Prime sites at bucket-list national parks are harder to score than Stones tickets—but there’s more than one way to book an awesome campground. In fact, there’s nine!

Matt Bean  – March 27, 2019

Yosemite’s best plots are booked in minutes. Yellowstone’s slammed through August. Bucket-list sites like Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch are accepting lottery entries for… May 2020?! When did campsite reservations become harder to score than Stones tickets?

Planning your camp season has always created a sense of paralysis-by-choice. Maybe you’ve wistfully procrastinated by fluffing up your sleeping bags or thought about patching your tents from last year. Why hurry? you asked yourself. There’s still snow blanketing most of the West.

But then reality sets in: In mid-March, Marie Javins, a Los Angeles–based comic-book editor, was hovering over her computer keyboard, trying to book a campsite at Yosemite—for August. “I booked instantly, but when I hit ‘add to cart,’ I got a notice that the sites were gone,” she said. “As I’d reload and start again, the sites were dwindling.” Finally, she locked one down—then posted on Facebook: “Sites opened at 7 a.m. and they were all gone within a minute.”

More Videos From Sunset

There’s no question that an improvement in digital booking services, an uptick in camping interest, and an overall wave of outdoors FOMO have contributed to make this season tougher than ever to plan.

Do the math and you’ll understand why: For the period of July 15 to August 15, the 400 or so best sites at Yosemite were released as block on March 15 (the day Javins booked), exactly five months ahead. That’s fewer than 15,000 potential bookings, many snagged for days or weeks each, all dropped en masse at 7 a.m. PDT.

Scarcity isn’t the only cause of agità: A lack of cohesion among state and national booking rules means there’s no hard-and-fast date to circle on your calendar for landing the perfect site.

Like Yosemite, many national parks and state-run campgrounds and parks operate on a rolling window, kicking off each morning around 7 a.m. But while Yosemite drops its month-long blocks of sites five months ahead, Washington State parks offer a day-by-day rolling window nine months in advance. Meanwhile, Yellowstone splits its sites between first-come park-run sites and others administered by a third-party concessioneer; the latter began accepting 2019 reservations in a bull-run format on May 1, 2018. To add a further wrinkle, a permit lottery system governs access to certain regions such as the Enchantments, east of Seattle; this went live February 15, 2019, and closed a month later.

If you’ve thrown up your hands, we can’t blame you. It takes a committed camper to be hunched over a computer at dawn in January 15, hoping to land a Memorial Day berth. So, is your season shot? Hardly. It’s never too late to make a plan. Fortunately for you, we’ve covered this ground (literally) for 120 years. Here are your options:

Option 1. Consider shoulder-season camping. Intrepid campers can score prime real estate in exchange for somewhat sub-prime weather. Many sites operate permit-free before Memorial Day, and right now you’re still in the window to score a legit reservation in late September to early October. You might just be rewarded by a glorious spring day or a warmer-than-expected fall weekend. Act fast, though: A spot check of national parks shows many weekdays and even the occasional walk-up weekend still available on reservation.gov.

Option 2. Play the rebound game. In some lotteries, unclaimed reservations are tossed back into a pool on a certain date. Enchantments, for example, has a rebound date on April 1, starting at 7 a.m. PDT. You’ll have to scour reservations pages for info on each site. 

Option 3. Play hooky. Camping for a single weekday isn’t great, but neither is sitting in an office. A quick scan of popular national and state parks reveals a smattering of one-day availabilities, particularly deeper into August. Savvy campers and flex-workers will combo these with a stay at a first-come site nearby.

Option 4. Go public. Public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management is fair game for camping, provided you follow leave-no-trace guidelines and are willing to pony up a small land use fee. Check out our list of BLM camping options, or surf the Public Lands Project map.

Option 5. Road trip! The further you push from the crush of humanity, the better your luck. We spot-checked our list of top sites in the West to find available options in May and June; at Cape Disappointment, for example, you’ll be delighted to find two-tent, four-person sites across a week’s stay.

Option 6. Gamble on the heavens. Certain sites, such as the concessioneer ones in Yellowstone, do not take reservations during opening week due to the unpredictability of the weather. That, combined with late openings due to wildlife activity (e.g., Grant Village opens June 9), makes opening week prime hunting ground for slackers. If you’re bold—and willing to settle for a backup, or have friends nearby—you can claim a site then if the weather looks favorable. Note: No reservations means no refunds—and no complaints if Mother Nature’s uncooperative.

Option 7. Go private. Hipcamp is our favorite site for booking private lands. With more than 300,000 sites available, the startup offers a diverse range of plots across the West. Search near a park as a backup and consider day-of upgrades, or find a choice site wherever and ditch the crowds. A spot check revealed one site on the edge of Yosemite still available for Memorial Day.

Option 8. Scout for cancellations. Be flexible (and not too far away), and you just might score a night or two, particularly midweek or during iffy weather. Check reservations.gov for more info.

Bonus: Play the lottery. While you’re doing the last-minute planning for this year, why not start thinking about next year? Some of the better bucket-list sites operate lotteries to offer campgrounds way in advance—Phantom Ranch collects entries for 15 months ahead. Why not give it a try? The worst that could happen is next year you find yourself booking last-minute—again. By then, though, you’ll be an expert.