Reserving campsites in Yellowstone is a small lottery unto itself and the campgrounds that take reservations tend to be parking lots. Thankfully, many campgrounds are first-come-first-serve and the National Park Service website for Yellowstone lists times when campgrounds fill to help you plan. Problem is, most of them fill up between 7 and 8 AM and it’s not uncommon for people to be in line as early as 5 AM.
We found very little information on how the check-in process actually worked, so if you are going to camp in Yellowstone at Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Mammoth, Norris, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, or Tower Fall, here is how the process works.
First-Come First-Serve Campsites
You can line up at anytime, but rangers do not open the station until 7 or later. Once the station opens, they’ll make the rounds to check who has checked out and will only then start selling campsites. They cannot sell a site until someone has checked out, so if it is 7:30 and three people have checked out, they will only help the first three people in line. You can check the board to see who is checking out (the big numbers at the bottom are check-in date and check-out date), but campers can renew and have until 9AM to do so. Campers who are renewing a site do not have to wait in line, by the way, so it is smart to reserve only the nights that you know you will be there and then extend as needed. Because of all this, it might take a couple of hours to understand how many campers will vacate that day.
Your wait for a site might take longer, though. Check-out time is 11 and since rangers can’t sell a site until it is vacated, you might wait in line until 10:30 before check-in. The rangers can give you a rough idea of how many people are checking out and their estimate on how many will renew, so not all is lost. They’re incredibly friendly and if you explain what you’re looking for they can generally give you an idea of whether you should stay or try another site.
Since we had no idea what to expect, we didn’t want to miss out by arriving too late. We deiced to stay at Norris as it is central to everything in Yellowstone. The website listed 7:15 as the fill time for Norris, but Fin doesn’t wake up until 8. Our solution? I drove the van down to West Yellowstone, slept in the car (hooray for camper vans!), then lined up at 5:45 for a spot. I was third in line. The first people there lined up at 4 AM, believe it or not.
All this trepidation proved for naught, however, as most people arrive around 7 AM, so if you’re nervous aim for a 6:30 arrival and you should be okay (in June, at least). With the above system keeping me waiting until someone checked out, I finally received a spot by by 8:30. There were about 20 groups in line by the time I left and the rangers said that everyone should get a campsite that day, so appearances can be deceiving.
If I had to do it again, I’d sleep in West Yellowstone still but not get to the campsite until 6:30. I recommend that you arrive early, but don’t stress it too much as most people stay for 2-4 nights.