If you’re in the New York-New England area today you definitely aren’t experiencing summer.
But once you’ve dug yourself and your car out the drifting snow, the power is back on, and you’ve got an Internet connection once again, there’s something you should be planning right now: Your summer trip to any one or more of the U.S. national parks in the West.
There’s No Room at the Inn
Being up to your armpits in snow, sitting in a hot tub sounds inviting. And while you’re lounging in warm water, enjoying your favorite libation, you start thinking of a place full of steaming hot water spurting from the ground: Yellowstone National Park.
If you’re going to visit Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Inn seems like the place to stay. And because it’s a historic hotel located in the center of this vast, sprawling first U.S. national park, everyone else wants to stay there, too.
But when checking availability today, I discovered that most every room at that hotel is already booked from May through September. And that’s the case for other lodging within the park as well.
You could try to find a room in one of the park’s gateway communities, but expect those to rather full as well. And in my personal opinion, the best national park experience comes when you stay inside the park.
Once kids have headed back to school in mid-to-late August, you might be able to snag a room. Otherwise it’s October or 2016 for your trip to Yellowstone.
“Parking” Yourself Elsewhere
Yellowstone, of course, is hardly the only scenic national park in the Western U.S.
There’s Olympic, North Cascades, and Rainier in Washington State, Crater Lake in Oregon, Glacier in Montana, Redwoods, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite in California, and a slew of parks in the “Desert Southwest.”
There are four problems visiting all of these parks in summer:
- That’s when most tourists want to come.
- No matter how big the park, in-park lodging and campsites are limited.
- The closest towns with tourist facilities are not always very close to the park.
- Some, like Death Valley, have daytime temperatures that run from very warm to hot as hell.
Off-season visitation, especially at parks like Yosemite, means you’ve got a better shot at avoiding crowds and booking a room or reserving a campsite, and perhaps better weather..
But some parks are not open in winter (which may come as early as September and last until June or early July), lodging and camping choices are fewer than in summer, and park roads and activities may not be full open or operational.
For example, although Yosemite is open year-round, once snow has fallen in the higher elevations in the park, you won’t be able to drive to Tu0lumne Meadows or Glacier Point, even though Yosemite Valley may be snow-free.
Snow closes the main through-park roads at both Lassen Volcanic National Park and Glacier National Park, leaving a season that at best runs for late spring into early fall.
Spring can be a great time to visit the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, which is open year-round, but most facilities at the park’s North Rim typically operate only from mid-May to mid-October, and shut down entirely by December 1st unless snow closes the entrance road at an earlier date.
Plan Ahead, Be Resourceful
Try to find out when reservations for the next season will become available for the park that you wish to visit.
Sometimes you can book as far as a year or season ahead.
If your first choice for a national park stay is fully-booked, check another park. For example, Sequoia/Kings Canyon has room availability in mid-July of 2015, while Yellowstone doesn’t.
Some park lodging concessionaire booking Websites let you check room availability at all lodges/cabins within the park simultaneously. Others make you check each lodging option one at a time.
Some of the booking sites may show just one night available at your preferred lodging choice within the park, but if you are willing to pack up and move either to another room within the same facility, or to another lodging option within the park, you may be able to cobble together a three-night or longer stay by changing rooms.
Calling the park’s lodging reservation number might work easier than trying to reserve rooms online, particularly if the Website won’t let you check room availability throughout the park in a single search.
If you are striking out on your quest for an in-park room, check the Website for that national park to see if there is a list of outside-of-the-park accommodations. For example, Sequoia/Kings Canyon’s Website lists lodging within 30 miles of the park entrances.
If you’re still having no luck scoring a room, and your travel plans are flexible, check back from time to time, particularly during a week to few days before you want to arrive, to see if someone has cancellation a reservation and freed up a room for you.