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This summer is shaping up to be the best in recent years for finding your spot in a national park. While guidebook authors long have preached that you need to make park lodging reservations months in advance, the sour economy and the wait-until-the-last-minute attitude of more and more travelers has concessionaires currently armed with plenty of empty rooms for the summer.

In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, officials for lodge operator Xanterra Parks & Resorts (www.xanterra.com) say that unless there's a sudden rise in demand, this summer could be relatively uncrowded.

"In any given week or month this year reduced demand means there are more rooms to be found than in any recent years," says Jim McCaleb, Xanterra's general manager in Yellowstone. "If summer visitation drops at the same rate it did this past winter (when it plunged more than 13 percent), this could be the least crowded summer in two decades.

"There are plenty of open nights, and the bottom line is that this is a great year to visit Yellowstone National Park," he says. "We still have availability every day of the summer, including the traditional peak periods."

Making a reservation is almost child's play. A few clicks on your keyboard and you're booked and your credit card charged. But there are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when making your plans:

  • Unless you're traveling with a tour group, reserve directly with the lodging concessionaire. While third-party reservation services can help you land a room, they also assess a fee, that's often non-refundable, for that service, something you don't encounter when dealing directly with a concessionaire.
  • While availability should be good this summer, it's still wise to book as soon as you know your travel plans. Plus, with many concessionaires allowing you to cancel just 24 hours out, what you book today can always be canceled tomorrow.
  • You can increase your odds of landing a room if you're flexible with your schedule. That's because some folks who make plans far in advance often cancel, thus creating last-minute openings that you can jump on. Plus, tour operators who don't fill their room blocks release rooms back to the parks, another source of unexpected vacancies. Since these decisions have to be made 30 days out from the tour groups' scheduled arrival, you might stumble across a vacancy by checking 29 or 30 days before you want to visit a specific park.

"Regardless of which park you are visiting, consider traveling during the first two weeks of June, the last 10 days of August or the first two weeks of September," say the folks at Xanterra. "Families with schoolchildren are either winding down after the end of school or gearing up for the beginning of school, so those periods -- although still considered peak season -- are a little slower than the rest of the summer. Additionally, individual parks have unique soft spots. For example, Yellowstone has considerable availability during the entire month of May and late August through the end of the season in mid-October."

Two final tips:

  • Some concessionaires allow you to make dinner reservations when you make your lodging reservations. Do it. There's nothing that can throw a kink into your vacation like showing up outside the dining room at the Old Faithful Inn without a reservation at 6pm and learning the first opening isn't until 9pm.
  • If you prefer to stay in a campground, book a reservation months ahead at www.recreation.gov.

Concessionaires and Their Parks

ARAMARK Parks and Resorts (www.aramarkparksanddestinations.com):

  • Denali NP: McKinley Chalet Resort, Grande Denali Lodge, McKinley Village Lodge, Denali Bluffs Hotel
  • Shenandoah NP: Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort, Lewis Mountain Cabins
  • Olympic NP: Kalaloch Lodge, Lake Quinault Lodge
  • Glen Canyon NRA: houseboats
  • Mesa Verde NP: Far View Lodge
  • Glacier Bay NP: Glacier Bay Lodge.

Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts (www.delawarenorth.com):

  • Yosemite NP: Curry Village, The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Wawona Hotel, White Wolf tent cabins, Tuolumne Meadows tent cabins, High Sierra camps, Housekeeping Camp
  • Sequoia NP: Wuksachi Lodge.

Forever Resorts (http://foreverresorts.com):

  • Grand Teton NP: Signal Mountain Lodge
  • Isle Royale NP: Rock Harbor Lodge
  • Grand Canyon NP: Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim
  • Lake Mead NRA: RV Village
  • Olympic NP: Lake Crescent Lodge
  • Mammoth Cave NP: Mammoth Cave Hotel
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: Bluff Lodge, Rocky Knob Cabins
  • Padre Island National Seashore: Padre Island Park Co
  • Big Bend NP: Big Bend Resorts
  • Badlands NP: Cedar Pass Lodge.

Glacier Park, Inc. (www.glacierparkinc.com):

  • Glacier NP: Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Village Inn at Apgar, Glacier Park Lodge and Resort.

Guest Services, Inc. (www.guestservices.com):

  • Mount Rainier NP: National Park Inn, Paradise Inn

Xanterra Parks & Resorts (www.xanterra.com):

  • Yellowstone NP: Mammoth Hotel and Cabins, Canyon Lodge and Cabins, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, Lake Lodge Cabins, Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge Cabins, Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Grant Village
  • Bryce Canyon NP: Bryce Canyon Lodge
  • Zion NP:-Zion Lodge
  • Crater Lake NP: Crater Lake Lodge and Mazama Village Motor Inn
  • Death Valley NP: Furnace Creek Inn, Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village
  • Grand Canyon NP: South Rim, Maswick Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge, Yavapi Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, Trailer Village, Phantom Ranch.

Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com. This site tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Along with offering travel tidbits for those visiting the national parks, the Traveler offers anecdotes, insights, and a place for park junkies to speak their minds and stay atop park-related issues.

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