Lessons learned on reserving Parks Canada campgrounds

Good news is we are going to the Canadian Rockies this summer. I’m really excited about it. This place has been my dream for a while. No-so-good news is campgrounds in these Canadian Rockies national parks are booked up VERY early (I don’t use all caps lightly), so we had to modify our original plan. How early? Read on. I wrote this post to share my experience of reserving Parks Canada campgrounds for our trip to the Canadian Rockies so that you know how to do it right when planning your trip….but it might not be this summer if you want to stay in national park campgrounds.

We would like to spend about 1.5-2 months RVing in the Canadian Rockies. We were planning to camp in the Parks Canada’s campgrounds in Banff, Jasper, and Kootenay National Parks. These parks have campgrounds that have reservable spots which are large enough for our RV, Stimpy. The Canadian Glacier NP and Yoho NP don’t have reservable campgrounds for Stimpy so we didn’t plan to camp there…just don’t want to take a chance on not having one when we arrive. Mount Revelstoke NP doesn’t have any campgrounds. We will visit all 6 parks — Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier, and Mount Revelstoke National Parks. We’d like to visit Waterton Lakes National Park someday and it’ll be combined with a revisit to the US Glacier National Park in Montana.

Last year, while I was researching campgrounds in Banff, Jasper, and Kootenay NP. I read campground reviews of Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff NP, Whistlers Campground in Jasper NP, and Redstreak Campground in Kootenay NP. I wanted to have a sense of what their campgrounds were like, which loops have full hook-up sites, and whether Stimpy would fit in the site with Ren as a towed vehicle. Many of the reviews suggested and warned that reservation of the parks’ campsites must be done early if you are going during high season. In hindsight, I think “early” is not the right word for this.

I went to Parks Canada website to learn about what are needed to reserve campsites. I found that reservations for 2017 camping season (April 2017-March 2018) wouldn’t start until January 2017. In fact there are different launch dates for different national parks. For example, for Jasper NP the 2017 Reservation Launch was on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. MST. The Launch for Banff NP was on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. MST. So I set my calendar to remind me before these dates.

Online reservation including current reservation dates

Online reservation including current reservation dates

Next is where you enter information about your stay. Frontcountry camping is for typical campgrounds where you bring your own RV or tent.

Next is where you enter information about your stay. Frontcountry camping is for typical campgrounds where you bring your own RV or tent.

Although entry to all Canadian National Parks is free in 2017, you still need to request for Discovery Pass to be mailed to you unless you are 3 weeks away from the trip. So I requested the pass from Parks Canada’s website. I downloaded maps of each campground to see the layout of each loop in relation to services in the campground. I went to the online reservation page to see photos of each potential sites. I wrote down a few site numbers from each campground that I knew I wanted to secure. I tried using the online reservation page so that I was familiar with how it worked. With the testing, I learned that I needed Government of Canada GCKey to access the service and to sign in. So I signed up for the GCKey several days before the reservation date. It took me a while (may be 10-15 minutes) to successfully sign up for the GCKey. If you do not have the GCKey, you will have to sign up for one during the campground reservation process which will slow you down. I highly recommend that you get the GCKey in advance.

International and U.S. visitors will need GCKey to make a reservation. Get GCKey in advance to speed up the booking.

International and U.S. visitors will need the GCKey to make a reservation. Get the GCKey in advance to speed up the booking.

The reservation system would be launched at 8:00 a.m. MST, that’s 7:00 a.m. my time (I’m on the US Pacific time zone). With all these preparations, I planned to reserve the campsites the same morning that the system was launched. I was well-prepared….so I thought.

On January 10, the day of Jasper NP Reservation Launch, I woke up at my usual time and went to the online reservation page around 11 a.m. I put in late July to early August dates for 2 weeks, the size of RV, and preferences for services at the site (electric, water, sewer). To my disbelief, there was no availability in Whistlers Campground during these 2 weeks. None. Zero. ………. I might have said to David “we’re f***ed”. I didn’t remember. All I remembered was I frantically changed the dates up to early July and late June, but still no availability. After I settled down from the shock I just experienced. I started looking for a Plan B. I found that there were some availability in mid June but not for an entire 2 weeks. So we shortened our planned stay in Jasper NP to 10 days and booked a site in the second half of June. I originally planned to be in Banff first and Jasper second. We modified our plan as a result of what happened to the reservation for Jasper.

Determined to not repeat the same mistake again the next day for Banff, I set alarm clocks to get up and be ready before the system was open for reservation. Next morning, I got up at 6:30 a.m. my time. I never get up this early since I left my job last July and a few times that we had to bring RVs in for services. We are not early-bird kind of people. At 7:00 a.m. PST (8:00 a.m. MST) I went in to reserve Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court campsite for Banff NP. It must have taken me less than 15 seconds to secure the site I wanted. Nevertheless, I noticed that some of the sites were already taken when I got to the point where I reserved my site. When you click a reserve button for a site, that site is not available for others until you cancel your transaction. However, you must complete your booking process within allowed time (about 16-18 min for each step). This limited time to complete each step will be a problem if you don’t have the GCKey readily available because it took some time to sign up for it. Other steps are easy to complete.

One important note. If you will be using a credit card to pay for the reservation, this transaction may be considered overseas transactions by your credit card company. Some fraud protection system of your card may deny the payment. Be sure to check with your credit card company in advance to prevent a nasty surprise.

The next morning I did the same approach for Kootenay NP and was able to secure a site within less than 10 seconds. I am getting better at this already. 🙄

About 5 hours after the Launch, the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff NP had some availability in June.

Using my search criteria for a large RV, about 5 hours after the Launch, the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff NP had some availability in June.

July availability was pretty much gone at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court.

July availability was pretty much gone at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court.

Not much here either

Not much here either

There was some in early August still.

There was some in early August still.

And some availability in late August

And some availability in late August

Similar to others, Redstreak Campground availability was pretty much gone in July about 5 hours after the Launch.

Similar to others, Redstreak Campground availability was pretty much gone in July about 5 hours after the Launch.

Another things I learned was that you could only reserve up to 14 days of camping at Whistlers Campground and Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court despite the reservation system containing a drop-down box for up to 21 days. I guess I should have read this from somewhere at some point considering all the research I did. I never saw it on Parks Canada website either until I selected 21 days for Banff and Jasper and it gave an error message. I have no idea where you can stay for 21 days.

With the issue with the reservation, we changed our plan to go to the Canadian Rockies early than we wanted. So we will move our Vancouver, BC visit to lately July to early August instead. All is well. See ya soon the Canadian Rockies!

8 Comments

  1. The online booking system is insane. Probably more so this year because of the free Park passes for Canadian citizens for Canada’s 150th birthday cerebration. There are still private campgrounds. And I really, really wouldn’t miss out on visiting yoho just because there’s no reservable campsite there. It’s an easy drive from Banff. Also Kananaskis has some non-national parks campgrounds… Mount Kidd RV resort is a popular one.

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  2. That like some awesome travel plans. That plenty photos! Miss ya’ll. Had a left knee replacement Monday. Everything turned out good!y

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