CA State Parks Revises Reservation Rules After Complaints From Campers

An online system launched in August 2017, meant to make the process to reserve campsites at California State Parks easier seemed to do the opposite

San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff-By-The-Sea, with its expansive stretch of coastline, is a haven for overnight campers.

But an online system, ReserveCalifornia, launched in August 2017, meant to make the process to stay there and other California State Parks easier, seemed to do the opposite.

"I looked every day for three weeks," said San Diego parent Scott Lewis. "One day, I finally got [a reservation]."

Lewis, who is CEO of NBC 7's Media Partner, Voice of San Diego, and his family plan a yearly camping trip to San Elijo State Beach. 

It's a tradition that is getting harder for Lewis, his wife Ashley and their two children, 7-year-old Xavier and 5-year-old Ruby.

"On the one hand, it's dirt. On the other hand, you're right next to the ocean," explained Lewis. "It's the only chance our family is going to have to spend a week on the ocean like that with such access to the beach, and the kids just love running around."

Spots at California's approximately 13,000 campsites become available for reservations exactly six months before the booking date.

But many campers found, even when they logged on to ReserveCalifornia first thing in the morning, all the campsites were taken.

"Obviously, there's tremendous demand. California is a big state. These are very valuable places but that's why you plan six months in advance," said Lewis.

Nearly 70,000 reservations were made for the summer season in January alone, said Jorge Moreno, a spokesperson for California State Parks.

"It's been hard to get them, you have to be really quick. But in this case, it was just impossible," Lewis said.

Additional problems became evident with the new system, which allowed people to change an existing reservation to dates further than 6 months out.

And like ticket scalpers, some services broker reservations grabbed up by a computer program.

"It was just kinda scary," said Lewis. "We didn't know if we would lose the chance to get something we've been doing every year."

Lewis even considered using a third party to secure a reservation.

"They wanted $50 on top of every day's campsite fee, which was about double the price."

California State Parks said they are aware of some issues with their system.

"We have received mixed reviews on our new system- many have had no issues making reservations," said Moreno. "Others encountered problems such as the ones you have indicated."

After complaints from visitors, California State Parks recently revised its rules.

The ReserveCalifornia website now uses CAPTCHA system to detect third-party software trying to snap up open spots, Moreno said.

New language on the website states reservations made through ReserveCalifornia are for personal use only and can be canceled if California State Parks suspects resale or transfer.

California State Parks is also limiting the number of times people can modify their reservations, and expects to have guidelines in place by the end of the summer.

"As nature lovers ourselves, we sympathize with our fellow outdoor enthusiasts and want to assure them that we continue to review the reservation system for process improvement and will continue to implement improvements as they are identified," Moreno said.

And that's welcome news to campers.

"(San Elijo State Beach) is just a really great experience because it combines the best parts of camping and also a beach vacation," said Ashley Lewis. "It's an affordable vacation that anybody can do. We love it so much."

San Diego Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher also amended AB 2054 to prohibit companies or people from profiting from the resale of campsites without the approval of California State Parks.

According to California State Parks, on average, more than 6.5 million visitors camp at its parks each year. 

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