It took five people in three states using eight screens, but in the end, we lassoed the unicorn.
Trying to book National Park campsites in our post-pandemic world can be like trying to score front row seats to a Rolling Stones concert. This scarcity recently hit home as my wife, Anne, and I began mapping out this summer’s adventure—a nine-week cross-country tour of the United States. Booking seven months in advance would be fine, right? Wrong. After getting shut out of Sequoia National Park, whiffing up and down the California coast, and reserving the last campsite available at North Cascades National Park (a supposedly noncompetitive park on the Canadian border), we clearly needed to up our game to bag the big one: Yosemite.
In a typical summer, Yosemite only has 1,995 spots to pitch a tent or park an RV. Remember, this is for a park the size of Rhode Island that saw more than 3 million visitors last year.
2022 looked at those daunting stats and said: “Hold my beer.” This year, three campgrounds are closed, one was raffled off in a pilot lottery program (which I somehow missed), and one more may open at some undefined date due to wastewater issues. That left three campgrounds to choose from—Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and Hodgdon Meadow. Four hundred and three sites for the multitude of hopeful campers who want to sleep inside the park boundaries.
Staying within those boundaries is a big deal, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a spot in Yosemite Valley. It’s the basecamp for big attractions like El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Glacier Point. The closest affordable backup plan we found was a private campground an hour away from the west entrance. Tack on the hour to get from that entrance to the valley itself, and we’re talking an extra four hours of driving a day. To fully enjoy the wonders of Yosemite, Anne and I knew we’d have to lose that commute and snag one of those coveted campsites.
Our first choice of campgrounds was definitely Lower Pines, which is smaller and (reportedly) quieter than Upper Pines. It’s right in the valley, tucked among the trees with a stunning view of Half Dome in the distance. The Merced River runs past it, providing the perfect place to cool off after a long day of hiking in August. Multiple trailheads are within walking distance, and there’s a bus stop for the park shuttle at the entrance. All of this, for $36 a night. Sign us up.
Yosemite opens up campground reservations on the 15th of every month up to five months in advance at 7 a.m. PST. We were looking to book August 9-13, which meant our booking window opened on March 15 at 10 a.m. in our home state of New Hampshire. From our research, we knew that people from all over the world would be logging on simultaneously to get one of those 403 spots. We’d have a few minutes at most before they all disappeared. To up our chances, Anne and I devised a four-step plan.
Step one: Fine tune our research. We decided to focus on Upper and Lower Pines, since they’re both in Yosemite Valley (Hodgdon Meadow is at the park’s west entrance). Then we narrowed our search to sites that could accommodate 18-20 foot RVs—big enough for our vintage pop-up camper, but not so large that we’d be competing with bus-sized campers.
Step two: Choose specific campsites. We hedged our bets with a combination of sites we liked best (riverside, end of row, away from main roads, etc.), and ones we thought wouldn’t be as popular. We also added a backup site at the less-popular Hodgdon Meadows.
Step three: Call in the cavalry. My brother Mike and his wife Paula both work remotely and were game to lend a hand. I did a test run by reserving a campsite at a different park on my phone, and it immediately showed up in the shopping cart of my rec.gov account on my laptop. Excellent.
Step four: Give out assignments. I organized a group chat and explained our strategy. Mike, Paula and I would log in with my credentials. Anne would use her own account. At 9:40 a.m., each person would navigate to their assigned campground site, enter our dates, and be ready to jam it into the cart when the clock struck ten. Anne and I would each attempt to reserve three sites, while Mike and Paula would each go for one. Everyone had two backup sites as well, in case their first was unavailable. In total, when 10 a.m. hit, we’d be trying to reserve eight sites at once.
The morning of the 15th found me with two laptops and my phone at the ready. Our group chat was open, and I was communicating with Anne at work via speakerphone. Anne’s sister Carrie became available at the last minute, and we assigned her one of our second choices, increasing our total screens open to nine.
Anne and I chatted nervously as the clock ticked down. At the stroke of 10, I stabbed the three ‘Add to cart’ buttons in quick succession.
One screen came back as booked, and the other two displayed a message that traffic was high and to please try again. Gah!
I was still scrambling to refresh the webpage when Anne’s voice came over the speaker: “I got one!”
My chat pinged, just as an item showed up in my cart. Paula had gotten one, too! Our scatter-shot approach was working. Paula’s site was our backup in Hodgdon Meadow, and since Anne’s was in Upper Pine, I emptied my cart while Anne went to confirm her reservation. That’s when she realized that another site was in her cart as well. Carrie, our last minute addition, came through with a site in Lower Pine, our first choice. Victory! Anne quickly confirmed that site, dumped the other one, and within a few minutes it was all booked.
We’d done it. The unicorn was ours.
It took five people and a lot of planning, but in the end, all of our prep work paid off. While this isn’t the only way to reserve a site in Yosemite, the results made for a couple of very happy campers.
Richard Popovic lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children. He’s always up for an adventure.