Park it 

Call now and book the Big Sky

For weekend warriors, booking a slice of the Big Sky is now as simple as dialing a few digits from the office or whipping out that trusty Blackberry. Never mind taking an extra few days off work just to ensure a shot at prime campsite real estate. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) rolled out a brand-new reservation system for state-run campgrounds this spring, and with the state parks' summer rush coming up fast, the agency anticipates a great reception from the get-go.

"It's going to be extremely welcome and utilized," says Tom Reilly, FWP capital and recreation bureau chief. "It's going to save folks a lot of time, frustration and gas money, which none of us have too much of."

The new formality in the state's campground system has been a long time coming. According to FWP, one of the primary inquiries made by tourists and residents each year is whether campsite reservations are available. Reilly says summer visitors making the trek from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park have regularly expressed a desire to claim a state campground plot somewhere in between. Yet Montana steadfastly remained one of the last vestiges of the more traditional first-come, first-served management style.

"Montana is one of the last states in the whole country—I think Alaska might be the only one left—that does not have some kind of campsite reservation program," Reilly says. Until now.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Montana's new system couldn't be simpler. Campers hoping to nab a spot at major sites like Beavertail Hill or Salmon Lake need only visit the FWP website (fwp.mt.gov) to do so. Reservations can be made up to nine months in advance, Reilly says, "so if somebody wants to reserve a camp spot at Placid Lake for June 25, they could make their reservation at Christmas."

Campsite reservations will come with an added $10 fee, but Reilly explains it could have been much more prohibitive had Montana not partnered with Idaho Parks and Recreation to share that agency's established reservation system.

"We've been talking about it for several years, and the stars finally lined up so we had a good opportunity to get it in place at a reasonable cost," Reilly says.

There are some mild complexities involved. The reservation system only applies to about 600 sites in Montana's 20 state-run campgrounds. More primitive areas like Painted Rocks in the Bitterroot Range remain off the grid.

In the meantime, the free-spirited outdoor enthusiast need not rankle at the system's apparent affront to spontaneity. Reilly says roughly 20 to 25 percent of the sites at the affected campgrounds will remain open for walk-on campers. The state worked hard throughout 2010 to tailor a system that would cater to all, from people who like assurances to last-minute adventurers, he adds. "There's going to be the most amount of flexibility we could build into it."

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