More people are leaping into the RV lifestyle every year. They’re exploring national parks in comfort but all that extra traffic makes spontaneous road trips to the parks largely a thing of the past, at least during the busy summer season. With more rigs on the road than campsites to accommodate them, RVers are constantly competing for a scant number of RV-friendly campsites.
The mobile lifestyle exploded during the 2020 pandemic year and it hasn’t slowed down yet. In 2021, the RV industry saw a record 11.2 million households buying into RV ownership. That’s a 26 percent jump since 2011 when 8.9 million people bought their first rig. These figures don’t include the millions of pre-owned motorhomes, truck campers, travel trailers, toy haulers, and camper vans streaming into national parks all year long.
Despite this era of rising fuel prices and inflation, there’s no telling when or if RVing’s popularity will slow down. But as prices for other methods of travel increase, too, more people will likely buy into the relatively low cost of vacationing and living in RVs. Finding RV-friendly campsites at national parks is only going to get tougher but there are some steps you can take to enhance your odds of landing one.
First, know your RV measurements. Starting this year, RVers at Gulf Islands National Seashore are discovering that size is everything when camping in national parks. Those RVers who ignore campsite length and height limits and trample vegetation and terrain with their rig will pay a price as park rangers are now enforcing maximum RV size limits to protect natural resources.
The restrictions are in place for all campsites in the Fort Pickens Campground in Florida and the Davis Bayou Campground in Mississippi. Visitors can verify the campsite length on recreation.gov. Reservations for vehicles exceeding the campsite size limits will be canceled by campground staff on-site.
Created in 1971, the national seashore stretches 160 miles along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and Mississippi and includes barrier islands, maritime forests, historic forts, bayous, and marine habitats.
Unfortunately for many RV owners, the average length of campsites in national park campgrounds is around 30-feet long. This figure comprises the entire RV unit from end to end, including a tow or towed vehicle. New RVers tend to learn the hard way that many national park campsites just can’t accommodate newer, bigger motorhome and travel and fifth wheel trailer models rolling off RV assembly lines.
Even a couple of feet make a huge difference in where an RV can go. Smaller is just better for exploring national parks. From the front bumper to the rear bike rack, rooftop A/C to where the rubber meets the road, if you own an RV and you want to camp in national parks, here’s what you need to do for a successful experience:
- Gather all of your RV unit’s measurements from end-to-end and top-to-bottom
- Find your desired national park campground and look for the amenities you want (Hint: most national park campgrounds do not have utility hookups)
- Check for road restrictions to the campground (many national parks prohibit longer RVs from traveling certain roads with a tight turning radius)
- Look for campsites that can accommodate the type of rig you own
- Pinpoint the earliest dates you can reserve a spot, reserve it online, or call to book your stay
If your RV exceeds the biggest campsite length where you want to go, don’t give up. In many campgrounds, guests can detach the trailer and park their tow vehicle elsewhere. When in doubt, call the reservations agency to confirm that the entire RV can be accommodated.
Next, research the campground facilities. Most national park websites don’t make it easy to find helpful trip planning logistics. From ADA-accessible sites to mandatory reservation seasons, much of the important information needed for RV trip planning to national parks is buried deep inside each campground’s park profile.
As an RV owner, I need a certain amount of information before I feel confident reserving a campsite. For example, I work online and have a long list of questions I need to be answered, such as:
- Does the campground have drinking water to fill my tanks?
- Will there be dump station access or should I plan on emptying holding tanks outside the park?
- What does cellular connectivity look like in and outside of the park boundaries?
- Is Wi-Fi available?
Everyone has different considerations for RV camping in national parks. National Park Traveler is currently developing a traveler’s directory that will make it easy to scan national park campground information pertinent to RVers and find key details that will help make your trip a success. I will provide additional information as more details become available.
How many campgrounds are in the National Park System? How many are needed? If you’ve struggled with making a campsite reservation on recreation.gov, these questions might have come to mind. Here are some answers.
According to the National Park Service, there were 1,421 campgrounds in the park system with 27,513 campsites. Filter that done a bit more and there are 502 front-country campgrounds with 16,648 sites (another 494 campgrounds don’t have front- or backcountry designations), according to the Park Service.
That 16,648 number might explain why it is such a struggle to reserve a campsite. After all, Yellowstone National Park has more than 2,000 front-country campsites alone, Yosemite National Park has nearly 1,500, Glacier National Park has more than 1,000, Grand Teton National Park has more than 1,100, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon combined have just a bit more than 1,200 sites. Do the math and you’ll see that those six parks alone hold 40 percent of those 16,648 campsites.
Many other parks that are highly desirable with campers, meanwhile, have considerably fewer sites. Canyonlands National Park has fewer than 40, Arches National Park has 50, Rocky Mountain National Park has around 571, Acadia National Park has a few more than 600, and Shenandoah National Park has 472.
Of course, if you’re looking for RV campsites, they are even more scarce.
Finally, don’t leave your trip to chance. My wife and I started snowbird RVing in 1997. We were recently retired and few working-age people were long-term RVers back then. But today, we are surrounded by RVers of all ages. It’s great seeing people enjoy this lifestyle before (and after) retirement but the consequence is a loss of spontaneous road trips to national parks or most anywhere else. Impromptu decisions usually lead to disappointment in all but the most remote parks. Those who arrive without reservations usually get turned away. So forget spontaneity. Like it or not, this is a new era of planned camping trips to America’s most beloved natural gems.
When there’s a park you want to visit, do your homework, and book your spot as early as possible. Persistence and flexibility pay off in the never-ending game of national parks camping reservations.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.