Making California campground reservations can feel like standing inline for a roulette wheel. The state boasts some of the most gorgeous campgrounds in the United States–and boy are they popular. The trick to booking a campsite is planning ahead or using automated email alerts (state parks only) to let you know when a vacancy opens up. Below you’ll find tips for success in California state parks camping.
For those looking for a quick link to the California state parks reservation system, the address is: https://www.reservecalifornia.com/
Planning ahead means knowing when you can first make a camping reservation for a given campground. For state and national park campgrounds in California, you can generally reserve a campsite 6 months in advance. To book a site in a popular campground you need to be logged into one of the online booking systems six months from the day you want to camp.
For the most popular sites, you’ll want to have your ideal site chosen and ready at the precise hour the sites become available for booking. You can also call to make a booking, but by the time your call get’s answered, all of the best sites may have been booked online.
For instance, I recently wanted to book a site in April at San Elijo State Beach Campground, a beachside campground in Cardiff, California. On October 1, six months before I wanted to camp, I found the campground map on Reserve California the site that handles California state park bookings) identified a site fronting the beach in the list on the site, picked a date in late April.
Then I waited. At exactly 8 a.m. PST (the time the booking period for California state parks opens), I clicked on the site and – guess what? – it was already booked. I quickly opened the full campground map to see what was available, and there was only one beachfront site left. I managed to snag it.
If I’d wanted to book a site in May, I’d need to do the same thing in November of the year before. Not all campgrounds fill up this quickly, but many do, especially if you’re looking for a premium spot.
For booking national park campsites, online booking on Recreation.gov opens at 7 a.m., the same time the call centers open.
If you slept in and missed the opening to book a great campsite, another option is use Reserve America’s email alerts system to inform you when a site opens up.
This system lets you pick a campground and a date then sends an email if someone cancels their reservation. Typically, you need to move quickly after you’ve received the email or the site will book up again.
Unfortunately, I always seem to receive the alerts at 2 a.m. and the spots are already taken by the time go online, but that may just be bad luck.
National Parks Campgrounds in California
If you are looking to make reservations at a campground in one of the U.S. National Parks located in California, you can book sites through Reservations.gov
Similar to California’s state parks, national park sites are releases for booking 6 months out. For instance, the first day you could book a site for July 1 is on January 1 of that same year.
In some campgrounds, reservations are only required or needed in peak season. For instance, Joshua Tree requires reservations from September through May, the cooler months when the temperatures this desert park are comfortable.
Some parks have first-come-first-serve campgrounds that don’t require reservations. However, during peak season, particularly on holidays and weekends, counting on finding a space in these campgrounds is a gamble. Be prepared with a contingency plan, such as dispersed camping, in case you can’t secure a spot.