Crowded National Parks brings major confusion

 Crowded National Parks brings major confusion

Have you heard about our crowded National Parks and the confusion changing policies have brought over not just getting in, but reservations, too? It's also the same at many State Parks as more and more adopt reservation-only camping policies.

This week on Episode #348 of the RV Podcast, we dig into that issue and much more. And not just here on the blog and our audio version of the Podcast but also with our new video podcast released simultaneously on our RV Lifestyle YouTube Channel.

You can listen to the podcast in the player below. And scroll down this page for shownotes and a transcript of the interview, plus links and resources about all the things we talk about.

See the Video Version of our Crowded National Parks Podcast!

We've been doing this podcast for six years now – this is the 348th episode – and almost since the first one people have been asking us to also do a video version on YouTube. I know, it took us a long time! But click below if you want to see the video. Content is exactly the same as the audio podcast you listen to on your favorite player, except we also add images and you see Jennifer and me reporting and answering your questions.

Click the player below to watch! But keep scrolling for the full text, links and info on everything we covered, especially regarding the crowded national parks and confusion in our state parks!

What's causing our crowded national parks?

You can blame it on four things:

  • At the most popular National Parks, you are now required to make a timed RESERVATION just to enter during precise times. For how long this new rule will be in effect, the National Parks Service hasn't said.
  • In addition, they are now charging you a fee for that, in addition to the normal park entry fees. It's only $2. For now. And you have to buy it online, ahead of time.
  • These rules prohibit entry to those who just show up unless it's before 6 am or after 6 PM.
  • The continuing RV boom has seen RV sales, travel, campground reservations and visits to National Parks simply explode. The demand and pressure on public lands is overwhelming, even spreading to many boondocking areas and even state parks

Not all National Parks require timed entry reservations

Now it’s not every national park that has these rules and the timed reservation policy is not every day. It varies park by park.

But that is causing some major confusion!

These rules are not consistently applied.

Stories of crowded National Parks are all over the Internet!

webcam shot of crowded National Parks entry gate
Talk about a crowded National Park! Check out this National Park Service webcam shot of the Memorial Day traffic jam trying to get into the park's South Entrance

CBS TV in Denver had a story on their website with their reporter standing out front of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado showing huge traffic jams and all sorts of confusion about the timed entry.

Many people didn’t even know that was in effect. They interviewed one visitor who, with his wife and kids, drove three hours to get there only to be turned away!

It isn’t just there in Colorado that had problems. Twitter has been full of photos showing long lines at Grand Canyon National Park. We’ll show some on our YouTube RV Lifestyle channel story.

There were massive traffic jams getting onto the park’s south entrance. But even once you got in, in many cases there was no place to park.

All the parking lots were filled and people were driving around and around sometimes for a couple of hours.

The crowded National Parks had human-jams on some trails!

a trail clogged by hikers illustrating the problem with crowded National Parks
The problem of crowded National Parks had these Grand Canyon hikers bumping shoulders on the trail. The NPS posted this image on Facebook.

Look at the above photo from Grand Canyon National Park showing how crowded one of the trails going down into the canyon were. People were shoulder to shoulder going both ways!

On Memorial Day weekend, there were over 200 calls for emergency assistance at Grand Canyon. There were a lot of new hikers who tried that strenuous hike who didn’t bring enough water and with temperatures over 100 degrees down in the canyon you can imagine the medical problems they had to deal with.

In Utah, the shuttle busses were so filled at Zion National Park that some of those on the scene said they had to wait as long as two hours. The popular trails were all very crowded.

At Arches National Park, the photo below shows so many people hanging around on the rocks that it looked like the crowd for a music concert.

Again, this is not the fault of the National Park Service. Or RVers. It’s just the result of this phenomenal, no-end-in-site post-COVID demand by people to get back into nature and explore the parks.

RV Podcast Interview: The crowded National Parks and State Park Reservation System are affecting one particular type of camper more than any other.

Our interview guest is a very active Class B RVer who, with his wife, travels all over the country in a customized van they built themselves. I came across him on one of the RV forums when he shared a proposal he has formally presented to state and national park campground administrators.

In particular, he’s concerned about the growing number of state and national campgrounds that are going to 100% reservations. He says that excludes an entire class of RVers who don’t’ have the luxury of being able to reserve a spot far in advance because their travel style makes it impossible to make plans far out in advance.

Our guest is R. Winston Slater and we think you’ll find his ideas a reasonable solution to the problem so many folks have in finding an open spot at a campground.

A possible to the campground confusion in crowded National Parks and other public reservation-only parks

Crowded National Parks brings major confusion 1
R. Winston Slater interview

Here's our edited transcript of our RV Podcast interview R. Winston Slater:

Mike Wendland: Winston Slater joins us right now from his RV. First, let me just say thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.

Winston Slater: Of course, our pleasure.

Mike Wendland: You might as well tell everybody, because they're all looking and saying, “Well, what kind of an RV is that?” We see your bikes on the back. It looks like a class B. You're in a class B. What kind is it?

Winston Slater: This is a ProMaster. You might say, “Well, who built it out?” Then, well, you're looking at them. This is a DIY home brew ProMaster. It's the 159 standard length wheelbase. Just about, well, we say 20 feet; but when you add that bike rack and those guys on those ferry boats are measuring, they sometimes come up with 22 feet.

Mike Wendland: Oh, awesome. Well, congratulations. DIY is a big movement. DIY seems to be a huge trend in class Bs.

Winston Slater: I've noticed, yeah.

The ugly side of reservation-only campgrounds

Mike Wendland: Start with your experience a couple of weeks ago. Then let's see if talk about your suggestions on how we can tweak campground reservation systems and bring a little more equity for people. So what happened to you that set this letter that you wrote? What set that off?

Winston Slater: Well, we've been both tent camping and now in the last four years Class B camping for about seven or eight years. In fact, we retired about then, and we put on about 250,000 miles driving around the country.

I'll get off-lane just long enough to give you a little background, and that is we are geocachers. I assume many listeners would know what geocaching is. We took it upon ourselves to find a single geocache in every county of the United States.

In doing so, we have been literally everywhere -250,000 miles. But this has put us on a random schedule wandering without a lot of pre-planning for seven years now and those 250,000 miles.

Not too long ago, we pulled into a state park in Texas. As an intrepid, wandering camper, we learned the ropes. You have to get there mid-week, say no later than Thursday if you want to have a shot at the weekend. Obviously, the weekends are the busiest time everywhere.

So we arrived Thursday and said, “We're looking for a campsite.” Then the campground administrator there, the employee says, “Great, we got lots of them.” And I said, “I'll be here until Sunday night.”

He kind of snapped back and said, “No, you won't.” I said, “Well, why is that?”

He said, “Well, this is completely booked tomorrow night and Saturday night.”

I said, “Do you mean if I get a campsite here … “

And by the way, this is a rhetorical question. I knew the answer already from my experiences. But I still had to ask him the question,

“You mean if I get the campsite tonight, I don't get to keep it until I leave, until tomorrow night or Sunday?”

“No, it's all reservation.”

So then I finally looked at him, and I said, “Well, we're from Michigan, a thousand-plus miles from here. You got any recommendations what we should do tomorrow night?”

The guy paused for a while and then looked at me and says, “Sir, maybe you should go home.”

It's not just Texas with reservations-only, it's everywhere!

Well, I understand you can't hold a lot of campsites open. I understand, but here's the point. That answer I didn't expect.

But anyway, I got online and I started researching not just Texas, but all the major states.

There are no camping vacancies in crowded National Parks AND many state parks

The truth is, is that all of their campground sites during the peak season or during the normal travel season on weekends are booked.

They're booked months in advance, sometimes as much as six months or more in advance. The really popular campground spots, of course, get completely booked seconds, if not minutes, after they open the reservation; and some of that can be a year in advance.

So what about other campers who need a spot?

So if you don't know where you're going to be a year from now, you're locked out of the Texas campgrounds.

Mike Wendland: This is true, by the way, as you know, in many other states, not just there. And many crowded National Parks are.

Winston Slater: Yes. In our experience, it's in virtually every state, not necessarily a hundred percent reservation, but mostly.

That's why we finally decided it was time to write the letter and enlist the help of others was the trend was becoming increasingly obvious that in a few years there may be no campsites whatsoever, of any significance anyway, that are not reserved in advance.

His proposal to open up some first-come, first-served sites

Winston Slater: Well, it's a little difficult to raise this because everybody is so used to reservations for everything. It would be unthinkable to go to a Cubs game in Chicago or to a concert without a reservation. So it seems so normal to people that they don't understand that there's any other way of doing it.

But there has always been another way of doing it in camping. That's the first-come, first-serve.

There's a huge single difference between first-come, first-serve and reservations.

Traditionally, if you get a spot, you can keep it for a few days. But no more.

That is that once you light on a spot, once you obtain a spot as a first-come, first-serve person, you normally get to keep it until you leave. This provides you at least a chance if you get there earlier in the week, like Thursday, of staying through Saturday and Sunday. Then you can just go on from there.

So the first portion of our argument is to suggest that not everybody in the world can plan their lives in advance.

There are many very legitimate reasons, like health reasons. We had one. We often had to undergo treatments that the doctor said we shouldn't wait. So we had to cancel all of our plans.

There are people that have family obligations, business.

There's a lot of legitimate reasons why people can't plan six months in advance.

Then there's a whole set of people, and I fall into that category now.

His proposal: Keep 1/4 of all sites open to first-come first-serve wandering campers

But not everybody fits into that category, and we as seniors are now essentially impromptu. We call it in our letter impromptu campers that just wander.

With the reservation-only system, you are essentially locking out an entire class of traveler.

This is the first time we've ever locked out a class of travelers unless it was back in the old days with no reservations, and everybody would fight there on a Friday night to get a spot.

I think the reservation system is a much improved system so long as we don't make it 100%.

In our suggestion, let's just leave a quarter of the sites available for people who don't plan or can't plan months in advance.

The proposal is mostly being ignored

Mike Wendland: Where did you send that letter, and then tell us the reaction to it?

Winston Slater: It was tough finding recipients because there's no one repository that we could identify online of addresses in personnel. But we generally tried to identify the head administrator of every state park.

By state park, I mean state park system. We did not write to every individual state park.

We did the same at the federal level, whether it be Army Corps, BLM lands, Forest Service, or crowded National Parks. We tried to identify the head honchos, and we sent them letters.

Then we sent a whole bunch of selected letters to places that we'd been that we knew there were problems. Some of them like Rocky Mountain National Park and some of the big ones.

We have not received a great number of responses. We received some letters and a lot of emails thanking us for our input. They'll take it into consideration.

Some of them were very sympathetic. Many of them, particularly some Forest Service out in the West, pointed out how many campgrounds remain open for first-come, first-serve, for which we're obviously very grateful.

I'm afraid to say the one we got from Michigan was not too helpful.

It was making a bunch of excuses why this might be inconvenient for them. Either financially or because of personnel or other complications, it's easier for them to set up a reservation-only system.

For which I would answer, “There's a lot of solutions.”

I've seen kiosks in a number of locations that would help with at least the personnel problem.

But frankly, these are treasured national and state resources, and they should be supervised so that all have access to it.

If it costs the state or federal park a little extra money because they have to have personnel there, or if they don't necessarily fill their coffers as full as they might have because it got rainy and people, because they didn't reserve, never showed up, there's going to be maybe some financial downside.

But these are small prices to be paid.

I'm not talking about commercial campgrounds, KOAs and the like.

I'm talking about the national and state parks. The stewards of these precious limited resources ought to be sure that we don't exclude a class of user.

He hopes support builds from RVers and campers fed up with crowded National Parks and State and local parks

Mike Wendland: Now, you have taken this on yourself. I know a lot of our followers are going to hear this, and they'll have a reaction to it. I think knowing our audience, that many are going to say, “Yeah, particularly now, this year when it's so hard to get a spot.”

Mike Wendland” Where does this go from now? You've sent these letters out. I think with your exposure here, the industry is going to pay some attention to this.

Winston Slater: Well, I'm just hoping I'll find somebody on my left and on my right side to walk with me and march forward.

It's very obvious that one person cannot change the course of the reservation system. We need a lot of voices.

My voice, by the way, has been raised, I would say, for four or five years on the subject. I have bent every ear to the point of probable annoyance of every campground director and administrator I've had an opportunity to talk to.

But in talking to other campers, it's amazing how often I find people that are very, very sympathetic but have practically become resigned that this is the way it's going to be and there's nothing we can do about it.

So what I'm really trying to do now, rather than my being the continual voice, I'm looking for people to join me, write letters to their various state parks because there seems to be a huge amount of support behind the scenes.

I'm just not sure how much of that support is really being communicated to the campground administrators, the people that count.

Mike Wendland: I want to end this interview with something you said right at the top: That at the rate we're going now with this problem, this is going to be the end of a lot of camping for a lot of people because there's no room in the campground … IF they don't change things.

Winston Slater: Well, Mike, you have no idea how much I appreciate your giving me this few minutes to talk to your viewers.

What do you think of his idea to keep 25% of public land campsites open for first-come, first-served campers?

Please let us know. We'd love to get your thoughts on our RV Podcast Voice Message line at 586-372-6990.

Also, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.

We love hearing from you!

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Mike Wendland

Mike Wendland is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road at RVLifestyle.com. He and Jennifer also host the weekly RV Podcast and do twice-weekly videos on the YouTube RV Lifestyle Channel. They have written 10 books on RV travel.

16 Comments

  • Given we all pay taxes to support national parks, forests, monuments, wildlife areas and the like, to lock out those without reservations is flat out wrong.
    Ditto for residents of a given state. Reservations for out-of-state campers make sense, but in-state residents should have the ability to camp without reservations.

    The proposal to set aside 25% seems very high and might be a reason it’s not taken seriously. 10% seems much more doable and still allows for some access.

    And with reservations now becoming more the norm, what will happen with cancellation fees?

  • In Texas reservations are taken for campsites, however, they are not required as implied in article. If the park had an unreserved space for the weekend he could have stayed there. The parks do not want empty spaces so setting aside first come/first served means they may have empty spaces that could have been filled by a reservation. The idea might be good for campers but not for campgrounds.

    I noticed even Harvest Hosts has a reservation system. I hope they will continue to take same day phone calls for overnight stays.

    The overcrowding might take care of itself when enough families have visited the national parks and have no interest in returning. We can only hope.

  • I think about the problem of people with reservations who don’t show. Obviously some are simply late shows, like 11PM or so. But it seems like more than a monetary penalty for absolute no-shows is needed, at least unless it is substantial. How about if you don’t show, and don’t cancel by the end of the previous day, you are also blocked from making future reservations, and maybe that the future reservations you have already made are erased. The exceptions would be documented medical or mechanical trouble.

  • We have been traveling for six or more months a year for the summer and early Fall to get out of Florida, for the last 6 years. We agree that some amount of sites need to be set aside. We are in Washington State now and heading East. I could not find a site for this weekend to even reserve at a State Park or ACE campground and had to resort to a KOA for one of the nights and was able to get a spot at a State Campground for one night with just luck. There was not a Harvest Host site on my way so that option which we often use was not available. If we could get the addresses that he sent his letters to it would help the rest of us join in. We will be at a State Park tomorrow snd Thursday but they are booked for the weekend.

    • I am a new to RVing but am scared to go anywhere with all this news. We retired and was looking forward to just being like it use to be with mostly retired people but I have been seeing things change the last few years. I think since the pandemic things will not go back to what it was. You are right. Something needs to be done. I like your idea but maybe 25% is too high. Maybe try 15%.

  • Very interesting podcast. I have been longtime campers mostly primitive and once the reservation system was put in place, pretty much shut out of any State Parks.

    I agree leaving leaving 25% of the campsites open is one of the best ideas. I would add, if the reserved campsite is not filled by a set hour or confirmed by a set time it becomes an open site.

    I would also say, they need to base their budgets on 75% occupancy.

    Also contact your elected State Rep. & Senators and voice your opinions.

  • Yes I agree to 25% left to the first come. Also I feel there should be the no show at a set time that site is now open. And a list of places to send letter to.

  • As long as there are more campers than campsites, no system is going to be “fair” enough. The loudest complainers are generally using a lot more than their “fair share”. We are retirees who wander and the proposed system would work well for us till there were 30 waiting in line for 30 spots. This system would punish the working stiff trying to take his kids camping. Regardless, people will figure out a way to beat any system. How many folks do you know who winter in Florida State Parks to the detriment of locals and vacationers?

  • Cannot disagree more with your guest. While it would be nice have a small portion of sites set-aside for first-come first served it should not be required or expected. The vast majority of people do not have the luxury just to “take a chance at getting an open site”. People have jobs, families, etc a d need to plan out. I myself do not have the luxury of being able to plan out in the future, but I will try to book a couple trips when I can and keep an eye out for cancellations when I can get away.

    As for the guest expressing he cannot plan out his trips because he is retired, I disagree. He chooses not to plan and life his life spontaneously and thus should be flexible with where he stays. This may mean that he will not get into the best campgrounds, may have to move daily (sometimes only within the same campground) or may have to Boondock or use harvest host or other programs to fill in the gaps. The price for being spontaneous is having to be flexible. I have had several last minute trips, including this Memorial Day weekend in SoCal where I was able to piece together a holiday weekend trip by piecing together county and state parks.

  • Count me out. I’ll boondock and look at pix of our Parks online until this lunacy ends.

  • The idea to leave one-fourth of all sites seems like a good idea at first glance, but I think it is more complicated than that. I’ve been a volunteer at a busy Texas state park, and when reservations were implemented for day use and camping, many people were turned away and disappointed because the park had reached capacity. The problem is not with whether parks should offer a combination of first-come/first-serve or reservation. The problem is there is not enough capacity in the state and national parks system. Carving a fourth of them out for first-come/first-serve makes it easier for those like myself who are full-timers, but it doesn’t address the overall shortage of capacity.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Slater. Some portion of state and national park sites should remain first come, first serve. How much 25%, 15, 10%? That may need to vary in popular vs less demand areas. As he said some of us may not be able to plan 6 months or a year ahead, even as retirees. Life and family matters intervene (medical emergency, equipment breakdown, etc.)

    The upside of reservations is that we can all travel further from home and know we have a place to stay. How unrealistic for a ranger in Texas to tell someone from Michigan “maybe they should just go home.” How many days travel will that take? And where do we stay along the way? And what does that do to promote tourism in Texas. (Maybe they REALLY don’t want us; who knows.)

    As for no shows, maybe the system should be modeled after the hotel system. You guarantee late arrival and are expected to pay if you don’t show. (Yes it is frustrating to a non-planning wanderer to see the site open, but hey, someone DID buy/pay for it and the campgrounds do need a reliable income stream to exist at all.) Maybe we should pay a small premium to guaranteed late arrival. If you don’t show by say 6 PM or maybe 7 PM the non-premium site is considered available. Look at the hotel system that charges different tiers of rates depending on whether you want some flexibility or not.

    After working hard for 40 years and finally having the freedom and time to do that much dreamed of travel, the current situation is very discouraging. I’m getting closer and closer to becoming cynical about the NPS “Find Your Park” slogan and just “loosing” the parks. I live in a vacation paradise, ten minutes from one of the most visited a national lakeshore parks. I don’t need to take my considerable disposable income to support the communities around the country, but I sure would like too, so long as my travel experience doesn’t crumble into a string of overnights in Walmart parking lots.

    To Mr. Slater, sorry to hear of your poor, unhelpful response from Michigan. We really aren’t all that apathetic. If you would share your contact info, I for one, as a voting, taxpaying Michigander will speak up and let my local legislators know this is not what we expect from the “powers that be” at the DNR, especially considering the not inconsequential sum that is spent annually on tourism promotion.

    Mike, you could help us all advocate for Mr Slater’s idea by sharing the addresses (or a link to a list) he compiled (I hope he kept a list) of the various state and national “authorities” that he sent letters/emails to. It would make it easier to rally our voices, offer a very reasonable solution, and be heard. There is strength in numbers and maybe when our numbers become more appearant, change will come. Hopefully it can yield viable solutions for all of us, regardless of our RVing travel style.

  • I think we will visit the National Parks after the summer months, when it should be less crowded and a little bit cooler.

  • Good info in this blog as usual. So glad we’ve made reservations for national and state parks already this year!

  • I cannot imagine fighting the crowds at the National Parks this summer

  • I really love the podcast. I always look forward to the next one..

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