How to Camp in Busy National Parks in the Summer Without Reservations

How to Camp in Busy National Parks in the Summer Without Reservations

Competition for camping spots can be fierce in the summer. We have spent the last few months in Wyoming and Montana visiting the big three national parks in the area, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. These places have limited seasons, especially if like me you have a strong aversion to winter (I'm not that into fall either). Less than 65 degrees and I tend to start moaning. So for us, June through September is our window to visit these spots.

Of course that is exactly when America (and a good amount of the rest of the world) is on vacation too. We prefer to travel without reservations for several reasons. Primarily because we like spontaneity so booking something six months or more in advance is rare. This also means we can stay as long or as little as we want at each location depending on a the level of awesomeness on offer. No rigid plans also means it's easy to detour if we want to meet up with friends along the way. Another advantage is that we can pick a preferred camping spot when we get to our destination. We can choose the best view or the best spot for solar energy generation, all without having to rely solely on website photos which can often be out of date.

With all that in mind how have we fared this summer visiting these busy places with no reservations? So far so good. We've stayed in some pretty sweet places and haven't had to resort to expensive RV parks or Walmart parking lots as emergency back ups. These are the strategies we have employed:

Look for alternatives to National Park campgrounds

We found Yellowstone to be a little too busy for our taste and decided to visit it in small doses. We elected to camp some distance out of the park in a forest service campground. A benefit is they are often not as crowded and some are First Come First Served (see below). A potential disadvantage however is that you often have a long journey into the park. We prefer to beat the crowds and the addition of a long drive to get to the entrance meant some very early starts to the day for us.

Keep checking for cancellations

People do cancel all the time and sometimes you can get lucky by checking just at the right time. We scored a fiveday spot at Zion National Park with just a few days notice. We benefited from getting the spot without having to think many months ahead.

Boondocking

If it's available nearby this can be a great alternative. We stayed on National Forest land within a few miles of the Grand Teton National Park entrance and were rewarded with fabulous views. This is not easy with every park, either there are no public lands nearby or there are restrictions in place, e.g. Moab in Utah has restricted some of the camping on BLM land due to overcrowding. You can check with the local ranger station to see if there are any restrictions or to look at maps in their area. Campendium is also an excellent resource for finding boondocking spots.

Free camping near Grand Teton National Park

Free camping near Grand Teton National Park

First Come First Served (FCFS)

These have become my favorite four words in the English language, even more than All You Can Eat. I love FCFS for two reasons. First, they level the playing field and give everyone the chance to enjoy awesome camping. In addition, once you have a spot you are under no pressure to leave (within stay limits). If you love where you are camping you can stay without the concern of someone with a reservation rolling in to take your spot. Not all National Parks have FCFS, but the Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier all do.

Breathe in! - A tight squeeze at Two Medicine FCFS Campground

Breathe in! - A tight squeeze at Two Medicine FCFS Campground

Tips for FCFS Camping At Busy Times

It is pretty easy to get these sites in off-peak times and in non crowded areas, but summer in the busy National Parks require some forward planning. Normal weekend rules don't apply so turning up on a hopefully quieter weekday doesn't really work since most people are on vacation. At Glacier National Park we stayed at two FCFS campgrounds and only managed to secure spots by thinking ahead. Some tips we learned:

  • Do your research. Glacier have a great feature on their website where you can see at what time of day historically their FCFS campgrounds fill up. This gives you a good idea by day of the week or time of year when you'll need to get there. Not all places have this, but in this case, it helped us know what we were up against.
  • Get to the FCFS campground early. If you see a vacant spot - bingo. But because your there early the previous night occupants may not have left yet. In this case look for posts that have tags with today's date. If the occupants are out and about ask politely if they are indeed leaving. If the answer is yes, ask if it's OK to "tag their post". Fill in the payment slip and just add it to the post behind their tag. Etiquette - Ask if they are leaving ONLY if you see folks around. Don't knock on their door or get them out of bed. That would be high on the scale of being a jerk. After all, they may well be enjoying a vacation lie-in after a long hike the previous day.
  • Most people understand the competition for spots at busy times in popular places and are happy to help. You may have wait a few hours until the previous occupants leave but at least you know you have a spot. Second rule of etiquette - Don't hang around and watch them pack up. If someone did that to me I would take extra long to get myself outta there. 
  • If the guys aren't around then you could take your chances and leave a tag on their post but remember they may decide to extend their stay at the last minute so don't rely on them leaving. Another piece of etiquette - Don't tag lots of posts. If you end up taking a different spot, don't forget to remove the previous tags. We heard of a ranger throwing someone out of a campground after tagging five different spots while they decided which one they liked best. 
  • If you have company, you can divide and conquer. We were caravanning for a few weeks with our friends Lauri and Jase so were able to combine our forces. At Two Medicine campground they arrived before us and snagged us a spot. Technically this is frowned upon but we were only an hour behind them and would never have asked them to hold it all day. At Apgar we arrived together. We explored one loop while they explored another. We successfully found two adjacent spots.  
  • Finally, once you are settled in a spot, if you leave for the day make sure that it shows obvious signs of being occupied. We have a travel trailer so that's easy for us! But if you have a motorhome or van and take it out for the day, leave a few chairs or better still a sign making it obvious that the site is occupied. Don't just leave a coffee cup or a t-shirt hanging from a tree and expect it to be a clear signal that you are coming back.

Of course reservations can be great, especially if you just have a week or two's vacation and know your exact schedule, or if you are traveling where there is rarely nothing but reservable sites on offer such as the California Coast or Florida.  But for us freedom reigns! We would rather run the risk of a less than perfect spot, than have to keep to a schedule. So far our luck hasn't run out!

Pit Stop: Tamarack Brewing Company, Lakeside, MT

Pit Stop: Tamarack Brewing Company, Lakeside, MT

Campground Review: West Shore Campground, Lakeside, MT

Campground Review: West Shore Campground, Lakeside, MT