How to Secure a Last-Minute National Park Campground Reservation

RV ownership has soared in recent years, with statistics from 2021 showing a record high number of RVing households. With so many new RVers hitting the road, finding a campsite can feel daunting at times, especially for those looking to set off on a last-minute getaway to popular destinations. While planning a spur-of-the-moment camping trip might be more difficult, it’s still possible with a bit of crafty maneuvering and flexibility.

Here are some tips to help secure a coveted campsite, no matter how far in advance you book.

Boulder formations and a road with a sign that reads "Campground Full"
Campground full sign in Joshua Tree National Park

Securing a Spot at a National Park Campground

When planning an RV trip to a national park, you’ll want to start by visiting Recreation.gov—but here’s what to do if there are no available campsites.

Be Flexible With Your Travel Dates

Like anything in life, being flexible and adaptable is key. The more wiggle room you have with your travel dates and camping location, the more successful you’ll be at finding a place to stay. Understandably, many travelers are locked into set travel dates due to work and school schedules, but even when this is the case, start by asking yourself this question: What is the most important place or thing I want to see on this trip? Select one main point of interest and look for availability in the area surrounding that locale, then build the rest of your trip around that anchor point.

Split Time Between Multiple Campgrounds or Campsites

Sometimes a little finagling with arrival and departure dates is all you need to find a spot that works. Other times you may find that there’s simply nothing available for multiple nights in a row. If you take a weeklong trip and break it up into smaller 2- or 3-night stays at multiple campgrounds, you may have more success finding availability. In some cases, it’s possible to stay at the same campground but move sites during your trip. If you’re open to these options, you can often cobble together a plan that works for your family.

Check Back Often

If at first you don’t succeed, refresh your screen, then refresh again. Availability changes as people cancel and adjust their vacation plans, and if you’re diligent enough in checking the site, you may find a spot even if one wasn’t available during earlier searches.

Make sure you have already registered for an account on Recreation.gov, are logged in, and that all of your information, including a valid credit card, is up to date before you begin your online search.

View of a lake with mountains and woods in the background
Manzanita Lake Campground at Lassen Volcanic National Park. | Photo by: Nathan @ Wand’rly

Expand Your Search

If you’re hoping to visit Yellowstone National Park the week of Independence Day, finding a last-minute booking will likely prove challenging. But there may be other destinations you can visit that offer the same appeal with fewer crowds.

If geothermal features are your draw, look at camping at the less crowded Lassen Volcanic National Park, which also boasts mud pots, fumaroles, boiling pools, and steaming ground. Or if you’re hoping to spot wildlife, you’ll find bison aplenty at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Each U.S. national park offers something amazing to discover, so expanding your search may just help you secure that sought-after campground availability.

Grant Campground at Yellowstone National Park
Grant Campground at Yellowstone National Park. | Photo by: Travels With Luna

Other Ways to Stay 

Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Here are other ideas to keep in mind while mapping out the RV itinerary of your dreams.

Try a First-Come, First-Served Campground

Some national park campgrounds continue to operate without the option for advance reservations. If you’re willing to chance it, consider trying your luck at a first-come, first-served campground.

Book a Short Stay and Extend It

Last summer my family was able to secure only one night at Yellowstone’s Grant Village Campground. The morning we were scheduled to check out, we asked if there was room for us to extend our stay. This tactic paid off and we were granted a few additional nights. While this won’t always work, it never hurts to ask.

Whether you take your chances on a first-come, first-served site, or hope to extend your stay beyond your scheduled check-out date, remember that nothing is guaranteed. Always make sure you have a backup plan in place, and check Campendium for other camping options in the area.

Consider Public Lands and Privately-Owned Campgrounds

Though availability at privately-owned campgrounds near national parks can also be scarce, this may prove a viable alternative to staying inside the park. If you’re willing to embrace a longer drive, look for campsites farther from your destination for even more results. Dry camping-approved BLM and other public lands are also an option for those willing and able to go off-road in search of farther-flung spots to park.

Head for a State or City Park Instead

If a national park stay remains out of reach, consider state and city park campgrounds. Many provide access to outdoor adventures and stunning sights that aren’t as well-traveled, and bookings at these sites are often easier to secure on short notice.

Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court at Banff National Park
Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court at Banff National Park. | Photo by: ketah777

Go North

When thinking of national parks, you may only be considering options in the U.S. But, with borders between the U.S. and Canada open, the option to head farther north is an increasingly appealing one. Canada boasts 48 national parks, giving you even more routes to consider.