Camping in National Parks Questions

12:32 a.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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I'm planning a 4 to 6 month trip of the Western U.S. and Canada beginning next April. My plan is to travel at my own pace i.e., if I like a place I may stay several days or a couple of weeks. If not, I may move on the next day. I plan to do day hikes and backpacking some trails; loops or out and back that may be several days on the trail. As such, I will not have a definite agenda saying I will be at a certain place at a certain date.

Here are my questions... if staying in national parks camp grounds as a home base for my Jeep and teardrop trailer:

1) Will I have a hard time getting a campsite just showing up without a reservation?

2) Can you be gone from your vehicle for extended periods while on a park campsite?

If both of these items are a problem, what are some suggested alternatives.

Any information anyone can suggest is very much appreciated.

Thanks,

Hutch

1:13 a.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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It could be a problem getting campsites in many national parks without a reservation. In Yosemite you pretty much have to reserve a year ahead. Sequoia/Kings Canyon can be done on short notice, depending on the specific campground. Other western parks will be similar, with the more popular parks requiring a reservation well in advance.

Check out Great Basin NP in eastern NV, it is a beautiful park with no crowding. You should have no problem getting campsites there.

I don't know how long you could leave a vehicle unattended, but if you are paying for the campsite for the duration it shouldn't be a problem. Check with the park in question, some may have an issue with that.

11:04 a.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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Hi Hutch,

This sounds like a wonderful approach to exploring the wilderness, like you I don't like to be bound to a long term plan, although I am a detail oriented person. I enjoy the flexibility of changing my mind as I see fit in order to get the most out of my time in the outdoors.

My experience with National Parks has been that you may not be afforded that flexibility because you have to make plans & reservations well in advance, in many cases. I personally prefer Wilderness Areas & National Forests for that reason.

May I suggest you avail yourself of the information available on the NPS.GOV website:

http://www.nps.gov/index.htm

Once on the website, click on the tab at the top left which reads 'Find A Park'. You can search for a National Park by Name - Location - Activity - or Topic.

By doing this you can get specific information about any one of almost 400 National Parks. You will find rules & regulations, contact info, maps, places of interest, camping sites/ availability, and how to make reservations, and more.

Your questions are welcome on Trailspace, and many members have a great deal of experience in these areas. However, nothing beats getting the latest, accurate details, right from the source, to finalize your planning.

All the best to you.

1:56 p.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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One of the benefits of a long-term plan, especially on hikes where you'll phase in and out of back and front country settings, is that you'll be able to keep folks informed of your progress. I recently got married and it has changed my approach to the outdoors immensely. No longer can I simply disappear on a day hike or plan a weekend excursion with friends without having some sort of plan of where I'll be and when. This is as much for my wife's peace of mind (of which she gains little) as well as my own safety (of which I gain much). Theoretically, if I fail to check-in, she will more quickly know that something is amiss before I may be able to reach assistance. This is where the plan comes in. If a loved one knows to expect you at a certain place and time, then not being there can be a much quicker indicator of problems than crawling out of the woods days later injured.

Perhaps this isn't really aligned with your expectations, but I've learned to live by this rule well. It's good to keep a schedule and to have people who care about you keeping tabs on your progress.

9:14 p.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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...Western U.S. and Canada....

Here are my questions... if staying in national parks camp grounds as a home base for my Jeep and teardrop trailer:

1) Will I have a hard time getting a campsite just showing up without a reservation?

It depends strongly on the park. The western Canadian parks are more likely to have an open space, though April may be a bit early. The Banff area tends to be very crowded, though.

Some parks in the Western US, as others have mentioned, pretty much require a reservation on the day reservations are opened (usually 6 months before the date you want, not a year as one person stated, but you need speed dial to get through). Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier are the most crowded, though all 3 have campgrounds that are not super popular, and I have usually been able to just drive in and get a site except for the holiday weekends, IF I arrived at dawn at the gate midweek and took an unpopular campground. All 3 have US Forest Service campgrounds near the entrances that usually have sites available early in the day midweek (secret hint - go to the Tioga Pass side of Yosemite). Rocky Mountain is also extremely popular, though I have almost always gotten a campsite there midweek away from holidays. Do NOT, repeat DO NOT, drive in to one of these parks at midnight and pull off on the side of the road - the rangers will roust you at all hours of the night, give you a citation that has a big fine, and if you hassle back, arrest you.

Not all the parks have campgrounds suitable for even a tiny trailer or 5th wheel, or in some cases, even tent camping (except backpacking). But consider

2) Can you be gone from your vehicle for extended periods while on a park campsite?

If by "extended periods" you mean while backpacking, then a couple things you should know. First, you do have to have a backcountry permit in all parks where backpacking is permitted. Second, a certain percentage of the permits are reserved for walk-ins (50% in most parks). But be there before dawn, since the permits for the popular parks go quickly (I have actually driven up to the permit office at midnight and found I was about 10th in line, and a couple times, got the last permit (when solo, the last 3 once when there were 3 of us). Third, most parks have a "backpacker's parking lot" for extended absences, but you cannot park at your campsite and leave it unoccupied (some parks allow 24 hours of absence). Yosemite and Rocky Mountain have "backpacker's campgrounds" if you come in the night before and park in the "backpacker's parking lot" (don't even think about sneaking into the Yosemite one - the rangers check your backcountry permit. When I go to Yosemite for service projects or to give the "real climber" talks, I get assigned a site in the backpacker campground, but still get rousted (and guess what - the ranger comes to the talk or is at the service project table keeping count as well as looking at the official permission letter).

If both of these items are a problem, what are some suggested alternatives.

Any information anyone can suggest is very much appreciated.

Thanks,

Hutch

Best alternative is to reserve in advance (start keeping watch on the parks you want to visit NOW for next April), go to less popular parks (some of them are even more beautiful than the Famous Parks, especially since they are much less crowded), and use USFS campgrounds near the parks - but mainly (I know you don't want to hear this) avoid the Famous Popular Parks - the crowds from June through September are ugly, and Yosemite Valley is Smogsville during that time. Yosemite is even crowded in the Fall and often in the Spring as well.

But if you choose your parks and timing just right, you can see some fantastic scenery and have a great time (I like Ken Burns, but did he really have to make that series and run it on PBS? Now EVERYONE wants to go).

10:52 p.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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Thanks to all of you who have responded with advice. It sounds like I could have real problems without reservations which basically defeats my intent of not having a defined schedule. Perhaps the less well known parks and national forests are the best options. I will also try to get into the backpackers parking lots where possible. Since I'm not on a definite schedule I would have no problem arriving at a destination mid-week, improving the odds of getting a campsite or into the backpackers parking lot. I'm just not sure what to do if I drive all day to get to a destination and nothings available. Perhaps go to the nearest town and sack out in some parking lot if they permit. I'm a bit leery of highway rest stops for sleeping.

I want to make this happen. This is a bucket list desire and at 68 years of age I still have the health and fitness level to do it, but for how much longer before time or health issues catches up with me.

Thanks again!

Hutch

July 25, 2014
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