Natural Bridges

Planning Your National Park Visit

This is the fourth article in our ongoing series about visiting America’s National Parks with an Airstream. Read Parts 1, 2 and 3 at the Outside Interests article archives.

I’m doing something familiar today: planning an Airstream camping trip to a great American national park. In this case my visit is to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona.

Crater Lake Snow
Crater Lake

Even though I’ve been here before, there are a few things I’ll do to get ready, based on prior experience camping in over a hundred other national parks. Each park is different, so you can never take them for granted. A little bit of research in advance pays off big.

Weather is the first thing to check out, particularly in western parks. Out west, geographic latitude (how far north or south) has a lot less relevance than altitude. A park in Arizona or California can have a lot more snow than a park in Montana, if it’s at high elevation.

Visitors from other areas often aren’t aware of this, until they pull up at the entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, or Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, and find their passage blocked by 15 feet of snow in June!

Get the forecasts for the upcoming week or so. Any number of websites can give you that information, and if you dig around the Internet you can find sites that show historical temperature and conditions.

Make your first stop www.nps.gov, the official national park website. There you’ll find individual descriptions of each park, and a sub-section entitled “Operating Hours & Seasons.” In that sub-section you can usually find information about weather throughout the year–along with important warnings about severe conditions that can occur. This is important because sometimes there are closures of roads or sections of the park which can alter your plans.

National Parks Service website
National Parks Service website

NPS.GOV is really 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 the 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 Relying on other sites, and especially guidebooks (which are out of date the moment they are sold) can be risky.

More importantly, NPS.GOV will lay out the camping options. Not all parks have RV camping, and those that do typically don’t have full hookups. But staying in the park puts you close to the action (or the solitude), and park campgrounds are usually more scenic than the commercial full-hookup campgrounds just outside the park boundary.

The largest parks will have more than one campground, and again here’s where NPS.GOV helps you out because it will explain which campgrounds are suitable for RVs. Often there’s a campground that is tents-only, and another that’s for organized groups, and so neither of those will be available to you.

Airstreams and length limitations—Now that you know what to expect in the park, it’s time to think about the details. The question I’m most often asked by newbies to national park camping is, “Will my Airstream fit?” The answer is usually “Yes.”

If a park has length limitations, it’s usually on a winding road (such as the road to the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park, Texas) or in the campground itself (such as Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah).

Natural Bridges
Natural Bridges

Take a close look at these limits. You shouldn’t exceed them, but 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 they “flex” in the middle they can make tighter turns without crossing the centerline of the road.

If you’re pushing the limit, be careful. The park staff set those limits for a good reason that you might not realize until you’re there. For example, Chiricauhua National Monument in Arizona has a campground that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps 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 a 28-footer dig deep scrapes in the asphalt, I wouldn’t go in there with anything over 25 feet.)

When the signs are ambiguous (as they often are), you’ve got to make a judgement call. Be conservative especially if you are not experienced at towing. When in doubt you can always ask a park Ranger or Campground Host for an opinion before proceeding.

The good news is that most national parks can easily accommodate most Airstreams. In most cases, only owners of 30 to 34-foot trailers and motorhomes have to hesitate, and even then they can often find a place to fit. But this is definitely something to know before you go.

Armed with all this information, you can start packing the right clothes for the weather and the activities you’ll be doing. You can also plan your route in and out of the park, know whether reservations are required, what fees you’ll be expected to pay for entrance and camping, and if you’re really organized you can develop a plan for each day—or just wing it. Either way, you’re destined to have a great trip!

— by Rich Luhr