Getting a national park reservation can be a pain. Here’s what you should know.
America’s protected lands may be for all—but in 2023, national park reservations are very much a thing. Timed entry passes have helped with overcrowding but the new system has created winners and losers
At 7:59 a.m. Mountain Time on the first day of March, people across the world hovered over keyboards and smartphones, ticking away the seconds until Glacier National Park released its block of coveted reservations for entering the park during July. The clock hit 8 a.m., setting off a mad race to click Book Now on the recreation.gov vehicle reservations page. The quickest fingers would score a pass to explore the Montana park’s pristine lakes, sheer peaks, and beargrass-dotted meadows in the high summer season.
Those spots went fast. The remote North Fork area in the park’s northwestern corner sold out within 10 minutes. Glacier’s stunning main thoroughfare, Going-to-the-Sun Road filled completely in half an hour. Some people got lucky that day but many more came away disappointed including Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke who tweeted about his failure to land a reservation.
While backcountry hikers and river runners have long dealt with the difficulty of nabbing permits for high-demand destinations, casual travelers haven’t had to wrestle for reservations simply to enter a national park—until recently.
Is ticketed entry a solution to overcrowding?
After years of struggling with record-breaking visitation and crowding, three parks rolled out pilots of so-called managed access systems to stem the tide. California’s Yosemite National Park instituted a day-use reservation system for 2020 through 2022 (No reservation system for 2023 while the park works on long-term planning); Glacier and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park introduced theirs in 2021 followed by Arches in 2022. A handful of other parks require reservations to visit specific locations like Cadillac Summit at Acadia and Angel’s Landing at Zion.
Each parks’ rules are different and for many confusing. Pass requirements vary by date and location within a park and are valid in some places for one day and in others for three days. Parks release a percentage of passes months in advance but reserve a portion for the day before (see info below). Successfully planning a summer trip is an experience Alex Kim, founder of Here Montana, likens to “cracking the code.”
But few dispute that these parks had to do something. Starting with the National Park Service’s Centennial in 2016 and skyrocketing with the COVID pandemic, park visitation numbers have increased to record numbers. “We’re seeing unprecedented levels of sustained demand in a lot of these parks,” says Will Rice, an assistant professor of parks, tourism, and recreation management at the University of Montana who studies reservation systems.
“The parks belong to the American people and there’s no substitute for being in a national park,” says Scott Gediman, public affairs officer for Yosemite. But “when you’ve got two-and-a-half hours waiting in line to get in, then you get there and shuttle buses are packed and there are long lines for food, it’s just not a good experience.” Add environmental damage caused by trampling feet and illegal parking and the problem compounds. Enter what Rice calls the rationing of recreation.
For those who do get a reservation, most say managed access leads to a much better trip. Park representatives are quick to note that they’re not trying to reduce visitation, just spread it out throughout the day and the season. All three parks succeeded in that: Since implementing their systems, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite have seen lines at entrance stations and shuttle buses dwindle, parking ceases to be a competitive sport, traffic gridlock ease, and people enjoying their experience more.
“We have done a survey of people who got reservations,” says John Hannon, Rocky Mountain’s management specialist. “They’re very supportive of timed entry once they’ve experienced it.” Yosemite visitors reported similar sentiments. “And anecdotally, a lot of people were seeing more wildlife,” notes Gediman.
The downside to ticketed entry
But limiting access, even if only during peak hours, necessarily leaves some people out. Under these systems, a certain type of visitor is more likely to snag the golden ticket. At the very least, it’s someone who plans well in advance. But also it’s someone with high-speed internet and a credit card, a job that allows for vacation planning months ahead, and familiarity both with recreation.gov’s reservation platform and the English language (recreation.gov is only available in English, though it does provide a how-to on using Google Translate).
Making parks accessible to all
Part of the solution might lie in creating more ways to nab a reservation. “We need to expand the idea of how we ration these things,” says the University of Montana’s Rice. “People have different preferences and needs when it comes to how they want to gain access to these highly demanded recreational resources.”
Park officials say they’re well aware of these issues and continually tweak their systems to help all potential visitors get a fair shake. For this year, Rocky Mountain upped the number of reservations that go live 24 hours ahead of time—rather than months ahead—to better accommodate spur-of-the-moment travelers. And all three parks required reservations only during the busiest hours so anyone can come in without an advance booking before, say, 9 am or after 3 pm.
There are more strategy ideas on the table, too. Hannon says Rocky Mountain is considering setting aside some tickets for local retailers to sell in person reducing the system’s reliance on recreation.gov; hotel operators near Yosemite have requested a similar setup for their guests.
Rice suggests the parks also look into implementing a lottery or even using license plates to determine who can enter on a given day as Yellowstone did in 2022 after flooding shut down portions of the park.
Visitors can be grateful that at least one other crowd-control tactic won’t be considered: raising entry fees. Unlike amusement parks and ski resorts that use demand-based systems to jack up prices during particularly popular times, national parks belong to everybody.
Like it or not, the days of spontaneously driving up to one of these national parks on a summer Saturday morning are probably over.
WHAT TO KNOW
Yosemite National Park is not implementing a reservation system for summer 2023. But here’s how to book at three of the most popular national parks that will require reservations this year.
Glacier National Park
Vehicle reservations are required between 6 am and 3 pm from May 26 to September 10 on North Fork Road and Going-to-the-Sun Road from the west side of the park and between July 1 and September 10 for all other park roads and Going-to-the-Sun Road from the east side. Going-to-the-Sun Road passes are valid for three days; the others last one day.
Cost: $2 processing fee (does not include park entry fee)
Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on April 1 and September reservations on May 1, both at 8 am Mountain Time. Additional reservations go on sale at 8 a.m. the day before your intended visit. Reserve at recreation.gov.
Tip: Visitors with reservations at a park campground, hotel, or outfitter, or with backcountry camping permits, do not need an entry permit.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Reservations are required from May 26 to October 22. There are two types: Bear Lake Corridor entry permits are required between 5 am and 6 pm while “rest of the park” entry permits are required from 9 am to 2 pm. All are issued to enter the park during a specific two-hour window. Reservations are valid for one day.
Cost: $2 processing fee (does not include park entry fee)
Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on July 1, September reservations on August 1, and October reservations on September 1, all at 8 am Mountain Time. Additional reservations go on sale at 5 pm the day before your intended visit. Reserve at recreation.gov.
Tip: Visitors with reservations at a park campground, hotel, or outfitter, or with backcountry camping permits, do not need an entry permit.
Arches National Park
Beginning April 1 and continuing through October 31, Arches National Park will require visitors that want to enter the park during peak hours (7 am to 4 pm) to have a timed-entry pass. This pass is in addition to the park entrance fee everyone pays when they drive through the entrance of the park. Without your timed-entry pass, you will not be able to get into the park.
Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on May 1 and September reservations on June 1, both at 8 am Mountain Time. A small number of reservations will be available at 6 pm on the day before your intended visit. There’s no guarantee you’ll get one of these limited passes, so be sure to have plan B ready to go into effect if you don’t get a pass.
Tip: Reservations aren’t required if you have a camping reservation, are on a commercial tour, have a special use permit or are a Fiery Furnace ticket holder.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
As the world navigated through the pandemic, the popularity of camping continued to grow and people turned to the outdoors to find solace and reprieve. Over 66 million people went camping in the U.S. last year and over 8.3 million tried camping for the first time. Amid this growth, a camper visited The Dyrt every second. With overbooked campgrounds, new expectations from campers, and continually emerging technologies, the camping industry is shifting.
A survey by The Dyrt, an app designed to help campers find camping information and book campsites has found the number of campers is expanding and an increased interest in winter camping.
First-time campers on the rise
The camping community is nothing if not resilient. While the pandemic uprooted so many aspects of everyday life, it also served as an inspiration for new campers to pack up their gear and greet the great outdoors.
What inspires 8.3 million first-time campers?
Family & friends (21 percent)
Time outdoors (19 percent)
The pandemic (16 percent)
Travel the U.S. (11 percent)
Relaxation (8 percent)
Comforts of home in the woods
Campers were drawn to the West for top outdoor destinations and opted for comfort and predictability as they tried new forms of camping.
Campers who tried a new form of camping in 2021:
Camper van (35 percent)
Dispersed (23 percent)
RVs (22 percent)
Cabin (7 percent)
Tent (7 percent)
Top 25 searched camping destinations on The Dyrt
1. Denver, Colorado
2. Grand Canyon, Arizona
3. Seattle, Washington
4. Moab, Utah
5. San Diego, California
6. Portland, Oregon
7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
8. Zion National Park, Utah
9. Las Vegas, Nevada
10. Los Angeles, California
11. West Yellowstone, Montana
12. Salt Lake City, Utah
13. Sedona, Arizona
14. Phoenix, Arizona
15. San Francisco, California
16. Austin, Texas
17. Colorado Springs, Colorado
18. Glacier National Park, Montana
19. Key West, Florida
20. South Lake Tahoe, California
21. Bend, Oregon
22. Jackson, Wyoming
23. Nashville, Tennessee
24. Tucson, Arizona
25. Asheville, North Carolina
What campers want
When it came to searching for the perfect campgrounds, campers had a few specifics in mind.
Campers’ must-have features:
Campfires allowed (57 percent)
Drinking water (44 percent)
Toilets (43 percent)
Pets allowed (38 percent)
Showers (33 percent)
There really is no wrong way to spend a camping trip, but these were some of The Dyrt users’ favorite activities.
Campers’ must-have activities:
Hiking (87 percent)
Relaxing (86 percent)
Cooking (60 percent)
Swimming (48 percent)
Drinking (43 percent)
Fishing (43 percent)
Reserving a campsite
Planning makes perfect. In 2021, the majority of campers booked their campsites in advance:
53 percent of campers booked at least a few weeks in advance
Over 50 percent of RVers and trailer campers booked at least a few months ahead
Over 70 percent of car and tent campers booked less than a month ahead
The battle for campground bookings
It’s no secret: Camping’s popularity skyrocketed in 2021. Whether you chalk it up to more people having free time or a desire to escape everyday life, this increase meant a shortage of reservable campsites. Campers reported that it was nearly three times more difficult to find bookable campgrounds in 2021 than in years prior. Nearly half of all campers reported difficulty finding available campsites in 2021 with western regions being the most difficult.
The rise of dispersed camping
Campers met the campground shortage head-on expanding into dispersed camping. Members of The Dyrt community went dispersed camping twice as often in 2021 as they did in 2020. The four most saved campgrounds in 2021 were all dispersed campgrounds where campers are free to camp anywhere within certain boundaries.
Blue Lakes Camping, Colorado
Edge of the World, Arizona
Shadow Mountain, Wyoming
Alabama Hills, California
Camping season is extending
There is no off-season. Campers have taken more trips year over year since 2019 and there’s no sign of stopping in 2022. Camping is on the rise in every season but winter is the fastest-growing season with far more campers braving the cold this winter than they did pre-pandemic.
Camping growth by season
Increase in camping by season from 2019 to planned trips in 2022:
Winter (40.7 percent)
Spring (27 percent)
Fall (15.1 percent)
Summer (2.3 percent)
As you go through life, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Skip the crowds (and the pricey entrance fees) and head to a nearby state park
National Parks are a treasure and worth putting on your travel list. But while you’re dreaming, consider adding State Parks, too. It takes a little planning (every state has a different reservation system) but is well worth the effort.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a well-developed RV site with all the bells and whistles or a wooded tent spot far from any sort of road or development, there’s a state park campsite for you. To lend a hand—there are over 10,000 state parks, after all—I’ve profiled a list of some of the best campsites in state parks that are known for their popularity and unique beauty.
No matter your level of camping expertise, spend the night beneath a canopy of stars and awake to a wondrous landscape when you park your RV or pitch a tent at some of America’s beautiful campgrounds from the beaches to the desert to the mountains.
Before I dive in, take a moment to review the following state park camping tips.
State Park Camping Tips
State parks may not see the heavy traffic of national parks but in most cases, you’ll still want to plan ahead to secure your camping spot. Each state runs its own reservation system which may be online, via phone, or even in-person. And some parks are first-come, first-served, so you won’t want to show up too late in the day.
Before you pack up and head out, make sure to research the available amenities— some state park campgrounds are extremely primitive requiring you to pack in your water and pack out your trash while others have full RV hookups, hot showers, and laundry.
And finally, be sure to respect any wildlife you encounter, manage your campfire responsibly, and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.
State Park Camping Reservations
Making reservations at state parks, especially when planning a trip that crosses multiple states, can be both complex and frustrating. Each state, and in some cases, individual parks, make its own rules for when and how they’ll take reservations for camping sites.
Georgia State Parks allow for reservations up to 13 months in advance and require a 50 percent deposit for most reservations. Reservations can be made over the phone or online. Mississippi’s state parks have one of the most generous reservation windows and can be booked 24 months in advance. The parks also welcome walk-ins when there is availability. The vast majority of Alaska State Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served, with a few exceptions.
Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure. Patagonia Lake State Park was established in 1975 as a state park and is an ideal place to find whitetail deer roaming the hills and great blue herons walking the shoreline. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout.
The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds.
105 developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Sites tend to fill up in the evening from May until November. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with a ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long for camper/trailers.
The State of Georgia bought Jekyll Island and the exclusive Jekyll Island Club for use as a state park 75 years ago.
A century ago, Jekyll Island provided a winter escape for a handful of America’s wealthiest families who valued its natural beauty, mild climate, and seclusion. They built magnificent “cottages” and a grand, turreted clubhouse on a sliver of the island’s 5,700 acres, preserving the remainder for hunting, fishing, and outdoor pursuits. Today, a bike ride across Jekyll reveals remnants of that grandeur, some of it vividly restored, some in ruins—along with modest campgrounds, facilities devoted to public education, pristine new hotels and shops, and, still, vast swaths of the untamed landscape.
Park your RV under the magnificent oaks on the northern tip of Jekyll Island. Located opposite the Clam Creek Picnic Area, you are near Driftwood Beach, the fishing pier, and fascinating historic ruins. For your convenience, there are camping supplies and a General Store for those pick-up items, and bike rentals, so you can explore all that Jekyll Island has to offer. The Jekyll Island Campground offers 18 wooded acres on the Island’s north end with 206 campsites from tent sites to full hook-up, pull-through RV sites with electricity, cable TV, water, and sewerage. Wi-Fi and DSL Internet are free for registered guests.
Enjoy camping, fishing, and boating at Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico’s largest state park. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes including kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the park offers restrooms, picnic areas, and developed camping sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.
Elephant Butte has 133 partial hookup sites and 1150 sites for primitive camping.
Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania
The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through the forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. A series of looping trails limited to foot traffic wander through the campground and day-use areas of the park. Additional multi-use trails explore forests, fields, lakeshore areas, and woodland streams.
The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites. Campground shower houses provide warm showers and flush toilets. A sanitary dump station is near the campground entrance. In addition the park offers three camping cottages, two yurts, and three group camping areas. The maximum reservation window is 12 months in advance to the date.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Hunting Island is South Carolina’s single most popular state park attracting more than a million visitors a year as well as a vast array of land and marine wildlife. Five miles of beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon, and ocean inlet are all part of the park’s natural allure.
Hunting Island is home to the historic Hunting Island lighthouse built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1875 after it was destroyed during the Civil War. A unique feature of the lighthouse is that it was constructed of interchangeable cast-iron sections so it could be dismantled should it ever need to be moved. Severe beach erosion made it necessary to relocate the lighthouse 1.3 miles inland in 1889. Due to safety concerns, the Hunting Island lighthouse is currently closed to tours, until repairs can be made.
Hunting Island State Park camping is available at 102 campsites with water and 50-amp electrical hookups, shower and restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground. Two campgrounds are located at the northern end of the park near the ocean. One of the campgrounds provides individual water and electrical hookups. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; others up to 28 feet. A designated walk-in tent camping area is available that includes tent pads, fire rings, picnic tables, no power, and centralized water.
Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, great climbing routes, the beautiful Sylvan Lake which sits beneath granite crags, and wildlife.
Custer State Park offers 9 campgrounds in a variety of scenic locations. Nestled in a ponderosa pine forest near French Creek, Blue Bell Campground accommodates large RVs and tents with 31 camping sites. Center Lake Campground is located just above Center Lake with 71 sites shaded by ponderosa pines. This campground can accommodate smaller RVs and tents and all sites are available by same-day reservations. No electricity. Centrally located in the park near the visitor center, Game Lodge Campground offers 59 camping sites with electricity. Legion Lake Campground accommodates large RVs and tents. 26 camping sites with electricity are available.
Able to accommodate any camping unit, Stockade North Campground offers 42 campsites with electric hookups. Located on the western side of Custer State Park, Stockade South Campground can accommodate mid-sized RVs. 23 sites available with electric hookups. Just a short stroll from Sylvan Lake, the crown jewel of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake Campground is the highest campground within Custer State Park at 6,200 feet. Sites within the campground are close together and are not suitable for large tents or RVs over 27 feet. In addition, walk-in primitive camping and group and youth camping areas are available.
With both beach and bay sides, Galveston Island State Park offers activities for every coast lover. You can swim, fish, picnic, bird watch, hike, mountain bike, paddle, camp, geocache, study nature, or just relax! Hike or bike four miles of trails through the park’s varied habitats. Stop at the observation platform or photo blinds, and stroll boardwalks over dunes and marshes.
20 water and electric (50/30-amp hookup) sites are available on the bayside of the park with 1.5 miles of beach to explore. Sites are close together with a communal pavilion and shared ground fire rings. Restrooms with showers are about 150 yards away. These sites are for RV camping only. Weekly and monthly camping rates are available from November to February.
Many folks come here to swim, but the park is more than a great swimming hole. With four miles of river frontage, the Guadalupe River takes center stage at the park. Step away from the river to find the more peaceful areas. On the river you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. While on land you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watching. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Trails range from the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to the 0.3 Mile River Overlook Trail which leads you to a scenic overlook of the river.
The park provides 85 water and electric campsites and nine walk-in tent sites. Turkey Sink Campground offers 48 sites with 50 amp electric service. Cedar Sage Campgrounds offers 37 sites with 30 amp electricity. Campground amenities include a picnic table, fire ring with grill, and tent pad with restrooms with showers located nearby.
Blanco State Park, Texas
This small park hugs a one-mile stretch of the Blanco River. On the water, you can swim, fish, paddle, or boat. On land, you can picnic, hike, camp, watch for wildlife, and geocache. A CCC-built picnic area and pavilion are available for a group gathering. Anglers fish for largemouth and Guadalupe bass, channel catfish, sunfish, and rainbow trout. Swim anywhere along the river. Small children will enjoy the shallow wading pool next to Falls Dam. Rent tubes at the park store.
Choose from full hookup sites or sites with water and electricity. Eight full hookup campsites with 30/50-amp electric service are available. Nine full hookup sites with 30-amp electric are available. 12 sites with 30 amp electric and water hookups are also available. Amenities include a picnic table, shade shelter, fire ring with grill, and lantern post.
The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses remained at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst.
Today, Dead Horse Point provides a beautiful mesa where you can look 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
Nestled within a grove of junipers, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 AMP). Modern restroom facilities are available and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, and the Visitor Center.
New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV or tent campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites. All sites have fire pits, picnic tables under shade shelters, and access to bathrooms with running water and dishwashing sinks. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground. The Wingate Campground also holds four yurts.
Note: Water is not available at Dead Horse Point to fill up RVs. The water table is too low for a well so the park must truck it up every day. The closest town to fill up at is Moab.
Utah Lake State Park, Utah
Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.
Newly renovated facilities include four boat launch ramps, marina, boat slips, courtesy docks, modern restrooms, visitor center, showers, campsites, a fishing area for the physically challenged, and sewage disposal and fish cleaning stations.
The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups. The campground is located on the east side of the lake. All campsites are available for reservation on a four-month rolling basis.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Utah
Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. The park offers a wealth of technical routes for rock climbers and mountain biking. The park is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. There is also a pleasant picnic area.
On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.
The park includes a developed campground with RV sites and six with partial hookups.
However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.