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  1. #1
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    Camping in national parks

    I posted earlier about a trip I am planning and now the details are becoming together a bit more. I was planning on doing some camping in National parks along the way (starting with: Death Valley, Mojave, Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches). I'll be setting of the start of April from LA so am, hoping to miss the main summer tourism for this bit.

    Is it recommended to book camping sites (can you even do this if there's a hiker/biker site?), I would like to avoid this if possible so my itenary is flexible. If the campsite is full, is it normally okay to ask people to share a pitch? I'm hoping that just myself with my tiny tent shouldn't be too much of a problem. But I'm used to the UK where it's normally just a field rather than defined areas, and you can just put your tent whereever it fits!

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    Life is a fun ride safariofthemind's Avatar
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    American NP's are very well organized and very popular with both locals and foreign visitors. It is quite common to have crowds when the weather is nice. As a result our forest rangers have taken a pretty hard line on camping to avoid wide spread ecological degradation. People are pretty hard-a** about packing trash out, not leaving garbage that attracts bears or other wildlife, and generally being aware of the high use areas. In western states the rules can be bent a little when things are slow, but in the east where 200 million live things are always done by the book, or at least we try. In the Smoky Mtn and Appalachian parks crowds can be huge and you need to plan well ahead. There sure are some amazing places though and it is well worth it!

    Glad you are thinking ahead. You'll have a grand ol' time. Don't forget the sunblock cream!

    http://www.nps.gov/
    http://www.nature.nps.gov/stats/
    http://www.gorp.com/parks-guide/index-sp.html

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    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    I am not sure which National Parks do and do nt have hiker biker sites, but can say that some do and some don't. I can also say that the National Park campgroundss are pretty popular and do fill.

    Just as examples of what you might find, here is what we found at a few parks:
    1. In Yellowstone they had hiker biker sites when we were there, but they also had an opening since it was a Sunday evening. Since it was cheaper for us to share a regular site between the three of us we didn't use the hiker biker site.
    2. In Yosemite they let us stay one night in a camp that acts as a staging area for folks going into the back country (North Pines Campground). We then had to move early in the morning to get a site in Camp 4 which is the climbers camp and is first come first served.
    3. In Sequoia when we entered the park we were told there would be some empty sites , but we found the sites full when we got to the camp. We asked around and found a nice couple who not only let us pitch on the edge of their site but shared food and drink with us.
    4. Our second day in Sequoia we arrived early and found an empty site.

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    They do fill up, but I personally would take the chance and not book in advance. I've shared sites in full Forest Service campgrounds and in the national park campgrounds in Canada before. People are generally nice, especially to a woman traveling alone - someone will share. If you have a sense that the rangers are going to be jerks about it, you can always just ride into the camp ground "looking for a friend" and then make a friend.

    I have seen the campground in Arches fill up - be aware that there is only water out at that campground, no source of food closer than Moab, and it's a very hilly ride out there. Try to ride that one on a week day, there's no shoulder and it does get a lot of traffic on weekends in spring & fall. It is absolutely spectacular.

    And as long as you're in the area, try to get to Joshua Tree National Park, more awesome scenery. Also no water in the park, but there's water at the entrance station and people are friendly in the campgrounds, you can probably bum some water.
    ...

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    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by valygrl View Post
    I've shared sites in full Forest Service campgrounds and in the national park campgrounds in Canada before. People are generally nice, especially to a woman traveling alone - someone will share. If you have a sense that the rangers are going to be jerks about it, you can always just ride into the camp ground "looking for a friend" and then make a friend.
    +1

    I should have mentioned that I've had good luck with that approach a fair number of times and met some very nice folks as a result. It has never been my default plan, but it has always been a viable fallback and led to a positive experience. People are mostly nice and willing to help especially when you are stuck without a place to stay, on a bike, and hours from any other place to stay.

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    Arches np and canyonlands np are by reservation only and you must reserve online. There are a number of first come first serve campsights along hwy 128 on the Colorado river ( just east of the park) which IMHO would be a better bet for bike camping. More fun too without the pestky np rangers noseing around all the time. There are 2 fabulous campgounds just south of Moab on Kane Creek road, again right on the Colorado river in this gorgous red rock canyon. My wife and I just returned from spending a week camped there. It is only a few miles from town so resupply is a breeze but seems like miles from nowhere.

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    Don't overlook camping in National Forests (both developed campgrounds and "dispersed" camping along back roads: see http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/centralorego...ed/index.shtml), as well as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas. I generally prefer these types of sites. They are less developed and usually have a more natural feel. They are usually cheaper than NP sites, too, and sometimes even free.

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    Thanks for all the information, recommondations, and advice! I have just found the online maps of the NPs which are useful (and show water supply) - but it's good to know that there are other campsites around, particularly near the Arches which looked like it could be most problematic. Are the NP rangers really that bad!? I never seem to read any particularly complimentative comments!

    ps. No worries, plenty of sunscreen will be packed, and I looked up Joshua tree so that's been added to the list. There's too much nice stuff to see - I will have to be careful that I get up north within my visa time!

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    NP rangers are generally cool, but they have to deal with a lot of idiots on a regular basis and get paid terribly. After a while that gets old, I'm sure. They can be pretty strict with interpreting the rules, but that is their job, after all. My experience is they tend to like backpackers, bike tourists, and other self-propelled adventurers, because that's the type of people they are, too (generalizing). It's just that the RV'ers and day-trippers that leave trash all over the park wear them down. In a park like Yellowstone, for example, there are sure a lot of stupid visitors to deal with, from what I've seen on my trips there.

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    Life is a fun ride safariofthemind's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by alpine girl View Post
    Are the NP rangers really that bad!? I never seem to read any particularly complimentative comments!
    Bad? No. Strict and professional? Yes

    I have a lot of respect for those guys. They do a lot of work for little pay. My hat is off to them. Most truly do it out of love for their environment. If you behave responsibly you have absolutely nothing to worry about except logistics. You'll have a great time.

    One piece of advice, which you seem to have in spades: take it easy and be flexible. Sometimes your best experiences happen when something unexpected forces you to adapt and make a last minute change of plans. Serendipity can be wonderful and the spice of travel when coupled with the right attitude.

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    Senior Member BigBlueToe's Avatar
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    I camped at Zion last spring. The Watchman Campground takes reservations. I'd suggest getting one if you're going to arrive Thursday-Saturday. The South Campground is first come, first served. I rode in around noon on a Thursday. There were still a few sites open. I scored a walk-in site on the other side of the multi-use path, sort of by the river. It had a beautiful view of the Watchman, and no close neighbors. The only negative was a constant stream of people going by on the path, but they were far enough away to not be a bother. I think if I had been an hour or two later all the sites would have been full. I'm going again this spring. I'm planning on arriving around 11:00 in the middle of the week. I'll be looking for another walk-in site. There were several beauts!

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    In recent years NP rangers, and USFS people, have had to be more policeman like,
    than a steward of natural resources, as their job requirements have morphed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by briwasson View Post
    NP rangers are generally cool, but they have to deal with a lot of idiots on a regular basis and get paid terribly. After a while that gets old, I'm sure. They can be pretty strict with interpreting the rules, but that is their job, after all. My experience is they tend to like backpackers, bike tourists, and other self-propelled adventurers, because that's the type of people they are, too (generalizing). It's just that the RV'ers and day-trippers that leave trash all over the park wear them down. In a park like Yellowstone, for example, there are sure a lot of stupid visitors to deal with, from what I've seen on my trips there.
    Well put. Some people don't take rules like "Don't leave food unattended for one minute. Don't leave trash out." seriously, but to a ranger who, say, loves bears and knows that a fed bear can become a dead bear, this is serious business. As someone else noted, if you are responsible you will have no problem.

    The few problems I have had in government (i.e., NPS and USFS) campgrounds have been with unprofessional hosts and employees of companies hired to run the facilities. While you run into people like that in many businesses, I expect a little more from people contracted to manage public facilities, especially if it's a company making a profit off their activities.

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    In my experience, it is generally not necessary (and sometimes isn't possible) to book hiker-biker sites in advance. Glacier, Yellowstone, and Teton have hiker-biker sites in some of their campgrounds (refer to the park webpages to see which ones), and these generally don't fill up.

    If you are camping in National Forests, I would suggest avoiding the campsites and just go down a back road a ways and find a flat spot. Of course, that depends on how much you like having potable water and bathroom facilities nearby. As long as you don't build a fire, its legal to camp pretty much anywhere in a national forest. Depending on the location and the time of year, even a fire permit can be gotten pretty easily at a ranger station.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gorshkov View Post
    In my experience, it is generally not necessary (and sometimes isn't possible) to book hiker-biker sites in advance. Glacier, Yellowstone, and Teton have hiker-biker sites in some of their campgrounds (refer to the park webpages to see which ones), and these generally don't fill up.

    If you are camping in National Forests, I would suggest avoiding the campsites and just go down a back road a ways and find a flat spot. Of course, that depends on how much you like having potable water and bathroom facilities nearby. As long as you don't build a fire, its legal to camp pretty much anywhere in a national forest. Depending on the location and the time of year, even a fire permit can be gotten pretty easily at a ranger station.
    To clarify, since I think alpine girl is not from the USA - National Park <> National Forest. National Parks are pretty strict about where you can camp, it's designated campgrounds only. National Forest & BLM land, you can go just about anywhere (there are some rules, but I don't know them, since I like water & bathrooms pretty much).
    ...

  16. #16
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    oh, you can disperse camp in the backcountry in most western national parks with a backcountry camping permit. hiding to camp in national parks can work despite it being technically illegal. Some states have rules that people arriving as hikers and bikers cannot be turned away from a state park even if it is full, the rangers have to find space for you to camp. I don't believe this is the case in the national parks but suspect it could be a tactic used to some effect by a cyclotourist arriving at a national park in the afternoon.

    There's always places for people to camp in parks! anyway....

    Having spent a lot of time hanging out with and volunteering alongside park rangers at Rainier and the North Cascades, know from experience that a good attitude and respecting the rules will go a long way in getting treated kindly by NPS workers by and large. Don't get caught with your dog, a hand saw and a campfire in the backcountry, for instance.
    Last edited by Bekologist; 11-11-10 at 12:50 AM.

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    [QUOTE=brumskee;11761821]Arches np and canyonlands np are by reservation only and you must reserve online.

    Actually, Canyonlands does not accept reservations, and is first come only. I was out there last month. And it's very popular. There were people driving around the campground each morning asking every camper if they were planning on leaving that day so they could get the spot. Unless you are talking about camping in the back country....

    Tabriz

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    [QUOTE=tabriz;11771662]
    Quote Originally Posted by brumskee View Post
    Arches np and canyonlands np are by reservation only and you must reserve online.

    Actually, Canyonlands does not accept reservations, and is first come only. I was out there last month. And it's very popular. There were people driving around the campground each morning asking every camper if they were planning on leaving that day so they could get the spot. Unless you are talking about camping in the back country....

    Tabriz
    Sorry, I guess it depends on who is working the admission booth at the park entrance when you ask.

  19. #19
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    Ms. Alpine Girl -

    You may not be aware, but some of the national parks at higher elevations do not open campgrounds until late May of June. (For example - Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of Grand Canyon) Also, Death Valley starts CLOSING campgrounds in April. Each national park has its own website with camping info. Many of these parks have hiker/biker campsites - generally about $5 per person per night. I have never been turned away from a national park campground when biking in 20 years. (Especially when I make myself look exhausted and desperate)

    I would not camp illegally in the backcountry of national parks - besides being illegal, if you are caught it can be used as a reason to cancel your visa. Outside of the national parks, much of the region you will be travelling in is public land - you can camp anywhere on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or National Forest lands as long as it is not within 1/2 mile of a developed campground. (Unless otherwise posted, unfenced land can be assumed to be public.) You should absolutely NOT random camp on Indian reservation lands.

  20. #20
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    Alpine Girl: You might want to think twice about bicycling from Los Angeles to Death Valley and Mojave Natl PArk (Preserve). From a bicycling point-of-view, the desert areas around Death Valley don't have enough water supplies. If coming from Los Angeles you'll only have the small town of Trona (a real wasteland), then a long stretch until getting into Death Valley itself. Inside Death Valley there's plenty of water and camping at Furnace Creek, the 'central' area on the park.

    FWIW: Death Valley is a great place to go in the spring, but TAKE your bicycle there and take daytrips from the central area (like Furnace Creek). The geology-focused scenery is stunning, especially in the early morning and late afternoon light.

    Mojave Natl Park(Preserve?) - Actually this is a new area, and no facilities in it that I'm aware of yet. It was originally established to protect the area from human encroachment. Consider it bone-dry.

    Its also bone-dry between Death Valley and Las Vegas/Grand Canyon. You exit DV out towards Beatty, Nevada and try to hit the small towns along the way to Las Vegas, but I wouldn't consider it a good risk. And it'll be warm the entire way, too.

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    Thanks again for all the further advice and information! I'm not doing too much defined planning in advance - I will just see how things go as far as the route, weather, etc. I just figured this sort of general information is good to find out in advance. And I tend to be pretty rule-abiding so won't be camping in non-permitted places in the NP.

    Surfrider - I've found a couple of online journals with routes from Death Valley-Mojave-Joshua Tree then east so I think it is feasible. I already wasn't sure about the LA-Death Valley route so will be doing more research and if it looks that bad just taking a bus or something to get to a new start place. If it looks like it will too hot to ride in the area I will definately be changing my plans

  22. #22
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    AG -

    If you take Amtrak to Oxnard/Ventura you can ride up the Santa Clara Valley to Santa Clarita and then over to Antelope Valley - which should be at its peak in late April. There are back roads for much of the way - and when you have to get on Hwy 126 there is a wide shoulder. Very pleasant riding from Santa Clarita thru Angeles National Forest to Antelope Valley - San Francisquito Canyon Rd or Lake Hughes Rd - but traffic can be an issue during the morning and evening commutes and on weekends.

    If you do decide to start in Ventura - there is camping right on the ocean at McGrath State Beach with Hiker/Biker campsites.

    http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=607

    If you want, you can take a cruise out to Channel Islands National Park - again April should be the nicest time for wildflowers. The cruises are kind of pricey, but if you have the time and money - the islands are stunning - either overnight or just for the day.

    http://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm

    Cruise concession -

    http://www.islandpackers.com/

    Another nice thing about starting in Ventura is that you can visit the historic Spanish mission that was the beginning of European settlement - Mission San Buenaventura - from which the name "Ventura" comes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_San_Buenaventura

    By following the Santa Clara River into the mountains, you have a reasonable climb. Other routes have some pretty murderous grades - which is O.K. for a girl from the Alps, but maybe not right at the start. You,'' have plenty of opportunity to climb in Death Valley and elsewhere.

    Antelope Valley is spectacular in late spring in good rain years. Obviously, the winter rainy season has just started - so it is impossible to tell what kind of year this will be. But if it is a moderate to good year, the valley will be covered in orange poppies.

    http://www.naturalbornhikers.com/Ant...lopeValley.htm

    From the poppy reserve you can head east to Lancaster and take the old highway north to Mojave. From Ventura all the way to Mojave there are frequent services. If you head north from Mojave on Hwy 14 it will be busy, but there is a shoulder. Also, Red Rocks State Park will have water but is a ways north of the turnoff to Randsburg. Randsburg/Johannesburg are semi-ghost towns where you can see lots of derelict mining equipment and abandoned buildings - but with just enough stuff left to have essential services.

    http://www.randsburg.com/

    From Jo'burg you can take Trona Road up to Trona and Hwy 178 - a great, paved back road in the desert country with services at both ends. Can't beat that, eh? Go to Google Maps and take a look - fabulous country. 35 miles between services is nothing in the desert country. From Trona it isn't far on Hwy 178 to Death Valley National Park. You can backtrack west a few miles on Hwy 190 to Panamint Springs and services - otherwise it is a long trek into the park before you get to services and water at Emigrant Campground. (Do not assume there is water - even if the website says there is. The pump could be off line or the system could be shut down early. Call ahead and confirm.)

    ** NOTE ** You can always ride on main highways with a water bottle stretched out in you left hand begging for water passing traffic. People will see this and stop if they have water. Also, the emergency water stocks in the desert parks are for car radiators and this water is NOT drinkable. You might be able to filter it - but it will still taste awful.

    http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisi.../DEVAmap1a.pdf

    On the east side of Death Valley, it is about 75 miles from Furnace Creek to Shoshone via the scenic Badwater Road. (Which includes the lowest point in North America.) If you plan your water, leave early, and possibly beg some water at Badwater from the tourists parked there - you should have no trouble. But the Badwater site comes early and you still have many miles left to go. It is only 65 miles via Hwy 190 and Death Valley Junction. I do not know if there are any services left in DVJ.

    There are lovely hot springs at Tecopa. Services at Baker at Interstate 15 and services in Mojave National Preserve at Kelso. The Kelso Depot is an information center with water, restrooms, and limited food. It is only open from 9:00 to 5:00.

    http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisi...d/MOJAmap1.pdf
    http://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisi...torcenters.htm

    From Kelso you can head due south to Amboy and Old Route 66 on paved roads. Amboy is the most famous desert stop on Route 66 and the historic Roy's Cafe has reopened. Or you can do a little dirt via the Providence Mountains and hit Route 66 at Essex (almost ghost town - you may be able to get water from a house or post office).

    I have no doubt that you can do this trip in April and early May if you plan carefully and use caution. Since there is little to no cover in the desert, winds can be a problem. The prevailing wind direction - but not always - is south southwest. So you should have a tailwind in the beginning of your trip - but headwinds when you leave Death Valley. The best way to deal with headwinds is to leave EARLY in the morning before the wind picks up in the afternoon.

    Whatever your exact route - a bike tour in the deserts of California and Arizona in the late spring can be fabulous.

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    An alternative to Death Valley is to use Westgard Pass (CA 168) to cross between the White Mountains and the Panamint Range. If you're feeling adventurous you can take a side trip up to the Schulman Grove of bristlecone pines. Having driven across Death Valley and cycled from sea level out of Death Valley to Lone Pine, and having cycled Westgard Pass quite a few times, I found Westgard Pass to be a more enjoyable road to cycle on.

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