Had trouble booking a campsite at a Wisconsin state park this year? – Isthmus
Jacquie Ainslie typically camps multiple times at Wisconsin state parks from early summer through October. She books her trips when reservations open in January, but finding a site has become more difficult since the state implemented its new system, Wisconsin go camping, in 2018, she said. And this year has been particularly difficult.
“We were only able to find one site in one of the state parks, Point Beach,” says Ainslie, who lives in New Glarus. “We could find stuff during the week but forget the weekends.”
Stéphanie Solverud is also frustrated by the arduous search for available campsites. But she’s even more unnerved by what she sees in campgrounds after her family sets up camp. She says some of the very sites that were unavailable at the time of booking are unoccupied. And while it’s common for campgrounds to have vacancies during the week, these sites will remain empty all weekend. This scenario has become more common over the past five years, she adds.
“I walk around the campground all week I’m there, and I see 10, 20 empty sites and they’ve been empty all week,” says Solverud, who is from Beaver Dam. “I’ve been to Peninsula and Crystal Lake, you know, really popular sites, and the weather is great. It’s not those rainy, cold weekends.
Wisconsin Going to Camp replaced the reservation system provided by Reserve America. According to Chris Pedretti, supervisor of the business operations section at the Department of Natural Resources, the new software is more functional for the user and staff and is used by other states, including Washington, Maryland and Washington, as well as Parks Canada. and Canadian Provincial Parks.
Pedretti and Corrina Regnier, campaign program manager for the DNR, agree that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sites, especially on desirable holiday weekends; electric sites are also difficult to book. Regnier says there’s still a no-show policy in place, but that requires staff to physically visit the parks to check on the status of campsites.
“For the most part we are able to grab these empty sites and release them for anyone else, but there are times when [sites] — especially the first night of a reservation — don’t get used to it,” she says. Campers must be at the campsite by 3:00 p.m. on the second day of booking, allowing wiggle room for campers who may be late due to unforeseen circumstances or weather conditions.
Reserve America required reservations to be made 48 hours in advance. Those who wanted to go on a last-minute trip often had to try their luck at a non-bookable site (sites available on a first-come, first-served basis), which was risky if a considerable distance had to be traveled. It also took longer to make the canceled sites available to the public. Going to Camp offered navigation improvements, a new notification system, same-day reservations, real-time availability updates, and better campground mapping features to simplify the booking process; it’s also $2 cheaper for the camper.
Regnier says one way to land a site is to expand your options. “There are people who may have been camping for years and years at a favorite park,” she says, “but we have less popular parks that are still very nice and often more available. I think our booking system makes it easy for you to look all over the map and see what’s nearby.”
Reservations made before May for stays from mid-May through October require a two-night minimum, a rule governed by the state’s administrative code that aims to reduce the number of unused campsites during the busiest season. If a family wants to camp for the weekend but can’t find two consecutive nights at one site, there’s an option in the system that can help plan a night at multiple campsites, Regnier says. These sites must be booked after May 15.
Milwaukee’s Mark Szmidt has been camping in Wisconsin state parks for about 10 years and has no complaints about the reservation system. He attributes this to his flexibility and admits he’ll go anywhere – and anytime – a site is available at the time he books. He prides himself on visiting the less popular campgrounds in the state park system and recommends other campers do the same.
Those struggling to book sites, says Szmidt, are looking for something “super specific and it’s not there. And [they think] it’s the fault of the system.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to find safe and alternative pastimes, interest in camping in state parks has increased dramatically. The spike in bookings came even as the pandemic forced the closure of national parks from March to June 10, 2020. The state has implemented contactless check-in and the conversion of non-reservable sites to reserved sites only during this time.
Pedretti says demand for campsites was growing even before the pandemic. According to DNR records, more than 150,000 camping reservations were made in 2019. That number rose to more than 200,000 in 2020, a 28% increase even with the parks closing in early summer. Bookings increased again in 2021, with approximately 246,000 reservations, a 21% increase over the previous year.
Campers Ainslie, Solverud and Szmidt belong to the Facebook group Wisconsin State Parks; many of its 112,000 members turn to the group to voice concerns about the reservations system and seek advice. For most, the problem is not the system but the inconsistent application of policies and the lack of human connection in the parks. (Some of these concerns stem from COVID policies put in place in 2020, including the removal of non-bookable sites.)
The most popular parks have staff in the office every day during the summer and throughout the fall, says Steve Schmelzer, director of state parks, and even the less popular parks have staff on site the weekend. He also notes that even if the office is unstaffed, there’s usually a yellow phone to connect directly to the reservations center, and same-day reservations incur no reservation fees.
Even so, the difficulty of securing a site at their preferred campsite has deterred some from camping at a state park.
“I like [the state parks] and so I appreciate their presence, and I really think people have no idea how awesome Wisconsin state parks are,” says Solverud. “But we actually decided to do a road trip this year. It’s so frustrating.