A Practical Guide to RVing in the National Parks
There is no greater way to appreciate the diversity and majesty of America than to visit America’s national parks.
I've visited more than 100 of them in my 20 years of RV travel, and I continue to seek them out whenever possible.
The national parks exist in part to preserve the superlatives of America (biggest, deepest, hottest, rarest, oldest), but perhaps more importantly the sublime and subtle. For example, along your path in the parks you can discover a tiny endangered fish that lives in the roasting desert, a salamander that allows itself to be frozen like a popsicle each winter, and rabbit-like pikas who silently warn us of a warming planet by retreating higher in the Rockies each year.
Handcrafts made by early American settlers and delicate Native American artifacts that have rested for over a millennium in the dry west are preserved within national park boundaries, waiting to tell their stories to you. You can hike in the crater of volcanoes, paddle where “voyageurs” sought beaver pelts, admire fine art and beautiful homes, walk Civil War battlefields, dive coral reefs, explore melting glaciers—and let your mind explore dimensions of America you never knew existed. There’s much more than you can imagine, until you go.
When introduced to such creatures and treasures (which most of the world’s people have never seen in person), your view of everything will be broadened and your preconceptions will be challenged. A confusing world filled with noise and jaded opinions becomes clearer when you experience it firsthand and learn about how it works.
America’s national parks are more than just national treasures and places to relax; they’re wonderful classrooms that round out your understanding and appreciation of the entire planet. Think of them as continuing education for every American. Everyone should visit them, as many and as often as possible.
And there's no better way to visit them than to travel in an RV. Staying in national park campgrounds gives you an up-close-and-personal experience you just can't get in a hotel or motel. MORE
I hope this guide inspires you to plan a trip to a national park as soon as possible. The experience you have will be uniquely your own. As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his classic “Ulysses,” his travels and encounters shaped who he became: “I am a part of all that I have met.”
Even though we’ve visited over a hundred national parks—some multiple times—I always do some research in advance of each visit. Things change, and each park is different, so you can never take them for granted.
Particularly in western parks, weather is probably the first thing to check out. Out west, geographic latitude (how far north or south) has a lot less relevance than altitude. A park in Utah or California can have a lot more snow than a park in Montana, if it’s at a high elevation.
Visitors from other areas often aren’t aware of this until they pull up at the entrance to Lassen Volcanic NP in California or Crater Lake NP in Oregon and find their passage blocked by 15 feet of snow in June!
Any number of websites can give you forecasts for the upcoming week or so, and if you dig around the Internet you can find sites that show historical temperature and conditions. Still, make your first stop the official national park website at nps.gov.
On each park’s individual site, you’ll find a description of the park and a subsection under the Info menu on Operating Hours & Seasons. There, you can usually find information about the weather throughout the year—along with important warnings about severe conditions that can occur. Pay attention to these, because there may be closures of roads or sections of the park that can alter your plans.
nps.gov is almost a one-stop destination for trip planning. This excellent site contains all the latest information on every park in the system, and it’s the only completely up-to-date and reliable source.
You’ll find information on camping options, ranger-led programs and other special events, things to do, directions, safety, accessibility, and nearby attractions. Relying on other sites, and especially guidebooks (which are out of date the moment they are sold), can be risky. They’re good for getting ideas, but always double-check the details.
Pay special attention to the camping options laid out on nps.gov. Not every campground will be suitable for your needs; some are “tents only” and others may be inaccessible at certain times of the year or to RVs over a particular length.
If a park has length or size limitations, it’s usually because of a winding road (such as the road to Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend NP in Texas) or a tunnel (such as in Colorado NM in Colorado) or because of limitations in the campground itself (such as in Natural Bridges NM in Utah, and Chiricahua NM in Arizona).
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel at the east entrance to Zion NP is a famous example that catches many RVers unaware. Vehicles taller than 11 feet 3 inches or wider than 7 feet 9 inches require a tunnel permit and can only pass through at certain times of day. If you arrive too late, the only option is a four-hour, 120-mile trip to the Springdale entrance. The tunnel requirements are documented on nps.gov.
So take a close look at length and size limits—and notice that sometimes the limit is for overall length and sometimes the park specifies different limits for trailers and motorhomes. The reason is that a 30-foot trailer and truck (totaling perhaps 45 feet) can often make a turn or fit into a space that a 35-foot-long motorhome can’t. Trailers, after all, have the option to unhitch the tow vehicle and park it elsewhere, and because the rig bends in the middle it can make tighter turns without crossing the centerline of the road.
Still, if you’re pushing the limit, be careful. The park staff set those limits for a good reason that you might not understand until you’re there. For example, Chiricauhua NM (Arizona) has a campground that was built by the CCC in the 1930s. The campground roads have deep dips that will cause long vehicles to bottom out, and possibly even get stuck—hence a strict 29-foot length limit. (Personally, having seen Bert’s 28-footer dig deep scrapes in the asphalt there, I wouldn’t go in with anything over 25 feet.)
When the signs are ambiguous (as they often are), you’ve got to make a judgment call. Be conservative, especially if you are not experienced at towing or driving an RV. When in doubt, you can always ask a park ranger or the campground host for an opinion before proceeding.
The good news is that most national parks can easily accommodate most travel trailers and Class B motorhomes. In most cases, only owners of 30-foot or longer trailers and long Class A motorhomes have to hesitate, and even they can often find a place to fit. But this is definitely something to know before you go.
Make a Reservation
Camping reservations are probably the next prime consideration and this has become even more important since the increase in RV ownership that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s undeniable that in the past couple of years, visitation to the national parks has risen, in some cases dramatically. This means that popular parks are sometimes unapproachable in peak season—a fact that both dismays and heartens those of us who have been visiting them for decades.
On the one hand, it’s great to see that people are using and appreciating the national park system. We can hope that if enough of us fall in love with the parks, they may survive the periodic assaults of politicians who want to privatize, sell, or commercialize the parks in search of short-term revenue. Our nation’s crown jewels can only be hocked once; once developed, we’ll never get them back.
On the other hand, crowds mean tight reservations. In the most popular spots, it’s necessary now to make reservations months in advance, and even then you may find yourself in a lottery system to get a hiking permit in Grand Canyon NP or on a waiting list to get a campsite in Yellowstone NP. (Making more and bigger campgrounds is not a practical option, since paving over more of the protected land is antithetical to the NPS mission.)
Reservations through reserveamerica.com are now the norm for popular parks. When you check out the camping options on nps.gov, you’ll see a notice if this is the case. While this system offers some advantages, it’s a nuisance for those who don’t keep a rigid schedule while traveling. You’ll encounter fees for canceling or changing reservations. Traveling in the off-season or shoulder season can be a good option to avoid campground reservations if you are a bit more footloose and spontaneous.
If you run into an obstacle regarding reservations or campground length restrictions, try a nearby commercial campground or state park. Sometimes there is a commercial campground right outside the park boundary, and while the location may be less central and the price will be higher, there’s at least the compensation of (usually) full hookups and a few other conveniences.
When searching for campgrounds outside the national parks, websites like rvparkreviews.com and campendium.com are very helpful. These services are based on information contributed by members, so it’s not “official,” but you’ll often get useful insights into the camping experience.
If weather and campground both look good, you can take a deep dive into nps.gov for information on special programs (tours, lectures, events, etc.) and places to go. It’s practically impossible to see everything in a large national park during a single visit, so don’t feel bad about skimming the surface or just hitting a few things that appeal to you—and skipping the rest. It’s not a package tour to “14 European Capitals In 12 Days!” You’ll generally have a better time if you don’t feel pressured to see everything.
If you travel with a pet, be sure to check on recommendations and requirements. Some parks are pet-friendly, others not so much. At many of the larger western parks, dogs can disturb wildlife just by their presence, causing actual danger to you, your dog, and the wildlife (think mountain lions and bears).
In rare cases, pets inadvertently become tasty snacks for wildlife. At Rio Grande Village Campground in the eastern end of Big Bend NP, you’ll hear rangers tell the cautionary tale of visitors who left their dog tied outside their RV—and later found that the roaming javelinas are more than a match for a small dog.
Fortunately, the NPS maintains an interactive map showing which parks have pet restrictions at nps.gov/subjects/pets/visit.htm. Even if the park you plan to visit has a green dot, though, be sure to look at the details. For example, in Glacier NP you can bring your dog—but he’s not allowed on the trails, in the backcountry, or in buildings. And leashes are always required.
If you find that pets are restricted, don’t despair. Some of the major parks have pet boarding options available. Using those is a good idea if your fur kids like to bark, since barking dogs are a major cause of complaints by other campers and will undoubtedly get you a visit from a ranger. Pet kennels, pet-friendly hotels, and dog sitters outside the park can also be found with a few simple online searches.
There are a few more things you’ll find on nps.gov, such as the fees you’ll be expected to pay for entrance and camping, suggested itineraries (in larger parks), and background on the park. You can develop a plan for each day if you want—or just wing it. Either way, you’re destined to have a great trip!
Armed with all this information, you can start serious planning for your trip. We’ll talk more about specific considerations in the next chapter (“Practical Tips”). But regardless of the amount of planning you do, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find something in every national park that surprises you. Bert and Janie, avid national park travelers for decades, often do—as Bert’s next essay on Cuyahoga Valley NP shows. They went to a place that most of us know as a tragic symbol of Industrial Age pollution and came away admiring a place where industrial history and natural beauty now coexist.
 Never heard of a javelina? It’s a collared peccary, which looks like a hairy pig with tusks. They’re sort of cute at a distance, but they travel in packs and can make a meal of anything from a prickly pear cactus to a Pomeranian.
We should have a standard callout box in all of these, with a few basics.
- Always check Nps.gov for the latest everything
- Site fees in National Parks vary from ___ to ___.
- Check size limitations. Some national parks cannot accommodate RVs longer than 30 feet. Dips and curves in some national park roads may present challenges for RVers in longer rigs.
- Many national park campgrounds built in the 30s and 40s aren’t set up for RVs with slide out rooms. Plan ahead.
- Boondocking on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management is free.
- Pack for every type of possible weather.
- Stock the pantry and fridge before you go.
- Overfill the fresh water tanks.
- Take a first aid kit - check your expiration dates annually.
- Make sure you have a fire extinguisher onboard (ELEMENT)
- Get a good set of binoculars.
- Take a headlamp.
- Don’t bring a book! Peruse local bookstores and pick one there.
- Recognize that internet coverage may be sketchy where you are going.
- Buy a real map or atlas and keep it in your rig. Can’t count on Google maps or cell coverage in national parks.
- Invest in a dedicated GPS.
- Have an external power source with you. (Portable Solar Kit) or generator.
- Never pass up a fuel stop when you are out west or on your way to Alaska.