Camping in a national park is a great way to experience a park and see more of it. Since park campgrounds are often located in convenient areas, camping inside the park means you’ll spend less time driving around. In addition to convenience, national park campgrounds are usually very affordable as well. However, there are a few differences between camping in a national park and camping in private campgrounds. Let’s see what they are.
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How Camping in a National Park is Different
One of the biggest differences in camping in a national park and camping in a private campgrounds is how you book a site. Most private campgrounds require reservations to be made ahead of time.
Even though there are a few exceptions – some campgrounds allow guests to check into available sites afterhours – generally, to overnight in most private campgrounds, a reservation is required.
Just like private campgrounds, the majority of national park campgrounds also require reservations ahead of time but there are campgrounds that operate on a first-come first-served basis. What does that even mean and how can you find out what the requirements are?
Camping in a National Park Reservation Tips
You can find anything you need to know about a national park campground by looking up that park’s info on the National Park Service’s official website NPS.gov.
Once on the NPS’s homepage, enter the park you are interested in visiting in the search bar. On the park’s page, there is access to all the practical information about that park. Details like park hours, closures, traffic alerts and much more are available. Plus, you can access specific campground info too.
For campground and camping info, click on the Plan Your Visit tab at the top of the page. Then scroll down to Eating and Sleeping. Hovering over that option expands the tab to show what types of accommodations are available in that park.
You can then select Camping to open a list of all the individual campgrounds.
Is it a NPS Campground or Authorized Concessioner?
Developed campgrounds in national parks generally fall into two categories – campground maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) or run 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 responsibility, some 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?
As mentioned previously, most park campgrounds accept reservations. If not year round, then at least for the busy season. However, once the season slows, some campgrounds 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.
For example, in peak season in Joshua Tree National Park requires reservations at its Jumbo Rocks campground. In low season, it changes to first-come first-serve campground.
Then there are the national park campgrounds that always operate on the first-come first-served basis and never take reservations. But let’s talk about reservation campgrounds first.
Making Reservations in a NPS Managed campground
For parks that are managed by the NPS, and have campgrounds that accept reservations, those reservations are made via Recreation.gov. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance. It’s notable that popular park campgrounds sell out quickly so give yourself plenty of planning 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 select 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. The info about the site is very important because you don’t want to bring an RV to a tent only site.
The campground map is also super useful because it shows the location of water, trash cans and the most important thing – the bathroom.
In many instances, Recreation.gov provides a photo of the campsite so you can view the campsite, read reviews and check to see if there’s cell phone service 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.
Making Reservations in a Concessioner Managed Campground
If your plans include visiting a popular park, like Yellowstone National Park or Grand Canyon National Park, then the majority of those properties are managed by concessioners.
Companies like Aramark, Xanterra and Forever Resorts manage the campgrounds, and other services at those big parks. Campground info is still available at NPS.gov and Recreation.gov but you will be directed you to the concessioner website to make reservations.
First-Come First-Served Campgrounds
So 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. In some parks, that’s easy to do.
But in busy parks like Glacier National Park, it means arriving early. The last time I was there, people were lined up before dawn to get a spot.
For someone new to national park camping, not having a guaranteed place to sleep for the night could cause some stress. If it makes you nervous, then choose a campground that accepts reservations or travel 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, Great Basin NP (where we got the absolute last site) and Craters of the Moon NM without reservations. I’ve had some failures as well – looking at you Hot Springs National Park.
Since nothing is guaranteed, it’s always best to have a plan b and even a plan c. Know what other campgrounds and public lands are in the area in case you can’t get a campsite in the park.
How to Camp in a First-Come First-Served Campground
If you decide to forgo reservations or if the campground you want to stay in doesn’t accept reservations, here’s how to maneuver the first-come first-served system in national park campgrounds.
When you arrive at a national park campground, there will be a registration stand at the entrance. This stand is the information board for the campground and has all the important stuff you need to know. Things like fees, rules in the campground, fire notices and maps, etc.
Even if have a reservation, it’s always a good idea to stop at the entrance stand for campground pertinent information.
In some cases, the campground might have a campground host. He or she is there to help and take care of the campground. In small campgrounds, where it’s easier to keep up with people coming and going, the host usually provides a map or a some kind of sign with the available campsites for that day.
This is extremely helpful because then you can go directly to those campsites without having to drive around looking for a spot. If there’s no host or that info just isn’t available, then you’ll have to do that work yourself.
Choosing a campsite
When you enter the park and stop at the entrance stand, pick up a registration envelope. These yellow envelopes should be in a box or a drawer or sometimes 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.
The next step is to drive through the campground looking 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 drive 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 already 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 and Paying for a campsite
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 too long. Most places ask that you make your payment within thirty minutes of occupying a site.
It’s possible that you’ll 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 the campground is first come first served, then you’ll need to pay with a credit or debit card.
In all my park travel, I’ve only seen this twice. Most recently in Death Valley National Park where a credit card machine is placed at the campground entrance. After you pay, the machine prints the receipt. Use that receipt for display on the campsite post.
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Camping in a National Park Bathroom Tips
National park campgrounds usually 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 these differences much easier to deal with. Bathrooms are especially important to prepare for. Here’s a few bathroom things you can count on – or not count on – when camping in a national park.
National Park Campground Bathrooms
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.
You’ll also see some campgrounds described as primitive. This generally 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 is preferable because pit toilets can be quite stinky.
If your campground is a primitive campground, then it’s a good idea to have toilet paper on hand. The toilets might not be maintained on weekends or busy holidays, and the tp will be gone.
Since there’s not running water, occasionally, there will be hand sanitizer but don’t count on it. To be safe, just carry your own.
One more very important thing about pit toilets – you should never throw trash in the hole. REI has a really informative article about surviving pit toilets that’s worthy of a read.
National park campgrounds normally don’t have showers but occasionally you’ll run across one that does. If you are lucky enough to find one, again there’s a few things you’ll want to have with you.
There won’t be soap provided so bring some along too. And any other bathing products you might need or want.
A microfiber washcloth and towel that dries quickly will come in handy as well. Most of them fold down to almost so they are easy to pack.
Camping in a National Park Fire Tips
One of the fun things to do when camping in a national park is have a fire and maybe even cook. Generally all park campsites have designated fire rings or barbeque grills for you to use. Before you start a fire, check to make sure fires 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 forbidden. You should also have enough water on hand to put the fire out.
You can find out the campground’s fire rules by checking the info at that ever important entrance stand. Some parks, and most national forests, have fire danger signs displaying the fire probability for the day.
Pay close attention to those. 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 Tips for Camping 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 good cooler with what you need. The park stores are good for purchasing ice and local firewood.
While we are on the subject of food. let’s take a minute to discuss campsite food etiquette. Simply put: keep your campsite clean! If bears are frequent the area, the campground may have bear boxes available. You should 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 on the ground. This can be catastrophic. Animals potentially will either have to be moved or worse, euthanized, when they associate food with humans. The saying is “a fed bear is a dead bear” but the same goes for any wildlife.
Camping in a National Park FAQs
Is There Phone Service & Wi-Fi in Park Campgrounds?
Most national park campgrounds that are managed by the NPS do not have Wi-Fi. In fact, it’s common to not have cell service in a national park. If a park is a concessioner run park, sometimes Wi-Fi is 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 $40 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. The limits vary 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.
Can You Camp Anywhere in a National Park?
The simple answer is no. You cannot camp just anywhere in a national park. The National Park Service and concessioners work hard to give visitors the best national park experience but national parks aren’t amusement parks.
The national park system was created to protect these special places. Although they are public lands, visiting them is a privilege. Regulations and campgrounds exist to limit unmonitored impact on the land by humans.
Is There 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.
As long as you do your research and check nps.gov or recreation.gov, you’ll be prepared. Here’s a few more tips:
- At the campground, check in with the campground host. Most of the host are experienced and know the area well. They can offer advice about 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.
- Camping in a national park can be fun for your pet too. If you have your pet with you, verify where they can and can’t go. For their safety, keep them leashed at all times.
- Every year visitors are injured by getting too close to wildlife. Remember to give wildlife plenty of room 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 and use it at over 2k interagency sites across the country.
- Follow Leave No Trace principles for the outdoors and leave your campsite, and the park, better and cleaner than when you got there.
Final Thoughts About Camping in a 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 a little overwhelmed about heading into a national park to camp, then try a local or state park first or even your own backyard.
That’s the easiest way to practice setting up a tent and get more comfortable so you don’t feel like a newbie. Wherever you decide to camp, don’t forget the s’mores.
See you on the road!