How to Get a Last-Minute Camping Reservation in Northern California
When it comes to camping in California, the old adage is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This is especially true in the summer months, when the kids are out of school, the weather is perfect, and family vacations are in full swing. And what’s more summery than a camping trip in the great outdoors?
But first, a quick primer on camping reservations in California. Campgrounds are operated by one of several agencies. California State Parks take reservations through Reserve California. National Parks operate via Recreation.gov. There are also regional campgrounds and privately-run campgrounds.
Unfortunately, if you’re hoping to get a site at any of the big-name spots around Northern California, such as Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, you may be too late. These places fill up fast! Most campgrounds release their available sites for reservations six months in advance, and they often sell out within minutes. But just because you weren’t up at the crack of dawn in January clicking “refresh” on your computer to snag a reservation doesn’t mean camping isn’t in the cards for you this summer. If your plans are flexible, there are still ways to get outside and enjoy all our great state has to offer. Whether you’re a first-time camper or experienced at “roughing it,” following are some tips for planning a last-minute camping trip.
Check for Cancellations
Plans change, especially when people book so far in advance. If you’re serious about finding a campsite, check your preferred location daily to see if there are any cancelations. Be open to camping midweek, as these are often easier to come by. There are also camping cancellation groups on social media sites such as Facebook, where campers share upcoming cancellations so you get first dibs at openings. It’s a lot of work to be vigilant, but it pays off.
Consider First-Come, First-Served Campsites
Many California campgrounds offer first-come, first-served campsites, also known as walk-up campsites. Rather than reserving a spot online, you simply drive up to the campground of choice and keep your fingers crossed they have an open site. Sure, they might not work for those who need the security of knowing they’ll have a place to rest their head for the night, but they are an option for those who are willing to risk it. Again, your options are much better if you’re traveling midweek and to lesser-known campgrounds — and arrive early in the day for the best sites. You can find a list of first-come, first-served campgrounds operated by the California State Park System.
Get Off the Beaten Track
Sure, Yosemite’s commanding granite slabs and towering waterfalls are awe-inspiring. Lake Tahoe is renowned the world over for its crystal-clear waters. The rock formations of Big Sur, the misty redwood forests of the North Coast, and the snow-capped peak of Mount Lassen are all hotspots for outdoor adventures. But California has plenty of lesser-known gems as well, all of which may be easier to snag. Consider the eastern Sierra, gold country, or far northeast corner of the state. Don’t have a location in mind? One tip is to visit reservecalifornia.com or recreation.gov, enter the city closest to where you’d like to visit (or closest to your home), enter your preferred dates and search available openings. Other tips include the following:
- Look for spots away from urban areas. The closer a campground is to a major city, the more popular it tends to be. People don’t want to drive long distances for a quick getaway, so these sites often fill up first, especially on weekends. If you don’t mind a longer drive, you’re more likely to find vacancies.
- Look for spots away from major roads and highways. Easy-access campgrounds also go first, especially among the RV and trailer crowd. If you’re car camping, look for campgrounds tucked away on hidden backroads deep within the mountains. True, it may take more effort to get there, but the reward will be worth it.
- Stay away from “best of” lists. When researching campgrounds, it’s normal to start with an internet search. Those “best of” lists may be extremely helpful when planning a trip in advance, but not when trying to book a last-minute trip. The best spots are also the most popular, meaning they are usually booked solid.
- Consider dispersed camping. Did you know you’re allowed to camp on public lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management? Dispersed camping means you can sleep under the stars at undeveloped BLM land across the state. You simply find a flat area away from developed facilities and claim a spot for the night.
- Try private campgrounds. Hipcamp allows you to reserve campsites on private property at locations across the state. Facilities range from glamping cabins with all the amenities to rustic backcountry spots deep in the woods. Because they are privately owned, there are a range of styles and experiences, from alpaca farms and wineries to treehouses and yurts. Most are basic properties near hiking trails, forests, lakes or creeks — just like any other campsite.
Consider “glamping” resorts
If your budget is flexible, consider a glamping resort, which is essentially a cross between camping and a hotel stay. Many of these privately-owned spots have a variety of accommodations, such as tent cabins, log cabins, yurts, and retro trailers. But most are simply private land with tons of space to pitch traditional tents, often near hiking trails, lakes and other natural attractions. Nearby locations to consider include Inn Town Campground in Nevada City and American River Resort near Placerville.