From the deserts to the mountains, national park lodges in the Western U.S.'s iconic destinations are close to putting up a "No Vacancy" sign for summer.
For this you may point a finger at Ken Burns and his "National Parks: America's Best Idea" series that ran last fall on PBS, or at the resurgence of domestic travel in the face of economic doldrums, but whatever the cause, the effect is the same: not much room at the places everybody loves to love.
Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and accessible by foot or raft, probably is a nonstarter if you haven't already secured a reservation. Reservations sell out within hours when they open up 13 months in advance. "They won't get into Phantom Ranch unless they're extremely lucky and call when someone cancels," said Dave M. Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the concessionaire.
Ditto for Sequoia's hike-in Bear Paw High Sierra Camp. "It usually sells out when we first sell it," said Sandra Levesque, director of reservations at Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts. And for this year that meant Jan. 2.
Here are some ways that may help you score a room:
Keep checking. Today's booked property may open up tomorrow after a cancellation. Check the updated inventory online or by phone. Guests can cancel up to 48 hours in advance and still get a full refund at Bryce Canyon, Crater Lake, Death Valley, Grand Canyon (South Rim and Phantom Ranch), Yellowstone and Zion; 72 hours at Grand Canyon (North Rim); seven days at Yosemite (30 days for the High Sierra Camps).
Stay flexible. Yosemite reports double-digit increases in summer bookings. "While holidays and weekends are usually 100% sold out, we have sporadic availability," Levesque said, "even in high season, particularly in midweek."
Think outside the box. Contemplate properties that fly under the radar, such as Yosemite's Wawona Lodge, which may be available when the valley is booked solid. Yosemite West, private land wholly within the park, boasts vacation homes, condos and B&Bs.
Think outside the park. You may be able to find a nearby hotel when in-park accommodations are impossible. "We usually are successful in finding rooms outside of the park," said Jerry Shafer, general manager of Bryce Canyon Lodge in Utah, an in-park property with close to 95% occupancy.
Think outside the busy summer season. Your chances improve pre-Memorial Day and post- Labor Day or when school is in session.
Think counterintuitively. Forsake the coolness of the mountains for the heat of the desert. Fewer people, certainly, but don't count on solitude. "The West Europeans, surprisingly, greatly love being in Death Valley in the summer," said Xanterra's Hartvigsen. "The hotter, the better."
As you're working on reservations, here are a couple of caveats:
Make sure you're using the authorized concessionaire. Go online to http://www.nps.gov, click on your park and click lodging. Reservation services, including Expedia, Travelocity and others that have names that may sound like national park concessionaires, may book the same properties but they may also charge a fee, sometimes nonrefundable. These third parties do not have access to a different inventory or lower rates.
Be wary of creative hotel names and descriptions that imply proximity or National Park Service endorsement. "There are properties that appear to be located in the park," said Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Death Valley's Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort, whose concessionaire is Xanterra. "But they're not." Travelers sometimes find themselves far from where they want to be.
Be sure to double-check the distance from the hotel to the park by using a Web mapping service.