National and state park campground typically have tight reservation windows—some parks can only be reserved six months out, so if you want a spot in early September, you should get online in March. But not all of us can plan that far ahead so come Labor Day weekend it’s nearly impossible to find availability anywhere.
But where there’s a will there’s a way. A couple of workarounds and a little luck might just help you score the impossible. A good online resource to check as well is campsitephotos.com and hipcamp.com.
Some Tricks to Try
Try biking, walking or hiking in. Typically, there are a certain number of campsites available for “walk-ins,” on a first-come, first-served basis. Cruise the campground and check out these sites and look at the exit date listed on the site tag. This should give you a good idea of your chances. Also, chat up or make friends with the campground hosts. They’ll also fill you in. Then leave your car in the nearest town and pedal or hoof before the earliest check in time. While you’re at, go to a Wi-Fi café and go online and look for last minute cancelations.
- Another more bolder move (it works!): Drive through the campground and look for tent campers who have arrived on bikes rather than in automobiles Do they look friendly? Strike up a conversation and offer to pay for the campsite if they’d consider sharing it with you. You might be surprised.
- Keep an eye on the weather. If it looks like it’s going to rain or wind all weekend, there will be cancelations. Doesn’t mean it will absolutely rain or that the wind will blow, though, so pack just-in-case gear and go for it.
- Head to off-the-beaten path campgrounds; they are way more likely to have cancelations and unbooked sites.
- Look for campgrounds run by counties and other municipalities. These tend to get fewer campers.
All that said, here are five last minute beach campgrounds that are likely to be available even on busy end-of-summer holidays:
Stillwater Cove Regional Park, Jenner, California
Located off Highway 1, this 210-acre park offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. Bordered by open meadows mixed with coastal forest, there’s a half-mile trail leading to the historic one-room Fort Ross Schoolhouse. The cove provides ocean access for small boats and kayaks, and (abalone) divers. There’s also a small beach near individual campsites (no RV hook-ups) and a hiker/bicycle site. There’s potable water, restrooms with coin -operated showers, flush toilets, and electrical outlets.
Mustang Island State Park, Texas
This is a fun beach campground with fishing, swimming, hiking and mountain biking on 5 miles of open beach, sun lazing, kayaking, surfing, SUPing (stand up paddling) and birding (especially during spring and fall migrations). You’ll like find a spot in the more than 300 non-reserveable primitive beach campsites with drive up access located on a 1.5 mile stretch of beach (and only $8/night with up to 8 people per campsite). If you want water and electric hookup, you’re in luck (though those will likely fill faster). There are 48 of these sites, paved and are not directly on the beach but about 75 yards away, separated by sand dunes at twice the price.
Hither Hills State Park, NY
This area encompasses two-miles of sandy ocean beach, a 40-acre freshwater lake, playing fields, a playground and a 168-site oceanside campground on the ocean (surfers rave about the beach break in front of the campground). The unique “walking dunes” of Napeague Harbor are located on the eastern woodland park boundary. There’re also bridle paths, hiking, biking and nature trails.
Schoodic Woods Campground, Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on the Schoodic Peninsula (and built on 3,200-acre property owned by Lyme Timber), this 100-site campground is 3 miles (5 km) southeast of Winter Harbor. The entire campground is first come, first served this year. (Reservations for following years are highly recommended). There are walk-in tent sites, drive up tent/small RV, RV with electric only sites, and RV with electric and water. Bicycle paths across the peninsula connect the campground to the Gouldsboro village of Wonsqueak Harbor, where the one-way loop road through the park becomes a two-way road, and to the former Ocean Wood Campground site on the eastern side of the peninsula. Hiking trails seamlessly connect with existing trails on adjacent property owned by the park.
Lone Rock Beach, Glen Canyon, Arizona
No, it’s not an ocean beach, but it’s an amazing sandy beach no-reservation campground, surrounded by dunes. You won’t find designated campsites, but there plenty of places to camp. Plus there are 4 micro flush toilets, 6 vault toilets, 1 comfort station/wheelchair accessible, outdoor cold shower, and potable water (seasonal). Open fires are permitted, but must be within four foot squared area. There’s no launch ramp, but that means low traffic and lots of quiet.