how to get a last minute campsite

How to Get Last Minute Camping Reservations at State Parks

It’s no secret camping has exploded in popularity, turning it into somewhat of a competitive sport with campers relying on apps to reserve popular campsites.

But when the deadline closes each day for online reservations, those apps can’t help you.

This leaves a hole window of oppportunity in the reservation system that some states have plugged with policies to help you get last-minute campsites on the day of arrival.

Knowing how to grab these spots is great way to bring spontaneity back to your camping trips. In this post, I’ll go over how to find campgrounds that allow last-minute reservations and share tips for taking advantage of them.

Day-of-arrival campsite reservations

The good folks at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and National Resources have created such a system.

“Fairness is the reason,” said John Ferrara, a spokesman for Elizabeth Rosevear Grove, Operations Manager at DCNR. “We are so loved, there aren’t enough sites for everyone.”

Pennsylvania refers to this system a couple different ways:

  • Walk-up camping
  • Day-of camping
  • Same-day camping
  • Honor system camping

How walk-up reservations work

In Pennsylvania, the online reservation system for camping reservations at state parks closes at noon. At that time, a list of all campsites – booked and available – is posted at the park’s campground office.

From that point forward, prospective campers can go to the office and reserve any spot that is available.

TIP: Before making the trip to a campground, be sure to check availablity online or by calling the office to see if there are any sites up for grabs.

Available sites are labelled with a “W” for walk-up.

If you arrive at the campground and don’t find staff at the park office, you should seek out the campground host, who can also assist you in booking a spot.

This is your best window of opportunity to get a same-day campsite. However, once the office has closed, don’t give up! You still have a shot thanks to the “honor system.”

What is the campground honor system and how does it work?

The honor kicks in when state park offices close and payments are transferred to the “Iron Ranger.”

I get a kick out of that name for the metal drop box with a slot to put in your money. (I picture a friendly face drawn on the box with the envelope slit as the mouth! )🗿

Honor system camping in Pennsylvania is limited to one night. Campers must include their payment and the site number in their Iron Ranger deposit.

On the whole, I found Pennsylvania to be more accommodating than many states with day-of-arrival camping.

To give yourself the best chances at getting a campsite in your preferred state, you can gain an advantage by knowing when the reservation window closes.

TIP: Before showing up at a campground, be aware of the deadline for same-day reservations and whether there is a system in place to reserve spots after that deadline.

In New York State, reservations can be made until 3 p.m. through the online system on the day of arrival, said Stephanie Hale, camping director for New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Cabins and cottages must be reserved the day before. There is no honor system equivalent in New York State.

In Florida, campsites can be booked until 1 p.m. on the day of arrival. After that, similar to Pennsylvania, arrangements are made directly with the campground staff.

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Is same-day camping allowed in all states?

Day-of-arrival camping isn’t available in all states. I found that that the reservation window closes the day before in many states, including Delaware and Virginia, where midnight is the cut-off.

In some states, day-of reservations vary according to the state park.

“Same day reservations are allowed at a limited number of parks through the call center and website until 5 p.m.,” according to Maryland Department of National Resources website.

How to find camping reservation policies for state parks

State policies regarding camping reservations can be hard to pin down.

Many states contract out their campsite reservations to recreation.gov, but the policies for same-day camping aren’t usually included on this giant reservation website. This information is usually (but not always!) found on the state’s website.

1. Start with Google search

I recommend starting with Google search instead of searching directly on state websites, which have a tendency to return lots of press releases that can be a lot to wade through. Try Googling “same-day camping reservation” or “first-come, first-served camping” plus the state’s name.

Many times, if there is a same-day policy listed on the state website, it will pop up right in your search results in Google.

If nothing comes up, there’s a good chance the state doesn’t allow last-minute reservations. But keep in mind that COVID resulted in changes for many public campgrounds, and websites may not reflect the most recent policies.

2. Call park offices

Another way to pin down this information is to call the park offices. Getting the phone number is the tricky part here.

I’ve found some park numbers on Google maps, but many times they aren’t listed. Try calling the state’s natural resources department and asking for a park’s phone number. I’ve also had luck calling the governor’s office, which frequently has a real person answering the phone who has a directory of state offices.

3. Use The Dyrt to find phone numbers.

The Dyrt is an incredible resources for campers … it’s THE best app for finding campsites and also happens to have many phone numbers that are hard to find elsewhere!

The Pro version gives you access to free camping spots, cell phone service maps and a ton of information on all the best camping options with reviews.

First-Come First-Served Campsites

In addition to last-minute reservations, there are also state and national campgrounds with campsites that cannot be reserved in advance. At these campgrounds, you can ONLY get spots on the day of arrival.

These sites are known as first-come, first-served campsites, and are used in some of the most beautiful, popular places to camp as a way to broaden access to these coveted campgrounds.

Many of these spots are for tent or small campers only and they may be available only during the off-season.

Grand Canyon National Park, for example, has 50 first-come first-served spots in its Desert View Campground, and its Mather Campground makes all spots first-come first-served from December to February. Mather also has 10 first-come first-served spots available year-around.

The hard-to-book Assateague Island National Seashore where wild horses run free and aren’t shy about visiting your campsite – transitions its campsites to first-come first-served in the off-season.

Lake Michigan Recreation Area is a beautiful spot in the Midwest with a mix of sites you can reserve and sites that are first-come first-served only, all year round.

Do you know about a favorite spot that offers same-day reservations?

If so, I’d love to hear about it!

Camping at Assateague. Do you see those horses by the tents? (They came up super close to our van, too!)

There’s nothing better than a spontaneous camping trip.

Add a comment below, or drop me a line. 🙂


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