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New Year New Adventures - Planning Outdoor Adventures in Advance

December 18, 2021

View of mountains and sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park
View from Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

If you’re like me, you love getting outdoors especially during the warmer months of the year. But outdoor adventures, for me, often involve some spontaneity. I hardly ever set plans in stone because of all the factors I need to consider when making plans (weather, my schedule, and how I’m feeling with my chronic illness). The thing is, if you want to visit some of the more popular parks or trails across the U.S., last-minute plans are often not an option.


While it may seem like winter isn’t the right time to be thinking about summer plans, the winter months are the exact right time to be booking summer outdoor adventures. I’ve done some research for you on the different types of reservations you may need to make well in advance, links included!


Advance Reservation Types

Camping reservations are the first thing that comes to mind for me when talking about planning for outdoor adventures, but as traffic increases as many popular outdoor destinations reservations systems are becoming more prevalent. Read about several of the activities that may require reservations secured well in advance below.

Trail to mountain ridge with semi-permanent snow and wildflowers
Alpine trail in Rocky Mountains of Colorado

1. National Park Timed Reservations

National Parks, especially some of the country’s most popular parks, are big attractions and often crowded. One of the first National Parks I visited was Yellowstone NP and many of the main attractions were so crowded with busses full of tourists that it resembled Disney World. To mitigate the effects of large crowds of people on public lands, some of the most popular parks in the U.S. have enforced a timed-entry system where reservations are required during the peak season to simply enter the park.


Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks require reservations to simply enter the park. These reservations can be secured ahead of time (the month before), but some permits are also held and released for reservation the day before at 5pm at Rocky Mountain NP. Other parks require permits to access certain areas of the park. For example, Glacier National Park requires a permit to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from May 27 through September 11, 2022.


Large red rock formations in windows area of Arches National Park
Windows Area of Arches National Park

2. National Park Camping Reservations

Those who have camped at National Parks before know the name of the game here. National Park campground reservations are often hard to come by. Most National Parks open camping reservations on Recreation.gov 6 months in advance. If you’re able to log onto the online reservation system the minute reservations open for your desired time-frame, then you have a good chance of securing a campsite (though not always the site you were eyeing).


There is one catch, though. While reservations open 6 months in advance on a rolling basis (every day one more reservation day becomes available), Recreation.gov does allow people to secure a sit up-to 7 days out, as long as the first day of your stay is available for reservations. This limits what’s available a bit and can still make it difficult for people to secure a site, especially if you’re looking for one or two weekend nights only.


Desert trail to red rock formations in Arches National Park
Devil's Garden Trail within Arches National Park

3. Popular Hiking and Sight-Seeing Destinations

There are several hiking and sight-seeing destinations across the nation that require permits that can either be reserved or won through a lottery system. These destinations include The Wave (Coyote Buttes North) within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona, Hanging Lakes Trail in Colorado, Havasu Falls, as well as many of the most popular hikes within certain National Parks (Yosemite’s Half Dome Cables Route, Zion’s The Narrows, etc.).


Reservation and Lottery time-frames may vary, but either way you need to plan in advance to secure these permits. For the most popular destinations, you’ll want to be online and ready to book at the exact minute the reservation time opens.


Tent and rock wall at campground in a national forest
Campground within Gunnison National Forest in Colorado

4. State Park Camping Reservations

Many States have their own websites built to handle camping reservations. Others utilize sites like reserveamerica.com to power their camping reservation online system. Just like National Parks, State Park campgrounds can fill up quickly. This is especially true in states where outdoor recreation is extremely popular, such as Colorado.


In Colorado, campsite reservations open 6 months in advance, just like the NP reservation system. It’s usually less urgent to be online the minute reservations open for State Parks, but I definitely don’t recommend waiting until a month or two before your planned trip to book your reservation. Once the summer months draw close, there’s often little availability at State Parks in Colorado besides one night here and there, typically on a week day.


Campground view at Eleven Mile Canyon Recreation Area
Campground at Eleven Mile Canyon Recreation Area

5. National Forest Campground Reservations

Personally, I prefer National Forest to many National Park and State Park campgrounds. There are fewer amenities, but often more space around campsites, fewer campsites, and therefore more privacy. But with National Forest campgrounds (and National Recreation Area campgrounds), you end up sacrificing the close proximity to attractions that you get when camping at National Parks.


In addition, reservations typically don’t need to be secured as far in advance. With that said, many National Forest campgrounds also need to be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov, and often you’re best bet is to book your site several months ahead of time.


Rock formations at Eleven Mile State Park
Eleven Mile State Park in Colorado

As you can see, winter is the best time to start planning your summer trips and outdoor stays. If the stars don’t align and you’re unable to secure camping or timed permits for some of the more popular National Parks or trails, you still have other options.


If you’re unable to secure a site in your ideal camping location, try checking in with ranger stations to see where disbursed camping is allowed. You might even try a less popular National or State park, or look for National Forest campgrounds within a short distance of your destination. There are many options for camping just outside some of the nation’s most popular National Parks that allow for close proximity to park attractions. Be creative and don’t give up!


-Jessica

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