Ultimate Guide for Tent Camping RMNP: No reservations required

Finding the little dipper has always been on my bucket list, which is one of the many reasons why I love camping in national parks. National parks are some of the quietest and darkest places to camp. The night sky feels as if it will swallow you whole. This is no exception when you camp at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the United States, there are several national parks that are saturated by tourists. For instance, camping without reservations in Yellowstone National Park requires a very early morning wake-up and lots of standing in line. Luckily, it’s easy to find a campground without a reservation at Rocky Mountain National Park, here’s how.

What are the campgrounds like in Rocky Mountain National Park? 

There are five campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park. Asplenglen Campground, Glacier Basin Campground, Moraine Park Campground are all reservable. Longs Peak Campground and Timber Creek Campground are the two first-come, first-served campgrounds. 

Also note, not all campgrounds are open year-round for camping. The Moraine Park Campground is the only campground open for winter camping. 

How much does a camping site in RMNP cost? 

A majority of the campgrounds at RMNP are only open for summer camping. During the winter, Moraine Park Campground is the only area open and sites start at $20USD. 

The summer months are slightly more expensive. Standard campsites start at $30 and group campsites (reservable at Glacier Basin Campground) range from $40-$60USD. Reservations for reservable campsites can be made up to six months in advance. 

If you are an annual access pass holder or a senior national park pass holder, you can save 50 percent on all campsite fees. This is a great way to keep your RMNP road trip affordable. 

What is first-come, first-served camping RMNP like?

Campgrounds that are first-come-first-serve are not reservable. This means you cannot call in advance or go online to pay for your spot before arriving. Each campsite is available to all park visitors. Those who come and set up camp first are guaranteed the spot.

To be honest, the idea of first-come, first-served campsites seems sort of like a rat race. And at more popular and highly visited national parks (like Smoky Mountain and Yellowstone), it can be if you don’t plan ahead. 

All national parks usually have a few campgrounds that are first-come-first-serve to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to camp in the picturesque parks. This is great for campers, like me, who don’t plan their vacations months or even half a year in advance.

Thankfully, unlike Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park’s first-come-first-serve campgrounds are easy to get into even during the high season. 

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A roadside overlook on the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. A must-see view on your RMNP camping trip.

First-come-first-served campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain is the third most visited national park in the United States. Campgrounds often fill up six months in advance for their summertime vacation dates. Luckily, there are two campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park that are first-come-first-served — Longs Peak and Timber Creek. There are nearly 100 non-reservable campsites at Timber Creek and about 30 at Longs Peak.

But what’s the likelihood of you being able to nab one of these coveted non-reservable spots? The short answer: depends on how many campers are already in the park. The longer answer: if you’re patient, most definitely.

I visited Rocky Mountain National Park over the Fourth of July, that year, the Fourth of July fell on a Thursday. I was nervous about whether there would be any campgrounds available when I arrived because the holiday was close to the weekend.

Typically, most RMNP campgrounds are claimed early Friday morning for the weekend. Especially during the summer months, when more visitors are entering the park for a longer weekend stay, the first-come, first-served campsites fill up earlier and have a higher demand. What day of the week you’re looking for a campsite is going to determine how difficult it’ll be to find a vacancy within the park.

Because of the holiday rush, I had planned to arrive early Thursday morning to scout out a site but ended up rolling into the campground around noon. When I rolled through the park’s gate, the rangers’ station informed me that all campgrounds were full.

Oh, no.

Tip No. 1: Always double-check campground vacancies at the gate

Outside of the rangers’ check-in booths at Rocky Mountain National Park, campground vacancies are listed for visitors. These vacancy lists are updated periodically throughout the day. This is important to note because in some cases, these lists might be accurate. 

For instance, on the Fourth of July, all campground vacancies were listed as full around noon that day (Thursday). Yet, that wasn’t the case. 

That goes to say that your chances of finding a non-reservable campsite close to or during the weekend are a lot slimmer than finding a campsite on a weekday, like Tuesday or Wednesday. Since most individuals are visiting RMNP over the weekend, there won’t be as many campers leaving and therefore making vacancies for other campers over the weekend, especially if a holiday falls during those days.

With the Fourth of July falling on a Thursday, this made it hard to predict other travelers’ plans. Furthermore, the vacancy list wasn’t completely off because there are was only about a dozen campsites left by the time I pulled into the Timber Creek Campground. But then again, I was lucky enough to explore and stumble upon those vacancies. It definitely pays off to double-check!

If you pull into the park and see that there are no vacancies, ask the park ranger when they last updated the board. I always advise campers to go to the campgrounds they’d like to stay in and physically check as well. Sometimes, campers have a bit of a slow start to their day and end up leaving a little after their check-out time. 

Checkout time is noon and check-in time is advertised as 1 p.m. Once noon hits, the boards are usually updated. If you arrive in the park before that, the information on the board is probably off because they haven’t accounted for the campers that checked out that morning.

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Tip No. 2: Arrive early 

Even though check-in is at 1 p.m.,  campers can claim the sites earlier at first-come, first-serve campgrounds. The best way to beat the crowds is to arrive early and wait for a campsite to open up.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, rangers let campers drive through the campground and claim any site without an orange or gold ticket. These denote the sites that are currently occupied, even if there’s not a tent or a camper in the designated spot.

According to the RMNP website, during the high season, non-reservable campgrounds in the park fill up by the early afternoon. 

Like other first-come, first-served campgrounds, campers who are already in the campground have first dibs on renewing their reservation. This is great for travelers who are unsure of how many days they are going to stay in the park. Campers are guaranteed their same campsite as long as their camping equipment is there and they pay for the next evening.

How to claim a non-reservable camping site

Unlike Yellowstone National Park, there’s no line for RMNP’s first-come, first-served camping. Campers simply drive into an open site and set up camp. Since no rangers are really regulating what sites are open or not, the board at the park gates isn’t updated as often as other national parks.

I nabbed campsite number 91 in the Deer Loop, and there were about a dozen campsites left by the time we checked in around noon on Thursday. I lucked out by nabbing some of the last vacancies made by campers checking out just before 1 p.m. or even checking out a little late. If you enter the park shortly after check-out, don’t hesitate to double-check whether any late campers are just starting to pack out of their campground.

Tip No. 3: Consider downsizing your gear when camping in RMNP

Not all campsites are created equal. In most cases, reservation campgrounds have more amenities than first-come, first-served campgrounds. Things such as showers, running water and site sizes vary greatly from non-reservable sites and sites that require a reservation.

In general, all campsites are outfitted to meet the needs of tent campers. You might want to reconsider using an RV for camping in RMNP because there are no campsites reserved only for RVs. Furthermore, a majority of the sites in the park are for tents only. There is also a small number of sites that require campers to cart in their belongings since the sites are only accessible on foot or by boat.

To increase your likelihood of finding a site that checks all the boxes, leave your oversized camping gear at home and par down to the essentials.

Other RMNP accommodations 

If camping doesn’t seem like the perfect way for you to spend a long weekend at Rocky Mountain National Park, consider staying in one of the nearby accommodations. Estes Park offers great places to stay on the eastern end of the park, while Grand Lake has more stays on the western side.

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.

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