How to Make Reservations at California State Parks

Camping at Sunset State Beach
••• Camping at Sunset State Beach. ©2014 Monica Bourne. Used by Permission.

Making a camping reservation at a California State Park sounds ridiculously simple, and it should be. But the sad truth is that it's ridiculously complicated instead. And you have to plan farther ahead for next year's camping trip than you would for an African safari.

I'm here to help you know what to do - and when - to snag the camping spot you want.

Having said that, here's the most frustrating part.

On my last try for a popular destination, it was booked solid by 8:01 a.m. If you're looking for an in-demand place like Crystal Cove Cottages in Orange County, you'll need an atomic clock to be sure you know the exact correct time. And the reflexes of a fighter jet pilot to click the Reserve button on the stroke of 8:00. I wish you luck.

California State Park Campground Reservations

You may be able to find an open spot in a California KOA on short notice. You might even drive into a National Forest campground on Friday afternoon and find a place to put your tent.

That's not true for many California state parks. In fact, most campsites must be reserved as much as six months in advance, especially during the busy summer camping season.

Timing Is Everything

This is the tricky part. On the first day of each month - at exactly 8:00 a.m. Pacific Time - the entire month six months later becomes available for reservations.

If it's the first of February, every single day in August can be reserved. That always happens on the first day of the month no matter what day of the week it is. Or almost. In January, it happens on the second.

How to Get Ready

Camping reservations go so fast that you won't have time to think and debate on the day the reservation window opens.

I know this from experience, as I've watched every cabin at Crystal Cove disappear withing moments while I was trying to decide whether the green one or the yellow one was cuter. Do all of this ahead of time, even if you're going to call for the reservation.

Ahead of time, pick a park you want to camp in and at least one alternate. You also need to be very prepared with your ideal dates and at least one alternative.

Pick a few campsites that you are most interested in and have them ready. For this, too, it may be helpful to have alternate sites in mind.

To do that, choose "reserve online" on the state park's web page. The URL should start with parks.ca.gov. That will take you to the ReserveAmerica website, where you'll find an availability calendar and campsite maps.

You can also go directly to ReserveAmerica and enter the park's name.

How to Make Your Reservation

To reserve a campsite at popular California State Park campgrounds, here's what to do:

  1. Be ready a little before 8:00 a.m. on the first of the month.
  2. Know what campground you want to stay in, your desired site(s) and an alternate campground in case you need it.
  3. To reserve by telephone, call 800-444-7275 or 916-638-5883.
  4. You can also reserve online through ReserveAmerica 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Other Alternatives

    If you want to go camping and are unsuccessful, try again several times before you plan to make your trip. Cancellations happen all the time.

    If you sign up for an account with ReserveAmerica, you can sign up for email alerts that notify you when there's a cancellation.

    You can also head for one of the campgrounds that have a first come, first served policy. However, these are usually primitive campgrounds with pit toilets or hike-in spots.

    Reservations for Other California State Park Activities

    You can also use ReserveAmerican to make reservations for activities in the state parks:

    • Hearst Castle tour reservations are available 120 days in advance. Call 800-444-4445 or 916-414-8400 ext. 410. You can also reserve Hearst Castle Tours online.
    • Elephant Seal Viewing at Ano Nuevo requires a guide during the breeding season (December through March). Ticket sales usually start in October, and you can reserve your tour by calling 800-444-4445 or 916-638-5883, or online.
    • Crystal Cove Beach Cottages in Orange County follow the same procedures described above.