Memorial Day weekend marks the first camping trip of the year for many Montana families and visitors from out of state. This year’s holiday weather should feel a little different than last year’s cold and thunderstorms, with expected warm temperatures and some new online reservation systems for area campgrounds and day-use areas.
Reservations for several Bureau of Reclamation campgrounds and day-use pavilions around Canyon Ferry Reservoir went online this year.
The bureau offers seven group shelters that can be reserved from May through mid-September at White Earth, Riverside, Cave Point, Indian Road and Hellgate recreation areas. Campers can also go online to reserve campsites at Court Sheriff and Hellgate Campgrounds.
The online reservation system at Canyon Ferry is the first in the region for Bureau of Reclamation campgrounds, said Buck Feist, public affairs specialist.
“They’re essentially using it as a pilot program, and we could see it expand to other campgrounds around Canyon Ferry down the road,” he said. “We’re trying to get feedback, but so far everything we’ve heard has been positive. We’ll see how it goes for the rest of the season.”
Court Sheriff and Hellgate have already filled up for the coming weekend. Court Sheriff has 98 percent of available campsites reserved, and campers reserved 80 percent of Hellgate’s campsites.
For those that do not have a reserved spot, the reservation system at Court Sheriff and Hellgate splits campsites with half available through reservation and half without one, which means procrastinating campers might still find a site to pitch a tent or park a camper.
Montana State Parks has offered an online reservation system for its campgrounds the last four years. Brand new for this year, Parks now offers online reservations for several of its day-use pavilions. The addition of online services means less stress and more convenience for customers, said Chine Strobel, reservation program coordinator.
“It gives people the opportunity to make a reservation without contacting park staff,” she said. “It’s been pretty popular and lets people plan a little bit more and travel a little farther without worrying about getting a spot.”
The online system has also meant that Parks staff can spend more time in the parks and campgrounds themselves and less time answering the phones, Strobel said.
The convenience of reserving a camping spot online has increased the number of users, and campgrounds have filled up faster with the online system, she said.
“One thing we’ve noticed is how busy our parks are,” Strobel said. “We used to tell people they could come Monday or Thursday and find a spot, but even those days fill up.”
Campers or those wishing to reserve the day-use areas can still call and reserve a spot. Parks does save some camping sites on a first-come, first-served basis for the last-minute campers. Reservation campsites are capped at 75 percent of the total sites, meaning campers can arrive and still have a chance to snag a spot.
For those campers thinking about heading into the mountains and using a U.S. Forest Service campground, heavy snowpack has delayed the opening of some campgrounds. Forest Service campgrounds do not provide online reservations and are all available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Along the Rocky Mountain Front, Cave Mountain, Mortimer Gulch and Home Gulch campgrounds are open, but all other Forest Service campgrounds remain closed due to snow. Warmer temperatures have accelerated the melting of snow along Benchmark Road, and Benchmark, South Fork and Wood Lake campgrounds might be open by the weekend, according to the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
In the Helena National Forest, Vigilante, Moose Creek and Coulter campgrounds will be open in the Helena Ranger District. Park Lake, Cromwell Dixon and Kading campgrounds are still snowed in and their opening hinges on the weather. Skidway Campground in the Townsend Ranger District will be open, but Gipsy Lake Campground is still snowed in. In the Lincoln Ranger District, Aspen Grove will be open with running water, and Copper Creek will be open as well, but likely water will not be available yet.
Those looking to camp in the national forest away from designated campgrounds will find most areas lower than 6,500 feet free from snow.
The weather for Memorial Day weekend should be spectacular for recreationists. The National Weather Service in Great Falls predicts a high of 72 on Saturday. The best chance of rain during the weekend will come on Saturday afternoon with thunderstorms possible and a chance of precipitation at 40 percent. Sunday could make it to 75 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain, and Monday’s high is expected to reach 73 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain.