Kelsey Merison

COONEY STATE PARK (KPAX) - The week of the Fourth of July is typically a busy one at Montana campgrounds, but if you don’t plan ahead, you might have some trouble finding a spot.

Luckily, a new bill passed by the 2023 Legislature — aimed at opening up opportunities for spur-of-the-moment camping trips — will go into effect just in time for the 2024 season.

House Bill 440 "requires that no more than 80% of all available campsites may be reserved in a state park, recreational area, or public camping ground with overnight camping," said Hope Stockwell, the administrator of parks and outdoor recreation with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in a recent interview.

"And so this means that for FWP-administered sites, we will be limiting our advanced reservations to 80% of available sites. And then the others will be available for walk-in use."

HB440 was introduced by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, and will go into effect for the 2024 reservation cycle.

“What we heard in the legislative session is folks who are maybe making plans just at the spur of the moment who want to have more opportunity beforehand," Stockwell said. "As I heard the sponsor discuss the bill draft and the intent of the sponsors, just to try to create more opportunity for residents who might have last minute plans to be able to go to a site, say on a Thursday afternoon, and find an available spot."

The bill places limits on the number of reservable spots in a state park, recreational area, or public camping ground with overnight camping. No less than 20% of available spots will remain available for walk-up reservations.

“We currently have 11 of our campsites across the state that are 100% reservable. So this, for those sites, will reduce the advance reservations available there to 80% of total sites," Stockwell said. "I think the net impact will be just more opportunity created for folks who are making last-minute plans who weren’t able to think too far in advance about what they want to do."

The bill also has a cancellation clause for multiple-day reservations. If the reserving party fails to arrive before 10 a.m. on the second day of their reservation, it will be canceled, and the campsite will open up on a first-come first-served basis.

That's good news for those who like to take spontaneous camping trips, like Cel Caylon and her family.

“It was pretty difficult (to find a spot). We drove out pretty early on Thursday, and we were here about noon. Everything was already booked up or reserved," Caylon said at Cooney State Park on Friday. "It is a little bit difficult because my parents are handicapped. There’s very few spots for handicapped, so we took what we could get."

The Caylons, a Billings family, had high hopes for a fun weekend of camping in the Bighorn Canyon. But when they got down there on Thursday, everything was occupied. So they turned around and headed for Cooney Reservoir, getting the last spot in the campground.

“It’s mainly because they let people reserve, so we don’t get the opportunity to even have a chance at getting a spot. It’s either you leave a day early or you miss out,” Caylon said. “This is the first time we’ve gotten to camp in three years. They’ve always been either booked or, because we’re the type of people where we don’t really plan ahead, we just like to go, you know? And so it was very difficult."

Until HB440 goes into effect, the Caylons will continue trying to take spontaneous trips, spending time with one another.

“Keep trying, keep coming out," Caylon said. "Spend time with your family as much as you can."

“I grew up going to state parks and camping with my family, and that’s what I’m doing with my daughter and husband now. It’s just such a fun time, and we ask everyone that while they’re out having a great time making memories with their family, that they do it responsibly and respectfully," Stockwell said. "Planning ahead, being careful with the natural resources that they’re using, and then also being respectful of each other and staff while they’re out at our sites so that everybody has a really great experience."