More people than ever are are road tripping and visiting national parks and public lands. If this is you, you might even be considering camping in a national park.
Camping in a national park is a great way to experience the park and see more of it. The campgrounds are often located in convenient areas so you’ll spend less time driving. In addition to being convenient, they are very affordable.
However, there are a few differences between camping in a national park and camping in private campgrounds. Here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Planning Your Trip
Depending on the state, most parks are open and so are the campgrounds. In some areas, it’s possible there might be restrictions due to the worldwide pandemic so visit the park’s website at nps.gov or recreation.gov before you make your plans.
If you aren’t sure where to go yet, you can use nps.gov for inspiration and trip planning too. The website allows you to search by park, state or region. There’s even an interactive map you can play around with to help figure it all out
Once you have picked a park for your visit, campground information can be found under the “Plan Your Visit” tab. Open that tab and move down to the “Eating and Sleeping” category. Hover over that category and it will expand to show you camping and lodging info in the park. Click on the “camping” for all the available campgrounds.
Southerner Says: Since each parks runs their website individually, there’s no standardized website set up. Some parks will have better lodging info than others.
Park Campground or Authorized Concessioner?
Developed park campgrounds usually fall into two categories; those maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) or by an authorized park concessioner.
An authorized concessioner is a business with which the NPS has a contract to provide services in the parks. In some cases, the concessioner is even able to provide services that the NPS just can’t offer. Don’t worry. The park service still monitors the quality of everything, so you can still count on a good experience.
Take for example, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. As one of the largest recreation areas in the park system, Lake Mead has over ten campgrounds, RV parks, backcountry and dispersed camping options available. Not to mention marinas in two different states! That’s a lot of work for park employees.
To offset the work, a portion of the campgrounds and all the marinas are run by concessioners. This way, park rangers can do what they do best and the concessioners are able to offer activities such as boating, kayaking and jetski rentals.
First Come First Served or Reservations?
Throughout the park service, most of the campgrounds accept reservations six months in advance. If not year round then at least for the busy season. However, once the season slows, campgrounds may change to a first come first served system or they may have mixed system with some sites available for reservations and some first come first served.
Then there are campgrounds that always operate on the first come first served basis and never take reservations. Let’s talk about reservation campgrounds first.
For parks that have campgrounds that accept reservations, those reservations are made via Recreation.gov. If you plan on visiting a busy park, like Yellowstone, in the summer, then you want to be making your reservation six months before your trip because those big busy park campgrounds sell out quickly.
To make a reservation on Recreation.gov, select the Camping & Day Use tab for park campground info. Starting a search there automatically loads campgrounds near your current location but you can search for other campgrounds either by park or if you know the specific name of the campground, you can enter it too.
Once you’ve picked out the campground, you can filter results by date and search for availability or you can search by a site list. Searching by site pulls up a map of the campground and gives you all the particulars of that site. You don’t want to try and fit an RV on a tent only site.
The campground map is super useful because it shows bathrooms, trash, water and the all important bathroom. In many instances, Recreation.gov even provides a photo of the campsite so you can pick out the perfect one. You can check other camper’s reviews and check for cell phone service based on other users experiences.
Recreation.gov has a ton of helpful info. Just know that when you are ready to make a reservation, you’ll be required to create an account. Some parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone’s campgrounds are in high demand and fill up way in advance. Check nps.gov for rules for each park’s reservation system.
While you’re there, don’t forget to purchase an America the Beautiful park pass. It will save a bunch of money and is accepted at at over 2000 interagency sites across the country.
First Come First Served
What does first come first served mean in a national park campground? It means showing up at a campground, seeing what campsites are available and picking one from those sites. In busy parks like Glacier National Park, it means arriving early. The last time I was there, people lined up before dawn to try and get a spot.
For someone new to national park camping, not having a guaranteed place to sleep for the night could cause some anxiety. If this is you, just choose a campground that accepts reservations or try traveling when the campground you want to stay in is taking reservations. For those that don’t mind a little unknown, driving in and snagging an epic spot sure is a lot of fun.
If it’s not busy season, an early arrival isn’t always necessary. Parks that have more campgrounds will have better availability. I have successfully camped in Theodore Roosevelt NP, Big Bend NP, Guadalupe Mountains NP, Grand Teton NP, Joshua Tree NP and Craters of the Moon NM without reservations.
Since nothing is for sure, it’s always best to know what other campgrounds and public lands are around. Have a plan b just in case you unable to get a campsite in the park.
First Come First Served How To
If you decide to forgo reservations or if the campground you want to stay in doesn’t accept reservations, here’s some tips for the first come first served system in national park campgrounds.
Entering the Campground
When you arrive at a campground, there will be a registration stand at the entrance. This stand serves as a notification board for the campground. It will have fee info, rules about the campground, maps, etc. All the important stuff. Even if have a reservation, it’s always a good idea to stop at the entrance for an overview of the campground details.
Southerner Says: most park campgrounds have a campground host. He or she is there to preform specific tasks and the watch over the campground. In small campgrounds that are easier to keep up with as people move in and out, the campground host will sometimes provide a map or a sign with the available campsites for the day. This is extremely helpful because then you can go straight to the available campsite.
Finding a Campsite
If that info ins’t available, pick up a registration envelope at the entrance stand. They should be in a box or a drawer at the stand or sometimes they will be in a metal receptacle. The receptacle is called an iron ranger in park lingo. This is where you deposit your campsite fee once you select your site.
After you get your envelope, the next step is to drive through the campground to look for an unoccupied site. Be careful as you make your way through the campground. Many of them have one way roads.
To identify campsites, the park system uses a numbered wooden or metal post to mark each campsite.
As you make your way through the campground, check the numbered campsite post for a slip of paper attached to it. In campgrounds that accept reservations, the campground host places reservation slip on the post to show the site is reserved. For first come first serve campgrounds, that piece of piece of paper is the back flap of the envelope you picked up. If there’s nothing attached to the post and nothing in the site, it’s all yours.
Register + Pay
Once you’ve selected an available site, register by filling out the envelope. There’s a place for your name, address, car info, what site you are selecting and how long you will be on staying. If the campground accepts credit cards, there’s a place for that info too. However, many campgrounds are cash only. Exact amount, no change.
The flap of the envelope has a perforation and tears off. This is the portion that goes on the numbered campsite post. Fill in the info, the purchase date, how long you are staying, campsite number and your vehicle info, tear it off and attach it to the numbered post for your site. The posts generally have a clip or something to secure it with.
Place your payment inside the envelope, seal it securely and deposit it in the iron ranger at the registration stand.
Southerner Says: fee collection boxes, such as the box below in the photo, are referred to as iron rangers bc the company that makes them is called Iron Rangers and they are actually “working” collecting money.
If you drove straight into the campground without picking up an envelope, then it’s perfectly acceptable to place something, like a tent or chair, in the campsite until you can get your envelope. Just don’t take a long time. Most campgrounds ask that you make your payment within thirty minutes of occupying a site.
It is possible that you will occasionally encounter a campground that only takes credit cards. If you’ve made a reservation in advance, then that won’t be problem. But if you are arriving spur of the moment and doing first come first served, then it could be if you aren’t prepared. In all my park travel, I’ve only seen this twice. Most recently in Death Valley National Park. There are credit card machines to pay for you camp site located at the campground entrance. The machine prints the receipt and that’s what you display on you camp site post.
National Park Campground Bathrooms
National park campgrounds have less amenities than private campgrounds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Less amenities means more affordable prices and a getting away from it all experience that makes park campgrounds special. If you are prepared, it will make the experience much easier. Here’s a few things you can count on or not count on when camping in a national park.
In paid developed national park campgrounds, there will always be a bathroom of some kind and usually running water. The bathrooms aren’t fancy but are generally clean.
It’s a good idea to carry your own toilet paper and soap or hand sanitizer just in case. If the toilets don’t get any maintenance on weekends or on a busy holidays, things could easily run out.
You may notice the NPS lists some campgrounds as primitive. This normally means they have pit toilets and no running water.
Pit toilets are basically a structure with a toilet over a hole in the ground. Sort of like an outhouse. I won’t go into how they work but let’s just say a real bathroom are better because pit toilets can be quite stinky.
Some times, there is hand sanitizer but don’t count on it. Carry your own.
One more thing about pit toilets; you should never throw trash in the hole. REI has a really informative article about surviving pit toilets.
National park campgrounds normally don’t have showers but occasionally, you will run across one that does. If you are lucky enough to be staying somewhere with a shower, again, there’s a few things you’ll want to have with you.
Shoes to wear in the shower to protect your feet from bacteria are a must. You don’t know who’s been there and what was on their feet. No soap is provided so bring it too, along with any other bathing products you might want.
A washcloth and towel will come in handy as well. You can buy microfiber towels that dry quickly and fold down to almost nothing on Amazon and from REI.
Building a Fire in a National Park Campground
Since you want to eat while you are camping, most campsites provide fire rings or bbq grills to cook on. Before you start a fire, check to make sure they are allowed. At times even charcoal fires are prohibited.
Fires should be made from local firewood you purchase. Generally, campgrounds prohibit bringing in foreign wood or gathering wood for fires is also prohibited. You should also have water to put the fire out.
All parks and national forests will have signs showing the fire probability for the day. Conditions can change quickly so be sure and check often. Most campground always allow the use of propane campstoves.
Food + Cooking in a National Park
Some campgrounds have general stores with food and drinks supplies but items are usually pricey so it’s best to bring along a cooler with what you need. However, they are useful for forgotten items, ice and even firewood.
While we are on the subject of food. let’s take a minute to discuss campsite and food etiquette. Simply put: keep your campsite clean! If bears are frequent the area, the campground may have bear boxes available. Use them. Don’t leave coolers and trash out and NEVER feed the wildlife. Either intentionally or unintentionally.
It’s easy for wildlife to get accustomed to food left out or dropped. This can be catastrophic for them. Animals will either have to be moved or worse, euthanized when they get too used to humans.
Other Campground Amenities
Electricity + Water
Most national park campgrounds, managed by the NPS, do not provide electricity. Water is usually available throughout the campground and at the very least, the park visitor center or bathrooms located at the visitor center. Some parks like Joshua Tree National Park, have no running water in the campground. But as long as you do your research and check nps.gov or recreation.gov, you will be prepared.
Phone Service + WIFI
Most national park campgrounds that are managed by the NPS do not have WIFI. In fact, it’s very common to not even have mobile service in a national park. If a park is a concessioner run park, WIFI will sometimes be available in the campground.
How Much Does it Cost to Camp in a National Park?
You might think that camping in a national park is free, but the majority of parks charge a fee. The fee varies from park to park. Occasionally you will find one that is free but most developed campgrounds charge on average $20. I have paid as little as $8 in a park managed campground and as much as $35 to a park concessioner. Fees in concessioner campgrounds are normally a little more because they provide more amenities like WIFI and showers.
How Long Can You Camp in a National Park?
Park campgrounds have limits on how long you can camp there. It varies from park to park. Most developed paid campground allow you to stay 14 days. Some campgrounds that have free or dispersed camping allow you to stay longer before requiring you to move on. It also depends on what kind of park unit it is too. Recreation areas have different campground rules and are a bit more lenient.
More Camping in a National Park Tips
- When you get to the campground, check in with the campground host, if there is one. Many times, he or she has been in the area for awhile and can offer advice on things like hikes and other stuff to see and do.
- Verify the campground rules when you enter. Things like generator regulations and quiet hours may differ at each campground. Yes there are quiet hours.
- If you have your pet with you, verify where they can and can’t go. For their safety, keep them leashed at all times.
- Don’t feed any wildlife! Again, don’t feed any wildlife! That includes squirrels and chipmunks.
- Don’t get too close to wildlife for your safety and theirs.
- If you haven’t yet purchased an America the Beautiful Park Pass, there’s no better time to do it. You can save money at over 2k interagency sites across the country.
- Follow Leave No Trace ethics for the outdoors and leave your campsite, and the park, better and cleaner than when you got there.
Find Your Park by Camping
Camping in a national park is easy and one of the best experiences you can have. If you are new to camping and feel overwhelmed about heading into a national park to camp, then try a local or state park first or even your backyard. That’s a great way to practice putting up a tent and get more comfortable. Wherever you decide to camp, don’t forget the s’mores. Happy trails!