Getting Winter Camping Reservations in Florida State Parks

During our first week just north of Palm Beach County we have had our teeth, eyes, and other body parts examined closely but I have no interest in sharing that experience with the world. Instead I thought I would write about how we came to secure the site we occupied this week at the very popular Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Tequesta, Florida.

Other full-time RVers will probably find this all too familiar, but for people who are new to RVing or are blissfully unaware of the incredible competition for Florida camping spots in the winter, I thought a blow-by-blow description might be useful. By now it is part of our routine to regularly get up early exactly X months in advance (6 months for federal sites, various other intervals for different state parks) to ensure that we can secure the sites we want in various places by booking them at literally the moment reservations open. But in our experience nothing really compares to the difficulty and frustration of getting reservations at Florida state parks in the winter. As usual with all my blogging, I am recounting our actual lived experience. Your mileage may vary.

My Patented Method for Making Winter Camping Reservations in Florida

Reservations for Florida State Parks can be made 11 months in advance, and they open at 8 a.m. Eastern time. For our stay in February, we booked the site in March 2019 from Arizona, which is in the Pacific Time Zone during daylight savings time (March through November). This meant that our time for making reservations was 5 a.m local time. My process, in detail:

  1. Crawl out of bed at 4 a.m.
  2. Make coffee.
  3. Open up my laptop and prepare for battle.
  4. Attempt to log in to the Florida State Parks reservation page. Become enraged when Captcha does not agree with my assessment of which blurry photos contain traffic lights. Continue searching for photos of crosswalks, buses, cars, and bicycles until Captcha finally decides I am a human.
  5. Search sites becoming available in exactly 11 months at Jonathan Dickinson. (Note: I usually “pre-shop” the night before also, because I am not famous for making good decisions before my morning coffee kicks in.)
  6. Review photos and descriptions on booking site to determine which site(s) sites work best from a length/privacy/levelness/view perspective. Check Google satellite photos for more info, such as whether entry into the site requires taking a hard angle, the amount of tree cover, and the presence of surrounding foliage. Identify a top choice and a second choice in the unlikely event I get a second bite at the apple.
  7. At 4:50 a.m., set up a separate browser window showing the countdown clock of the Florida State Parks (it’s on the bottom left side of the reservation home page just above the social media icons) so I can click “book these dates” the instant the clock hits 5:00:00 a.m. (8 a.m. Eastern).

    Sample reservation window setup, except there are plenty of spots in July.
  8. Watch the clock tick painfully forward while experiencing a combination of sleepiness and extreme anxiety.
  9. Click the booking button for my most-preferred site at exactly 5:00:00 a.m. and receive a message that “inventory is not available” — meaning that someone else has already grabbed it.
  10. Frantically re-do the search to see if any sites are still available at 5:00:03 a.m. Cry a little when I see all sites have been taken.
  11. Repeat daily for days on end, securing nothing, until finally seeing on a second pass that there is still one site available, and it is in the River Campground.
  12. Despite assuming it won’t work because the site is listed as 36 feet long (we are 46 feet long with the truck), click on the description for the lone existing site in River Campground.
  13. Stare in disbelief when the detailed description says the driveway is actually 60 feet long. Review satellite photo to determine that this length is probably correct.
  14. Book that site in the River Campground for the full stay limit of 14 days, even though it is not our preferred campgound in the park. We really want to be in Pine Grove, which is set up for larger RVers and has full hookups. What’s more, the bathhouses in Pine Grove are new and barely used because people in Class As and Fifth Wheels usually use their own rigs when full hookups are available. The River Campground is better suited for small rigs and tents, so most campers actually use the bathhouse (danger of a possible line for showers!). Also, the site we were able to get was water and electric only, which is a bit of a challenge for a 14 day stay.
  15. Since it took a week of getting up early every day to accomplish this, starting 3 days before our intended arrival date, the reservation we actually secured began a few days after our reservation ended at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring. Book a spot to cover the gap at the much-less-preferred Phipps County Park near the St. Lucie locks.
  16. Set up Tim Watson’s bot (https://reserve.wanderinglabs.com/) to search for other sites that might become available in Jonathan Dickinson in the window we want because of cancellations. The bot runs searches for your parameters (park, stay window, site length) hourly and sends an email and/or text when it finds an available spot meeting your criteria.
  17. Over the course of the next 6 months, receive bot email notification of an available site while out hiking or sightseeing or running errands, race home, log on as soon as we get back home, only to find that the available site has already been snapped up.
  18. Repeat 3-4 times.
  19. Receive a bot notification about an available spot one day while sitting at home at the computer. Hallelujah!
  20. Review specs on the available site. See that it is listed as being only 43 feet long (we are 46 feet when hitched). Study photos on ReserveAmerica to confirm there are no trees, rocks, or other impediments that would prevent us from backing the trailer tires all the way to the rear of the pavement/gravel and overhanging the back of the site by 4-5 feet. Review satellite photos to determine that the space is wide enough to park the truck on an angle to fit in the space if needed.
  21. Decide to book the spot, which requires cancelling the existing reservation first to avoid violating park stay limits.
  22. Find religion (or a second or third one).
  23. Use extremely heartfelt powers of prayer to beseech the newfound gods that the new site will still be available after cancelling the original site.
  24. Also, pray that the original site will not be snatched up while attempting to book the new site, in case we have to go back to the original plan.
  25. Also, pray that our internet connection will not randomly crap out at a critical point.
  26. Cancel the reservation for the original spot while reciting prayers and incantations.
  27. Make reservations in the new spot very quickly, with shaking hands.
  28. Stress out when the confirmation email does not arrive immediately.
  29. Receive the confirmation email.
  30. Weep with joy!!!
  31. Consider what outlandish sacrifices we have promised to Athena, Isis, Allah, Frija, and the Great Earth Mother. Decide not to follow through on any of these promises, exposing ourselves to the wrath of various deities.
  32. Analyze cancellation policies at Phipps Park to determine when cancellations can be made, what refunds are available, and whether it’s even worthwhile to cancel. Sometimes the cancellation fee can be as much as the reservation, and many cancellations and refunds are tiered based on proximity to the reserved date.
  33. Initiate cancellation / refund application.
  34. Think about how much $$ we should send to Tim Watson as a tip for his excellent pay-what-you-want bot. Definitely send a tip.

See? It’s an easy 34 step process.

We are staying at seven different Florida State Parks this winter, and some version of this took place every time, though as I recall I only needed the bot for two different sites. Getting reservations in January — even at popular St. George Island State Park — was relatively easy, but getting into parks near major population centers like Tampa (Little Manatee River), Palm Beach (Jonathan Dickinson), St. Augustine (Anastasia), and Jacksonville (Fort Clinch) in February and March was particularly challenging.

Wheeeee!!! RVing is so fun and stress-free! At least we ended up with a site we fit into nicely and truly enjoyed at a lovely park.

 

 

We admit that much of our reservation stress is self-imposed, because we have very particular ideas about where we want to stay, and when. As seen in my example graphic above, there is no problem at all getting a camping spot at Jonathan Dickinson in July, but we sure don’t want to attempt achieving comfort in our rig in the extreme heat and humidity of a Florida summer. And if we were willing to spend most of our time in private RV parks, or were willing to take any crappy site available, the problem of getting spots would be significantly less serious. But this is our full-time life, and for us it’s only worth it to put up with the hardships when we get to stay in great places.

What We’re Up To

Jonathan Dickinson was a particular “must have” for us because it is just a few miles from my mother’s house and is in an area where we lived (separately and together) for decades before spending a few years in Miami. Our first week in our home territory has been full of thrilling things. In addition to numerous appointments with professionals of the medical persuasion, we’ve been retooling our rig a bit and receiving many, many packages. One project involved sorting through all our on-board storage bins in the Airstream and in the bed of the truck and pulling out items that we don’t need to carry with us, with most of those items going into storage and others headed to Goodwill. It turns out we never really need scarves or nice sweaters because in cold weather we always wear our high-collared fleeces, so those will be stored until our lifestyle changes again. We have replenished our supply of socks and underwear, and replaced our extremely worn bedshseets. We reviewed items stored in our 5×5 storage unit, adding new tax-related documents from the last two years to the permanent files. After receiving a necessary part in the mail, we replaced a failing hinge on one of our galley cabinet doors. We’ve helped out with some maintenance at my mom’s house, like pressure washing the patio and trimming some overgrown plants. We have had the first several of many planned meetups with friends and family. We even added to our fleet by having a new form of transport delivered — we are now ready to take on the water with an inflatable tandem kayak.

 

 

All of this activity really highlighted the importance to us of having a home base. It was just so easy to accomplish tasks like resupplying and doing minor repairs when we knew exactly where to go to acquire the items we needed. There was no Googling for stores, no research to determine what those stores sell, no using homicidal Google Maps to direct us to the retailers in question. Going to doctors we have known for years was comforting and comfortable. All this reaffirmed that establishing a home base is the right move for us, and we are even more confident in our decision to pull the trigger on our purchase on St. George Island. We also reaffirmed our love for the beach with several visits to our former home beach, but I’ll recount our fun activities in future posts.

Next: we remain in Martin County and spend a week at the best free camping spot in Florida. Then we return to Jonathan Dickinson for a second stay, which we hope will be filled with more fun and fewer chores.

15 thoughts on “Getting Winter Camping Reservations in Florida State Parks”

  1. You described the campsite grab perfectly. We’re in the middle of making our reservations for our summer in Michigan (6-month window) and winter in Florida (11-month window) right now. At least we’re not having to get up at 4:30 a.m., although we’ve done that plenty of times when we were on the west coast making reservations. I hate that! Especially when we get shut out. :-((

    Every week or so, Eric and I sit with our laptops open, fingers poised over our keyboards, with different sites chosen that I’ve carefully selected the night before. It’s SO STRESSFUL. But worse than booking state campsites in Florida for winter was trying to get a site at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan for summer. We tried for a week and couldn’t get a thing. I finally scored a site on the second pass only to discover it’s rated for a 25-foot motorhome. Uh-oh. We’ll see how it works with our 27-foot trailer and truck, LOL. (I freaked out until I actually looked at the specs and we should be fine.)

    Gawd, aren’t you GLAD you’ll have a winter home on St. George Island?? What a great decision.

    Reply
    • What a bummer about your frustrations with Sleeping Bear! We were able to get a spot there — over 4th of July no less — on our first try but that just illustrates that it really is a total crapshoot much of the time. Glad you eventually found something that should work…

      I am definitely looking forward to having a place on St. George where we know we can spend the winter, maybe just picking up a few other reservations in other places in Florida when there are cancellations. Not having the pressure of finding a place to stay every single night will be such a relief.

      Reply
  2. I was exhausted after reading your 34 step process to getting an RV spot in Florida. However I did laugh at your experience with captcha. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered if I was a human not being able to identify simple things.

    I look for to seeing you and Ken later this month. Time to relax in the Florida sun and have a drink.

    Reply
    • I am pretty sure that Captcha is actually using our responses to help develop the AI for self-driving cars, but I may just be paranoid. In any case, it all works out in the end and happily we can use our time here to see you soon!

      Reply
  3. You’re not completely paranoid about Captcha — we just heard an NPR Planet Money episode about its creators and what else it does besides provide a security screen. None of it sounded nefarious, but…

    No surprise that we have also experienced the reservation woes for sought-after places. I originally had some plans for a couple of the more popular state parks in Florida on my list for next winter, but before the first window opened, I said, “Screw this!” and abandoned all plans to be infuriated by the stupid reservation system. I have a few yet to be made at some other state/national places, so I’m saving my ire for them πŸ˜€

    Reply
    • I am behind on my Planet Money episodes so I can’t wait to catch up and hear this one about Captcha.

      I am sorry to hear that you crossed some of the most popular state parks off your list, because I think they really are worth the effort in terms of showing off the beauty of our state. But I have to admit that even I am not patient enough to attempt to get into Bahia Honda or John Pennekamp (which we have visited pre-RV).

      Reply
  4. This is hilarious… in a sadly/infuriating way…

    Two suggestions. 1) If you get a notification from Tim about an available campsite while out hiking, you can just fire up the Reserve America app and book it from your phone. No need to wait to go home. I have done it several times and the app is great. 2) I don’t think you actually have to cancel one reservation before you make a second one – I don’t think the reservation system is that smart. But even if it is, why not put the new reservation under Ken’s name and use an alternate credit card to book it? If you actually do cancel the original site, you’re not violating any rules, and you’d save yourself a lot of stress.

    Finally – Captcha has been the cause of numerous screaming matches between me and my computer screen. “Hate ” is a strong word, but I think “disdain” is fair.

    Reply
    • Good suggestions. Our biggest problem this year has been lack of internet service — so we actually receive our emails when we get back to the trailhead after hours out on the trail. But I will have to check out the app. I really hate doing stuff on my phone because it’s hard to examine the photos and satellite images in detail on such a small screen but in a pinch it might work.

      I am pleased to inform you that ReserveAmerica really does know the park’s stay limits and prevent bookings that violate them. So if I already had a 14 day stay in Florida the system would not let me not take a second (separate) site that directly bookended or overlapped that reservation because it would violate stay limits. We have also run into the issue at parks that require campers to take both weekend nights (Friday and Saturday). I tried to leave a place on Saturday after an 8 day stay and the system wouldn’t accept the booking because of that rule. So 9 days it is!! But you are correct that this problem could be solved by having a second login under Ken’s name, though we would then have two different accounts to visit for a list of our current reservations.

      Reply
      • Wow… I had no idea. That’s crazy. I’ve never seen the mandatory two night thing. That’s ridiculous. It’s not like they have trouble booking these sites. Ugh….

        Anyway, it would definitely be annoying to have to deal with two different logins, but it would still be less stressful than worrying about canceling one before booking the other.

        OR… you could just buy some land in Florida and build a house to spend winters in so you don’t have to deal with any of this nonsense. Just something to consider. πŸ˜‰

        Reply
        • I should be clear that the two-night weekend minimum was something we ran into on Reserve America but in other states (not Florida). West Virginia is one, and I think we’ve encountered it in other states as well. My point is just that Reserve America is actually coded to take these sorts of quirky rules into account including stay limits.

          Although there are plenty of workarounds for some aspects of the Florida reservation challenge, it’s amazing that the idea of designing a house from scratch while on the road somehow seems much less daunting. πŸ™‚

          Reply
  5. “An easy 34 step process” – haha. Oh, the joys of RVing. This right here is exactly why we’re not in Florida this winter. Of course, the reservation thing is an issue everywhere and with more people camping and no new campgrounds being built, it’s only going to get worse. I can totally understand why you decided to find a home base. In an amazing location, I might add! I am just now catching up on blog posts and was so excited to read about your St. George Island land. We only spent a single night there (because that’s all we could get at the SP) but LOVED it so much. What an amazing place it will be to call home.

    Reply
    • We do love Florida but getting RV reservations requires a special sort of patience (plus Tim’s bot, of course). We are obviously very excited about having a future home on St. George for that reason, plus our general love of the area. The combination of natural beauty and a charming little community really work for us, despite the challenges of being in a relatively rural area.

      One thing we won’t miss is the do-or-die process of getting winter reservations in Florida! At our last campground in Sebring (Highlands Hammock) we were able to secure a good spot thanks to your review on Campendium, but I was very ambivalent about those terrible interior spots. On one hand I think the park system should eliminate half of them to allow for an increase in separation and foliage, but on the other hand it seems that the last thing Florida State Parks should be doing is reducing the number of camping spots. It’s a tough call, luckily not a decision I have to make.

      Reply

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