If you’ve ever considered camping in one of the most popular national parks in the United States, the process might be daunting. Many of the boldfaced names like Yellowstone or Yosemite have many camping spots within the park itself, but the spots that require reservations often are booked out months — or even a year — ahead of time. For others, camping is only allowed during certain months of the year, and there are other regulations to consider. So how does someone go about planning a camping trip in a park that’s part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) system? We have gathered some of the best ways to nab a coveted spot at 10 of the most-visited parks, as well as other useful information you might want to know before sleeping under the stars in some of the country’s most jaw-dropping scenic locations.
Yosemite National Park, CA
Home to ancient trees, granite rock walls that call to rock climbers, and the famous Bridalveil Fall, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Yosemite National Park. But as one of the most-visited U.S. national parks annually, getting a camping spot can be difficult. Normally, only roughly half of the 13 campgrounds in the park take reservations, although that can change. Be sure to check the Yosemite camping page on the NPS website for updates on which campgrounds are open for the season and whether a reservation is required.
Number of campgrounds: 13, of which 7 take reservations. The remainder are first-come, first-served.
Types of campsites : RV campsites, horse campsites, tent campsites
Dates of availability: This varies each year due to snow, forest fires, and other conditions. Some are open from the end of May until mid-October, while others are only open from mid-July until mid-September.
How early can I make a reservation?: You can reserve up to 5 months in advance. Reservations for new months open at 7 am Pacific Time on the 15th of each month. Spaces at Camp 4 are available one day in advance via a lottery system.
Top tip: Reservations can fill up for the season just seconds after being made available each month. To give yourself a fighting chance to snag a campsite, be sure you have the time correct if you are in a time zone other than Pacific, and begin the first steps of the reservation process before 7 am.
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Another of the heavy hitters in the NPS system, Yellowstone National Park offers 12 campgrounds to choose from with about 2,000 campsites. Five of them are managed by the Yellowstone National Park Lodges, and the other seven by the National Park Service. Keep in mind that only eight out of the 12 campgrounds take reservations, so you will have to be sure to frequently check the occupancy status if you want to camp in one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds. Yellowstone also offers backcountry campsites, but you do need a permit. Due to the weather and snow, these campsites may be difficult to reach before July and after mid-September and could require fording rivers.
Number of campgrounds: 12, plus backcountry campsites
Types of campsites: RV, tent, backcountry
Dates of availability: Generally, mid-May until mid-September depending on weather conditions. Mammoth Campground is open year-round.
How early can I make a reservation?: For backcountry sites, permits can be bought 2 days beforehand. Prior to that, you can make an advanced backcountry reservation.
Top tip: Check campground statuses on the NPS website, where you can see up-to-date information about which ones have campsites available.
Olympic National Park, WA
Situated on a peninsula between Seattle and the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park is easily accessible. It is also a diverse national park, featuring rainforest, snow-covered mountains, and ocean coastline. There are at least 14 campgrounds in the sprawling park, but only three of them take advance reservations during the most-popular summer months. There are also backcountry camping options in the park if you want to stay somewhere a bit more secluded.
Number of campgrounds: 14, plus backcountry options
Types of campsites: RV, tent, primitive, backcountry
Dates of availability: Most campgrounds are year-round; others are open from June or July through October or November.
How early can I make a reservation?: Most campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Kalaloch, Mora and Sol Duc campgrounds accept reservations up to 6 months in advance for the peak season of May 26 to September 15.
Top tip: Book a campsite with views of the Pacific Ocean at Kalaloch campground, or arrive early to get a spot at South Beach campground, which has ocean access.
Glacier National Park, MT
Known for its hundreds of miles of hiking trails (700 to be exact!), the expanse of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is a nature-lovers paradise. There are mountains to explore and scenic hikes like the one to Hidden Lake. Plus, you might spot some of the wildlife that calls the park home, including mountain goats, black bears and grizzly bears, and mountain lions. There are 13 campgrounds in the park that operate fully during the summer months, after which many go into “primitive” status with no water or utilities; some are also available for camping during the winter months. Keep in mind that only two of the campgrounds take reservations, and the rest are first-come, first-served, and can fill up quickly. And no matter what your plans are in the park, be sure to take a drive on Going to the Sun Road!
Number of campgrounds: 13
Types of campsites: Tent, backcountry, RV, trailer
Dates of availability: Generally from May or June to sometime in September for campgrounds with water, bathroom facilities and utilities. Some are open during the summer and beyond under primitive status.
How early can I make a reservation?: Up to 6 months prior to arrival for Fish Creek, St. Mary, and Many Glacier campgrounds.
Top tip: There is a lot of wildlife in the park, including grizzly bears, so it’s important to properly store any food or other items with a strong odor, including cooking equipment. The NPS recommends storing these items in a vehicle or solid camping unit, using an NPS-designated suspended food hanging device or storage locker, or securing items in a bear-resistant container.
Acadia National Park, ME
Jutting into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Acadia National Park offers campers both granite peaks and scenic views of the water. You’ll find just three campgrounds in the park, plus the primitive Duck Harbor Campground that’s located on the Isle au Haut and accessible only by mailboat (see below). Backcountry camping or car camping outside of campsites are not allowed. You can start camping in the park starting in the first week of May, with more campgrounds opening later in the month.
Number of campgrounds: 4, including the primitive sites on Isle au Haut
Types of campsites: RV, tent, group
Dates of availability: Early May until mid-October, depending on weather conditions.
How early can I make a reservation?: Up to 2 months in advance for Seawall, Blackwoods and Schoodic Woods. You must also make an advance reservation for the 5 primitive campsites of Duck Harbor.
Top tip: If you plan well, you can catch the mailboat to Isle au Haut and camp at Duck Harbor Campground. Be sure to check the schedule and reserve a spot on the boat, which travels from Stonington to the island from mid-June to late September.
Zion National Park, UT
Home to stunning red rocks and magnificent canyons – including Zion Canyon – camping beneath the stars in Zion National Park is a dream to many. However, with just two campgrounds within the park and one just outside it, getting a campsite here requires planning ahead. There are two campgrounds in Zion Canyon accommodating everything from tents to fifth-wheel campers. You will need to book anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months ahead of time, depending on the regulations of the individual campground and when new days for booking are released. There is also the Lava Point Campground that is roughly a 1.5-hour drive from south Zion Canyon, north of the town of Virgin. There are six primitive campsites here, and they are first-come, first-served.
Number of campgrounds: 2 in Zion Canyon, 1 just outside the park
Types of campsites: Tent, RV, camper van, trailer, fifth-wheel, pop-up camper, pickup camper
Dates of availability: Mid-March through the end of October
How early can I make a reservation?: You can book at South Campground up to 2 weeks in advance of your arrival, and reservations are released on a 14-day rolling basis. For Watchman Campground, you can book up to 6 months in advance.
Top tip: Camping here during the summer months can be extremely hot, and the campsites have little shade. Keep that in mind especially if you plan to camp in a tent.
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming is home to much of the Teton Range, and also the celebrity hotspot of Jackson Hole. There are the usual activities available here, like hiking, camping, and canoeing, but you can also spot wildlife, enjoy the fields of wildflowers and even explore the historic homesteads and cattle ranches within the park. Note that all of the campgrounds in Grand Teton require a reservation for the 2021 season, and there are no first-come, first-served sites available.
Number of campgrounds: 7, plus 20 campsites on Grassy Lake Road in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway
Types of campsites: Tent, backcountry, RV
Dates of availability: There are campgrounds available from May through October.
How early can I make a reservation?: Campsites are available 6 months ahead of time on a rolling basis.
Top tip: Grand Teton National Park is very close to Yellowstone — just 10 miles away to be exact. So if there are no camping spots available in Grand Teton, be sure to check at Yellowstone.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Sitting in the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is a beloved destination for hiking, camping and exploring in Southern California. On a visit, you can see the distinctive rock formations dotting the park, as well as the unique-looking trees that the park is named after. There are even mountains, with the Little San Bernardino range on the southwestern edge of the park. And unlike most of the other parks we’ve talked about, it is best to camp in Joshua Tree during the cooler months of October through May (this is the desert, after all). These are also the most popular months, so if you can take the heat, a limited number of campsites are available in the summer.
Number of campgrounds: 8, with 5 taking reservations and 3 first-come, first-served
Types of campsites: Tent, RV, trailer, group,
Dates of availability: There are campsites available year-round, although note that some campgrounds have a partial summer closure with only certain sites available.
How early can I make a reservation?: Up to 6 months in advance
Top tip: Reservations are critical, especially between the months of February to May when temperatures in the park are the most-bearable. If you have your heart set on camping within the park, try coming early in the week or outside of the most-popular months.
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Take your next vacation up a notch and go camping near a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Grand Canyon National Park, where you can find most of the spectacular Grand Canyon, has four developed campgrounds where vehicles are allowed, plus backcountry options that you have to get to on foot. Two of the campgrounds run by the NPS take reservations, while the Desert View Campground on the South Rim of the park is first-come, first-served. It’s also important to note that none of the NPS campgrounds offer RV hookups, so if you need that amenity, you will need to stay at Trailer Village in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
Number of campgrounds: 4
Types of campsites: Tent, RV, backcountry
Dates of availability: Mather Campground and Trailer Village are open all year, while North Rim is open yearly from May 15-Oct. 31. Desert View is generally open from sometime in May until mid-October.
How early can I make a reservation?: You can make reservations up to 6 months in advance for Mather Campground and North Rim Campground. Desert View does not take reservations and usually fills by noon each day.
Top tip: If you want a quieter visit to the Grand Canyon, choose to explore the North Rim, where only 10 percent of visitors go because of its higher elevation, shorter season (from mid-May to mid-October), and the fact that it’s more isolated and only reachable by road.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN & NC
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, draws millions of recreational visitors each year. This makes it among the most-visited parks in the NPS system. Whether you want to hike the section of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the park, or just go camping and enjoy nature, the Great Smoky Mountains have a lot to offer. Plus, you’ll find just about every kind of camping style available! Keep in mind that although there are backcountry camping spots, you need do need a reservation and permit for them.
Number of campgrounds: 10, plus backcountry, horse, and group options
Types of campsites: Tent, RV, group, horse, backcountry
Dates of availability: Most are open from early April through the end of October. Cades Cove and Smokemont are open year-round but require reservations.
How early can I make a reservation?: Frontcountry and horse campsites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance, and group campsites up to 1 year in advance.
Top tip: Visit Cades Cove, a beautiful valley in the park, to see some of the park’s wildlife, tour some historic buildings, and start your hike, since that is where many trailheads are located. There are also 3 campgrounds located here.