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Pitching a Tent in California Campgrounds Is Not So Easy

Parks: Sites wiped out by winter rains and residual snow mean fewer openings and more competition for reservations.

June 28, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Summertime, and the campgrounds are teeming.

But for thousands of families, a busy campground still beats the heck out of home, and so the struggle is on to secure reservations at California's most popular state and national park facilities.

The struggle is a bit different this summer because early this year state and national parks officials--after finding several hundred thousands of reservation dollars mysteriously missing--replaced the troubled company that had held their reservations service contracts.

That company, Destinet Service Corp. of San Diego, is now in bankruptcy, and officials say state and federal investigations are pending. The National Park Service has replaced it with Biospherics Inc. of Beltsville, Md., while state parks officials have signed a contract with New York-based Park.Net to handle its reservations. But the bottom line for consumers this year is that several crucial phone numbers are unchanged.

Campers can call (800) 436-7275 (the same number as last year) to join in the contention for highly prized spots at Yosemite, where the floods of January 1997 reduced the number of campsites from 1,785 to about 1,585. The cost is $15 per night, plus a $20 park entrance fee. (And be ready for busy signals.) The park's most coveted campsites are subject to reservations year-round; others switch to a first-come, first-served basis after Labor Day.

"We are getting complaints" about the tight market for campsites, acknowledged National Park Services spokeswoman Holly Bundock.

The essential problem is simple supply and demand, Bundock said, but she also noted that Yosemite has fewer campsites than it did two years ago, and that the statewide storms of early 1998 brought unusually deep snow to Yosemite's higher elevations. As a result, park officials aren't counting on the park's 325 campsites in Tuolumne Meadows opening until July 17.

The number remains (800) 365-2267 for reservations at the following California national park areas: Channel Islands (340 campsites), Death Valley (1,553 campsites), Joshua Tree (435 campsites), Kings Canyon (727 campsites), Sequoia (405 campsites) and Whiskeytown (194 campsites at a national recreation area outside Redding).

Beginning on the 15th of each month, federal park service officials say, would-be campers should be able to make reservations up to three months in advance. (Fees, availability and opening dates may vary by campground.) National Park Service officials said parks are honoring reservations for 1998 that were made through the previous reservation service last year.

To make reservations for the roughly 10,000 campsites at California's 164 state parks--including such destinations as San Onofre State Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County, Big Basin Redwood State Park near Santa Cruz and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park--campers can call (800) 444-7275. For tour reservations at Hearst Castle or An~o Nuevo State Reserve, the number is (800) 444-4445. The state also maintains an information line at (916) 653-6995.

On the first of each month, the state parks service begins accepting reservations seven months ahead; thus, on Wednesday, the state will start taking reservations for the month of January 1999. Before the end of the year, a spokesman said, state parks officials hope to begin accepting reservations via the Internet.

The cost is $7.50 per reservation, plus nightly fees that vary from $12 to $23 per campsite, depending on the campsite, season and day of the week. California state parks officials warn that travelers can only reserve space in a campground, not a specific site. They also note that brush growth following the winter's storms has brought a heightened fire threat this summer.

Reservations for California campgrounds and recreation lakes operated by the U.S. Forest Service, such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, are available at (800) 280-2267. The basic reservation charge is $8.65, with nightly fees of $6 to $15, depending on the site.

Beyond California, the National Park Service's reservation line ([800] 365-2267) also handles camper reservations at about 20 park service territories outside California. (Be warned, however, that at noon on a weekday earlier this month, the wait on the reservation service's hold line was three minutes.)

Among the out-of-state sites: Acadia National Park (Maine), Assateague Island (Maryland), Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina), Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma), Everglades National Park (Florida), Glacier National Park (Montana), Grand Canyon National Park, Greenbelt Park (Maryland, near the District of Columbia), Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida), Katmai National Park (Alaska), Mt. Rainier National Park (Washington), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in Tennessee and North Carolina), Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), Shenandoah National Park (Virginia), Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan) and Zion National Park (Utah).

Other national parks in the 372-site system generally dole out their campsites daily on a first-come, first-served basis.

Through a separate phone line ([800] 967-2283), the National Park Service handles reservations for tours of Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico), Mammoth Caves National Park (Kentucky) and the home of Frederick Douglass (a National Historic Site in D.C.).

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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