Sure, the calendar says January, there's a lot of snow out there across the country, and you haven't even thought about filing your income taxes. But it's still not too early to begin planning your national park vacation for this summer.
Back in December I actually started searching for a rental home or two near Acadia National Park. That kind of search -- when you're thinking of a family reunion with perhaps a dozen heads to find pillows for -- can be daunting, particularly when folks you've invited are spread out across the country and have different needs and wishes when it comes to accommodations. And that's exactly why the search had to be started so early -- to be sure we had the time to sort through all the possibilities.
In general, any time you're looking to rent a house near a national park during the summer months you need to start early in the year. Many of these properties go quickly, often to repeat renters, some who have been returning to the same place for years and years. That's often the case at Cape Cod National Seashore.
In these instances -- renting a place near Acadia or Cape Cod -- your only option, since there are no lodges within the parks themselves, is to contact the local chamber of commerce for a list of property managers. This can be hit and miss, but it's the best process at this time.
You don't necessarily need to start so soon when you're simply looking for a hotel or lodge room in a national park. But if you've got a specific date in mind, starting your search earlier than later is definitely a good idea. The lodges in Yellowstone National Park quickly fill for July and August, so now would be the perfect time to start your search. Ditto for rooms in the other Western landscape parks -- the Yosemites, Glaciers, Grand Canyons, etc.
Now, some advice: Your best lodging deals will be had by dealing directly with the concessionaire in question, not through a third party.
For instance, if you want to go to Yellowstone, work with Xanterra Parks & Resorts. That's not a blatant plug for Xanterra; it's just that they run the lodges and don't charge a commission for booking a room. Ditto with Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, which runs the lodging in Yosemite, and ARAMARK Parks and Destinations, which has facilities and operations at places such as Shenandoah, Mesa Verde, Olympic national parks and Glen Canyon NRA.
Need information on what to expect from a lodge? A good source is David and Kay Scott's The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges. This book provides the rundown on lodges and rooms from Alaska to Wyoming.
One drawback of this book, however, is that the Scotts are not judgmental when it comes to discussing this accommodations.
For instance, in my book (National Parks With Kids) I point out that Camp Curry in Yosemite is the last place you'd want to stay because of its overcrowding, noise and filth. At the same time, I found the facilities at Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows Lodge to be a much more reasonable and enjoyable experience, even though you stay in the same tent cabins they feature at Camp Curry.
That said, the Scotts' book is a great resource in that it really provides the lowdown on myriad lodging possibilities.
Now, if you're just looking for a campsite for your RV, pop-up, or tent, turn to the federal government's recreation web site. This site allows you to see what's out there in terms of campgrounds, what's available in terms of sites, and how much it will cost. The web site covers not just national park campgrounds, but also those in surrounding national forests and U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas.
Some national park backcountry areas also offer you the opportunity to reserve a site in advance. While many parks hold sites for walk-up traffic, if you have a particular destination in mind and a specific time-frame, it wouldn't be too early to book it for your trip. For instance, I've embarked on several backcountry paddles in Yellowstone, and I've always started the process early in the year to ensure we stay at specific campsites, either because I know they're gorgeous or because they're practical in terms of how far we want to paddle each day.
Yellowstone and some other parks run a lottery system early in the year in which you put down your requested sites on an application, which then is run through a computerized lottery that determines whether you win or lose. Now, I think in four trips I only had one application that didn't successfully land all my requested sites, and in that case a backcountry ranger called me up and we worked it out over the phone in terms of other available sites.
Such lottery systems usually require that you get your application in by a certain date, such as April 1. To find out whether the park you'd like to visit has such a system, go to that park's web site (You can either Google the park name, which will lead you there, or go directly to the site by using the following formula: "www.nps.gov/" followed by four letters. Those letters are either the first four of a park with a one-word name, such as Yellowstone, which translates to "yell" in this formula, or for two-word park names, the first two letters of each word. For Grand Canyon, that'd be "grca.") and look for the backcountry rules and regulations.
Bottom line: If 2009 is the year you visit a national park, start doing your homework now in terms of finding a place to stay.