For millions of outdoorsy Californians, fresh air is about to meet fine print.
On Jan. 1, new rules take effect at about 150 of California’s state campgrounds. The changes are intended to reduce no-shows and give more people access to the most popular spots, and they’ll be followed by a new reservation lottery system at up to five high-demand campgrounds by January 2025.
In a park system with about 15,000 campsites and lodgings that attract an estimated 6.5 million campers yearly, these changes, signed into law Oct. 8, mark a substantial shift.
They may be a blow to seasoned campers accustomed to working the system — and a comfort to those who have logged onto the state reservation system at 8:05 a.m., six months ahead of their target date, and found every spot already claimed.
Which campgrounds will switch to a lottery? State Parks and Recreation officials haven’t said (and they prefer the phrase “reservation drawing”). But when asked to name the most coveted campgrounds, they came up with the top 10 list below, based on 2023 summer occupancy between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The most-sought-after summer campground in the state park system, parks officials say, is Pismo State Beach. All 10 campgrounds are on the coast and six are Southern California beaches.
Whether destined for a switch to lottery systems or not, all state campgrounds and lodgings that take advance reservations through ReserveCalifornia are covered by many provisions of the new legislation, starting Jan. 1. Among the rules:
- If a traveler cancels a reservation at least seven days before the stay is to begin, that traveler will receive a refund (less reservation fees).
- If a traveler cancels a reservation two to six days before the reservation start date, that traveler “may forfeit” the cost of the first night, plus reservation fees.
- Travelers who fail to show up for a reservation or cancel less than 24 hours before the reservation start time will forfeit the entire cost of the reservation, with no credit toward future stays. This is substantially stiffer than the previous penalty of one night’s cost, the reservation fee and a $7.99 cancellation fee.
- Travelers can’t reserve a site for more than seven consecutive nights in peak season.
- Travelers can’t book more than 30 nights per year at the same site in the same park or unit.
- If a traveler fails to show up for a reservation three times in one calendar year, system-wide, that person will be blocked from advance reservations system-wide for up to a year. (Under the law, all reservation-holders are to receive two reminder emails before their visit dates, and those reminders will include the new cancellation policies.)
- In cases where a traveler cancels a reservation at least three days ahead, the freed-up campsite or lodging site will be added again to the state’s online reservation system.
In large part, the new rules are an update to the booking system the state switched to in 2017, ReserveCalifornia.com, and a pandemic-era surge in camping and other outdoor activities.
Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) introduced the rules through Assembly Bill 618.
In deciding which campgrounds to include in the lottery program, the parks department will choose “based on units that have the most booking interest six months before the reservation date,” the law says. The law requires the parks department to try the new system through at least Jan. 1, 2029.
As they develop the new plan, parks officials will be looking closely at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, where a pilot program will use a lottery approach to handle bookings for the park’s Steep Ravine Cabins beginning next summer.
ReserveCalifornia.com manages about 13,000 campsites at about 150 state parks with campgrounds, along with about 2,000 cabins, yurts and other lodgings. It typically accepts reservations six months before the arrival date, opening at 8 a.m. daily. In addition to nightly rates for camping, ReserveCalifornia.com charges a nonrefundable $7.99 reservation processing fee.
Parks officials say the top 10 busiest summer campgrounds had occupancy rates of from 94% to 98% this past summer. More details on campgrounds are available through nongovernment sites like hipcamp.com and californiasbestcamping.com.