Planning Your National Park Vacation

Planning Your National Park Vacation

As winter wanes and spring waxes, summer isn’t far in the future.

But if you want a visit to a national park in the Western U.S. to be in that future, and haven’t already booked your accommodations, you may find that there is no room at the inn, lodge, or cabins.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Vacationing in national parks during summer, and sometimes in late spring and early fall, has long been feasible mostly for those who can plan ahead, perhaps as long a year in advance.

So, if your employer won’t let you request vacation time off until the beginning of January, you may discover that every bed in the national park you really want to see has long since been reserved.

And if you dilly-dally around until early to mid-March of 2017, what is room availability likely to be in summer? Here’s what I discovered.

I looked for lodging for a three-night, mid-week stay, from early June (before the school year is over in most of the U.S.), around md-July, the end of August (when many kids have already returned to school), and well into fall, at four popular Western parks, each of which I’ve visited in the past. The results weren’t promising for me making another trip to anyone of them this year.

For some parks, the concessionaires who run the in-park lodging make it simple to do an online search across all available rooms for your dates of travel. For other parks, you must check availability at each lodge, hotel, motel, or cabin operation separately.

All prices quoted are per night and exclusive of hotel or sales tax that may be imposed.

Glacier

Glacier National Park straddles the Rockies in northern Montana and abuts Canada’s Waterton National Park. In theory, it’s open every day of the year. But because of heavy snowfall and the seasonal nature of some park activities, such as driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road most visitors will want to come in July and August.

(NPS/Tim Rains Photo)

Glacier’s in-park lodging Website makes it a snap to search for rooms everywhere in the part simultaneously, and it also gives you the option of staying at different locations each night.

Here’s what I found available for a three-night stay for these dates in 2017:

  • June 6-9 (departing June 9): Dorm rooms ($109), but nothing else at Lake McDonald. Rooms at all other locations were sold out.
  • July 18-20 (departing July 21): All rooms sold out.
  • August 29-31 (departing September 1): All rooms sold out.
  • September 19-21 (departing September 22): All rooms sold out.
  • October 17-19 (departing October 20): All rooms sold out.

Conclusion: Look for out-of-park lodging, or in summer of 2017 try booking for summer 2018.

Yellowstone

America’s first national park may be the first to come to mind for the would-be national park visitors is heavily visited in summer.

Yellowstone is huge, and has lodging scattered at various locations, north-south, east-west. But unlike the case at Glacier, Yellowstone’s lodging concessionaire requires you to search each lodging location separately to find available rooms. And its Website is tedious to use, often resetting your search dates every time you pick a new location within the park.

If the timing of your trip is flexible, you’ll find a two-month calendar that shows dates on which rooms are available for each park location a helpful tool. Unfortunately, I found that navigating the Website to quickly find that calendar proved difficult if not downright impossible.

In fact, I became so frustrated trying to get the clunky booking engine to work that I gave up after finding the no rooms were available at several park locations for June 6-8, and so I didn’t bother searching the remaining locations or dates.

Conclusion: Try calling the reservation phone number to see if an agent can find you rooms.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park is just south of Yellowstone; I visited it about 30-odd years ago just before my first foray into its better-known neighbor.

(NPS Photo)

As with Yellowstone, the park concessionaire’s lodging Website lets you to each park location separately. However, since there are only four locations, when you search one, you can quickly quick on tabs for the other locations to find rooms there as well.

Here’s what I found available on the same dates I used for my Glacier lodging search:

  • June 6-9 (departing June 9): Jackson Lake Cottages ($320-$330); Jenny Lake Lodge (no rooms); Coulter Bay Village Tent Cabins ($70), 1 room Cabins ($189-$236); Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch (Cabins $75, Queen-King rooms $291-$311). Rooms at Jenny Lake Lodge were not available.
  • July 18-20 (departing July 21): Jackson Lake Cottages ($320-$330); Coulter Bay Village Tent Cabins ($70), 1 room Cabins ($189); Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch (Cabins $75, Queen-King rooms $291-$311). Rooms at Jenny Lake Lodge were not available.
  • August 29-31 (departing September 1): Jackson Lake Cottages ($320-$376); Coulter Bay Village Tent Cabins ($70), 1 room Cabins ($189-$236), 2 Room Cabin ($250); Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch (Cabins $75, Queen-King rooms $221-$311). Rooms at Jenny Lake Lodge were not available.
  • September 19-21 (departing September 22): Jackson Lake Cottages ($320-$330); Coulter Bay Village 1 room Cabins ($189-$236), 2 Room Cabin ($250). Headwaters Lodge & Cabins at Flagg Ranch (Cabins $75, Queen-King rooms $221-$311). Rooms at Jenny Lake Lodge were not available.
  • October 17-19: All park lodging closed for season on October 8th.

Conclusion: Rooms aren’t necessary cheap, but except for the high-end Jenny Lake Lodge, availability is quite good.

Yosemite

Yosemite is the crown jewel in California’s national park tiara. But it is the most heavily visited park in the state, and from May through September, finding a room is never easy, especially since many out-of-state visitors add Yosemite to a Northern California itinerary that includes San Francisco, “Wine Country,” Lake Tahoe, and the Monterey Peninsula.

As with Glacier, you can check all available lodging within Yosemite in a single search.

Here’s what I found available for a three-night stay for these dates in 2017:

  • June 6-9 (departing June 9): The Website could not find rooms and advised me to call the reservation phone number for assistance.
  • July 18-20 (departing July 21): Only unheated tent cabins ($130) in “Half Dome Village” (previously known as Camp Curry) in Yosemite Valley were available.
  • August 29-31 (departing September 1): Unheated tent cabins ($130) in “Half Dome Village” and somewhat similar accommodations ($102) at Housekeeping Camp in Yosemite Valley, or at White Wolf Lodge ($124) about three hours from the valley, and rooms with bath ($191) and without bath ($130) at Big Trees Lodge (formerly known as Wawona, and nearly an hour’s drive from Yosemite Valley) were available.
  • September 19-21 (departing September 22): The same Half Dome Village and Housekeeping Camp tent cabins, and Big Trees Lodge rooms, were available.
  • October 17-19 (departing October 20): In addition to the Half Dome Village and Housekeeping Camp tent cabins, and Big Trees Lodge rooms, “rustic” motel rooms ($241) and Cabins ($205) at Half Dome Village, and hotel rooms ($436) in the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (previously known as The Ahwahnee) and the Yosemite Valley Lodge (previously known simply as “Yosemite Lodge,” $241) in the valley were available.

Conclusion: Not surprisingly, the lodging pickings are slim during the summer and early fall. You’ll have more choices during Yosemite’s off-season.

Room Booking Trick

Here’s trick I learned years ago from reservation staff for Yosemite National Park lodging that may allow you to stay inside the park: Search each of the accommodations for each day that you plan to stay in the park, rather than entering the entire range of dates for your stay.

For example, let’s suppose you want to arrive on July 18, and stay three nights, departing July 21. Instead asking for a room from the 18th through the 20th, search lodging for each day separately. If you don’t mind having a series of “one-night stands” (I call it “sleeping around”) in different park accommodations, searching for lodging using that method may turn out to allow you to make the trip on your desired dates of travel.

This method may or may not work for finding lodging in other U.S. national parks.

Out-of-Park Lodging

Staying inside a national park is, in my opinion, provides the best park visitation experience.

But if every room is booked, check for lodging in the areas surrounding the park.

(F Delventhal Flickr Photo)

You may have to “commute” into the park each day, but at least you won’t have to cancel or put off your trip.

Some national park Websites list nearby lodging as well as having a link to the park concessionaire’s lodging Website.

Drive in and Pray

If you arrive at just the right time of day you may have “lodging karma” and be able to snag a room if someone just cancelled a reservation.

But I don’t recommend that you drive in and pray that you’ll get lucky, especially if you’ll end up spending many hours just getting to and into the park, and even more hours driving out until you can find a place to stay for the night.

Pick A Different Park

I’ve only covered the “Big Four” of Western U.S. national parks. You may have better luck finding lodging during the summer if you choose to go to one of the less visited, but still wonderful, parks, such as Lassen Volcanic National Park or Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Last year’s National Park Service centennial drew large numbers of visitors to the country’s national parks, but that doesn’t mean everyone has now “been there and done that.”

This year and probably every year to come Americans and visitors arriving from outside of the U.S. will continue to prove that the national parks are, as filmmaker Ken Burns pointed out, “America’s Best Idea.

 

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