and prioritize them. Learn the reservation requirements before the park opens its reservation platform to the masses. For families that don’t own campers or tents, some parks do offer limited lodging, but these spots cost more and quickly fill up.
Most importantly, create a profile at recreation.gov a few days before you try for reservations. Many of the most popular parks sell out of the window of dates they’ve released within hours — if not minutes — which means you won’t have time to monkey around with creating a username and password the same morning you’re trying to reserve a spot inside a park.
And then, get ready. Set an alarm to the day and time the sites will become available. Be flexible on dates, but also on spots within a campground. You may need to shuffle from one site to another during your stay to make it work, like we did in Glacier National Park last summer.
And keep trying. Don’t give up if you miss out on your first choice. There is nothing like waking up in a park. Or falling asleep in one. Or enjoying the magic hour as day visitors prepare to leave for the evening.
Staying in parks gave us priceless memories. We will never forget the way the stars looked inside Zion National Park, shining in numbers beyond anything we’ve ever seen. The kids will never forget watching deer roam through our campsite on the way to a nearby creek to get a drink.
And we will all remember the day we saw a bison nestle up next to someone else’s tent in our campground at Yellowstone National Park. Sleeping in Channel Islands National Park gave us extra time with the island’s adorable foxes and allowed us to experience a private sunset on a bluff. You don’t get experiences like that when you leave a national park at the end of the day.
Those moments are priceless, and they’re why we keep setting our alarm clocks. We have our hearts set on a few more spots.