Parks Canada has begun opening up bookings for national parks in Alberta using its updated online reservation system.
“The updated platform that we’re running with functioned very well and as expected,” said Pamela Clark, who runs visitor experience for Jasper National Park. “The queuing, the site selection and the payment process operated very smoothly, even with the increased volumes that we experienced.”
Demand for campsites continues to increase and has been going up significantly for the last three or four years.
“When we launched (the Parks Canada online reservation system) back in 2015, we had about 1,800 reservations on launch day,” Clark said of Jasper. “Now, fast-forward to 2023, we’re over 20,000 reservations on launch day.
“People know we have a reservation system. They understand it’s the best way of ensuring that they have a site that meets their needs,” she said.
“What we’ve seen in the last four or five years, when it really started to pick up in 2019 and 2020 — even the use of our national parks — is people are gravitating towards the outdoor opportunities and just the natural escapes.”
For Jasper National Park, reservations for front-country (serviced) sites launched March 16. Bookings for back-country sites launched March 20.
“When users logged in at 8 a.m. last Thursday morning, there were about over 22,000 people in our waiting room but we were able to manage those volumes, and the average wait time was about 30 minutes,” Clark said.
The phased approach to site bookings reduces overall volume and helps the reservation site operate more smoothly. Clark said Parks Canada uncoupled backcountry reservations for Banff and Jasper because the combined volumes created issues in the booking system.
“The older system really wasn’t able to keep up with the volumes that we’ve been experiencing, especially in the last three or four years, volumes have increased substantially,” Clark said. “Even from last year to this year, we experienced a volume increase for reservations of over 6,000.”
For Banff National Park, reservations for front-country sites launch on Thursday, March 23. Back-country bookings opened Wednesday morning.
As other areas open up, Clark has some tips for people looking to book a spot.
“They should get onto our website — Parks Canada reservations — and look through all the tips on there. They should open up a profile if they don’t have one yet or update their profile if they’ve been on the system before. And they should get acquainted with the areas they want to be camping in.
“Have a plan. Have a couple backup plans, that’s really important.”
Jasper National Park has more than 2,000 campsites, the second-largest inventory of campgrounds managed under one park in North America, Clark said. Together, the mountain national parks have about 5,000 campsites. Despite an “abundant” inventory, there’s just so much demand in July and August.
Serviced, front-country campsites in Jasper National Park for dates in those peak months get snapped up within hours.
“After our launch day, there really is no availability in July and August, but there’s still lots of availability in May, June, September for campers who are looking and can be a little more flexible in their departure dates and aren’t looking for serviced sites.
“At this point, for service sites, you’re looking at October. There’s really no availability in serviced sites from May until September,” Clark said. “They’re really popular.”
If you were unable to book a campsite in the area you want at the time you were hoping for, Parks Canada suggests looking at less-peak times or staying just outside the national parks.
“There are also campgrounds on the outskirts of the (Jasper National) park — in Mt Robson Provincial Park, also in the Hinton area.”
Alberta Parks opens provincial campsite bookings 90 days before the scheduled stay. For instance, on March 22, reservations would be open for a late June camping trip.
“And, if you really have these dates in mind, you can check back to see if there are cancellations because from time to time there are, and you might be the fortunate one who gets a cancellation.”
For the more adventurous camper, backcountry sites are an option too.
“There’s still availability along some of the lesser-known backcountry trails,” Clark said. “The ones that quickly get booked up are the iconic classics — so Skyline and Maligne — there is no availability left for the summer. But there is availability in almost all the other trail areas that we manage.”
And one more great tip for anyone visiting a park in Alberta?
“When they’re coming to a national park, they take on the stewardship of these areas, they follow the special rules, they put the garbage where it belongs and they follow that wildlife-watching etiquette,” Clark said.
“It’s really super important that we all share in taking care of these wild spaces.”