WATERLOO - Marilyn Cochran arrived at George Wyth State Park to put her tablecloths on four picnic tables a few days before her family's annual weekend camping trip.
Campers at the park leave table cloths - or unoccupied tents and RVs - at campsites during the week to ensure they have claims because Wyth - and all other state parks - operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
But the tablecloth system may be on its way out as Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials explore the possibility of taking reservations.
It would be a godsend for campers like Cochran.
"We'd love it," she said.
Cochran travels from her home in Muscatine for the family excursion at Wyth because it's a nice halfway spot to meet relatives coming down from Minnesota. Knowing they have a place to camp when they arrive would be nice.
"Requests for campground reservations are the most frequent inquiry that I receive from the public," Kevin Szcodronski, bureau chief of state parks, said in a prepared statement announcing the study.
Park rangers have been polling campground guests to get feedback, said Lori Eberhard, Wyth's park manager, who is on the state's Reservation Committee.
The Reservation Committee is tasked with measuring interest and determining how the system would work. Any outcome is likely to be two years away, Eberhard said.
"People don't want to travel for two hours and not have a site," Eberhard said.
That's what happened to Al and Judy Hammarmeister of Iowa Falls last year. They burned through a tank of gasoline as they drove to four parks - not including Wyth - and logged about 50 miles on their RV without finding a site.
"They're always full," Judy Hammarmeister said.
She said the only way to guarantee a spot for the weekend is to stake a claim in the middle of the week and hold on to it. Last weekend, the Hammarmeisters found a place at George Wyth.
The majority of those surveyed at Wyth during the June 19 weekend wanted a reservation system, Eberhard said. Surveys are also being taken at other state parks and via the Internet at www.exploreiowaparks.com.
Another Wyth camper, Marvin Karr of Rudd, is happy with the system the way it is.
"We never have trouble getting in here," Karr said as he slipped his check for camping fees into the box Friday shortly before noon.
If reservations are adopted, it's likely some sites would be kept on a first-come basis, Eberhard said.
In neighboring Wisconsin, the state has had centralized reservations for its parks available over the telephone since April 1999. The state began accepting reservations over the Internet in June 1999.
"It gave a better tool to the people," said Kimberly Currie, business marketing section chief for Wisconsin State Parks.
Before that, the state used a mail-in reservation system.
Wisconsin contracted with a private company, ReserveAmerica, for the reservation service. Now campers can tap into ReserveAmerica's database and get information about amenities for a specific campsite in any of the state's parks. They can then pay for their site in advance by credit card.
The company gets a cut of the reservation fee, and the state gets the camping fee, Currie said.
ReserveAmerica handles reservations for parks in a number of other states and for the National Park Service. The company can also reserve sites at 18 federal campgrounds in Iowa.