After more than 40 years of camping, here are four realities I’ve learned when it comes to booking late in the season.
1. Plan a mid-week trip.
Your odds of finding an available campsite or cabin increase if you schedule your trip during weekdays.
2. Go private.
Privately owned campgrounds tend to be lesser known—and harder to find online—than campgrounds inside the most popular state or national parks. As a result, the latter campgrounds book up first, while privately owned campgrounds might still have vacancies. Many of these sites can serve as base camps to get you close to where you want to be. They also tend to have more amenities, which members of your camping party might appreciate. (Looking for a campground? Didn't plan ahead? You may be able to score a last-minute campsite at these 10 campgrounds.)
3. Just show up.
Not all campgrounds can be reserved online. For example, some Forest Service sites can't be booked online, particularly in the Sierra. These are available only on a first-come, first-served basis, and this means you might still have a chance of finding a scenic spot, such as around Rock Creek Lake or McGee Creek, even in summer. You pay for them the old-fashioned way—by putting a check or cash into a yellow envelope with your name, license number, and campsite number, and dropping it into a metal box near the campground entrance. A ranger or camp host will stop by at some point to verify payment. Keep in mind that most of these campgrounds have limited amenities. Check recreation.gov to see if any of these campgrounds are close to places you’d like to visit.
4. Book in advance of your trip.
According to the KOA-sponsored "2018 North American Camping Report," camping is getting more popular in the U.S. That means campgrounds will fill up earlier and earlier in the year. So next year, plan four to six months ahead of your vacation to create the camping trip of your dreams.
5. Check websites.
No single website lists every campground in California or any other state. But these five essential websites collectively can help you locate your perfect campsite.
- Recreation.gov is the “go-to” website for campgrounds and cabins managed by the National Park Service and other federal agencies.
- ReserveAmerica.com started as a reservations portal for government-run campgrounds, but in recent years it has broadened its mission to include privately owned campgrounds. It currently features campsites and cabins from more than 30 state and provincial park systems outside of California, as well as city and county park systems, plus campgrounds affiliated with the KOA and Good Sam networks, and campgrounds run by the National Park Service.
- ReserveCalifornia.com is the website for making reservations at campgrounds at California State Parks. The website allows you to make reservations up to six months in advance of your visit.
- Camp-California.com, a searchable web portal, provides links to approximately 300 mostly privately owned campgrounds, RV parks, and RV resorts, most of which do not show up on other websites. These parks typically have more amenities than government-run campgrounds, such as full utility hookups, swimming pools, laundry facilities, and WiFi. Many of them organize family activities and entertainment on weekends. Search for campgrounds by name, region, and city to find out if they have rental cabins. The “specialty” lodging search takes you to campgrounds with vintage RVs, furnished safari tents, yurts, and tepees. The site also provides road trip planning ideas and information on festivals and special events, along with a link to order the free ($5 for shipping) Camp California! The Camper’s Guide to California, which includes locator maps for each campground. A digital version is also available online.
- GoRVing.com has tips on everything you need to know about RVing, including a link to a database with nearly 3,000 mostly privately owned campgrounds across the U.S.
Jeff Crider is an avid camper and outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about camping and RVing in California and across the country for 25 years.
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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, please check to see if local authorities, hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, and restaurants are open and have issued health and safety-related entry requirements or restrictions. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.