This land is your land, this land is my land — and national parks are so near and dear to the heart of America for that exact reason. They’re national treasures that belong to all Americans! National parks are federally protected land intended to be explored, admired, and enjoyed by all.
Maintaining the integrity of land and pristine wilderness shared by over 300 million people is a pretty monumental task, to put it plainly. Hats off to the National Park Service doing what needs to be done to protect our parks. . . But it sometimes results in some funky rules and regulations that are perplexing to follow and easily overlooked for us average Joe’s just wanting to go pitch a tent and sit by a campfire.
The Shakedown: Rules for Recreating and Camping in National Parks
What makes unwinding the web of National Park rules and regulations such a hot mess?
Each national park has a different set of rules and regulations. . . and all of those rules and regulations are dynamic and ever-changing.
However, when a simple oversight could cost the average Joe — just trying to sip some whisky by the campfire — up to $5,000 in fines and 12 months in prison, it’s worth it to know the rules and know them well.
(That was in fact the maximum punishment for violations of Zion National Parks fire restrictions that were in place after a fire broke out at one of the designated campgrounds this past July!)
National Park Regulations To Consider When Planning Your Trip
Disclaimer: Regulations are always subject to change based on conditions, weather, construction, etc. Always check with the National Park Service for up-to-date regulations at the park you’re planning to visit prior to your trip.
Furthermore, always double-check fire restrictions in any national park before lighting a campfire (or portable propane campfire) as they vary and are also subject to change. While LPG-fueled fires are typically permitted under Stage 2 Fire Restrictions, this might not always be the case in every location.
(Want to dig into the details of Stage 1 vs Stage 2 Fire Restrictions and what they mean for camping and having campfires? We’ve got a post for that!)
Now let’s make some sense of all these quirky rules and regulations so that you can make the most of your time visiting and camping in your favorite national parks.
Day Use Reservations and Timed Entry
Reservation systems for day use in national parks largely came into play during the Covid-19 shutdown in 2020. These systems helped mitigate crowds and the potential spread of illness.
With the substantial increase in visitors to national parks that has persisted year after year, many of the busiest parks maintained the reservation system in some form or another.
Make sure to check with the park you’re headed to prior to your trip. Some parks allow a limited number of visitors per day. Others have timed entry requirements.
Know before you go so that you don’t get turned down at the gate! As always, entry to national parks, even for day use, will come with a fee.
Frontcountry Camping in National Parks
Frontcountry camping looks different in each park but there are a few things you can typically expect to encounter. These include “luxurious” — by dirtbag standards — amenities like pit toilets, running water, and established metal fire rings with grills. This also means you’ll most likely be camped right next door to your camp neighbors.
As far as campfires go, camping in the front country is going to give you the most leniency.
When there are not any fire restrictions in place, most designated front country campsites in National Parks allow wood and charcoal-burning campfires inside of the designated fire rings provided.
However, in the case of Stage 2 Fire Restrictions, burning a campfire even within the designated campfire ring is prohibited. If you’re camping in a National Park during a Stage 2 Fire Restriction and you still want to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of a campfire, bring a self-contained portable fire pit fueled by liquid petroleum or LPG such as propane, butane, or butene.
Not-so-subtle hint: Bringing along a LavaBox is a really good idea if you want to be sure you’re able to enjoy a campfire while frontcountry camping in national parks.
Frontcountry camping almost always requires paid reservations. During the high season, expect the most popular national park’s campgrounds to book out months in advance. Plan accordingly!
Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Permits in National Parks
No doubt that backpacking in our national parks offers one of the most magnificent wilderness experiences out there. However, it doesn’t always come easy. Backpacking in national park wilderness will require a permit or at least registration.
The most lusted-after backcountry backpacking and camping permits for national parks (like the Grand Canyon) prove anything but easy to secure. About 75% of applicants vying for access to the Grand Canyon’s most popular backcountry zones aren’t granted access each year.
Depending on which parks you’re trying to score backcountry permits in, you may have to log in (to a website like recreation.gov) at specific times months in advance or even enter a lottery system and cross your fingers. Head to the NPS website for the park on your bucket list to learn more about backcountry permits, lotteries, and fees.
When you're traveling in a national park’s backcountry, it’s safe to assume that you cannot have a wood or charcoal-burning campfire in most cases.
There are certain parks that might be exceptions at certain times. For example, Rocky Mountain National Park has a few backcountry campsites with designated fire rings where backcountry campfires are permitted depending on the time of the year and the wildfire risk. However, the majority of national parks restrict campfires from the backcountry.
They often also require food to be cooked on a portable stove fueled by pressurized gas such as propane or butane.
Over recent years we’ve seen devastating fires in national parks from the Cameron Peak fire that damaged 30,000 acres in Rocky Mountain National Park to the York fire this past July that burnt over 90,000 acres of land within Joshua Tree National Park.
Not being able to spend dark cool nights around the warmth of a campfire can be disappointing, but it’s easy to see why these strict regulations are in place. Human-caused wildfires are often the result of poorly extinguished or ill-managed wood-burning campfires.
National Park Fire Firewood Regulations
Here’s a fun one that might come as a surprise. . . Did you know that many national parks restrict the collection of firewood inside the park AND have regulations against bringing non-local firewood into the park!?
How many times have you broken that rule without even knowing it existed?
NPS states that downed wood is more important to native wildlife in many parks than it is to us humans trying to light stuff on fire (fair).
If you’ve seen the devastation caused by the introduction of zebra muscles to many lakes and rivers in the west or by mountain pine beetles in Colorado’s high country it’s clear why we can’t risk introducing non-native species to our park’s ecosystems.
The rules around collecting (or limiting and prohibiting collecting) firewood, including dried dead trees, vary widely from park to park. For instance, Arches and Great Sand Dunes prohibit collecting wood in the park completely, while Canyonlands allow the collection of firewood such as tamarisk and driftwood near river corridors but prohibit it elsewhere in the park.
National Parks such as Rocky Mountain National Park and Joshua Tree ask that you only bring local firewood into the park to mitigate the risk of introducing invasive, non-native species of pests that can damage the ecosystem.
It’s Up To Us to Protect Our Parks
Moral of the story? Know before you go recreating and camping in national parks.
There are some obscure but necessary rules out there that you likely would completely overlook if you didn’t take the time to plan and prepare ahead of time.
They may seem confusing and arbitrary but they exist to protect one-of-a-kind natural landscapes and ecosystems so that we can enjoy them for generations to come.
Cheers to you for being a good steward! Now pass the (fire restriction compliant) torch along to your friends, family, and the next generation. We’d love for you to share this post on your Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn to spread awareness and fill our national parks with more conscious outdoors people.