Updated for 2021 – 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
Everyone is eager to travel and road trip but due to the pandemic, it’s possible there might still be restrictions at some parks. It’s a good idea to visit the park’s website at nps.gov or recreation.gov before you make your plans. Most parks are now open and so are the campgrounds.
If you aren’t sure where what park you want to visit, use nps.gov for inspiration and trip planning. You can search by park, state and region. There’s even an interactive map you can play around with to help figure it all out where to go.
Once you’ve decided on a park for your visit, camping and 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 or high 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 or the Grand Canyon, then you’ll want to make your reservation six months before your trip. Those big busy park campgrounds sell out quickly so give yourself plenty of time.
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 a 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. That info is very important because you don’t want to try and fit an RV on a tent only site.
The campground map is super useful because it shows where there’s water, trash cans and the most important thing, the 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 of the site and see how have cell phone service is based on other camper’s experiences.
Recreation.gov has a ton of helpful data and should be one of the first places you check for camping information. You can browse the site for ideas but once you are ready to make a reservation, you’ll be required to create an account.
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 it makes you nervous, then 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 guaranteed, it’s always best to have a plan B or even C. Know what other campgrounds and public lands are around in the area in case you can’t 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 national park campground, there will be a registration stand at the entrance. This stand is the notification board for the campground and has all the important stuff you need to know. It has fee info, rules about the campground, maps, etc. Even if have a reservation, it’s always a good idea to stop at the entrance stand for campground details.
Many park campgrounds have campground hosts. 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 people coming and going, the host usually provides a map or a some kind of sign with the campsites available for that day. This is extremely helpful because you can go directly to that available campsite and not drive around looking for a spot.
Finding a Campsite
If there’s no host or that info just isn’t available, then you’ll have to do that work yourself. First, at the entrance stand, pick up a registration envelope. They should be in a box or a drawer or sometimes they’re in the top of the what’s called an iron ranger in park lingo. This metal box is where you deposit your campsite fee once you select your site and fill out your info.
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.
Now that you have your envelope, the next step is to drive through the campground to look for an unoccupied site. Drive carefully as you make your way through the campground. Many of the roads one way.
To identify the individual campsites, the park service uses wooden or metal posts with numbers on them to mark each campsite.
As you make your way through the campground, in addition to checking for tents and obvious signs that a campsite is occupied, look at those 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.
If you drove straight into the campground and didn’t pick up an envelope, then it’s perfectly acceptable to place something, like your tent or a chair, in the campsite until you can get back to the entrance stand to 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. The credit card machines is 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. Being prepared, makes 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, it 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’ll want to eat while you are camping, most campsites provide fire rings or barbeque 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 purchased local firewood. Generally, campgrounds prohibit bringing in foreign wood and gathering wood for fires is also prohibited. You also want to have enough water on hand to put the fire out.
You can find out fire rules by checking the info at that ever important entrance stand. Some parks and most national forests have signs showing the fire probability for the day. Pay close attention to those too. Conditions can change quickly so be sure and check often. Most campgrounds almost always allow the use of propane camp stoves but doublecheck just to make sure.
Food 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 food, 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. A fed bear is a dead bear. But the same goes for any wildlife.
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.
- Download the National Park Trust’s ParkPass app that has a park finder and a digital passport book.
Find Your Park by Camping
Are you ready to find your park by planning a national park trip? Here’s a few inspirational articles to help you.
- Visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument
- Where to Camp in Big Bend National Park
- The Best National Parks to Visit When You Don’t Have Much Time
- Park Guide to Joshua Tree National Park
- Two Days in Acadia National Park
Camping in a national park is one of the best camping experiences you’ll ever 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 easy way to practice putting up a tent and get more comfortable so you don’t feel like such a newb. Wherever you decide to camp, don’t forget the stuff for s’mores. Happy trails!