Where to Find a Last-Minute Campground This Summer from Outside tzemke

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My favorite place to camp is a spot in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, outside the town of Mammoth Lakes, called the Inn at Benton Hot Springs. The small hotel has a private campground with 12 sites out back, and each comes with its own mineral springs-fed hot tub. You can pitch a tent or park your van on a spacious plot with views of the mountains and then soak things in.

But like all dreamy and incredibly popular campgrounds, securing a site here requires a heavy dose of luck or major advance planning. If you can only make it on a weekend, you’d better book it a year out.

At Benton Hot Springs, 40 miles north of Bishop, California, the dozen campsites each have a private hot-springs-fed tub, a fire pit, and a picnic table. Views of the eastern Sierra also included.  (Photo: Courtesy Benton Hot Springs))

It wasn’t always this hard. Pre-COVID you could get a spot at Benton relatively easily—they didn’t take online bookings, so you had to call the front desk and ask when they had a campsite available. But then word got out (I have myself to blame, in part, for that, because I’ve written about it in travel stories), and during the pandemic, the inn introduced an online reservation system, which allows bookings up to a year in advance. So fully booked it now is.

These days, coveted campsites at state parks, national parks, and private campgrounds in popular destinations fill up six months to a year ahead of peak season (read: summer). According to the 2024 Camping Report by the Dyrt, a campsite aggregator, it was four times harder to get a campsite in 2023 than it was in 2019, with nearly half of all campers reporting difficulty booking a site because campgrounds were sold out. All that data does not bode well for the coming months.

If you’re like me, maybe you’re thinking: Sure, travel in general requires advance planning, but camping? That’s something you should be able to do on the spur of the moment.

So I researched how to troubleshoot this, and, happily, found campgrounds that actually cater to last-minute bookings, as well as a new state law that has made the whole camping-reservation process more considerate. I also provide website recommendations that facilitate the complicated process of looking and booking, and best practices that will increase your chances of snagging a site you’re psyched about. All of which is to say: you will still have to put some thought into things. But I hope this helps.

Two Notable Campgrounds That Accommodate Last-Minute Bookings

Campfire Ranch, Colorado

The camping season at Campfire Ranch is open from May 17 to October 6, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy Trent Bona)

In Almont, Colorado, 20 miles south of Crested Butte, the private 16-site campground of Campfire Ranch (mentioned in this year’s Outside Travel Awards) only allows reservations two weeks in advance.

“I kept inviting friends on camping trips, and none of them would make a commitment to go with me if I made the reservation six months ahead of time,” says Sam Degenhard, its founder and CEO. “I’d get a lot of wishy-washy answers, but then two weeks out, everyone wanted to go. That’s where the idea came from.”

When Campfire Ranch first opened in June 2020, Degenhard opted to implement a policy so campers couldn’t make a reservation until two weeks out. “We didn’t have any problems filling campsites, and people loved it,” he says. “We heard from folks right away who were like, ‘I thought I’d never find a campsite.’ That 14-day booking policy became our norm and what a lot of our customers know us for.” (Campfire Ranch does offer advanced booking six months out for groups reserving three or more campsites.)

The campground has staff on-site, rents gear, and offers amenities like free firewood, a hand with tent setup, Wi-Fi, and welcome beverages and Sunday-morning pancake breakfasts. “Our whole mission is about helping people get into the outdoors, meet community, and learn the ropes of camping. We want to be a place where folks can plan at the last minute and be rewarded for that, not penalized,” Degenhard says.

Cost: From $67

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite, the sixth most visited national park, has over 1,500 campsites and can host up to 9,600 campers a night. That said, most book up five months in advance, so knowing which take last-minute reservations is key. (Photo: Getty/Ezra Shaw)

Most campgrounds within Yosemite open for reservations five months out—and can be gobbled up here seconds after they’re released. But select campgrounds, including Bridalveil Creek, Crane Flat, Tamarack Flat, and White Wolf, are released just two weeks in advance from July to mid-October. Bridalveil Creek campground has 110 sites about 45 minutes from Yosemite Valley and close to hiking trailheads along Glacier Point Road. At Crane Flat, you’ll find 151 sites near giant sequoias, while 52-site Tamarack Flat and 74-site White Wolf are located along Tioga Road, with closer access to climbing and hiking in the Tuolumne Meadows area, which you can explore on this Gaia GPS map.

Best Hiking Trails near Tuolumne Meadows Campground  (Photo: Courtesy Gaia GPS)

Cost: $24 to $36

“Responsible Reservations” in California Should Open Up More Sites

In January, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that aims to reduce the number of no-shows at campsites around the state. Called AB 618, the bill requires California State Parks to modify its online camping reservations system, making it easier for campers to cancel a reservation and penalizing those who book sites and don’t show up.

The bill also means a lottery system will be set up for the state’s most coveted campgrounds, like Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Those changes are in effect now.

With spectacular scenery like this, it’s easy to see why Julia Pfeiffer Burnes State Park is an incredibly attractive destination for outdoors people. However, its position on the Big Sur coast means landslides can wash out access roads, and if it is open, there are only two campsites. (Photo: Courtesy Sierra Ducatt)

“California’s public parks and beaches are treasures that should be enjoyed by all Californians, and our outdated reservation system has led to a situation where many campsites are left empty,” said Assembly member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who introduced AB 618 to promote what she calls “responsible reservation practices.”

Websites That Make Last-Minute Hunting Easier

Many camping websites have added features that let you view campgrounds near you offering availability tonight, this weekend, or other dates in the near future. Here are a few I recommend.

On Hipcamp, you’ll see tabs with information on immediate availability and future dates, a huge perk about this booking site. Hipcamp also keeps up with new camping areas, often rented out by private landowners. It added tens of thousands of new sites last year, nearly doubling the amount of available sites from the year prior.

Recreation.gov, the booking platform for camping at all national parks, BLM lands, and U.S. Forest Service sites, also lists campgrounds with availability for the immediate weekend.

Campflare and Campnab allow you to set up text alerts for cancellations at select campgrounds for your preferred dates, so you can try to grab a spot immediately when one frees up.

Finally, Spot2Nite, an RV- and campground-booking site, pulls real-time availability from over 100,000 campgrounds around the country and lets you book them instantly or set up reservation alerts.

Best Practices That Will Increase Your Odds

For true freedom from the camping crowds, dispersed sites, like these at Guitar Lake, California, are the way to go. (Photo: Courtesy Julia Renn)

Consider these tested tips:

Check out first-come, first-served properties, as well as free dispersed camping on public lands. (For the latter, Gaia GPS can help you find your way on federal and state forest roads and trails, and point out markers en route so you don’t get lost.) Alas, even though these spots are still great options for spontaneous campers, they’re becoming increasingly more crowded these days, too. The Dyrt’s Camping Report found that first-come, first-served sites were twice as likely to be full in 2023 than they were in 2019. Not sure where to start? I wrote about the best dispersed campsite in every state, and you can find some real gems here, many of which are still relatively unknown.
Choose sites that are farther away from major population centers. In California, for example, anything near the Bay Area fills up immediately, but if you’re willing to drive farther north, places like Humboldt Redwood State Park or Lava Beds National Monument usually have better availability.
Look at campgrounds that are stretching their peak summer season and staying open into fall and even winter. More campgrounds are staying open later to accommodate the demand. For example, the four campgrounds within Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in North Carolina, used to close for the season in September or October, but two of them now stay open until late November and the other two are open year-round.
Camp midweek or during the off-seasons. Both promise more space and cheaper rates.
Pivot to places with shorter booking windows. Most state park campgrounds across the country open reservations six months to a year in advance—and the popular sites fill up early. But campgrounds at Utah State Parks and Iowa State Parks have narrower booking windows, allowing reservations four months and three months out, respectively. That means you can still nab a campsite closer to your date of travel.

As for the very-hard-to-book campsites at Benton Hot Springs, I’ll continue to try and reserve my favorite a whopping 12 months out. Because some camping trips are worth any amount of advance planning. Though I did get two tips from Benton manager Chris Greer that I plan to use: “The best time to look for a cancellation is on a Wednesday, when most people cancel their weekend booking. And give us a call, we might just be able to help you out.”

The author in her happy place: a campsite with her family (Photo: Courtesy Megan Michelson)

Contributing editor Megan Michelson spends about 40 nights a year camping—in a van, a tent, or a sleeping bag under the stars.

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