Last-minute Labor Day booking tips for camping in and near national parks
Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of summer. It's one last holiday for families and friends to enjoy outdoor barbecues, picnic lunches and camping at some of the country's most beautiful national and state parks.
But trying to secure a last-minute camping or picnic reservation within popular national parks and state parks can be almost impossible over Labor Day weekend, with many sites booked up a year in advance.
However, if you're willing to be a little flexible with your location, you can still find many national park-adjacent campgrounds, RV parks and picnic areas, even close to popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone.
Here are a few tips on how to find the sites as well as several booking agencies that can get you close to your favorite park, even during the busy Labor Day weekend.
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Camping in national and state parks
Busy holiday weekends like Labor Day can strain the resources of many U.S. national parks. Whether you're looking for a place to park your RV for the weekend, a campsite or just a free picnic area, you may find yourself out of luck without reservations — but there still may be some options available.
Most U.S. national parks use the recreation.gov camping and lodging system to list and book camping reservations. Each national park and state park system has its own process for releasing reservations for campsites and picnic grounds.
Some parks have lotteries for high-demand locations and times; others have very detailed schedules for limited releases and bookings of specific reservation times. These reservation systems can cover everything from primitive tent camping sites to RV parking areas with full electrical and water hookups.
The screenshot above from Yosemite National Park shows its staggered reservation release system offering campsite bookings on a month-by-month basis. The park website advises potential campers to be on the phone and ready to reserve at precisely 7 a.m. on the on-sale date when each reservation period opens.
For busy weekends like Labor Day, national park camping reservations can be fully booked within minutes of the sale opening time.
So what's a last-minute planner to do?
Particularly during a popular period like Labor Day, it is highly unlikely, and in some national parks impossible, to just show up at the park and get a walk-up campsite reservation. But some parks do release unsold or canceled inventory a week prior to the booking date. Some even have three-day reservation windows for last-minute planners.
So last-minute procrastinators might still have the opportunity to score great camping or lodging options within a park — but you certainly shouldn't count on it during Labor Day weekend. Check at the specific park website or at recreation.gov about a week before visiting on the chance something opens up.
An alternative last-minute national park option for the adventurous is wilderness camping. The vast majority of most national park terrain is in undeveloped wilderness areas, with no facilities, formal campsites or, in some cases, trails.
Wilderness camping within national parks does not operate on the same recreation.gov system. Instead, backcountry campers register with the park itself, sometimes in advance but often on the day of arrival. Some trailheads may have a maximum capacity for backcountry permits. Still, given that a park like Yosemite is 95% wilderness, it's quite likely you'll be able to find some space for yourself, even on a busy holiday weekend. You'll just have to be prepared to backpack miles with all your supplies to find this personal space.
Related: Tips for visiting the busiest national parks
Camping reservations near national parks
Even if camping and lodging at your favorite national park are sold out over Labor Day weekend, don't despair. There are still a number of options to get out there and enjoy nature.
One choice is to visit some alternative parks that'll likely be less crowded during that weekend. You can always return to high-traffic destinations like the Grand Canyon or Great Smoky Mountains National Park another time.
Another popular technique for enjoying sold-out national parks on busy weekends is to find lodging at the gateway towns bordering the parks. While many popular hotels and motels in these gateway towns may be booked far in advance, there are still usually some under-the-radar lodging spots available.
Related: Exploring national parks in 2022: Where to stay using points
Park-adjacent camping and RV parks are also typically easier to book, are often cheaper, and provide many services and features not available in national parks, like swimming pools, playgrounds and activity centers, not to mention nearby bars and restaurants. For example, many full-service KOA Campgrounds are located within miles of national park entrances. KOA can book up in advance, but you'll usually be able to find similar properties nearby.
Also, a few RV and camping-focused reservation networks including Tentrr, Harvest Hosts and Hipcamp have recently gained popularity.
Tentrr is an Airbnb-style reservation network for camping. Through Tentrr, private property owners, state parks and public land managers offer camping areas to the public. Tentrr properties can include bare-bones natural campsites, as well as installed glamping setups with canvas tents complete with flooring and barbecue and picnic spaces.
Tentrr's more than 1,000 campsites across the U.S. provide a great alternate booking option over Labor Day weekend. Prices range from about $40 per night (for a primitive campsite) to $500 per night (for glamping in prime locations).
Harvest Hosts is a membership-based RV camping network of over 4,000 sites nationwide, including many near national parks. In Harvest Hosts' system, property owners provide space for RVs to park overnight on their land, often a working farm, winery or orchard area. For $99 a year, RV owners can wander the country, staying at no cost at hosting properties (though it is encouraged to buy some products from the landowner).
The membership system cuts down on public crowds that can mob regular sites over Labor Day weekend. Depending on the owner's space, they may add capacity on a busy weekend, and be able to handle last-minute reservations.
The only drawback to Harvest Hosts is that you are limited to one night's stay at a location (unless invited by the owner to stay longer), so you'll need to be mobile over a three-day weekend. Still, if you're able to work in stays at a couple of vineyards and an apple orchard, your vacation will be better for the effort.
Hipcamp is a network and reservation system allowing people to research and book tent camping, glamping, RV camping, backcountry cabins and cottages. While the Hipcamp website will show you camping options within national parks, it will just direct you back to recreation.gov to make those reservations.
But Hipcamp does offer many national park-adjacent properties from private owners, as well as links to state park camping systems. It's a good one-stop shop to assess a wide range of camping options.
And for Labor Day weekend and other last-minute planning, Hipcamp has "Available tonight" and "Available this weekend" search options. Rather than digging through a website booking system only to find your target property is sold out, click one of these "Available" buttons to discover camping options you can actually book.
Related: 9 tips for finding available RV camping
Labor Day weekend is one of the toughest times of the year to find campground reservations, particularly in national and state parks. But last-minute planners do still have some options to secure a place to pitch a tent or park an RV.
Some national parks offer last-minute availability for canceled reservations, but you'll still have to book it in advance of arriving at the park. Wilderness and backcountry camping reservations will usually still be available if you're open to more adventurous camping. But even in these cases, be sure to find out if the national park requires reservations or advance ticketing to enter.
Outside of the national parks, camping reservation services like Tentrr, Harvest Hosts and Hipcamp provide a huge inventory of potential campsites, even over a busy Labor Day weekend.
With a little bit of research and some location flexibility, avid campers should still be able to find a nice outdoor spot to enjoy the last big summer weekend.