When to Book a National Park Camping Trip This Summer

With temperatures rising and the days getting longer, it’s hard not to daydream about summery nights under the stars—particularly at an epic national park, if you can swing it.

In any other year, it can be highly competitive to nab a campsite in the middle of popular parks like Yosemite. Yet with national park visitation numbers still hitting record highs in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to plan ahead and book early—especially as several parks have added new rules in the wake of the coronavirus: Grand Teton just moved its entire campground reservations system online for the first time ever; Yosemite and Rocky Mountain have had on-again-off-again requirements for day-use permits; and Acadia will be implementing a new permit for driving up to Cadillac Mountain this summer.

All to say, if you want to camp at a national park, you’ve got to be serious about tracking important dates, including when they open for the season, when booking begins, and when the most popular campgrounds tend to book up. As a general rule of thumb, most sites become available six months in advance on Recreation.gov, with camping at the most visited parks selling out four to six months ahead of time. Of course, many parks set their own schedules—and, at some, nabbing the spot you want may mean sitting in front of your computer the day summer reservations become available. 

Here are the dates to pay attention to this summer, for camping at the country’s top parks. Remember to keep track of state travel restrictions and park guidelines, which are always subject to change, before heading out. 

Acadia National Park

Campgrounds typically open from May to October each year and can be reserved up to three months in advance. This year, Blackwoods is open May 7 to October 17 (bookings opened in early February), and Seawall and Schoodic Woods are open from May 26 to October 10 (bookings opened February 26).

For travelers who want the famous Cadillac Mountain sunrise experience, a reservation for day use is now required for visits during mid-June through October. Permits are not yet available online, but will be announced on the park’s official website.

Glacier National Park

Sites at Fish Creek and Many Glacier campgrounds are reservable online this year. On January 28, the park released all sites for these areas for visits through July 27. After that, campsites will become available six months prior to the date of arrival, with new spots being released every morning at 10 a.m. ET. (i.e. for a September 15 date, you could book starting March 15).

All other campgrounds within the park will operate on a first come, first served basis in 2021. St. Mary and Rising Sun Campgrounds will be closed.

Grand Canyon National Park

Looking to stay at the Phantom Ranch cottages at the bottom of the canyon? Year-round, the lottery for these spots opens 15 months in advance of the date of arrival (i.e. a March 2021 submission would be for a May 2022 stay).

As for Mather and North Rim Campgrounds, online reservations can be made up to six months in advance, with spots being available at 10 a.m. ET daily. North Rim is usually open from May 15 to October 31 each year, while Mather is year-round. Desert View is first come, first served only. At the privately run RV park, Trailer Village, reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park shifted all campground reservations to online-only in 2021. The new system launched on January 26, for stays through July 26. Reservations for the rest of the year will become available on a rolling basis, six months before the date of arrival.

As for backcountry permits, requests will be accepted from January 6 through May 15, 2021, for the summer season. The park will reserve one-third of these permits in advance and will retain two-thirds of the permits for day-before walk-ins.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Like many other popular parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows car and horse camping sites to be booked up to six months in advance, with sites becoming available daily at 10 a.m. ET. Group campgrounds can be reserved up to a year in advance. Most campgrounds first open sometime between early April and mid-May, with the season usually running until October 31.

This year, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Cosby, and Elkmont open April 2, Abrams Creek opens April 23, Balsam Mountain opens May 14, and Deep Creek opens May 21. Cades Cove and Smokemont are open year-round and can often accommodate last-minute bookings, even during the busy season.

From May 5 through September 1, 2021, the popular Cades Cove Road will be closed to vehicles on Wednesdays to allow more space for hikers and bikers.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Though the park intended to roll out online permit booking for wilderness camping on March 1, the website crashed, and Rocky Mountain announced that it will push back the start date for reservations to March 8 at 8 a.m. MT. (This is for requests to camp between May 1 and October 31.)

As for car camping, reservations can be made up to six months in advance, with Glacier Basin and Moraine Park’s summer season opening on May 27 (meaning that you’d want to log in on March 10 at 8 a.m. MT for a September 10 booking). Longs Peak and Timber Creek Campgrounds are first come, first served in the summer, as is Moraine Park during winter months.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone just announced that beginning March 24 at 8 a.m. MT, Mammoth, Slough Creek, and Pebble Creek campgrounds will be reservable online, for dates throughout the next six months, a first for the park-managed sites. (This means visitors should log in on March 24 for any booking before September 24.) Forty-one percent of the sites will be placed onto Recreation.gov, while the rest will remain first come, first served. Most are only open summer through fall, with the exception of Mammoth.

Many of the park’s other campgrounds are managed by Yellowstone National Park Lodges and can be reserved online starting a year in advance. On May 1, 2021, they will open reservations for the entire summer of 2022, as the 2021 spots for these privately managed campsites are already sold out. 

Yosemite National Park

Reservations for car camping at Yosemite can be tricky. Sites are made available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 a.m. PT (seriously, grab a notepad for this one). For example, on March 15, 2021, campground reservations for July 15 to August 14 will open up.

Can’t get a spot? Several of the park’s campgrounds, including 50 percent of famous Tuolumne Meadows, are first come, first served, and the park notes that these sites generally fill by noon during the summer.

In the event that you need to cancel your vacation plans, note that most of these parks are quite forgiving when it comes to issuing refunds. The real perk is that great sites occasionally come available last minute, when other travelers take advantage of that flexibility and cancel—so, even if you don’t snag that coveted Yosemite spot the day reservations open, it’s worth checking back regularly.

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