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Big-Rig Camping in a National Park


By Diana Graham #126095

At 39 feet, our fifth-wheel is big. And, add a rack on the back for my husband’s adventure bike, we’re 44 feet long. Generally, our RV setup would be too big for national park campgrounds.

It is true that most national parks were designed for smaller RVs and that being “big” has imposed limitations, as well as interesting back-in challenges. Yet, we’ve discovered that being big doesn’t mean we must rule out national park camping.

Big-Rig Camping in a National Park 1
Zion NP’s incomparable scenery made the extra work to secure a campsite in South Campground worthwhile.

In our three years of RVing, we have camped in 11 national parks. We love the immediate access to hiking and biking trails and the natural beauty that sets our parks apart. We love the seclusion with no hookups, even though this may seem to be at odds with our obvious penchant for the creature comforts of a big rig. Our Senior Pass waives the gate fees and gives us a 50 percent discount on camping, sweetening the deal.

If you are interested in taking your big rig to a national park campground, be prepared for the extra work to secure a site. In our experience, it’s well worth it. Here are a few tips you need to know and the inside scoop for the 11 national park campgrounds where we have camped.

Big-Rig Camping in a National Park 2
From the Gros Ventre Campground, the author and her husband, Lon Hyers, had easy access to miles of bicycle paths in Grand Teton NP.

Prepare to Dry Camp
Be energy independent: More than likely, a combination of solar panels and generators will be necessary.

Have dry-camping necessities: Five-gallon water containers, a Blue Boy (portable waste-water container) and a spill-proof gas container are our dry-camping basics. (And a Melitta coffee cone!)

Determine if potable water and dump stations are available: Usually national park campgrounds have easy access to fresh water and a dump station, but not always. While camping at Belle Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, we had to use a local RV park for water and dump.

Do Your Homework
Have a backup plan: Sometimes you won’t know if a campground is going to work out until you arrive. And cell phone service may not be available to devise an on-the-spot emergency backup plan.

Plan a “staging” area: If you are hoping for a first-come/first-serve (FC/FS) site in an extremely busy campground, it is different from the backup plan above. As an example, we learned through online resources that it was difficult to obtain a site in Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park. So, we camped at the fairground in Kalispell, Montana, and drove our truck there to secure a campsite—twice. The camp host told us to arrive by 7:00 a.m. to get a site, a little early to be packing and hitching up.

Know the grocery and fuel situation: Many national parks are in remote locations. A round trip for groceries from Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park is over 100 miles.

Arrive early in the week
Your best chance to land a FC/FS site in a popular park is to arrive on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday when the weekend campers have cleared out.

Here are the big-rig camping details for 11 national parks where we have camped.

Big Bend, Texas
Rio Grande Campground (November 14–22)
We camped seven nights in site #5 and one night in a FC/FS site. This lovely campground, set in a grove of cottonwoods, is right on the Rio Grande river. The large open area, where generators are allowed, easily accommodates big rigs. It also has stunning sunset views of the mountains in Mexico. This is the only national park campground where we made plans early enough to secure a reservation.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
North Campground (May 20–24)
Our camp host knew site #2 would accommodate our rig and that it was available. We claimed the site, filled the water tank and were off to see the other worldly hoodoos.

Cascade, Washington
Colonial Campground (September 11–17)
We arrived around 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and, luckily got assigned to site 157. We’re glad we did, as larger RVs arriving later had a difficult time finding sites. Several loops had already been shut down for the season. There was no question this would be a heavy generator week since campsites are nestled in an old-growth forest.

Death Valley, California
Sunset Campground (March 25–April 2)
This is a basic parking lot-style campground with several rows dedicated to big rigs. It’s directly across the road from Furnace Creek Resort, where campers can buy a $5 per day/per person pass to the beautiful spring-fed
swimming pool and bathhouse.

Everglades, Florida
Flamingo Campground (February/March)
We found Flamingo Campground simply charming. So much so that after spending two weeks in February, we came back for another two weeks in March. There are no size limitations or concerns in the huge open area for big rigs.

Glacier, Montana
Apgar Campground (July 31–August 16)
We spent three days in site A60, and 13 days in B92. This campground took top prize for our favorite in 2016, and Glacier National Park the top place in our line-up of national parks. But we had to work for it. Getting into the CG took perseverance, and scoring the ideal site on the outside of Loop B took some luck, as well as a second move after three days on an inside site on Loop A. Apgar Campground has everything you could hope for, minus electricity and cell phone service. It is immediately adjacent to Lake McDonald and swimming beaches. There are miles of beautiful bike trails leading to West Glacier, the village of Apgar and the visitor center. The campground is right off the incomparable Going-To-The-Sun Road.

Big-Rig Camping in a National Park 3
When the Fruita campground in Capitol Reef NP is at capacity, campground hosts direct campers to this national forest area immediately outside the western entrance to the park.

Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Gros Ventre Campground (July 23–26)
This is a big, busy campground that seldom fills up; however, since we have a big rig, we arrived early in the day to reserve site A60. It was a smart strategy for a FC/FS campground. Camp sites are assigned by staff, so effort is made to hold larger sites for big units. Half joking, I asked the gentleman behind the counter if there was a site with some privacy. After he stopped laughing, he said, “You know what? I do.” We ended up on the outside of an outside loop in a site that backs up to the Gros Ventre River.

Joshua Tree, California
Belle Campground (February 22–March 6)
There is free camping immediately outside of the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, but we wanted to be in the park camping among Joshua Tree’s iconic boulders. We used Twenty-nine Palms as a staging area while we scouted out the few big sites in the park. We had wall-to-wall sunshine, so the generator wasn’t necessary.

Olympic, Washington
Mora Campground (October 5–9)
For our big fifth-wheel, this was the trickiest campground, and we were doubtful we could make it work. This section of Olympic National Park receives an average of 12 feet of rain a year, and there are big trees everywhere. When your RV is 13 feet tall and 44 feet long, big trees are not your friend. This is the only park we found it necessary to unload bicycles for scouting out the campground first. Even then, my husband’s excellent back-up skills are the only reason we parked on site 84 and didn’t have to resort to an area RV park. But, of course, the rain forest, with its big trees, are exactly why we wanted to be in the national park. And, beautiful Rialto Beach, our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, was a short walk away.

Sequoia, California
Potwisha Campground (March 15–23)
March is early in the season to visit Sequoia National Park, but in Potwisha Campground, the wildflowers and redbuds were at their peak, and we had our choice of several sites. We were able to hike snow-covered trails among the giant Sequoias without another person in sight.

Zion, Utah
South Campground (April 13–26)
Last, but not least, we were able to park in the beautiful, busy and crowded South Campground in Zion. Here we had to employ a staging area, a backup plan and receive a little inside help from a friend.

There are plenty of big-rig-friendly sites, but the trick is getting one. New arrivals start lining up at the campground entrance at 6:00 a.m. for FC/FS sites. To prevent mayhem, the campground hosts keep detailed records of which sites will become available and make assignments based on the unit size—an excellent system. We took advantage of having friends in the campground to visit first and compile a list of sites that would work for us. That extra legwork paid off when we learned Site 57, our perfect site, was available.

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