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When it comes to staying at national parks, the whole appeal is that you are surrounded by nature. What ups the ante is being able to spend the evening basking in the natural wonders the park has to offer by camping. Whether your favorite camping pastime is sleeping under the stars or roasting s’mores, the best place to do it is in a national park. This year I made the maiden voyage back to Yellowstone National Park, the exact destination that sparked my lust for travel. It was a spontaneous trip which meant camping without reservations at Yellowstone National Park. A feat that many believe to be impossible, but it definitely isn’t. Take it from me.
What makes it tricky to camp in national parks is the limited number of campsites. For instance, Yellowstone has thousands of campsites, but more than 88% of those sites are by reservation only. Reservations for campgrounds and lodging at the park fill up quickly. If looking to book a reservation, it’s ideal to book at least six months in advance. In fact, experts note that lodging in the summer often fills up a year to six months out. For the fall and spring, reservations fill up about three to six months out. In my own research, as of December 2018, about one-third of the campsites were already reserved for May through September 2019.
If you don’t have the luxury of being able to plan your Yellowstone vacation that far in advance, have no fear. You can always stalk the reservation page and wait for a cancellation. There are also a number of first-come, first-serve campsites that you can spend your vacation at. These campgrounds also fill up at an obscene rate, but I’ll equip you with a few tips that’ll help guarantee you a spot at the highly coveted Yellowstone National Park campgrounds.
How camping without reservations at Yellowstone National Park works
At Yellowstone National Park, seven of the campgrounds as filled on a first-come, first-serve basis. This can be very intimidating for travelers who are traveling from long distances or don’t like winging their travel plans. Rest assured the process is easier and less intimidating than what it seems.
There’s usually more demand for first-come, first-serve campgrounds because they are cheaper in price. The campgrounds cost $15 or $20 a night (depending on the location), which is a steal for most families. It’s a great way to save money on your national park vacation. Campgrounds that require a reservation in advance run for more than $25 per evening to $47 for the RV park.
There is a limit to the number of days you can stay in a Yellowstone Park campground. Campers can stay a maximum of 14 days from July 1 to Labor Day in the park. It’s a maximum of 30 days for the rest of the year. The only exception is Fishing Bridge Campground, where there is no limit.
The first-come, first-serve campgrounds at Yellowstone are given away each morning to the first customers in line. This seems like a fairly easy process, but due to there being no rules and lack of information on the National Park Service’s website, it’s hard to gauge how likely you’ll be able to find a campsite. So coming from a woman who was successful in sweeping up a highly coveted site, here are some tips.
This seems sensible, but the campground rumble, as I like to call it, begins promptly at 7 a.m. I was visiting the park in August and most of the campgrounds, all 2,000 spaces, were claimed by 8:30 a.m. Yes, that’s before check out for current campers is even over!
To ensure that I got a camping spot at the Norris Campground, I arrived at the campground office at 5:45 a.m. and not to my surprise, there was already a line of eager campers waiting to claim the sites. Luckily I was eighth in line, so I had a good feeling that I was going to get a camping spot.
Each day, the park rangers gauge how many sites will be open by the number of days campers have already purchased. On the campsite number post at each spot, there’s a yellow/orange tag that says the expected check out day of the campers in the site. The park rangers go around the campground and estimate how many campers are expected to check out that day.
Of course, there’s a small catch to this seemingly simple process. Campers who are already staying in the campground can choose to extend their stay. For instance, if I had originally booked three nights at the campground, but decided on the morning of my check out date to extend my stay, my reservation takes priority over the incoming campers’. This means that the park rangers really have no idea how many available sites there will be at the first-come, first-serve campgrounds.
Park rangers find out that campers are checking out when they place their slips in the check out box near the Reservation Office. This usually ignites cheers from the crowd of campers waiting to check into these highly-coveted sites.
Campers also have until 10 a.m. to check out, so it may take until then for new customers to claim a campsite.
Get in line ASAP for camping at Yellowstone
Pack your Black Friday mentality when camping at Yellowstone National park because you’ll have to get up early if you want a first-come, first-serve camping spot. If you want to get a campsite at Yellowstone, you have to be prepared to also stand in line.
How the process works is that incoming campers are asked to line up outside of the campground office in order to claim a campsite. Don’t sit in your vehicle! Those in line take precedent and those in their vehicles may not get a spot.
As previously mentioned, currently campground campers can choose to extend their stay. The park ranger that checked me into the Norris Campground estimated that one-third of the campers do not renew and leave. This obviously depends on the day of the week and season, but she said this was a general rule of thumb you can use during the summer months.
That August day there were 30 sites up for grabs. It was a weekday so more than one-third of us got sites, but not much more. Twelve lucky campers were able to move into the Norris campground that day. And I was one of them.
Wear warm clothes
This may seem counterproductive, especially if you’re camping in the summertime, but it’s cool in the shaded areas of the park. When I was visiting the park in August, it was 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit before the sun rose. Bundle up with your sleeping bag if you need to and get ready to get that camping spot. You’re not going to want to give up your spot in line.
Was it worth camping without reservations at Yellowstone?
Camping at Yellowstone National park makes the experience all the more spectacular. There’s nothing better than roasting hot dogs and s’mores over the campfire or falling asleep under the stars. I’m not the most enthusiastic fan of mornings, but waking up at 5 a.m. to get a campsite is completely worth it.
In Yellowstone, I woke up to the smell of campfires around me and a mere minutes away from all the geysers every single day. That alone made it worth it. There have been times I stayed in West Yellowstone instead and drove into the park. That was one of the rookie mistakes on my first Yellowstone vacations. After two days, the shenanigans got old and I relocated to Norris Campground. Staying outside meant less time in the park and more exhaustion. When planning a national park adventure, stay within the park and experiencing all it has to offer. You won’t regret it.