On January 1, the new rules will apply to about 150 of the campgrounds in the state of California. The changes are intended to reduce no-shows and give more people access to the most popular venues. They will be followed by a new lottery reservation system for up to five venues, which will be in high demand in January 2025.
In a park system with about 15,000 campsites and shelters that attract approximately 6.5 million campers each year, these changes, signed into law on October 8, mark a big shift.
That could be a blow to seasoned campers used to working the system—and a relief to those who logged into the state’s reservation system at 8:05 a.m., six months ahead of their target date, and found every area already claimed.
Which campgrounds will move to the lottery? State Parks and Recreation officials aren’t talking (and they prefer the phrase “drawing on the reservation”). But when asked to name the most desirable 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 camp in the state park system, park officials say, is Pismo State Beach. All 10 campgrounds are on the coast, and six are beaches in Southern California.
Whether reserved for transfer lottery systems or not, all state campgrounds and lodges with advanced reservations through Reserve California are covered by several provisions of the new law, effective January 1. Among the rules:
- If a traveler cancels a reservation at least seven days before the start of the stay, that traveler will receive a refund (minus the reservation fee).
- If a traveler cancels a reservation two to six days before the reservation’s start date, that traveler “may forfeit” the cost of the first night plus the reservation fee.
- Travelers who fail to show up for a reservation or cancel less than 24 hours before the reservation’s start time will forfeit the entire cost of the reservation, with no credit toward future stays. This is worse than the previous penalty of one night’s cost, the reservation fee, and a $7.99 cancellation fee.
- Travelers cannot reserve a site for more than seven consecutive nights in peak season.
- Travelers cannot book more than 30 nights per year at the same location 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 barred from advance reservations system-wide for up to one year. (Under the law, all reservation holders will 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 in advance, the free campsite or lodging site will be re-added to the state’s online reservation system.
In large part, the new rules are an update to the reservation system the state switched to in 2017 (ReserveCalifornia.com, and a pandemic surge in camping and other outdoor activities.
Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) introduced the rules through Assembly Bill 618.
In deciding which campgrounds will be included in the lottery program, the parks department will select “based on the units with the most booking interest six months prior to the reservation date,” the law says. The law requires the parks department to test the new system until January 1, 2029.
As they develop the new plan, park officials will take a closer look at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, where a pilot program will use a lottery approach to manage bookings for the park’s Steep Ravine Cabins starting next summer.
ReserveCalifornia.com manages about 13,000 campsites in about 150 state parks with campgrounds, along with about 2,000 cabins, yurts, and other accommodations. It usually accepts reservations six months in advance of the arrival date, opening at 8 a.m. daily. In addition to the nightly fees for camping, ReserveCalifornia.com charges a non-refundable $7.99 reservation processing fee.
Park officials say the top 10 busiest summer campgrounds had occupancy rates ranging from 94% to 98% this past summer. More details on campgrounds are available through nongovernment sites such as hipcamp.com and californiasbestcamping.com.