Eugene Eckis has memories from just about every campsite along California’s coastline.
The San Dimas resident remembers in the ’80s, even into the ’90s, when you didn’t have to make reservations for a beachfront site. Through the decades, he’s had outdoor adventures from camping spots in San Diego up to the redwoods near Humboldt, and everywhere in between.
But now, the prime California camp spots are so in demand — and there are reports of reservation cheating and stories of frustrated people who can’t nab a spot — that campers such as Eckis are fed up.
“It’s been hell trying to get reservations,’ said the 73-year-old, who serves as secretary for Kids-at-Heart RV Club.
The state is hoping new changes to its system, ReserveCalifornia, will help ease frustration for people who have hit roadblocks in their quest to venture to the great outdoors.
Previously, to get a spot, a person would scramble to score one when a month of reservations opened six months in advance. They hoped their fast fingers would do the trick when the spots opened up promptly at 8 a.m. on the ReserveAmerica website, the first of each month.
But the system was switched in August 2017 to ReserveCalifornia, prompting an increase in campers complaining it’s actually harder now to nab a spot, and accusations of people manipulating the system.
Now, instead of an entire month opening up on the first of each month six months in advance, it’s a rolling system for each date. For example, a spot for June 20 would have to be reserved on Jan. 20. If you want a reservation for Christmas Day, you’ll have to jump on June 25 for a chance to get it.
Jorge Moreno, information officer with California State Parks, said that since launching the system, the department has “heard both positive and negative feedback from our visitors.”
Among the complaints: Sites were being booked prior to the 8 a.m. open window for new dates, with some visitors taking advantage of the system by modifying their reservation multiple times, as well as the use of third parties to book reservations.
“California State Parks wants all Californians and visitors from around the world to enjoy our beautiful parks. To this end, the department recently made several significant improvements to ReserveCalifornia,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Moreno noted that the site now limits the number of modifications an individual can make to an existing reservation.
“Our visitors can now only modify their reservations up to two times, with the exception of Crystal Cove Beach Cottages where no modifications are allowed,” he wrote. “Prior to the new policy, visitors with existing reservations were able to modify their reservation anytime prior to the 8 a.m. open window up to the maximum stay limit of that park.”
When the Orange County Register first reported the problems in April, Alix Hobbs, president and CEO of the Crystal Cove Conservancy, said there had been an increase in complaints about the new reservation system and every complaint gets sent to State Parks officials.
“We have been working directly with the director of State Parks and director of concessions to fix and identify the problems the public has let us know about,” she said at the time. “It’s good the public has been communicating with us so State Parks has information about what is going on.”
There was also question of a third-party website that caters to campers willing to pay an extra fee for a better chance at getting a spot. It’s a business some feel gives an unfair advantage to people willing to pay a price and goes against California’s goal of keeping campsites affordable and accessible to the public.
But First Choice Reservations argues it simply provides a software solution for people who want to ensure reservation dates. The First Choice Reservations website touts computers that “are faster than everyone else, so you win the site you want.”
In addition, the terms and conditions on ReserveCaliforia have been updated in regard to third-party vendors, according to Moreno.
The new reservation policy states: Reservations made on ReserveCalifornia are for personal use only. Any resale, transfer, use, for profit activity, or memberships that are not approved in advance by California State Parks are strictly prohibited and will be subject to immediate cancellation without notice, refund or reimbursement.”
Those in violation may be blocked, terminated or cancelled without notice and may not be allowed to make any reservations or open new accounts.
ReserveCalifornia also now has a CAPTCHA system to help deal with technologies that notified people of vacant campsites, in some cases used to make reservations, wrote Moreno.
There are about 13,000 campsites available on the reservation system, with an average of more than 6.5 million visitors using the campsites annually.
“At times, the public demand exceeds the inventory available. Providing a user-friendly reservation system to all of our visitors is a top priority,” Moreno wrote. “We hope the recent improvements to the system will allow our traditional visitors to continue booking their favorite lodging and campsites. It is also our hope that new visitors have the opportunity to explore the outdoors and start creating their own traditions.”