Heading South This Winter? Here’s What You Need to Know.

The cooler weather has arrived and for many of us campers, that means heading south for warmer climates and sunny days. This year will look a little different for most snowbirds, with new rules and regulations as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

While the majority of public land and private campgrounds will follow a combination of local, statewide, and national guidelines, those guidelines vary by location and can sometimes be confusing. Be sure to research your exact destination before hitting the road this winter.

Across the country, many towns, cities, and parks are requiring masks when visiting indoor facilities, and some locations also require masks while outdoors. Following these regulations will help to ensure that access continues at these destinations and that we can all enjoy some warm-weather camping this winter.

Here’s a look at how to navigate COVID regulations in some of the most popular snowbird spots across the American southeast and southwest.

Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area
Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area | Flagler Beach, FL – Photo by: Ga Roadrunner

Florida

State Parks: The Sunshine State has reopened parks in phases as the State of Florida continues to loosen restrictions. The same phased structure has been announced for park campgrounds, with camping areas re-opening on a case by case basis. In many areas, the total number of open campgrounds has been reduced. As of late October 2020, only drive-up camping allowed, with no backcountry permits available.

It’s also important to note that state parks are following local guidelines such as mask requirements, so it’s good to look at the county website, too, to get the full picture (see “County-by-County Information”). Like most of the country, Florida parks are avoiding cash transactions and asking campers and park-goers to book online before you go.

Full details on Florida State Parks can be found here.

National Parks: When it comes to Florida’s national parks, both front country and backcountry (or “wilderness,” as they call it) campgrounds are available at Everglades National Park. For front country drive-up sites, they’re asking campers to make reservations online. The State of Florida also has a number of National Seashores, like Canaveral, which have more or less resumed normal operations. However, Gulf Islands National Seashore has a number of closures but due to this year’s busy hurricane season.

Regional Parks: Another option in Florida is Wildlife Management and National Forest sites. Most of these have reopened for dispersed camping.

Chisos Basin Campground
Chisos Basin Campground | Big Bend National Park – Photo by: Wandering Pulse

Texas

The state of Texas, much like Florida, is working to re-open.

State Parks: State parks in the Lone Star State have resumed normal operations, but reservations are required for both camping and daily visits. The parks have also cut the number of campgrounds available at each location, so finding a camping site may be tricky if campers don’t plan in advance. As of now, reservations are open up to five months in advance and can be made through their website.

National Parks: Before anyone makes a trip all the way down to remote and beautiful Big Bend National Park, they’ll also want to be sure they can get a reservation. The state’s biggest piece of public land has been slow to reopen and only recently made its popular Chisos Basin Campground available or camping. Reservations for Chisos Basin and backcountry permits are online now, while the alternative campground for RV’s, Rio Grande Village, is open only Wednesday through Sunday and you must call 432-477-2293 to reserve a spot. Visiting the National Park just for the day does not require a reservation beforehand.

Texas’ other park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, has also reopened in phases and campgrounds are now available on a first-come basis.

Twin Peaks Campground
Twin Peaks Campground | Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument – Photo by: Michael & Imkelina

Arizona

Camping in Arizona, a haven for snowbirds and vanlifers alike, will also require a bit of advanced planning this year.

State Parks: Most campgrounds within Arizona’s state parks have re-opened. Reservations are required, cannot be made day-of, and cannot be extended. This winter, booking ahead is your only option in these popular parks.

State parks are also open for day use, but parks report that they are filling up quickly, and visitors may be turned away if the park has hit capacity.

Dispersed Camping: Unlike Florida and Texas, Arizona has a lot more public landing and a lot more camping options. Many dispersed campgrounds in National Forests like Prescott and Coconino have reopened for campers, but it’s important to note, officials in Prescott say a lot of popular campgrounds are filling up by noon. They recommend getting there early to snag a spot.

National Parks and Monuments: Crowds are also to be expected at Arizona’s national parks and national monuments. Both Saguaro and Petrified Forest National Parks warn visitors to expect large numbers of people. Right now, only Saguaro is allowing camping within the park (backcountry camping only, available by permit). Organ Pipe National Monument has also reopened camping both at campgrounds and backcountry permits. Like many other parks, group campgrounds remain closed.

Hidden Valley Campground Joshua Tree National Park
Hidden Valley Campground | Joshua Tree National Park – Photo by: SKH Photo

California

When traveling to the Golden State, there are many more complications when it comes to figuring out what is open for camping. California is one of the states hit hardest with the pandemic and with that comes strict guidelines to reduce infection rates and save lives.

Private Campgrounds: Campgrounds in California have to follow the stage restrictions put in place by the state. That means that campgrounds in counties at risk or dealing with widespread cases may be shut down. Right now, many populated and metro area counties along the coast and southern parts of the state have strict restrictions due to widespread cases, but when they are able to, they can follow the state’s phased plan for re-opening.

State Parks: Many California State Parks have reopened and that includes camping, but check with your planned destination in advance of making the trip. Not only are some areas closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but some parks were also damaged due to this year’s extreme fire season.

National Parks: Joshua National Park has reopened all of their campgrounds, but reservations are required. Group campsites within the park are also open but are limited to just 25 people. Another alternative for those in Southern California is Mojave Desert National Preserve, which has also reopened campgrounds.

Dispersed Camping: The Bureau of land management in California is planning on reopening their Long Term Visitor Areas for the winter which will add a number of camping options.

For an updated list of closures and changes, check out Campgrounds Open & Closed Due to COVID-19.