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TRAVEL INSIDER

There's still room at the park

August 24, 2008|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

With Labor Day a week away, you may think you have a better chance of making a hole in one blindfolded than getting space at a campground or a park lodge for the holiday. But it's not quite that grim.

Although Labor Day weekend is heavily booked, vacancies, cancellations and no-shows happen. And some campgrounds are first-come, first-served. If you arrive early, preferably Wednesday or Thursday, you can likely find a spot to pitch your tent or park your RV, officials say.

Just don't assume it will be easy. Although some Americans, struggling with costly gas and tight budgets, have cut back on travel, foreign visitors, drawn by the cheap dollar, are flocking to parks.

At Grand Canyon National Park this Labor Day, for instance, "the demand seems to be up," said Kevin Dillman, director of central reservations at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which handles bookings for nine national parks. "We have fewer rooms available."

As of Aug. 14, lodges at the South Rim were "pretty well sold out," he said, although Yavapai and Maswik lodges, near the rim, still had rooms.

At California's Yosemite National Park, "the demand for lodging always exceeds the supply," said spokesman Scott Gediman.

And in California State Parks, coastal campgrounds typically sell out months ahead for Labor Day.

But persistence and a little risk-taking can usually get you a space somewhere in a state or national park. Here are some strategies:

Know the right contacts: For national parks, you'll find the official lodging and campsite concessionaires at www.nps.gov. These may be different at different parks, so click on the park you want, then look under "Fees & Reservations." For campgrounds, the usual contact is www.recreation.gov.

To book campsites at California State Parks, contact Reserve America, (800) 444-7275, www.parks.ca.gov. (Click on "Online Reservations.") For a list of parks that still have spaces for the holiday, click on "Labor Day Camping" under "Travel Ideas."

Pounce on cancellations: Guests may wait until the last minute to cancel reservations, freeing up space. Knowing the deadlines gives you an edge.

At Yosemite's hotels and Curry Village, for instance, you must cancel at least seven days ahead to avoid being charged for your first night's lodging, said Kenny Karst, spokesman for Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts. At Yellowstone, the deadline is 48 hours.

Also at Yellowstone, tour operators must cancel rooms they don't intend to use at least 30 days ahead, and remaining handicapped-accessible rooms, of which the park has several dozen, are released two weeks ahead, said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts there.

Take your chances: On Labor Day and at other busy times, "it's never a good idea to plan your Yellowstone trip just as a walk-in," Hoeninghausen said.

You may get caught with nowhere to stay. On the other hand, you may get lucky. With 2,200 rooms in the park, "we never, ever start a day sold out," he said.

Guests may cancel, fail to show up, end their stays early or shift to another lodge. To get the jump on these vacancies, Hoeninghausen suggested, phone or visit the lodge at checkout time.

At Yosemite, where many campsites get booked months ahead, seven of the 13 campgrounds have first-come, first-served spaces.

Holiday campers who arrive before Friday should have "excellent chances" of getting a site, Gediman said. Tuolumne Meadows, a prime high-country hiking area, had spaces throughout Labor Day weekend last year, he added.

At California State Parks, more than 20 campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Plan now for next year: Guests staying in Yosemite hotels over Labor Day often book next year's stay before check-out. You can reserve rooms 366 days ahead.

Yosemite campgrounds, which can be reserved several months ahead, often sell out on the first day. Labor Day sites can be booked starting at 7 a.m. April 15, when reservations open for stays Aug. 15 through Sept. 14.

At the Grand Canyon, rooms can be booked up to 13 ahead; at Yellowstone, it's a year in advance. California State Parks' sites can be reserved seven months ahead.

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jane.engle@latimes.com

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