What You Need to Know About RVing in US National Parks
You recently bought your first recreational vehicle and are looking forward to visiting one or more of the US National Parks this summer.
Hopefully you understand that there is some advanced planning you will need to do before you go.
If not, this article will guide you through some of the basics that will help you to have a more enjoyable and trouble free visit.
Do Some Park Research
Before you make your plans, you need to take some time and research the parks you think you'd like to visit.
This is because each one is unique, and each offers different levels of amenities.
Some parks are more popular than others due to their size, location, amenities and beauty. These are the ones people dream of seeing, but you need to make sure that the one you choose will offer the type of experience you want to have.
- Some parks are smaller and offer fewer amenities. Others are vast and have facilities such as laundries, showers and stores.
- Some, such as the Smokey Mountain National Park are close to large cities. Others, such as Glacier National Park, are located close to small towns.
Location can be very important for those who need services, so you should be sure to take this point into consideration when planning.
You don't want to arrive at a park only too learn too late that you'll have to dry camp or find out the hard way that getting there involves driving on mountain roads that are narrow and have no guardrails!
To get specific general information check out the NPS.gov site then call them to find out if anything has changed in the area you wish to visit.
You can also search here for general information if you want to find a less complicated way to get the information you seek.
If you zero in on a park you'd like to visit, it's a good idea to call them and ask questions about
- stay limits,
- RV size limits,
- driving and weather issues and
I'm providing an overview of these issues here, but you will still need to make that call.
It's also a good idea to speak with a ranger or highway patrol officer so that he can help you to figure out the best and safest routes to use to get to his park.
When my husband and I were traveling to Yellowstone one year, we wanted to drive over Bear Tooth Pass. We knew it might be a hazardous drive, so we contacted the highway patrol in Billings, Montana.
Even though it was mid summer, they warned us that the pass might be closed due to heavy snows and to call before heading out to make sure the road would be open.
We did, and it was, but on a different day, things could have worked out differently. Conversely, had we decided to just take our chances, we might have driven into a whole load of trouble!
Depending on the size, location and popularity of a park, stay limits are usually mandatory.
In the larger more popular parks, the maximum is usually 14 days, however this number can vary. The reason for these limits is to allow the maximum number of citizens to be able to visit.
I know of at least one park that has no stay limits because few people know about it, and there are very limited services there. It's not a place where most RVers would want to camp for very long periods of time, anyhow.
Most of the park campgrounds won't be for you because
- there are no or only limited hookups,
- you cannot run generators and
- big rigs will not fit into many of the sites.
To avoid having some of these problems, you do have the option of staying at a privately owned full hookup campground within or outside of a park if one exists and if space is available, but doing so will be very expensive.
For example, at this writing Fishing Bridge Campground in Yellowstone costs $47.75. It only allows hard sided vehicles but does have full hookups. The sites are crowded together and are all on concrete, so it's not horribly attractive. However, as the only "game in town" it never lacks for visitors!
- Some of the bigger parks have general stores where you can buy limited groceries and a few have facilities for showering and doing laundry.
- Others have nothing other than vault toilets.
You can see why finding out what's available before you go is important!
RV Size Limits
It is extremely important for RVers to know the size limits for parking their coaches in national park campgrounds.
In most cases, if your unit is 22 feet long or less, you'll be OK, but if you own a big luxury Class A pusher, you may find that spaces you'll fit into will be very limited in many instances.
A big problem to consider is that increasing numbers of people RV to these parks every year.
To give you some idea of numbers, the Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association recently reported that in 2017 they sold over half a million travel units! This is in addition to the more than eight and a half million people who already owned RVs!
Many use them to visit the national parks, so it's important that you be aware of the situation.
Crowding makes it tricky to find campsites, and only a few of the government run parks accept reservations. However this may be changing soon for some of them.
Thus, if you don’t plan carefully, you could arrive at a particular park only to find that the campgrounds are full!
To avoid having this problem, it's a good idea to travel off season or make it a point to arrive extremely early when you go.
People often assume that visiting US parks is free, but nothing is further from the truth. If you don’t plan ahead, you can end up paying far more than you anticipated.
Furthermore, many parks have decided to increase fees significantly.
- Yellowstone National Park used to charge a 7 day entry fee of $30. It now will cost $35. A daily camping fee used to cost from $12 to $19.50, but now will go from $15 to $30. As noted above, if you want to stay at the one full hookup campground located with the park's boundaries, you’ll now pay $47.75!
- Fees for fishing licenses have gone from $19 per day per person for one day to $18 per day for a 3 days, $25 for a week and $40 per year. (You can now use this same license to fish in Wyoming waters as long as you remain in the park to do so. Otherwise, you’ll have to purchase a separate fishing license for that state.)
- Thus, if a family of four wants to fish within park borders for a week it’s going to cost them $100 for their licenses. So while prices are not horrible, they're still not cheap.
- Taking a shower costs around $3 per person.
Furthermore, costs for annual passes have also increased. For example,senior passes that used to cost $10 will now cost $80.
You may think you can save money by camping outside of a park, but doing so is even more costly.
The small towns that surround most national parks learned long ago that they can charge as much as the market will bear for camping, groceries and services.
However people pay these higher costs because staying in town offers more comforts and conveniences than staying in the parks.
Although every park employs rangers, there are far more visitors than security personnel.
Therefore, if you have a problem, it may be difficult to get help.
In many places you are located in areas that have no cell phone services, so unless a ranger is making his regular rounds, you could have real problems if you injure yourself or fall ill.
For this reason it's always a good idea to carry all of your medications with you and keep a first aid kit on hand.
Driving and Weather Issues
Many of the U.S. national parks are located in areas where the terrain is rugged.
Roads can be steep and windy, and in some areas. there are huge drops and no guard rails.
Therefore, you have to take great care when driving an RV in these places. You also should have equipment that can handle steep grades, such as motor homes with engine brakes.
One good example is Going to the Sun Road in GlacierNational Park which is a beautiful, but harrowing drive.
If your RV or vehicle combination is longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet, they won't even allow you to make the drive.
Another problem is weather. Many parks are so far north that snow can block roads at any time of the year.
For these reasons, you should always contact the local highway patrol
Dangers are everywhere in these parks, so if you don’t pay attention to what you are doing, you can really hurt yourself.
- People have been killed by falling into the Grand Canyon and geyser ponds.
- Bears in Yellowstone have literally dragged people out of their tents and killed them.
- Buffalo and Moose have gored visitors who made the mistake of assuming they were zoo animals instead of wildlife living in their own habitat.
While “being careful” may seem to take the fun out of your adventures, it’s much better to be a little less carefree than it is to endanger yourself or your loved ones.
The attached video shows you what can happen and what you can do to stay safe.
Changes That May Affect the Quality of Your Visit
The National Park Service has decided to require reservations for people who want to visit Yosemite. There currently is discussion about doing the same with Yellowstone.
Park managers are also considering
- using trams to carry visitors to and from the park,
- limiting the amount of vehicle traffic and
- controlling the number of people who can visit at any one time.
This being the case, it is highly likely that some of the other more popular parks will do the same.
This may turn out to be a big problem for RVers because making camping reservations when you are driving long distances is tricky at best because so many things can happen along the way to change your timing.
Also, some people don't know ahead of time that they'll be in the vicinity of a big park, don't have WIFI or phone access, and may not have the ability to make reservations when they get closer to a given park.
For example, the concept of using trams to transport people to and from the parks can create major problems for RVers.
If you can’t stay in the park and drive your own vehicle to do so, you lose a good deal of the freedom you normally would need to enjoy your experience.
If the park you visit has instituted changes, you'll need to think about
- where you'll be able to stay when outside of the park,
- how your camping experience will be affected and
- what you'll do with pets if you travel with them.
Obviously there are many issues to consider before making the decision to RV to a US National Park.
I have been to most of them in my own recreational vehicle and can honestly say that they all are well worth seeing.
The secret to having a relaxing and enjoyable visit is to plan carefully and make sure you know the basics.
Has this article made you consider more carefully a decision about visiting some of the big national parks?
© 2017 Sondra Rochelle