If you tried to book a campsite this summer, you were probably caught by surprise: the campgrounds were full. Maybe not every campground, and maybe not every day, but trying to reserve a weekend spot to set up a tent got a lot harder this year.
I found this out the hard way. The first week of April, I logged into Recreation.gov prepared to book campsites throughout the summer. I had a detailed plan of all the places I wanted to visit around the state. So you can imagine the look on my face when, clicking from one campground to the next, I saw row after row of Rs – as in “reserved.” I’m not new to this process – I book campsites every year, and even in a pinch, I’ve been able to locate a first come, first served site. (OK, I’ve spent a few nights in my car parked in a gas station or Walmart parking lot, but those times were few and far between.)
I wanted to avoid the parking lot nights this year, so I started booking early. Yet, the campgrounds were already full. What happened, and how did I miss the clues?
Last year’s adventures should have tipped me off. COVID kept people out of movie theaters, malls, and restaurants. They had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was outside. I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand at Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, one of many areas that initiated a permit system to manage the overwhelming demand on resources. The parking lots were full, the trails were packed, and the park rangers were struggling with impatient visitors. The second major clue to the new popularity of Colorado’s campgrounds appeared on the highways: campers, motorhomes, RVs, and travel trailers were everywhere. And whether you drive them, tow them, or stick them on top of a truck bed, you have to park those things somewhere – usually, a campground.
While campground camping may not provide the wilderness experience some people are looking for, it’s the best option for anyone who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have the time to find a suitable backcountry site. I’m usually doing research for a book (or two, or this year, three) so I fall into that category. I need to know that when I arrive at 6 p.m., there’s a parking spot for my car, a flat spot for my tent, and a picnic table for my laptop.
I’ve spent a lot of nights at campgrounds this year. Most had camp hosts, and I chatted with them to get their take on what’s going on out there in campground world. They all said pretty much the same thing: Colorado camping got really popular since COVID. One man, a camp host in Dillon, told me that his site opens for bookings at midnight in late November, and that people set their alarm clocks and wake up to log in and book the sites they want for the next summer. A woman who runs a site on the west side of Cottonwood Pass said that her bookings open at 8 a.m. and start filling up immediately. I asked her about first come, first served spots, which aren’t reservable, and she said, “We have six. People know when they open, and they show up first thing in the morning and stay for the full fourteen days – that’s the maximum time we allow.”
OK, so it wasn’t just my imagination. In the past, getting a site has never been an issue. This year, it was a major headache, but with a lot of searching, flexibility, and determination, I was able to book all the sites I needed – at least those that were open for booking. I have to wait on a few that were closed due to wildfires or restoration due to overpopularity. In the meantime, I put together a list of lessons learned so I don’t go through this again next year. With more books on the horizon, the summer of 2022 looks to be just as busy as the summer of 2021, and I’m going to do my best to avoid waking up in a Walmart parking lot.
- Start planning early. Get all your dates together, plus back-up dates, and put them on your calendar. Add information from the next few bullets to your calendar as well.
- Create an account on Recreation.gov. Locate all the campgrounds in the areas you’re visiting. Make these your primary targets, but also look for ones outside the preferred perimeter. I’ve stayed at a couple campgrounds that were 20 miles from the trailhead, but they were right off major highways, so I could still get to the trails very early.
- Find out the date and time the reservation system opens for these campgrounds and put notifications in your calendar to remind you to book them.
- Look at the maps of each campground. They’ll show you which sites are closest to the camp host, the road, bathrooms, and other features that you may want to be close to, or far away from.
- Be flexible with your dates. The weekends fill quickly, and it may be easier, for a three-day trip, to book a Monday through Wednesday or a Wednesday through Friday. Then use the Sunday before your trip to pack, or the Saturday after your trip to unpack.
- Be flexible with your location too. Campgrounds around national parks fill quickly but Colorado has amazing trails everywhere. Get away from the Front Range and enjoy some peace and quiet on the Western Slope, Grand Mesa, and Southwest Colorado.
- If you’re driving an RV or towing a camper, consider tent camping. Tents have gotten a lot bigger and easier to manage. Sleeping pads have gotten more comfortable and robust. You may find a tent site at a campground where all the RV sites are filled.
- Be open to walk-up (first come, first served) sites, but know how many there are and when they become available. I camped in Westcliffe this summer thinking I could easily grab a walk-up site. I got the last one, and I believe the only reason it was available was because the parking spot was too steep and narrow for a camper to negotiate.
- If you’re tent camping, be open to walk-in sites, where you have to walk a short distance from car to campsite. Most campgrounds with walk-in sites have carts you can use to haul your tent and other gear.
- Some areas are booked through sites other than Recreation.gov, so find that out ahead of time. Ridgway State Park reservations are made through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife site, for example.
- While you’re booking campsites, also be sure to find out if your destination is open, closed, on a reservation system, and whether a shuttle is required. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Rocky Mountain National Park, Maroon Bells Recreation Area, Hanging Lake, Ice Lake Basin, and a number of other popular spots require some research to ensure you get where you want to go, when you want to be there. Do your homework and avoid disappointment.
- If your favorite campground is fully booked, don’t give up. People cancel. I was able to snag a Friday night in Rocky Mountain National Park this year in addition to two other weekends I had booked early. Someone cancelled and I, on a whim, just happened to log into the booking site that day.
- Finally, be careful out there. Getting from home to campsite to trailhead isn’t a race, and nothing ruins a vacation faster than a car accident. Obey the speed limits, don’t pass on two-lane roads unless you can absolutely see far enough up the road to make the pass safely, and be considerate of all the other drivers who want to get out there just as much as you do.
This blog first appeared as a column in the August 24, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.