Winter Can Be a Great Season to Explore National Parks

Don’t wait until summertime to explore these National Parks

Even the best preparations and the most insulated RV may not be enough to survive harsh winter conditions. Anything can happen and anyone hell-bent to visit a remote destination in cold weather will do well to follow a few common sense winter RV camping guidelines.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why go RVing to National Parks in winter?

Summer is by far the best and easiest time to learn how to go RVing to National Park Service (NPS) sites. Whether you travel in a motorhome coach or a teardrop trailer, as long as you pack a little food, adequate water, and your favorite creature comforts, even the most novice RVers have everything needed for a successful visit. But all this easy camping comes at a cost—less campsite availability, crowded facilities and trails, road traffic, and an ongoing din of humanity.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter RVing to national parks is an entirely different experience. Visitors brave enough to set up camp during colder days and even chillier nights are treated to an authentic experience with scarce crowds, more wildlife, and maximum solitude. It’s worth the effort but just don’t go in with that same laid-back approach you might take during summer. Winter RV camping in national parks requires more prep work and common sense—especially when heading to isolated destinations without cellular coverage. 

During any given winter, about 38 NPS sites have campgrounds that stay open for off-season RV camping. If you think you’re up to the challenge of winter RV camping in national parks, here’s what you need to know to make the most of the experience.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dos and don’ts of winter RV camping in National Parks

It doesn’t matter what type of RV you drive, the same basic winter camping rules apply to anyone heading to a NPS destination.

DO keep an eye on the weather: Having a roof over your head at night can give you a false sense of security when you’re RV camping. Our cozy homes on wheels make it easy to forget that chilly weather is about more than wearing bulky layers of clothing. Winter storms and cold winter weather generates a host of problems specific to RVs like frozen plumbing lines and bitter cold blowing through slide-out openings.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if you are lucky enough to have an electrical hookup at a campground, cold-weather RV challenges still happen. Don’t go into a national park RV destination without keeping a close tab on the short and long-term forecast. And if your camping destination lacks internet, take a daily walk to find the latest forecast posted at the entrance kiosk. Don’t let the weather surprise you and be ready for anything.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DON’T expect camping conveniences: Many national parks with winter RV camping technically are open but that doesn’t mean the usual camper services will be available. In most cases, essential facilities like RV dump stations, bathrooms, water spigots, and campsite utility hookups (where available) get shut off before the first hard freeze. Conveniences like camp stores and even gas stations may also be closed. Amenities like visitor centers and laundromats are likely to be shut down too. Come with all the food and provisions you need and check the park’s website to see what’s open before heading out.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DO arrive with camping essentials and working RV systems: Don’t leave home without allowing enough time to conduct a thorough check on your rig such as checking your RV propane levels and fuel reserves. Verify that your solar electric power system and generator work as expected and get your RV engine fully inspected and ready to roll on good tires. That way if sudden, severe weather moves in and you need to depart, your RV has everything it takes to roll away without issues.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DON’T forget to bring cold-weather RVing gear: The downside of cold-weather RVing in national parks is the need to carry bulky items to keep you and your RV warm. The upside is that if ominous weather is on the horizon, you’ll be ready for anything. Essential cold-weather RVing gear includes things like:

  • Pre-cut squares of Reflectix foil insulation to keep cold air from seeping through windows, ceiling vents, and other drafty areas
  • Heated water hose (or water hose heat tape or a length of foam insulation hose to wrap around your water hose and prevent freezing)
  • Full tank of fresh water in case hookups are shut off for the season
  • Adequate battery jump system strong enough to start your RV
  • Cold-weather clothing and footwear for you and your dog if you travel with one
Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t let all of this preparation scare you. Cold weather camping in national parks can be a blast if you’re fully prepared. Create a thorough RV travel plan filled with contingencies for alternative places to camp, fuel up, and find groceries. Let people know where you are headed and when you’ll return. Do all that and you’ll be well-prepared for anything that might happen.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks open for winter RV camping

Searching for the best winter RV camping national park destination with cold, sometimes snowy weather? Here’s an abbreviated list of national parks with at least one campground open for winter RV camping. 

Note that in several of the following parks (Big Bend, Pinnacles, and Organ Pipe Cactus, for example) you can expect warmer weather and will not require the above cold weather preparation.

Keep in mind that campground status can change depending on weather.

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Reclaim the richness of the moment

During this first month of the New Year, do you hear the open road calling? Are you reading RVingwithrex.com’s travel blogs wistfully thinking of your next road trip? Or are you out and about in your RV now, looking to add to your adventures? 

Many people prefer to have a plan. It’s just human nature. The planning could involve the number of hours you log on the road each day (330 Rule), atlases and apps that enhance your journey, podcasts to pass the time, easy campsite recipes, events, and bucket list destinations.

My suggestion: Make a plan, however extensive or simple it is and go for it. I hope the information that follows provides you with some inspiration to do so.

Travel…be free…in 2023!

A recent survey has found that 37 percent of American leisure travelers representing 67 million plan on taking an RV trip this year, according to a News & Insights report by the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

When planning a road trip be aware of low underpasses and tunnels © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know before you go

RVing with Rex provides an RV Checklist for RVers to use as they start planning their upcoming adventures. The RV Checklist is a valuable tool you can use to help prevent setbacks and costly repairs while ensuring your next RV trip starts with a smooth ride.

Check out my arrival and departure checklist here

Road tripping on Utah Scenic Highway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a road trip

There are a variety of tools you can use to plan your next road trip. However, the preparation can be a little more challenging when you travel in an RV. You face obstacles other drivers don’t such as locating large enough fuel stations, nearby campsites, water, and electric hookups, and avoiding low-clearances bridges and tunnels. I have found some of the top RV road trip apps to help you select the best ones for you:

  • RV Life Pro is a platform/app designed by RVers that gives you info about campgrounds and RV parks including reviews plus tips and suggestions for your next destination. It also provides an RV-safe GPS for navigating allowing you to add the height and weight of your RV. Quickly access your planned trips and get GPS directions to the next stop.
  • Roadtrippers Plus lets you create and edit a road trip, estimate your fuel costs, and indicate cool points of interest for your journey. If you prefer, choose from premade road trip itineraries. Live traffic updates are available as well as hotel bookings if you need a night away from the RV.
  • Campspot lists top-rated camping destinations available for online booking in North America. Discover campgrounds big and small, RV parks, glamping, cabins, and lodging. Book all listed campgrounds on the app instantly—no membership fee is required.
  • The Dyrt Pro features predesigned road trip maps and the ability to unlock discounts. This app includes offline maps and cell-service maps and it allows you to contact campgrounds and to ask other members for reviews. Many features are free but it is not accessible in Canada at this time.
Cave Creek Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Folks who do not enjoy the process of planning trips and booking campgrounds might consider another idea: an RV travel agent. This may be an attractive option for RVers who just want to travel with no fuss and no stress, and enjoy things as they come. However intriguing as that may sound, this obviously would be more expensive than the do-it-yourself option. Also, make sure your travel agent has the skills to book campsites and to plan an RV itinerary—and knows the difference between campsites, RV parks, and resorts as well as your preferences in that regard.

Lost Dutchman State Park campground, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Difference between RV parks, campgrounds, and RV resorts

Asking what the difference is between RV parks, RV campgrounds, and RV resorts is a bit like asking the difference between a condo, a cabin, and a mansion. Think about it. They’ll all give you a place to stay. But, similar to the types of houses, the RV park, campground, and resort all offer different amenities. 

Portland Fairview RV Park, Portland, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV parks are generally located either in town or just outside of town proper. Their pricing can range anywhere from $35 a night to $70 a night. Many RV parks also participate in discounted camping programs such as Passport America or Good Sam making their nightly rates even cheaper.  Many will also offer weekly and monthly rates upon request. Typically RV parks will have full hook-ups at most sites but some will offer dry camping for a reduced cost to you. Most will have laundry facilities on site, Wi-Fi available (but often sketchy), along with showers and restrooms. 

Lake Osprey RV Resort, Elberta, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds are located in places of scenic beauty such as a national park, state park, county park, or regional park. Being located in nature-surrounded areas you’ll usually have more space between sites than you would in a typical RV park. Most campgrounds have shower facilities and restrooms and electric and/or water hookups. Typically, the utilities do not include sewer at your site. In most cases, a dump station is available. Most campgrounds have hiking and biking trails right outside your door.

Vista del Sol RV Resort, Bullhead City, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want it all?  Including the cell service, the WIFI, the nature trails, the full hook-ups, the privacy, and the space? RV resorts can give you that and more. With prices ranging anywhere from affordable to well over $100/night, usually you get more if you pay more. Some RV resorts are truly lavish in their resort style. From hot tubs to swimming pools to private dinner clubs and massage therapists, you can get it all. A word of caution: Some RV parks are billed as RV resorts when truly they are your typical RV park maybe with a tree or two more in between spaces.

Road tripping on Newfound Gap Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

330 Rule of RVing

While the excitement of picking your next RV destination may be at the forefront of your 2023 plans, it’s also important to consider how you’ll stay safe while on the road. Even if every second of your itinerary is perfectly calculated, you still want to keep safety in mind so you can enjoy every minute of your trip. Try using the 330 Rule while driving. This rule contains two pieces of advice to make traveling by RV more comfortable and to help keep you focused: Stop when you have driven 330 miles or its 3:30 in the afternoon.

Road tripping from Flagstaff to Page, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To a seasoned traveler, 330 miles per day may not seem that long, but driving, especially on long stretches of highway, can be very tiring, no matter how comfortable you are. Since trailers and motorhomes are larger vehicles more focus and caution are needed to operate them which can lead to fatigue as well. It’s also a good idea to reach your destination before 3:30 p.m. as most RV parks still have working attendants at this time and you will have plenty of daylight to set up camp. And because exploring your destination can take some time, consider staying several days to allow time to enjoy the place you are at while taking time to refresh.

Keeping these rules in mind can help you have a successful 2023 travel season!

Worth Pondering…

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

—Jon Kabat-Zinn

Most Scenic Campgrounds from Coast to Coast

There are tens of thousands of campsites across America, though not all offer breathtaking scenery. Many aren’t much more than a little dusty patch of earth. Some, however, offer campers spectacular vistas like these scenic campgrounds.

From Atlantic to Pacific, the US abounds with breathtaking scenery—and what better way to explore America’s beauty than an RV camping trip?

Sage Creek Campground at Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many parks have distinct, built-up camping grounds to choose from with running water and electricity for RV parking (great for road trips), more experienced outdoors people can also find plenty of locations for backcountry camping where they can really rough it. Sleeping under the stars renews the spirit, and pitching a tent is a budget-friendly alternative to expensive.

Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a look at some of the amazing campsites, and don’t forget to bring your sense of adventure—and your camera.

Sage Creek Campground at Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sage Creek Campground at Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Don’t underestimate the beauty of the Badlands. Between the many rock formations you’ll see there, you’ll also find prairies and places to peak at ancient fossils. There are two choices of campgrounds: Cedar Pass (with amenities like running water and electricity) and Sage Creek (with no running water but you can often see bison wandering around).

Sage Creek Campground at Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A stay at this primitive campground offers an authentic experience of the vast Badlands. Visitors can observe bison roaming the park’s prairie landscape, which abounds with colorful buttes formed from layers of sediment.

Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park in Utah

Arches only has one campground, The Devils Garden, which has 50 campsites, but there are numerous other places to camp nearby in the Moab area.

Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Devils Garden Campground, visitors spend the night among the natural sandstone formations of Arches National Park. During the day, they can hike through the desert landscape, admiring the flowering cacti and juniper trees.

One of the most popular trails, the Delicate Arch Trail, takes you on an amazing hike full of photo opportunities.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground at Hunting Island State Park in 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 pristine beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon and ocean inlet, and a 100-site campground are all part of the park’s natural allure.

Each camping site offers water and 20/30/50-amp electric service. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; other up to 28 feet.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground at Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina

Edisto Beach on Edisto Island is one of four oceanfront state parks in South Carolina. Edisto Beach State Park features trails for hiking and biking that provide a wonderful tour of the park. The park’s environmental education center is a “green” building with exhibits that highlight the natural history of Edisto Island and the surrounding ACE Basin.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping with water and electrical hookups is available ocean-side or near the salt marsh. Several sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. Each campground is convenient to restrooms with hot showers.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground at Gulf State Park in Alabama

Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls, and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 1.5 miles from the white sand beaches, Gulf State Park Campground offers 496 improved full-hookup campsites with paved pads and with 11 primitive sites. Tents are welcome on all sites. 

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground at Laura S. Walker State Park in Georgia

Located near the northern edge of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to many fascinating creatures and plants, including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants. Walking or biking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls and great blue herons. The park’s lake offers opportunities for fishing, swimming and boating

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has 64 camping sites; 44 sites offer electric utilities and accommodate RVs up to 40 feet.

Worth Pondering…

Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

—Ray Bradbury

Choose Your National Park Campground Carefully

How to find a suitable camping site in a National Park?

The rustic accommodations of national park campsites get us closer to nature than private campgrounds outside the park. But opting for that primitive experience often puts RVers in the middle of that classic Goldilocks conundrum.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Without good planning, you just don’t know if a campground can accommodate your home on wheels. If you can count the number of times you have spent an entire afternoon jumping from one site to another, trying to find one that fits, you’re not alone.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the owner of a 38-foot motorhome, I’m somewhat envious of truck campers, camping vans, and small motorhomes able to tuck themselves in a cozy gem of a campsite that could never accommodate our rig. The truth is, bigger is not better when it comes to RVing in national parks. The smaller your rig, the more campsite choices you have, including some amazing backcountry campsites where large rigs could never tread.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona/Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many owners of RVs larger than ours are successful at squeezing into the pint-sized campsites at national parks, but we prefer to avoid being the afternoon entertainment when we arrive somewhere. 

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best RV type for national parks is a unit that’s 30-feet or less including the toad (or tow) vehicle. The short, narrow parking sites in most national park campgrounds make navigation difficult in anything larger. That’s not to say your 40-foot motorhome won’t ever be able to camp in national parks, it just means that you’ll need to work harder to find a suitable campsite.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to find the best national park campsite for your RV

If you’re one of America’s nine million RV owners and desire a national park experience, reserve a spot as far in advance as possible at Recreation.gov. Wherever you roam in the national park system, the RV-friendly spots are always the first to go. Spontaneous travel offers some amazing benefits, but showing up at a national park’s campground without a reservation is a recipe for disappointment.

From Joshua Tree to Arches and beyond, planning pays off for national park RV camping and it’s easier when you know the answers to these questions:

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort, Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Will the campground accommodate my needs?

If your RV is self-contained with holding tanks, toilet facilities, and perhaps solar panels, you can go just about anywhere. But if you’re in a more basic rig without them, a designated campground with water and bathroom facilities is pretty much a necessity. And if you rely on generator power, you’ll need a campground that allows their use. Not all do in the national park system, so always verify that the one you want to visit has generator hours and other creature comforts you desire.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the length of my RV?

Don’t rely on the RV manufacturer’s sticker to tell you the length of your rig. That number usually only factors in the interior length dimension of the RV rather than the exterior measurement from front to back bumper. Your toad, or tow vehicle, adds additional length that impacts where you can camp.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To find out your actual length, measure your RV. You want to know the total number of feet for your RV and secondary vehicle, if any. Measure from the front bumper of the first vehicle to the back bumper of the second one. If you have bicycles or a cargo box hitched to the rear, add those in too. Also measure the height from the highest point on your roof, and total width with slides extended, if applicable. Many campsites have thick tree canopies with limited clearance for high profile vehicles.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the maximum RV length for the campsite I want?

You’ll see that number for every campsite on Recreation.gov, but it only refers to the vehicle being parked at the site. You may or may not be able to fit a second vehicle on the parking site. Before reserving a spot, contact the park to get a better idea of the campground’s ease of use for an RV like yours.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do parking hazards exist?

Even when site dimensions look acceptable, natural obstacles may prevent you from maneuvering into the site. If there’s any question about fitting into a site, look carefully at Recreation.gov photos or download a Google Earth map to confirm that you can navigate that space without scraping a tree or boulder.

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re already at the campground, observe and note if the rig’s back end will hang over the parking site or encroach on your neighbor’s landscaping.

Many RVers will say that a small rig is best for one location while super-sized RV owners may say they don’t have a problem accessing that same spot. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Worth Pondering…

Our wish to you is this: drive a little slower, take the backroads sometimes, and stay a little longer. Enjoy, learn, relax, and then…plan your next RV journey.

National Park Campgrounds by the Numbers

How limited are your choices for camping in the National Parks?

As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we’ll keep posting articles to help you navigate the state of RV travel as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it’s safe to get back on the road again.

How many front-country 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.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service, at the end of 2018 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, according to the Park Service. 

Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 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.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many other parks that are highly desirable with campers 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.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, if you’re looking for an RV campsite you’re choices are even more limited.

And some parks don’t have any front-country campsites: Saguaro, Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, and Cuyahoga Valley national parks all fall in that category.  

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the Park Service, the variety of available campground facilities and amenities is extremely broad from primitive, unstaffed backcountry campsites to campgrounds that provide hot showers or can accommodate 25-foot recreational vehicles. Campgrounds are also managed through multiple models; some campgrounds are operated by the Park Service, some by concessioners, and a few by other partners.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amenities at campgrounds in the National Park System include:

  • 1,015 comfort stations at 346 campgrounds
  • 12,730 tent pads at 485 campgrounds
  • 8,585 RV pads
  • 426 campgrounds with water stations
  • 130 campgrounds with year-round hot showers
  • 1,889 campsites at 36 campgrounds with electrical hook ups
  • 130 campgrounds with dumping stations
  • 33 campgrounds with Wi-Fi
  • 60 amphitheaters at 55 campgrounds
  • 3,534 fire rings at 556 campgrounds
  • 14 camp stores at 11 parks
Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of the 1,421 campgrounds in the park system, 1,340 were managed by Park Service and 81 were managed through concessions contracts.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the Park Service, these were the top 10 campgrounds in terms of occupancy:

1. Mather Campground, Grand Canyon National Park: 154,069 campers

2. Upper Pines, Yosemite National Park: 128,113 campers

3. Watchman Campground, Zion National Park: 92,231 campers.

4. Moraine Park Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park: 53,795 campers

5. Assateague Island National Seashore Campground: 51,035 campers

6. Fort Pickens Campground, Gulf Islands National Seashore: 47,708 campers

7. Pinnacles Campground, Pinnacles National Park: 44,382 campers

8. Blackwoods Campground, Acadia National Park: 44,289 campers

9. Point Reyes National Seashore Campground: 43,918 campers

10. Hodgdon Meadow Campground, Yosemite National Park: 43,440 campers

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Knowing all those numbers, how would you manage the parks and their front-country campgrounds? Would you call for more campgrounds/campsites to be carved into the parks? Would you add more campgrounds/sites to the busiest parks, or would you put campgrounds in those parks that don’t have any campgrounds? Would you leave things as they are and suggest those who can’t land a reservation look to nearby national forests or other public lands’ campgrounds?

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson