The authors in front of Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

Camping in Shenandoah NP - Big Meadows Campground

National Park Campgrounds

An Introduction to America's National Park Service Campgrounds

     Camping in America's national parks and monuments allows visitors to more fully appreciate the beauty of America's natural treasures. Although sometimes crowded, National Park Service campgrounds generally offer spectacular scenery and plentiful activities. One of our favorite campgrounds is in Devil's Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming. Here campers enjoy a large grassy area with cottonwood trees lining the banks of the meandering Belle Fourche River. Campers can walk to a nearby prairie dog town or along a hiking trail that leads to the base of impressive Devil's Tower, a sacred site for Native Americans. Flamingo Campground at the south end of Everglades National Park is beside Florida Bay in a grassy area of palm trees and serves as an ideal location for campers to enjoy bicycling, canoeing, and hiking.  Nine campgrounds along the Blue Ridge Parkway have always been among our favorites.  Generally uncrowded, these campgrounds are scattered along the 469-mile scenic parkway, offering convenient places to overnight while enjoying a drive along one of America's most scenic routes.  The campground on Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore is in a grove of magnificent live oak trees and a short distance from one of the Atlantic Ocean's most beautiful and unpopulated beaches. Campers can walk to an old Carnegie family mansion that was destroyed by fire.  The above photo is at Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.  This park is best known for scenic Skyline Drive that winds along the crest of the Appalachians.  The campground at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho is in a huge cinder field resulting from long-ago volcanic eruptions. Camping here is certainly a unique experience.


     Not all areas managed by the National Park Service maintain campgrounds within the park borders. For example, the many historical areas operated by the National Park Service, including Fort Frederica National Monument (GA), Arkansas Post National Memorial, and Tonto National Monument (AZ), do not have developed camping facilities. Likewise, National Park Service facilities in metropolitan areas generally do not have campground facilities. The majority of the major national parks including Yosemite National Park (CA), Yellowstone National Park (WY/MT/ID), Rocky Mountain National Park (CO), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC/TN), Big Bend National Park (TX), Grand Canyon National Park (AZ), Sequoia National Park (CA), Glacier National Park (MT), and Death Valley National Park (CA/NV), each have several campgrounds. Even many smaller park units such as Dinosaur National Monument (CO/UT), Colorado National Monument (CO), Joshua Tree National Park (CA), and Lava Beds National Monument (CA) offer at least one developed campground.

National Park Service campground locations


    Most national park campgrounds are maintained and operated by the National Park Service.  These campgrounds typically offer picnic tables, grills, public bathrooms with sinks, flush toilets, sanitary stations, and individual parking spaces. Many also have dump stations. Very few NPS campgrounds have electrical or water hookups, hot water, or showers.  A shortage of personnel has caused to NPS to increasingly turn the management to some of its campgrounds over to concessionaires.  For example, five of the twelve campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park are managaed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the same firm that operates Yellowstone's nine lodging facilities.  Concessionaires typically operate national park RV parks that have more elaborate facilities. RV parks are located in a limited number of national parks including Big Bend, Grand Teton, Olympic, and Yellowstone. National Park Service rangers offer evening campfire and interpretive programs at most NPS campgrounds, especially on weekends during busy summer months. The programs generally begin at dusk and are nearly always enjoyable and informative. Arrive early and you will generally be able to spend time talking with a ranger or singing songs with other campers.


    National park campgrounds are typically operated on a first-come, first-serve basis.  This means it is in your best interest to arrive and occupy a campsite as early in the day as possible.  For busy parks such as Yellowstone, Sequoia, or Glacier, we often stay at a U.S. Forest Service campground within a short driving distance of the park, and arise early the following morning in order to claim a campsite in the park.  This isn't always necessary, but you should use good judgment based on the park you will be visiting, along with the season and day of the week you plan to visit.  Some National Park Service campgrounds permit reservations.  Mather Campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the park's North Rim Campground each accept reservations.  If planning to visit the North Rim you will almost certainly want to try for a reservation because this campground is full virtually the entire season.  Some large parks accept reservations forLake Roosevelt NRA only one or two of several campgrounds. For example, Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley National Park is the only one of the park's nine campgrounds that accepts reservations by Internet or phone.  Glacier National Park in Montana has thirteen campgounds, only two of which (Fish Creek and St. Mary) are subject to reservation.  Reservations in Yosemite Valley campgrounds are  required from March 15 through November.  The reservation system works well if you know exactly when you will be visiting a particular park. For reservations in National Park Service campgrounds visit, or call 877-444-6777.

National Park Service campgrounds that accept reservations


    Nightly camping fees without hookups generally range between $10 and $26 depending on the park, the campground, and the facilities. Concessionaire-operated RV parks within national park units offer hookups and are more expensive.  For example, Fishing Bridge RV Park in Yellowstone is $50 per night for up to four individuals.  Headwaters RV Park in Grand Teton National Park (actually, John D Rockefeller, Jr Parkway) charges $35 per night for a tent site and $70 per night for an RV site. Some campgrounds are available without charge, but these tend to be in remote locations, often with no potable water.  In general, busy parks and campgrounds with improved facilities charge at the high end of the range. Most park campgrounds accept payment by check or cash, but not credit cards. Senior citizens with a American the Beautiful Senior Pass and handicapped citizens with an American the Beautiful Access Pass camp for half the regular fee, even in most campgrounds managed by concessionaires rather than the National Park Service. Both passes can be obtained at any national park visitor center or entrance station. The access pass is free while the senior pass has a one-time $10 fee. These two passports also provide free entrance to any units of the park system. An annual America the Beautiful Pass ($80) is available to anyone and provides free park admission but no reduced fees for camping or other activities. Some parks impose a limit on the number of vehicles and the number of people who can occupy a single campsite. All parks have a limit on the length of time you can stay although the limit may be waived if the campground isn't full.

Additional information about National Park Service fees and passes

 Thinking about spending a night or two in a lodge during a visit to one of the national parks?  Comprehensive information about all national park lodging facilities is available in The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges by David L. and Kay W. Scott.   The eighth edition includes color photos, room rates, reservation information, room recommendations, dining options, activities, maps, and pet information.

Order Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges from Amazon.

David and Kay Scott have traveled American's national parks for forty years including six summers devoted to exploring national park lodges.  During these travels they have worn out four VW campers and are currently on their third tent.  The Scotts have camped along the Pacific Ocean shoreline in Olympic National Park and beside Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.  They have camped in the snow in Yellowstone and in a hail storm near a visitor center in Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico.

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The authors in front of Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park

Cover of 8th edition