The Ins and Outs for Camping without Reservations at Yellowstone National Park

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. 

Arrive early 

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. 

The catch 

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. 

Wild bison roam in Larmar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, easily accessible for all visitors, even those who are camping without reservations at Yellowstone.

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. 

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Quirky Globetrotter

Hi! I'm Martha! The mastermind behind Quirky Globetrotter a feminist travel blog. Quirky Globetrotter is devoted to telling narratives devoted to female solo travel and hidden gems worldwide with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and how that impacts travel on a global and local level.

45 thoughts on “The Ins and Outs for Camping without Reservations at Yellowstone National Park

  1. I had no idea you even could camp at Yellow Stone without reservations! I hadn’t realised there would be any campsites there that would be open to first come first serve visitors. I can see it would be scary to turn up in the hope of securing a place, and then possibly have to leave again if you don’t get one, but it looks as though arriving early and making sure you stake out your place in that queue should do the trick.

    1. Hi Kavita! The park rangers are really great and basically forewarn those who are farther back in line that they probably won’t be able to secure a spot. They also have a great comprehensive list of campgrounds outside of the park with phone numbers and addresses that visitors can call to see if they have availability. I would honestly recommend talking to a park ranger if you have any questions. They were a lifesaver for me! Happy travels!

  2. Yellowstone is one of my favorite US parks, but I had no idea that you could camp there! Great tips for securing a camping spot. You are so right, even in the summer I could not believe how cold it got during the day. I can only imagine how many layers I would need at night sleeping in a tent.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Yes, it’s so chilly in the morning/evenings in the park, I was shocked! I would still highly recommend camping though. It’s such a fun experience though. I love cooking bacon and eggs over the campfire. Happy travels to you!

  3. I’ve only been to Yellowstone once and I had no idea that we could have camped there! Granted, there was still a ton of snow on the ground, so it might not have been as fun as during the summer. I’m glad you said that you woke up to the smell of campfire instead of the geyser smell. That would have been a big wake-up call. It’s good to know that campers can extend their stay a few days. I can only imagine how hard a job those rangers would have in anticipating how many spots will be available.

    1. Hi Rachelle! I know most of the campgrounds are not open all year round. They are usually open during the busy season, May to September, but I believe Fishing Bridge is open all year round. The park rangers definitely have their work cut out for them! Happy travels to you!

  4. I didn’t know you can camp inside Yellowstone National Park. However, after going through your blog, I can I would prefer to book the campsite in advance. I know it would be costlier but there would be peace at mind. What if we go early but could not get any site available because the people staying there already extended there stay? That could be disappointing.

    1. Hi Shreya! I definitely know how you feel. Not having a campsite, did give me a lot of anxiety on the trip, I won’t lie. I think that it’s important to note though that since there are so many first-come, first-serve spaces that you’re likely to get a campsite if you just have yourself in order (i.e. arrive early and don’t dilly dally). It also depends if you’re able to commit to dates far in advance. More power to you if you can! Sounds like you’re a very organized traveler and that’s fantastic! Happy travels to you!

  5. Thanks for this update and tips. I didn’t know you can camp inside the Yellowstone National Park. I could imagine it would be a fun and peaceful experience. Partying isn’t allowed, right?

    1. Hi Blair! You are right, partying is not allowed in the parks. In reality, we all know that enjoying a cold one by the fire is a great treat, but we need to be respectful of others in the park. Luckily, I haven’t had any problems with partying or rowdiness while staying in the park. Each campground also has quiet hours posted and park rangers on duty if anything happens. My camping experience was definitely peaceful and recommend it to everyone. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

  6. Yellowstone is one of the best trips I ever took! Fortunately, I learned on time that camping is a possibility but yeah, you provided a lot of great tips for finding a good camping spot. I’m so glad I came across this article, it brought back some amazing memories.

    1. Hi Daniel! I’m guessing that you stayed in hotels in the park or outside the park. That is also on my bucket list. I would love to do that in the winter and enjoy a different side of Yellowstone, or any national park in the mountains for that matter! Thank you for reading and happy travels to you!

  7. I am so jealous of your trip!! Visiting Yellowstone is right at the top of my bucket list! I loved reading your article a lot because I felt like I was there with how you wrote it. The pictures are also unreal! Thank you for sharing all the tips because it will make it a lot easier for when I visit (hopefully next year) I have bookmarked your article 😀

    1. Hi Emilio! I’m so excited for you to visit Yellowstone. This was my third trip there and it did not disappoint. I cannot recommend doing a national parks tour in the west enough! Thank you for all the kind words! Best of luck to you and happy travels!

  8. I’m not a morning person too but I want to experience it too like what you had. It seems like a fun activity to do. Can’t wait to visit Yellowstone soon.

  9. Wow! That’s a great information about the ins and outs of reservation. It would really save a lot of money although some campers may extend so a little luck should be by your side. I haven’t been to Yellowstone National Park and I really want to visit it and try camping. I’m not a morning person but I really want to get a good spot so I need to sleep earlier. Haha.

    1. Hi Sinjana. There’s definitely a steep learning curve if you don’t do your research ahead of time. Then again, you sometimes luck out! Definitely visit Yellowstone, it’s so unique and surreal to be there. I’ll definitely be going back again someday. Happy and safe travels to you!

  10. Wow! It’s good to know that there’s a small possibility of getting a camp spot without a reservation. I don’t know if I could wake up early enough to do it but I also don’t know if I can plan 6 months to a year in advance my camping trip…My husband and I will have to figure out the lesser of two evils then because Yellowstone is high on our bucket list!

  11. I only saw Yellowstone Park in several movies, and it is interesting that you can visit it even without reservation. But at least you can camp there overnight, and seems safe.

  12. Wow! I never saw this side of the Yellowstone National Park. I always thought it was an arid but forested area that has a volcano waiting to destroy the world! I would love to be able to visit this side of America.

  13. Yellowstone is one of the places I’d love to visit someday and camping there would be quite a fun experience. This article is quite informative and useful for folks planning to camp there.

  14. First of all, I wanted to say that I had a smile on my face from the very beginning of your post because visiting Yellowstone was actually a huge reason why I am escaping the 9 to 5 life to travel full time. Yellowstone is the most incredible place and I love that you share the same love of the park as I do.

    Isn’t it so crazy how reservation parks fill up that far in advance?! I would be one of those spontaneous people to show up for ‘the campground rumble’!

    What do you do if you don’t make it in that night? Seems like ALL other campgrounds in the park would be full. Where would you have gone? A hotel in the park or back outside the park for the night?

    That would make me a nervous wreck waiting in line to find out if I have a spot or not!

    I wasn’t aware it was that difficult to get a spot in the park, I am definitely using your tips next time. P.S. I haven’t ever camped inside the park so I am excited for that as well! I am sure it will be way better than outside the park.

  15. I am not much of a camper. It seems a bit stressful having to get up so early to be the first in line to get a campsite. What happens if you do not get one at that site and it is too late at the other sites available, where do you go? I can see why Yellowstone is so popular with campers, I think I would try and book at least a year in advance. Thanks for the great tips.

  16. OMG! It is indeed miserable that the camping spots fill up so early in advance. That reminds me of the tickets I tried to buy in a few places of interest in Europe which had gotten filled as soon as it opened! Its crazy!
    At 5:45AM you were eighth in line???? That is definitely difficult.
    This is the kind of information that you don’t generally find anywhere. Thanks much for this detailed post

  17. Your trip sounds amazing! I didn’t know that you can camp inside the Yellowstone park. Must be a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing all the details and I am sure it will help me planning my trip better.

  18. I didn’t know there are first-come, first-serve campgrounds, probably because we don’t camp. But Yellowstone sounds like the perfect place to do it if we ever gonna be adventurous! Thanks for sharing all the details and tips!

  19. This is gold and you’re a life-saver. I have been concerned with this and usually we just cancel our trip if we don’t have a reservation or really plan early. Will keep this in mind.

  20. I am so glad I read this because camping at Yellowstone has been something I’ve always wanted to do, but I had no idea reservations filled up so far in advance or just how competitive it is to get a spot on the day of. Even though it’s kind of hard to plan a trip that far in advance, I would probably still try to make a reservation in advance to not have to worry about getting there so early on the day of and taking a gamble on potentially not even being able to get a spot for that night. Super helpful post – thanks for writing this guide!

  21. Thank you for this great information! We will be there for three nights this early October and will have to do the early morning stand in line. The campgrounds that are open and first come, first served are: Mammoth, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek and Lewis Lake. We have not been there before so which one(s) would you recommend? Thank you so much!

    1. Great question! So I remember Mammoth being some of a desert-like campground with not a lot of trees. It’s situated at the very north end of the park, so I would skip that one. So are Pebble Creek and Slough Creek, but these campgrounds have more trees than Mammoth. They’ll probably be a little quieter as well since they are in areas of the park where visitors see the majority of wildlife. Honestly, if you want to see a ton of geysers every day I’d choose Lewis Lake. Yeah, it’s in the southern area of the park but much closer to the geyser basins than the other ones you listed. Hope you have a fabulous trip!

    2. Great question! So I remember Mammoth being some of a desert-like campground with not a lot of years. It’s situated at the very north end of the park, so I would skip that one. So are Pebble Creek and Slough Creek, but these campgrounds have more trees than Mammoth. They’ll probably be a little quieter as well since they are in quieter areas of the part and close to where visitors see the majority of wildlife. Honestly, if you want to see a ton of geysers every day I’d choose Lewis Lake. Yeah, it’s south of the park

    3. Great question! So I remember Mammoth being some of a desert-like campground with not a lot of years. It’s situated at the very north end of the park, so I would skip that one. So are Pebble Creek and Slough Creek, but these campgrounds have more trees than Mammoth. They’ll probably be a little quieter as well since they are in quieter areas of the part and close to where visitors see the majority of wildlife. Honestly, if you want to see a ton of geysers every day I’d choose Lewis Lake. Closest to the geyser basins!

  22. If you are traveling in an RV and using it as your vehicle to tour the park, what are the chances of getting a camping space in the evening? I’m planning my trip for the first or second week of Sept. 2021 and was hoping to move fluidly through the park without planning campground reservations in advance. Should I change my plans to get a towable so I can get a space to park the camper in the mornings and tour in the tow vehicle? How late will they hold a reserved spot if I decide to make reservations in advance?

    1. Hi John! Great questions. Basically, there are going to be fewer sites for you. For instance, at Norris Campground there are only 7 RV sites, which makes your chances slimmer, these are still first-come, first-serve sites. I would recommend securing your reservations in advance on the NPS website.

  23. Currently only 3 of 12 campgrounds will be open in early June 2021. More campgrounds will be opening as the season progresses but a couple will remain closed for this year.

    1. Hi Diane! Thanks for your comment and update! As always, I encourage park-goers to check out current conditions, openings and closures on the NPS website because it is continuously updated. Thanks again!

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