Tom Ross: Online booking has changed camping forever |

Tom Ross: Online booking has changed camping forever

The Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, where hikers are urged to stay on trails, experienced heavy visitation over Memorial Day weekend 2016. (Photo by Tom Ross)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s the first week of February in the Yampa Valley and spring is so far over the horizon it might feel premature to daydream about sitting around a campfire reliving the day’s adventure in a desert slot canyon.

Quite the opposite — if you don’t get on the stick and make a reservation now, you might discover that strangers have already booked your favorite campsite, whether it’s a state park or a campground managed by the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service and booked by That’s because online reservations have been available since the first of the year and campers in the know have been locking up their dates for weeks.

And the urgency also applies to summer campgrounds just minutes from Steamboat Springs.

Reservations required

For the first time in 2019, the 188 campsites at Steamboat Lake State Park camping will be by reservation only during prime time — essentially Memorial Day and through the summer — and no sooner than six months in advance of the desired date.
That means campsite reservations that include Aug. 1 will first be available Feb. 1.
Reservations can be made at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website.
But if they really want to, campers can still drive into the park, find the campsite they want, then whip out their mobile devices to confirm a reservation. But many summer weekends they would be too late.

Already there are some campsites reserved for national Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass. And especially when it comes to hard shell campers, Steamboat Lake State Park’s camping sites are filling up for Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July.

Planning ahead

Longtime Steamboat resident Steve Otis has some U.S. Forest Service camping sites booked in late June, but he’s already making plans for autumn in Utah. The National Park Service won’t open the reservation process for his campsite in Canyonlands until he’s within six months of that trip.

“I’ve got a sticky note in my day planner to remind me,” Otis said. “We’ll be within six months (of his preferred dates) in another couple of months.”

One might say that online campground reservations are both a good thing and a tricky thing.

Reserving in advance allows campers to leave home secure in the knowledge they have a place to sleep when they arrive. On the other hand, the system takes some of the spontaneity and adventure out of one of America’s favorite pastimes. The days when a person could decide on a Thursday to go camping on Saturday are fading, unless they are prepared to go backpacking or rough it in a dispersed Forest Service site.

A narrow window

Booking early in canyon country, a day’s drive from Steamboat, is especially critical. Campers in the know have been booking campgrounds since the first of the year.

It’s still possible to book an April camping trip in Utah’s spectacular Goblin Valley State Park, for example. But the month of May, when spring truly arrives in the sandstone desert, is becoming tight.

Winter storms are always a possibility in April, even in canyon country. My family has been snowed out from Kodachrome Basin to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. And the month of June is too hot for midday hiking in Arches National Park.

May is prime time along the San Rafael Swell where we’re headed this spring.

For 2019, we were able to patch together three days in Goblin Valley followed by a travel day and three more days in Capitol Reef National Park. I’m hoping the historic Mormon peach orchard will still be in blossom along the Fremont River in Capitol Reef.

Right here in Northwest Colorado, there are already reservations in place for the peak of wildflower season in July at the Forest Service campground at Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass, just 15 miles from downtown Steamboat.

Deb and Craig Metscher are ahead of the game this spring with summer reservations at Hog Park Reservoir Campground just across the Wyoming state line but still in shouting distance of Colorado. The Forest Service campground there has 27 reserveable campsites and 22 that are first come, first served.

The Metschers will pack their classic Hallmark cab-over popup on a vintage Ford F-250 pickup early this summer for a quiet vacation. Craig loves to paddleboard on the lake, and Deb looks forward to hiking in the northern end of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

However, Deb’s dream camping destination is Rifle Falls in Rio Blanco County.

“That one is always sold out because there are only 18 spots,” she said.

Maybe next year Deb.

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.