What’s the most appealing thing about RVing? For many people, it’s the opportunity to visit some of America’s most precious treasures – our National Parks – in style and comfort. And for many of us, planning the trip is half the fun of the RV lifestyle.
Here are 10 tips you may want to use to make that RV trip of a lifetime even more enjoyable:
- Information, data, reservation services and trip-planning tours at National Parks and other federal lands are available on recreation.gov, an interagency partnership website for federal agencies. When planning a trip, it’s important to go here first to identify the particular schedules and information about your future destination.
- It’s difficult to get RV sites at the more popular National Parks, and reservations are necessary. Campgrounds throughout the Park Service can set their own reservation schedules and rules, but many are subject to a ”rolling booking window”, which allows you to book a reservation for a specified amount of time – typically, within six or twelve months in advance of your arrival date. During summer months, RV reservations at Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite or Grand Canyon typically fill up the first day of the window, often within minutes of its opening (10 am, Eastern time, 7 am Pacific). Early birds do well here.
- The recreation.gov website is not actually owned and operated by the federal government – it’s run by private companies who enter into exclusive contracts with the feds. In the fall of 2018, a new 10-year contract was awarded to Booz Allen Hamilton, a giant software company which agreed to modernize the site, including providing real-time updates – in other words, if a campsite is canceled, it will reappear as available on the website. Unfortunately, the company had to basically rebuild recreation.gov from scratch and naturally, there are still some glitches. Recently, Booz Allen agreed to release data on federal land camping to other private reservation services, and companies like Hipcamp.com now offer reservations at a limited number of popular National Parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and more.
- Back to the camping experience…larger National Parks generally offer RV sites with hookups, although many have just electric and water. If you’re a boondocker or not afraid to try dry camping for a few days, you’ll find that you have many more options to dry camp within the Parks. Just be sure to check for vehicle size limits – many of these campgrounds cannot accommodate larger rigs.
- Likewise, if your schedule is flexible, look at optional dates. It’s easy to do on the website, and avoiding holidays can sometimes open up many more opportunities.
- If you’re going to be traveling into more than one National Park or visiting one Park multiple times, it will probably pay to buy a multi-day or annual America the Beautiful entrance pass. If you’re a senior, the lifetime pass is $80, or $20 annually. If you haven’t reached those golden years, it’s $80 year. Active military is free. The America the Beautiful pass is an annual pass which covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free.
- It’s not just the campsites which have limited space. The infamous tunnel at Zion National Park, which opened in 1930, cannot accommodate today’s large vehicles and the Park’s rangers control one-way traffic flow – you will wait at each end for the ranger to allow you to enter, and then drive down the center of the tunnel. We planned accordingly and only took our tow vehicle through the tunnel, although we did see some small motorhomes and trailers on the road. Vehicles 13 feet or higher cannot pass through the tunnel, and length restrictions throughout Zion are 40 feet for a single vehicle and 50 feet for any vehicle combination. Just outside of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway there are six tunnels, many tight hairpin curves and spiraling “pigtail” bridges. Fortunately, we left the fifth wheel in our campground on this trip and found the tunnels were so tight we had to pull in the rearview mirrors on our truck in order to navigate through. Definitely not the road for large rigs!
- If you can’t get reservations for that perfect pristine campsite in the midst of a beautiful National Park, don’t despair. We’ve found that most Parks are surrounded by private campgrounds, and many of them are wonderful. We don’t usually plan six months ahead, and when we visited Yellowstone, we had no hope of finding a campsite within the Park. Instead, we camped for several days just outside the North entrance, then moved to the West entrance and stayed in West Yellowstone. We went into the Park every day and were able to return home to swim in the campground pool taking advantage of the amenities each evening.
- Likewise, on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon, we were able to get a last-minute campsite at the South Rim’s Trailer Village. (It was also in March.) We spent a couple of enjoyable nights there during the week, and then moved to a park a few miles outside the main gate and continued to enjoy the Grand Canyon experience.
- After all the planning, it’s time to have fun! There’s no better place to experience the diverse and brilliant beauty of our land than at one of our National Parks. Opportunities are bountiful — whether it’s hiking in a forest, walking along a beach, fishing in a crystal-clear river or just relaxing in the great outdoors, these natural treasures bring us amazing experiences along with true peace and happiness.
Finally, the real beauty of visiting our National Parks in our RVs is that we have the flexibility to take advantage of options as we plan our trips. A little advance planning makes it all so much easier, but if we want to make a left hand turn instead of going right, we can do so. After all, our homes are on wheels.
About the Author: Sue Bray
Sue Bray is a graduate of Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and began her career working for Members of Congress in both their home state offices and in Washington, D.C. In 2009, Sue was inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame – one of five representatives of the RV community selected each year, and only the ninth woman to be selected.
In 2010, Sue launched her own consulting firm, specializing in product development, events production and marketing. She and her husband Mel Magson are also enjoying the RV lifestyle, having logged more than 30,000 miles towing their 5th wheel trailer.
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