Summer is the season for camping. Many families load up the car and set off to campgrounds around the nations. They have big plans to enjoy nature, rough it in a tent, and relax by a campfire. National Parks can be one of the best places to check all of these things off your list.
Did you know there are 419 national park sites in the United States?
However, you may want to do some research first. Each national park generally has different camping fees. Campgrounds within the same park can even have different rates. This is due to a variety of reasons including things like nearby attractions, amenities, and more.
The average price for camping at a national park is $20 per night. The price can vary not only between national parks but at individual campsites with in the same park can vary in price. Some national parks will also charge a parking or entrance fee.
Let’s take a look at how much it costs to camp in a national park and the various things that can affect the price.
Types of Camping Available in National Parks
There are over a hundred national parks throughout the United States. Therefore, it is very likely that wherever your camping destination is, a national park will be nearby. While not every park offers campground camping, most do.
Some campgrounds can be quite developed. They can have a myriad of facilities like showers, restrooms, and possibly even laundry.
The most luxurious can have grocery stores, camp stores, and gift shops. For example, the Pinnacles Campground in California has a campground store. It carries things like travel necessities, small outdoor gear, and a few gifts.
Established campgrounds are great for those with children. They are also an ideal spot for campers who use an RV or trailer. They can provide you with all the hookups you need plus dump stations and spacious lots.
For parks that do not have campground camping, you can give dispersed camping a try. Unless otherwise posted, you can disperse camp in any national forest. Dispersed camping is often rugged, with no amenities provided.
It is important to note, that while some national parks do allow dispersed camping, there are plenty that do not.
National parklands tend to have more rules and protections than national forests or the Bureau of Land Management held lands. If you are set on dispersed camping, be sure to check all regulations before you set up your tent. To be safe, you can choose to visit a national park but dispersed camp in a nearby national forest.
If a campground is more your style, the national park service has a handy tool.
This search tool allows you to find any national park within the United States. Simply narrow down which state you want to go to, select the region, and then it will show you the available campground within your city or town.
Some national parks have back-country camping options. A happy medium between a maintained campground and own-your-own dispersed camping. Backcountry camping usually will provide you with a fire ring and possibly bear-proof food storage, like a pole or a box.
The rates for these different types of camping vary. Campgrounds will traditionally charge a reservation fee and an overnight fee. Back-country camping tends to be more low-cost and sometimes even free. Dispersed camping is almost always free, aside from the cost of a park pass or entrance fee.
National Park Camping Reservations and Fees
Reservations vs. First-come-first-served
Camping in a national park can be difficult because oftentimes campgrounds are either first-come-first-served or by reservation only. Either way, it can be hard to be sure that you will ascertain a campsite.
First-come-first-served campgrounds only may not always have a campsite available, especially during the busy season. Sometimes there is no way of knowing if you will be able to camp, you simply have to show up and check the availability.
Other campgrounds operate strictly on reservations. However, most only take reservations six months in advance. Making a reservation guarantees you a camping spot in the peak season.
Popular destinations may use a hybrid model. Either taking reservations for a portion of their sites and leaving the rest first-come-first-served or using reservations during the offseason and first-come-first-served during the busy season.
Some of the most popular campgrounds that cater to outdoor enthusiasts or athletes, like rock climbers, assign campers a campsite. You have to show up and they will provide you with your shared camp space. Groups may be separated.
It is important to remain flexible during the peak season. If finding a spot is important to you, either because you are traveling with family members or need particular amenities like a 50 amp hook-up, you should secure a reservation.
Overnight Fees, Park Passes, and More
As for fees, they vary greatly. Some places only charge around ten dollars per night while others may cost upwards of thirty dollars a night. It really depends on how in-demand your campground is.
Campgrounds at popular destinations, like Yellowstone, can charge more than national park campgrounds in lesser-known areas. The amount of nearby attractions and activities greatly influences the cost.
In addition to a nightly or weekly rate, you may also have to pay a park entrance fee. Park entrance fees are usually around 20 dollars per vehicle. Some can be as low as 5 dollars while others can be as high as 35 dollars. A few parks change rates based on the season.
All current national park entrance fees can be found here. If you find yourself frequently camping at national parks, you may want to look into a multi-park pass. These passes, such as the America the Beautiful Pass, can get you access to all of the national parks and national lands across the country for a one-time fee.
Some of America’s Best National Park Campgrounds and Their Rates
Denali National Park Alaska
Alaska has unsurpassed majestic beauty. Denali National Park is no exception. The national park has six campgrounds. Fees range from 12 dollars per night to 27 dollars.
In winter (late September to early May) camping is free.
- Hawai’i Volcanoes
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is another untamed natural beauty. This national park is only home to two campgrounds. One campground costs 10 dollars per night while the other costs 15 dollars per night. There is tent camping or the option of a rustic cabin. There are no RV camping or electricity hookups.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains is a popular national park within the lower 48. It has a variety of campgrounds, spanning over North Carolina and Tennessee. It is the most-visited campground in the United States.
This national park has backcountry, front country, group campgrounds, and horse camps. The backcountry sites are only accessed by hiking, therefore they are only for backpackers. The front country sites are within the developed campgrounds.
Backcountry camping requires a permit. Frontcountry campgrounds vary in price but typically fall between 15 dollars and 30 dollars. Elkmont is perhaps the most popular, with 200 tent and/or RV sites just outside of Gatlinburg. A campsite is 27 dollars each night.
- Yellowstone National Park
The well-known and ever-popular Yellowstone boasts twelve campgrounds and over 2000 campsites. Only five of them take reservations. One of them is an RV park while the rest are either mixed-use or tent-only.
The rates span from 15 dollars per night to 32 dollars per night. Some have showers, laundry, and toilets while others have practically nothing. A handful of them take reservations, the remaining first-come-first-served campsites fill up by late morning on most days.
- Grand Canyon National Park
As you can imagine, the Grand Canyon is a very popular tourist spot. The Grand Canyon National Park has four campgrounds, one of them being an RV park with full hookups. They are located around the Grand Canyon rims.
The South Rim, in Arizona, is popular and easy to get to. The North Rim, on Utah’s side, is only visited by 10% of travelers as it is difficult to traverse. Rates are 25 dollars per night and 18 dollars per night respectively. Trailer village is 18 dollars per night.
- Zion National Park
Also known for canyons and rock formations is Zion National Park. This Utah based national park has three campgrounds. Camping is very popular with most campgrounds filling up by mid-morning and being completely full each night from mid-March through late November.
They are a mix of reservations, which can be made up to six months in advance, and first-come-first-served. Group campsites are 50 dollars per night. Tent campsites are 20 dollars per night and full hookup campsites are 30 dollars per night.
- Olympic National Park Campground
Olympic National Park Campground in Washington has an appealing blend of oceanside beach campsites and heavily wooded forest campsites. In total there are fourteen campgrounds.
The cost per night is different for each campground type. Full hookups cost 22 dollars to 25 dollars per night. Other campgrounds cost around 10 to 15 dollars per night. Group campsites are the costliest at 40 dollars per night while one of the walk-in only campgrounds is free.
- St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Some national parks are very affordable. In Wisconsin, you can find the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. For using the landings, campsites, and other facilities on federal lands within the boundary of the Riverway, no fees apply.
- Niobrara National Scenic River Nebraska
Some national parks do have camping, but they operate in partnership with other entities. This is where determining the camping rates and regulations can get a bit tricky.
In the case of Niobrara, no national park fees apply. This is because they own and manage the river. The camping that they do offer is on a campground managed by the state park. Nevertheless, it is very budget-friendly at 6 dollars a night.
It is always a great idea to check out where you plan to stay before you head out. Even if the campground is first-come-first-served you still want to do your research.
Most campgrounds found on the national park website list not only the rates but how quickly the campgrounds tend to fill up. Some are very detailed and list the exact time on the day before at which they reached maximum occupancy.
National park campgrounds will put you right in the middle of the action. They are typically at the heart of beautiful scenic locales. Just make sure to do your research first to be sure you can secure a great campsite.
Tips for Camping In a National Park
- Be flexible
National park campground rules and regulations vary by park. There is a broad range of regulations concerning how to secure a spot at a national park campground. Be sure to thoroughly research your chosen park before showing up.
If you can secure a reservation, it is a good idea to do so. This is especially true if you have an RV or a rig that requires hookups. Also, if you are traveling with small children that wouldn’t do well driving from spot to spot looking for somewhere to stay.
Still, even the best intentions can go awry. Sometimes campgrounds off the beaten trail can be blocked by water, mud, or fallen trees, leaving you to have to find somewhere else. During the peak season, it isn’t uncommon for first-come-first-served campgrounds to be full.
Try to remain flexible. And remember, in the end, you will still end up out in nature, enjoying Mother Earth!
- Know and Abide by the Rules and Regulations
Some national park campgrounds don’t allow pets. Others only allow you to run your generator during a certain time of day. Some campgrounds don’t allow tents, only RVs, while in others the opposite is true.
It is important to know the rules beforehand and abide by them once you are in the park. A quick search online can usually provide you with all the information you need to know about your campground. Once you arrive there will likely be a staffed ranger station who can provide guidance and answer your questions.
- Be Prepared
Speaking of when you can run your generator, be prepared to not have electricity or running water. If your campground does have generator rules, there may be sometimes when you are dry camping.
Additionally, due to the location of many national park campgrounds, some may not have every type of hook up available. National parks are known for their scenic beauty, and park rangers intend to keep it that way, hence the sometimes rugged experience.
- Keep a Tidy Site
National parks inhabit some of the nation’s most beautiful landscapes. They are scenic, pristine, and natural wonders. In order to keep them this way, you should always aim to leave no trace behind.
That means that no matter how (tent, trailer, RV) or where (campground, dispersed, backcountry) you are camping, you should always clean up after yourself. Dispose of trash and waste properly. If there is nowhere to dispose of it, take it with you.
Keeping hygienic when it comes to food is also important. Be prepared to see lots of wildlife. And, on occasion manage wildlife that can get up close and personal.
Bears and other animals will seek out food. If you are in bear country you should keep your food sealed in a bear box, hoist it in a tree, or use a bear pole. Even if bears aren’t around, keeping your food and your pet’s food properly stored and locked away can deter animal intruders.
Even your waste, garbage, dishwater, and cooking clothes can lure animals. Keep your campsite as tidy as you can and take steps to eliminate odors or keep them as far away from your campsite as possible.
Keeping your campsite clean keeps your natural surroundings healthy and beautiful, it also protects and benefits the wildlife!
- Watch out for Road Closures
Finally, watch out for road closure. National parks in the US cover more than 84 million acres. That is a great deal of space. It is a large area to maintain and patrol.
Due to national parks’ scenic location, their untamed nature, and their sheer size, you can encounter a closed road every now and then. This could be due to natural causes, like a landslide or bad weather, or just maintenance.
You should be prepared to turn around and find a different route. Knowing how to turn in a tight space is vital if you have a motorhome or trailer. It can also be helpful to know how to read a map and follow detours.
Sometimes, finding a different route can be time-consuming. In that case, remember rule number one, be flexible!
Whether you are backpacking, tent camping, or staying in an RV, there is a national park campground site for everyone. You will be surprised to find that some of the rates are very affordable. Many campgrounds offer a variety of camping types, such as backcountry or front country, so you can find a campsite that fits your taste and your budget.
As national parks contain some of the nation’s most beautiful sights, wildlife, and places to pitch a tent, you won’t be disappointed when you choose a national park campground.