Camping in the National Parks is a great way to experience the best of America. Defined as a reserve for the preservation of the natural land, the Parks are islands of wilderness. The best way to see the National Parks is by staying in one of the many campgrounds. From the campgrounds, you get a sense of what the land is really like.
What is there to DO at a National Park Campground? Well, in the evenings there are Ranger led campfire talks, where you can hear stories about the National Park’s history, or about bears and birds. You can meet people from all over the world, and make friends for life (or at least until you pull out). You are right in the thick of things, many campgrounds are close to the best parts of the park, which means you can leave your gear at the site, and wander.
But why stay in a campground when there are perfectly good lodges? Why on earth would you want to fight bugs and dirt? Simple… the golden moments… Like when you are the first one up, and you can watch the early morning sun on the still water of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park….. Or watching the kids compare notes and ranger pins with the kids they met from another state….How about watching everyone else leave the park, and you get to sit around a campfire with your family in the same place that Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Ansel Adams stayed…
Looking for a Vacation filled with memories? Try camping at one of our National Parks.
National Park Camping Tips
1) If you plan to visit a few Parks, get a National Park Pass. It’s better than paying for admission every day, and it’s nice to support the parks.
2) Many National Parks won’t allow RV’s over 27 feet long. Double Check BEFORE you pull up to the gate.
3) Bring your own FOOD… it’s expensive in the Park.
4) Pay attention to the Bear warnings and LOCK UP your food in the Bear Lockers. Just do.
5) Bring a camp stove or grill… makes cooking easier.
6) Be flexible, be patient. Lots of people want to have the experience of a lifetime, and most of them are going to be standing right in front of you. Relax… it’s a vacation.
Campground Reservations- National Parks
The National Parks all have campgrounds…. some have several (depending on how big the park is). It’s a good idea to make reservations ahead of time for sites, especially if you are traveling at the height of the summer season.
Using online links, you can choose dates, campgrounds and even individual camp sites!
Be aware, bookings are done starting on December 1 of the year before the summer you plan to travel. Which means…. if you want to go in July 2015, you can start booking in December 2014.
National Park Reservations Links
There is no direct link to a centralized campground reservation site. Each National Park has a separate portal.
To get to each park quickly and efficiently, go to the National Park Service website.. and under Activity, choose CAMPING.
It will bring up an alphabetical list of all Parks… it will also show a Map.
You can make your reservations at each Park from there.
Don’t panic if you haven’t already booked!
The Parks have LOADS of campsites. Be aware though, the more popular the park, the quicker things fill up. Don’t expect to pull up to Yellowstone on a Saturday in July and think you will get a wonder space. It won’t happen. Yellowstone fills up. Book in advance. Other parks like Lassen may have more last minute space availible.
If you have a route that you want to stick to, and you are on a time limit, start your planning early, get the reservations booked and travel with the peace of mind that comes from knowing your spot is waiting for you.
My National Park Camping experience has been limited to the Western Half of the US (so far)… But here is a list of my favorite National Park Campgrounds (and my impressions of some others).
Glacier National Park, Montana– Fish Creek Campground Fish Creek Campground is fantastic. We camped in loop C, which means NO GENERATORS (the silence was lovely). Our site was along Lake McDonald, which meant we saw wildlife, and the kids could play in the water without making a trek. People do love the Apgar Campground, it’s got loads of amenitites….
Zion National Park, Utah– Watchman Campground This part of Zion is a desert, but the Virgin River runs along the campground, so try to reserve early and get a spot by the river. This campground is near the visitor center AND (most important in Zion) near the shuttle stop. Forget driving in Zion, the shuttle goes everywhere, and you don’t have to park.
Lassen National Park, California– Manzanita Lake Campground I prefer camping outside of Lassen, but this campground inside the park is quite good. If you’ve never been to Lassen, GO! It is uncrowded and unspoiled by traffic jams. And the sulpher pots from the volcano are fun for kids (stinky!!)
Sequioa Kings Canyon National Park, California – Sentinel Campground If you want to camp near the BIG Trees, this is the spot. Everything is close enough to reach on foot, so park your gear, and walk.
Yosemite National Park, California– Bridal Veil Falls Campground The thing about Yosemite is that it is CROWDED.. all the time. Everyone wants to get into the valley, and it sells out FAST. Bridal Veil Falls is above the Valley, near Glacier Point. Sadly, there are no reservations for the regular sites, but you can reserve group sites.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming– Norris Campground There are no two ways about it… Yellowstone is crowded. I’ve been in actual traffic jam ups that go on for miles (some caused by people slowing to look at Buffalo, others caused by actual Buffalo). A central campground means everything is relatively within reach. And there are trees… I love trees.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon– Mazama Village Campground Now… I love Crater Lake, but the campground is not so great. It’s several miles from the lake… which means a bike ride or drive. The campground itself has a view of nothing, and is pretty much a row of sites in some trees.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah– Sunset Campground Is my favorite, only because it is closer to the best hiking Trails in Bryce Canyon. If you can’t get reservations here… try the North Campground.
North Rim Grand Canyon, Arizona– North Rim Campground has campsites right on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Oh my. If you are traveling with small children, it can be worrying, as the Grand Canyon does not have a guard rail or safety nets….But the beauty is astonishing. I prefer the wooded North Rim to the South Rim.
National Park Rangers
National Park Rangers are a fabulous resource. Just visiting the National Parks and seeing the wonders is one thing… but to actually LEARN something from the people who know all about the Park, who live and work there, is like the whipped cream on the cake.
Most evenings the National Park Campgrounds will host a Ranger led campfire and the Rangers will give a talk on a given subject…. some nights it’s about trees, or birds, other nights a bit of history. Do attend.
Ranger led hikes can be very informative. They point out the features that you might ordinarily pass by. We took a fantastic Ranger led walk along the rim of Bryce Canyon… he explained all about hoo doos and how they were formed, gave us a bit of native legend, and told us which plants were used for medicines. Great stuff.
Encourage your Kids to participate in the Junior Ranger Program. At any Ranger station, you can get or buy a pamphlet loaded with activities. Some are simple, like word searches, others are more time consuming, like a hike or plant identification. Either way, your kids become more involved in the Parks. When it’s complete, the kids go back to the ranger, and get sworn in as a Junior Ranger! My kids have collected badges from every park and National Monument that we’ve visited. They love to compare their accomplishments to other kids they meet.