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Plan ahead to get the best national park spots

Millions of Americans and international travelers flock to U.S. national parks in the summertime. As such, visitors can expect plenty of competition for campsites and other park lodgings during these months. If you hope to spend a night or two in Yosemite Valley, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or another popular spot, you’ll need to plan ahead and be flexible in order to find a room or a place to pitch your tent.

Camping in national parks

Sleeping under the stars in national parks is hugely popular, but the number of campsites and backcountry camping permits available is limited. Rules and fees for camping vary by park and by individual campgrounds. To learn about the camping facilities and regulations at the park you’re planning to visit, go to the National Park Service website and click on the link to the park’s homepage. You’ll find information about what campsites are available and how to book.

According to National Park Service (NPS) spokesman Al Nash, most of the NPS-operated campgrounds do not take advance reservations and are available on “a first-come, first-serve basis.” He recommends arriving early in the day to get the most sought-after spots, and being flexible about where you stay if you’re arriving later in the day. If you plan on backcountry camping, you may also be able to get one of the limited number of permits available on the day you arrive.

Some of the more popular NPS campgrounds require advance booking, including select campgrounds in Acadia, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and 34 other national parks, memorials, and recreation areas. These campgrounds can be reserved online through the NPS Reservation Center. New booking windows for all parks except Yosemite open up on the 5th of each month for the following five months. For instance, on April 5, you can book a campground for anytime between April 6 and September 4. Yosemite’s campground booking window opens the 15th of each month. Generally, you should book your campsite as soon as your desired travel dates open to booking.

Other park campgrounds can be booked through ReserveAmerica, which manages the largest inventory of campsites in North America. Campsites in five national parks and four national recreation areas including Arches, Bryce, and North Cascades are available. Fees, advance-booking requirements, and other rules vary by campground. To reserve a campsite you must be a ReserveAmerica member. You can join for free online.

Other accommodations

All lodges, hotels, and other non-camping accommodations inside the national parks are operated by independent concessionaires and cannot be booked through the NPS reservations system. Accommodations range from luxurious hotels to rustic cabins with shared bathrooms. You can use the NPS website to find out which concessionaires operate in the parks, along with their contact information. It’s best to book directly with the concessionaire to avoid service charges from third-party agencies.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts is the largest operator of such accommodations, with dozens of properties in eight national parks: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Everglades, Petrified Forest, Crater Lake, and Death Valley. Another major concessionaire is Delta North, which operates lodging facilities in Yosemite and Sequoia.

We spoke with Rick Hoeninghausen and Kevin Dillman of Xanterra and Kerri Holden of Delaware North about making reservations for park lodgings this summer. We learned that in most cases, advance reservations are imperative as space in popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite fills up quickly for stays during school vacation time (mid-June to late August). If you have a particular property or room type in mind and plan to arrive during the busiest summer weeks, it’s recommended that you book as soon as your plans are firm or as soon as the reservation window opens. Usually, you can book up to a year in advance, but some extremely desirable properties open reservations up even earlier. For example, you can book Xanterra’s Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon 13 months in advance, and, according to Dillman, director of reservations for Xanterra lodgings in Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion, certain weeks can sell out within hours.

If you haven’t booked a year in advance, you’ll have a lot more options if you can travel outside the busiest summer months. Hoeninghausen, the director of sales and marketing for Xanterra lodgings in Yellowstone, suggests visiting Yellowstone between May and mid-June or late September and mid-October. During the spring and fall there’s less competition for rooms, and both seasons are ideal for wildlife viewing. You can spot baby bison, elk, and other animals in the spring. In the fall, bison and elk go into rut, and you can witness spectacular sparring matches.

If you must travel during peak season, you’ll still find rooms, but be prepared to be flexible about the type of accommodations you’ll accept. Each of the representatives we spoke with said that even during the summer there are usually open rooms at the beginning of each day. You might not get a big room with modern amenities and a great view, but you will probably have a good chance of getting more rustic accommodations. Kerri Holden, spokeswoman for Delaware North’s Yosemite lodgings, says that even if Yosemite’s luxurious Ahawahnee Hotel is booked up, you can usually find space in the canvas tent cabins at the park’s Curry Village.

Hoping for a cancellation is another tactic that sometimes works, but don’t let your vacation hinge on the chance. Holden recommends calling Yosemite properties two weeks in advance, as sometimes other guests cancel around this time in compliance with the properties’ 10-day cancellation policy.

Once you’ve figured out where you’re staying, it doesn’t hurt to do some advance planning on what to do once you get there. Again, the NPS website is a good starting point for your research.

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