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Travel Insider

National Parks May Not Be as Crowded as Usual

Recurrent cancellations and fewer foreign visitors mean reservations are not impossible this year.

June 02, 2002|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Our national parks are more crowded than ever. You have to make arrangements a year in advance to stay at a park lodge. The Internet is the only way to book because you can't get through by phone.

These popular notions about national parks are questionable, if not outright mythical, depending on the park. If any of these ideas is keeping you from visiting a park this summer, this column is for you. Foreigners, who constitute a fourth or more of summer visitors at some U.S. national parks, appear to be staying away in droves, park officials say.

The recession in Japan has long been one cause, and, more recently, skittishness after the Sept. 11 attacks has driven down the numbers even more.

At Grand Canyon National Park, which typically depends on foreigners for nearly half of its visitors, 42% fewer people arrived at the south entrance station on bus tours through April versus last year, while arrivals by private vehicles were up 5%, says spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge. The net result: 3% fewer park visitors in that period.

The drop-off in foreign travel is freeing up rooms that wouldn't have been available in previous years, especially off-rim, says Judi Lages, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts (formerly Amfac), concessionaire for nine national park sites. When I checked the concessionaire's Internet site, www.xanterra.com, on May 22, it showed rooms available every night at the Yavapai Lodge, a quarter-mile from the South Rim, through the end of the year, except Dec. 1 to 19.

This doesn't mean you can easily reserve a room at the park's top-of-the-line El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim in the peak summer season. As of May 22 it was booked every night except two from June through September, according to the Web site. And forget about Phantom Ranch in the canyon's bottom. It sells out within hours of going on sale 23 months out, Lages says.

To take advantage of cancellations for otherwise booked-up lodges, Lages suggests you call Xanterra, (303) 297-2757, a few days in advance of when you want to go or 30 days in advance; the latter is when the lodges release rooms that tour operators can't use. When I called on a recent Friday, I got through after six minutes.

Summer reservations for Yellowstone National Park lodges are down 8% or 9% from last year, but Bryce and Zion national parks, which have only one lodge each and depend less on foreign visitors, are harder to book, Lages says. In a recent check of the Xanterra Web site, Bryce Canyon Lodge was sold out June through August, except for one night.

As of May 22, Yosemite National Park still had many rooms with shared baths available, especially for summer midweek stays, at Curry Village and the Wawona Hotel, says Linda Stolling, reservations manager for Yosemite Concession Services.

Not so for the top-drawer Ahwahnee, where all weekend summer dates but two were booked, a reservations agent told me.

Stolling suggests contacting sold-out lodges seven to 14 days in advance, when most cancellations occur at Yosemite. You can call the concessionaire, (559) 252-4848 (I got through after nine minutes on hold when I called May 22), or book on the Web, www.yosemitepark.com, a "real-time" site that is updated instantaneously. (You can link to all the park system's lodge concessionaires through the National Park Service Web site, www.nps.gov.)

Getting a tent or RV site can be more difficult. As in most summers, campgrounds tend to get fully booked the day reservations open, which is five months out, but here, too, cancellations may occur, Yosemite spokeswoman Deb Schweizer says. Ranger Mike O'Neil said last month that Grand Canyon campgrounds were not entirely sold out but that bookings were heavier than average; the park also has 50 first-come, first-served campsites.

You can reserve National Park campsites at reservations.nps.gov, or at (800) 436-7275 for Yosemite and (800) 365-2267 for more than 20 other parks, including the Grand Canyon.

Also in high demand are RV spaces and houseboats at Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border, California's Shasta Lake and Lake Mohave near Laughlin, Nev., says Karen Lippe, director of marketing for Seven Crown Resorts, an Irvine-based concessionaire. By late May the company had booked 24% more RV spaces and about 5% more houseboats than the same period last year; many weekends are sold out.

Your toughest ticket this summer may be parks that appeal to American patriotism. Visits were already up 22% at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and 33.5% at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota through April compared with last year, park officials report.

By the time this column is printed, however, the picture could change considerably at the national parks.

The wild card is you. Americans are booking trips later than they used to, sometimes just two or three weeks ahead, sometimes the same day, making it difficult to predict how crowded the parks will be, concessionaires and hoteliers say.

At Thunderbird Lodge at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona, about 90% of guests typically reserve their rooms in advance, says general manager Mary Jones. And with good reason: The 73-room hotel, the only one in the park, is in a remote area nearly 100 miles southeast of Monument Valley and five hours east of the Grand Canyon, she says. But this year only about half the guests are booking in advance.

"People just walk in and say, 'Hi. We're here. You got any rooms?'" Jones says. "We just can't believe it."

So far the lodge has generally, but not always, been able to accommodate them. (It was sold out for Memorial Day weekend.) As for the rest of the summer, "I don't even have a clue," Jones says.

*

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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