It's Time to Book Your Summer National Park Vacation

If you want to spend a few nights at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, now is the time to make those reservations. Kurt Repanshek photo.

It's only January, the Super Bowl has yet to be played, and the Rocky Mountain states are up to their necks in snow. Sooooooo, it must be time to book your summer national park vacation.

Why so early? To ensure that you get to stay where you want when you want.

Think I'm kidding? Already the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park is booked for July 10-14. At Yosemite, your best bet for July 25-28 is a room at Wawona, without a bath. At Glacier, Lake McDonald Lodge is already full for July 18-22.

In other words, you're running out of time. True, there are other lodgings in these parks with vacancies, and it's also possible that cancellations in the months to come will create openings in the above-cited lodges. But why chance things?

Act now and you'll be happiest six months from now.

Now, there are some specials starting to appear, although you have to be a bit flexible with your travel and open to trying new things.

For instance, at Shenandoah National Park the concessionaire is offering a late spring-early summer special that will save you a third off summer's typical lodging rates. The "Early Bird Spring Weekday" packages start at $99 for a one-night stay for two and are being offered weekdays March 23 through June 26. (Memorial Day weekend is blacked out, though). This deal is good at either the Skyland Resort or Big Meadows Lodge and includes breakfast.

If you've ever wanted to learn how to fly fish, there's a deal with you in mind at Yellowstone National Park. The "Fun on the Fly" package offered by Xanterra Parks & Resorts has added a families-only session that caters to families with kids 8 and older. The two-day fly fishing program provides two days of instruction through the Yellowstone Fly Fishing School, two nights of lodging in Frontier Cabins at Mammoth Hot Springs, all the necessary fishing equipment, two breakfasts, two lunches, one dinner, and in-park transportation.

The families-only program is being offered August 1-3. Adult-only programs are scheduled for June 13-15, June 27-29, July 18-20, and August 15-17. There's also a women's only program set for September 5-7.

The programs aren't exactly cheap. They run $849 per person based on double occupancy; the kids' price is $669. For more details, check out this site.

Xanterra, which also has operations at the Grand Canyon, has a "Learning and Lodging Adventure" package available at that park. This two-day, two-night program, operated in conjunction with the Grand Canyon Field Institute, focuses on the Grand Canyon's geology and human history. It includes lodging at either Yavapai or Maswick lodges on the South Rim, in-park transportation, one dinner, two breakfasts, two box lunches, guide services each day, instructional materials, and retail coupons.

The summer programs, good for kids 10 and older, run $672.40 for two adults and $205.46 for kids. For more information, visit this site.

There are a number of packages available at Glacier National Park. You can opt for a multi-lodge package, a multi-park package, or a package that blends lodging with a Red Jammer tour of the park. For details, head here.

These are just a sampling of the possibilities that can be found across the national park system. Key to creating the best vacation is to start early and be flexible. When making a reservation, if your first choice isn't available, book your second and ask the reservations clerk when might be a good time to check back to see if there have been any cancellations.

Also, don't bother with stand-alone reservation companies. Deal directly with the concessionaire at the park you want to visit. That will save you time, money and headaches in the long run. To find the concessionaire at the park of your choice, go to the park's web site, click on the "Plan Your Trip" link in the left-hand column, and then on the "Things to Know Before You Come" link, which will lead to a "Lodging" link with area lodging options.

Want a sneak peak of the lodging options? A good resource for this is The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges.


kurt- i find it slightly amusing that the exact next post after the ARC questioning is one telling people to get booking with xanterra. it's not "backcountry permits reservations open" or "slough creek is going to book" it's support the bigger businesses in the park! however, i am just giving you a hard time, keep up the good work.

One way to stay spontaneous but still have a great national park experience is simply to avoid the most popular parks during their most popular times. There are wonderful national park units throughout the country that don't ever get the crowds that Yellowstone and Yosemite do. Others are only crowded at certain times.

Excellent suggestion!

Along with Voyageurs, other parks that don't draw the heavy crowds include Isle Royale, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Kings Canyon, North Cascades, and Petrified Forest. And don't forget the national lakeshores, such as Apostle Islands, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, Pictured Rocks and Indiana Dunes.

Of course, trips to some of these parks involve different experiences, such as a vacation revolving around paddling (Voyageurs, Isle Royale, the lakeshores) or backpacking (North Cascades, Kings Canyon). But that's part of the fun of visiting different units of the park system.

Beyond that, visiting parks -- big or small -- outside the traditional summer vacation period will almost always reward you with smaller crowds and better pricing for lodging.

Petrified Forest NP has no accomodation, whatsoever, not even a campground. And outside of the park, there are very limited resources, too. When I got there a few years ago, I simply applied for a backcountry permit, caried my sleeping bag, about half a gallon of water and some fruits one mile from the road and out of sight into the hills, and slept under the stars in the desert.

I can really recommend that, it was a great night, and I did not miss any comfort. Oh and I was visited by a cangaroo rat, a small rodent, attracted by my food.

I also like spontaneous trips, sometimes I don't even book in advance, but I do have a pretty good idea how many parks are within an hour's driving distance.