California state park campsite reservation bill signed into law by Governor Newsom

SAN DIEGO (KSWB) — A bill that would make it easier for outdoor enthusiasts to reserve a campsite in California state parks was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom Sunday night.

Assembly Bill 618, introduced by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), proposed amendments to the state’s campsite reservation system to deter no-shows and cancellations, freeing up spots for campers that would otherwise go unused.

The bill was sent to Newsom’s desk for signature about three weeks ago after it passed through the legislature with unanimous support.

“California’s public parks and beaches are treasures that should be enjoyed by all Californians and demand for them has increased greatly,” Bauer-Kahan said in a release on Monday.

“Unfortunately, our current outdated reservation system has led to a situation where many campsites are left empty,” she continued. “By promoting responsible reservation practices, we can increase access to these vital resources.”

California has the most state park land in the country, with nearly 280 individual parks that boast over 15,000 campsites and other lodging options. These sites host upwards of seven million campers per year for outdoor stays.

Despite the expansive network of parks, more than half of campers across the country have expressed difficulty finding a campsite to book, according to a survey conducted by the camping website The Dyrt.

Amid high demand, campers either have to make their reservations months in advance or make the limited 8 a.m. window opening on the Reserve California website in order to snag a spot.

Existing state guidelines around booking a campsite exacerbate these inaccessibility issues, particularly given that there were no penalties for reserving a spot that later goes unused — whether because of a last-minute cancellation or a no-show. AB 618 will change that.

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, the new law would give those who cancel their reservation at least seven days before the start of their booking a credit that can be used for another reservation within five years. Meanwhile, those who do not show up after the first day will forfeit the remainder of the booking.

“While it is great many of State Parks’ camping and lodging sites are extremely popular, this popularity limits access to overnight stays at many of California’s most beautiful locations,” the California State Parks Foundation wrote in support of the bill. “(This bill) proposes changes to the reservation system that incentivize early cancellations, which in turn should make more campsites available to everyone.”

Those who book lodging in a park will receive at least two reminder emails prior to the booking start date to remind the reservation holder of the upcoming stay, as well as cancellation and refund or credit options.

The law will also free up spots at campsites by capping the number of days that people can stay at the same campsite per year at 30, as well as limit the length of reservations during peak seasons to seven consecutive nights.

These provisions would apply to all state parks, including the 150 parks that do not use the Reserve California booking system.

Meanwhile, AB 618 also directs the State Parks department to implement a lottery system for five of the most coveted state park campsites. The sites used in the lottery system, which is required to be implemented before 2025, will be determined by the department based on booking interest six months in advance of a reservation date.

Aside from booking policies, the measure also implements a 25% discount to low-income park visitors who hold an annual pass to state parks called the “Golden Bear” pass. CalWORKs and supplemental security income recipients are eligible to get this pass, as well as households that have an income that fall below a certain income level.

“I am committed to ensuring that all Californians have equal access to our state’s natural resources, and AB 618 is an important step towards achieving that goal,” Bauer-Kahan added.

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