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Surf Your Way to a Campsite


Surf Your Way to a Campsite

Surf Your Way to a Campsite


FINDING good information online about campgrounds can be an exercise in wandering in the wilderness, with trail markers that point in conflicting directions or send you deep into the electronic woods.

Take the federal park system, for instance. Should you look for guidance to, a privately owned site? Or try, the site of the National Park Service? Or, which has the right to allot campsite reservations for a handful of national parks?

The answer on all three counts is it depends, since the federal campground you're considering may not be run by the National Park Service, but rather the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation or the Army Corps of Engineers, all of which have their own Web sites.

Add to this the fact that some state tourism sites and national travel sites provide competing information on the parks, and would-be campers could be forgiven for pitching a tent in the back yard and forgetting the whole idea.

But hard-core campers who muddle through the weeds of cyberspace will often be rewarded with tips on great campsites, advice on how to find a campground that meets one's needs and even an occasional online reservation system to save them from having to compete with a thousand other phone callers.

A good place to start planning for your camping expedition online is, which is a consolidated site for federally managed (and some state-managed) parks. The Web site offers information and reservations for roughly 3,000 federal parks and other recreation sites, including about 2,000 campgrounds, representing about 150,000 campsites.

Charlie Grymes, project manager for Recreation One-Stop, the federal agency in charge of the consolidation effort, says: "We're still consolidating information for all our different sites. We have numerous sources for the campsites, but it's hard to keep updated, say, when Hurricane Isabel wipes some of them out, or wildfires force temporary closures."

The Overview

Still, does a decent job of putting its arms around a system that resists enclosure. By clicking the Camping link in the list of activities on the site's home page, users can find a state map, which yields a list of federally managed campgrounds in each state. Each park has its own Web page on, including a link to the park's Web site and, thoughtfully, a five-day National Weather Service forecast.

However, gives users no sense of the park's location within the state. The listings for New York, for example, included 11 parks. Some, like Fire Island National Seashore, I recognized. Others, like Seaway Trail Scenic Byway, were unfamiliar. Was it eight hours away, or one?

I clicked through to the page on for the Seaway Trail Scenic Byway to find an up-close map of the park, along with a description that the byway is located "along the coast of the eastern Great Lakes." Which ones? On another site I found that the Seaway Trail skirts Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Those who are past the brainstorming phase should go directly to, which is owned by InteractiveCorp, the same company that runs Expedia, and other sites. ReserveAmerica, which operates, is one of two companies that have been granted federal contracts to provide online reservations for federal campgrounds. That arrangement explains why, when you click through to make your reservations on, a window opens on your browser. allows you to reserve a site at any of the Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds that take reservations, like the Pinecrest Recreation Area in the Stanislaus National Forest in central California, or Deer Lake, in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota, as well as 12 National Park Service campgrounds. Not all of the campgrounds that take reservations are online-enabled yet. For instance, only about 40 of the 220 campgrounds of the National Park Service accept reservations. But most the federal campgrounds don't take reservations, a testament to their remoteness, perhaps, or simply to lack of demand. At highly sought-after campgrounds, though, an online reservation system can be a boon for consumers.

Getting the Best Sites

Valerie Southard, a detective in Gwinnett County, Ga., says she uses to secure campsites for her family at Lake Sidney Lanier, a park in northern Georgia run by the Army Corps of Engineers. The campground, which Ms. Southard's family uses about four times a year, has a few choice sites that, she said, tend to sell out quickly.

"You can reserve six months ahead, so for the peak times like Memorial Day weekend, it's pretty much a race," Ms. Southard said. "You mark it on your calendar: 'Must reserve today!' ''

ReserveUSA includes some nice touches, like campground diagrams showing the location of each site, with a page for each site that tells you whether it's shaded, for instance.

The National Park Service Reservation Center, offers camping reservations for 31 parks, including some highly popular destinations like Yosemite, Acadia and the Grand Canyon. On those sites, you can add a note with your reservation requesting a specific site, but the service doesn't guarantee that you will get what you want.

Of course, national parks represent but a fraction of the available campgrounds in the United States. But state parks are frequently a step behind their federal counterparts in terms of Internet capability, making online research difficult at times.

State park service Web sites can be helpful too, although some of them lack sufficient information. The Web site of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (, for instance, just shows its seven regional boundaries, along with phone numbers for more information.

In a search for Maine state parks I fared better. The Web page for the Bureau of Parks and Lands of the state Department of Conservation ( has a tool for selecting parks that offer certain features. I selected Camping, and found a list of 36 parks.

At the top was the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. But the page devoted to the park gives few details on camp sites., the outdoor travel site, also had some camping tips for Allagash. After clicking the Camping link on Gorp's home page, I found a heading for Top 10 Lists. There, I clicked on the Secluded Campsites, and found page for McKeen Brook at Allagash.

The accompanying narrative, originally published in Outside magazine, described a "weeklong canoe trip along the 92-mile waterway, three miles below the thundering crash of Allagash Falls," and a campsite at the brook "brimming with trout and salmon."

Imagine the sight of a riverside campfire and a dinner of fresh trout, and you might forgive all the clicks it took to get there.

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