Kristen Tate camps a lot. The freelance book editor from San Francisco takes car camping trips for two weeks every summer, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and often on weekends. She knows it's tricky to make reservations for campgrounds in California, especially when you're looking for popular sites during the peak summer season.
"If I want something for a very desirable weekend, I plan ahead," Tate said. "I either get that six-month window when [reservations] open, or I just don't worry and wait for a two-week window right before. I start looking then because that's when people start canceling."
Tate's advice for getting a cancellation before a holiday weekend: "Keep your browser open and stay on it."
Why is it so hard to get a reservation? California State Parks says that at times, it can't keep up with demand. "We have approximately 13,000 campsites available ... and each year, on average, more than 6.5 million visitors camp in our popular state parks."
The COVID-19 pandemic has boosted demand even higher.
For example, of 10.1 million households that camped in 2020, 21% said they were new to camping, compared with 4% in 2019, according to a new report by KOA, which operates private campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada. For the first quarter of this year, KOA reports that online reservations increased 112% over the same period in 2020, and 100% over the same period in 2019.
During the pandemic, many campgrounds opened, then closed and canceled reservations, and then reopened with limited capacity to comply with state public health guidelines. Now, many are set to reopen fully in areas of the state that have advanced to the orange tier (easing COVID-19 rules for businesses and activities). The state also has lifted the travel advisory that asked Californians to stay within 120 miles of home.
Whether you are camping in a tent or in an RV, here are tips and resources that can help. Prices at campgrounds vary, depending on whether you visit during a peak or off-peak season. Also, some campgrounds remain closed because of the pandemic or last year's wildfires.
How do I get started?
Tate starts her search with an "old-fashioned California state atlas," which feels like a throw-back, given that most campgrounds have websites. But not all.
The large-format atlases "have all of the campgrounds marked," she said. "So a lot of the little, tiny county ones or community ones, they'll be marked on that map. You may not be able to find out much about them online."
Once you have a destination and a date in mind, nail down your spot. Camping reservations open six months in advance for most national and state parks, meaning Memorial Day campers snagged their reservations in late November. (Check for cancellations as dates get closer.)
National parks: California has nine, more than any other state: Channel Islands, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia and Yosemite.
For many park campgrounds, Recreation.gov [(877) 444-6777] is the online gateway. You can choose a campground and peruse photos and maps of each one, allowing you to pick a site near the creek or deep in the woods. Reservations open six months in advance.
California State Parks: The agency uses the ReserveCalifornia.com [(800) 444-7275 ] online system, which opens reservations six months in advance of the date you want to camp. It also offers maps and information about amenities.
One wrinkle that causes frustration for many trying to book at this site: People with existing reservations can change their dates. That's why the campground you select may be sold out even if you log on exactly six months before the date you want to go.
Among the toughest state sites to reserve: Crystal Cove between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, which has 24 cottages, and coastal campgrounds from Santa Cruz to Southern California. The agency recommends trying state parks north of Santa Cruz or inland sites. Check the website for camping information, how to make an on-site reservation, when reservations open throughout the year and other FAQs.
Booking tip: Carefully read the rules and refund policies. For state parks, you won't get back the $7.99 to make a reservation if you cancel. For Recreation.gov, nonrefundable fees include $8 for online, $9 for call center and $3 for in-person bookings. Also, you can create online alerts that let you know if a campsite you want becomes available.
National forests: Angeles, San Bernardino and Los Padres forests to the north and east as well as Cleveland to the south offer some first come, first served campsites. Arrive no later than Thursday for a chance at getting a weekend site in summer. Others may be booked on Recreation.gov.
National forests also offer back-country or "dispersed" camping, which means sites may not have water, bathrooms, fire rings or other amenities. Bring everything you need (and pack it out too).
Other public lands: County and regional parks as well as nature preserves have their own reservation systems and can be a good choice. "I often find they are more fun because they just aren't as crowded," Tate said.
For example, you can book a site at Idyllwild Regional Park near Mt. San Jacinto through Riverside County Parks for $30 a night (RivCoParks.org, [(800) 234-7275]) or the Mission Creek Preserve in Desert Hot Springs for free (donations welcome) through the Wildlands Conservancy, which owns and manages the site.
Private campgrounds: Camp-California.com allows you to research campgrounds at 1,200 private sites and click through to individual ones to make a reservation. For example, I searched for "Yosemite" and found eight options outside the park at nearby towns such as Groveland and Oakhurst.
"Create your ultimate campground," said Dyana Kelley, president of CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance. "The filters allow you to pick and choose those things that are important to you and narrow it down."
Do you want a campground with Wi-Fi? A pool or water park? A camp store to buy food? Do you want to bring your pet? Pick the type of campground you want based on the amenities you can't live without, Kelley said.
Tip: The website allows you to choose a campground and then click to see where you can rent an RV nearby. It could be a time-saver for those who don't want to rent in L.A. Some providers will have the RV ready when you arrive at your campsite.
Can't I just show up?
Good luck with that. Campgrounds are super-busy in summer, and you may find yourself without anywhere to stay. "You can try it; I just wouldn't expect" to get a spot, Kelley said. "You have to have a Plan B."
That Plan B may mean having a second or third choice in case your first is full. Flexibility is key. Tate once arrived late in the afternoon at Joshua Tree National Park and struck out on getting a campsite. That's when she booked a room with her HotelTonight app. "It's such a great backup," she said. "OK, you miss out on camping for a night, but you found this gorgeous hotel room for $100." And you can be first in line the next day to try for a campsite.
Isn't there an easier way?
Yes and no. There are free apps such as The Dyrt (thedyrt.com) and Campendium (campendium.com) that allow you to search campgrounds and offer photos and information on amenities and individual campsites. But they don't show real-time availability or allow you to make a reservation.
Hipcamp.com goes in another direction. It offers private camping destinations you may not think to visit, such as a lavender or llama farm. It's a good way to discover places where few are camping. Read up on the site and understand what it does and doesn't offer in terms of bathrooms, showers and other amenities. In a pilot program, Hipcamp is adding real-time availability for state parks to its website, though you still must book at ReserveCalifornia.
I don't have camping gear
Welcome to the world of glamping, ready-made camping with all the fixings. Campsites can be lavish and pricey, such as Ventana Big Sur Glamping, which shelters you in safari-style tents at a 20-acre redwood canyon, complete with a wood-burning fire pit, potable water, electric lamps, USB charging ports, towels and lanterns (from $240 a night).
Or Eco-Camps, which features safari tents in Temecula (from $159 a night) and Goleta, both opening in May. You are barely within the bounds of being called a camper, but so what?
"It's nice if you have a group of people who are interested in camping but don't have any equipment, or don't like camping but still want to be with you," Tate said. "They're tent camps, and you really don't have to bring anything with you."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.