You are here

Reader Participation Day: How Far In Advance Do You Plan Your National Park Escape?


How far in advance do you plan your national park trips? A year? Six months? Two weeks out?

For many parks, spur-of-the-moment trips work just fine. But for others, if you don't start making lodging reservations months and months before your departure date, you might not find a comfortable place to lay your head at night.

So, how much lead time do you give yourself?


Like your post yesterday on the winter opportunities at Capitol Reef, we have learned to plan a year in advance. And - we maintain bi-weekly update contacts for potential upgrades once we get about three months away from departure. This is sound advice and it works. Yes it takes vigilant effort, but it pays off. Two years ago we ended up with a wonderful canyon-view room at the El Tovar because we kept checking, even though we had locked in a reservation a year earlier.

For parks like Glacier or Yellowstone I plan a year or more in advance to get the type of accommodations I want. I call back regularly if I didn't get what I wanted and check for cancellations. An example being a Cabin vs the Bunkhouse at Phantom ranch.

I've done a trip that included Yellowstone less than five months in advance. I had to wait on schedules and didn't get my first choice for cabins in park since they were no longer available. We even adjusted our schedule once, getting a cabin at Roosevelt to avoid driving to West Yellowstone late at night. That took a little travel agent experience; someone in our group used to be one.

I've done a couple of spur of the moment trips to Yosemite in the winter. That wasn't a problem getting lodging in Mariposa. For one night the clerk said there was only one other occupied room.

I haven't really tried it, but there are first-come first-served campgrounds. I wouldn't be able to handle the uncertainty, but I suppose it helps to arrive early and have a backup plan. For a place like Yosemite, I would think maybe heading to Merced or Fresno would mean plenty of last minute lodging options.

I usually make one or two trips to YELL every summer without any real advance work. By getting to the park VERY early in the morning, I've never failed to find an open campsite at Norris. But there have been some squeakers.

Last summer, the staff at Norris came up with a wonderful plan to alleviate the major problem caused by wanna-be campers circling the campground loops with their 95-foot RVs. The staff got up early in the morning and closed off entrance until a camper drove out. They'd ask which site was being vacated and assign it to someone in the waiting line.

It worked very, very well. I'd like to see that expanded to all other first come campgrounds in the park. Those folks at Norris deserve some kind of medal.

I had to spend only a few minutes pouting because I didn't get my FAVORITE spot. But . . .

Of course a lot of need for advance planning depends on popularity of the location, how much lodging there is inside/outside the park, and time of year. It might also matter what one wants to do. NPT had a recent article on the limiting of mule rides at Grand Canyon NP, which generally requires reservations. A lot of the lodging in popular parks (especially Yosemite Lodge) can be booked a year in advance for the peak visitation, and can be fully booked as soon as it becomes available. I talked to a clerk there who said it doesn't book as quickly for winter, but it does typically get fully booked. I've been able to get cabins at Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon 4-5 months ahead of time, but I had to jigger my schedule. I had seen several nights at one place that I wanted, but they weren't available when I tried to book them two weeks later and had to be flexible. Sometimes I just planned around finding single nights available in prime lodging.

There are some National Parks where I could just book the same day I leave. If it were Lassen Volcanic NP (with few close lodging options ), I could probably get a reservation in Redding or Red Bluff the same day. I think Yosemite in the summer months would take more planning.

I have a long term plan for visiting parks in the future and a rough idea for what I want to get out of them. Once I have some time off work organised I figure out how many days I have to spend and then look at an area I can potentially visit and plan days within that.
I'm looking at around 10 days at Easter where I hope to enjoy parts of Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Zion and the Great Basin. I'm already booking travel and accommodation and I'm looking on the websites for the parks and have ordered maps and thinking of areas to make videos of.

Of course, like when I visited Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes in October, as soon as I get on the ground all my plans disappear and I end up going wherever I feel like exploring that particular day!

For my last 2 trips to Glacier, I made reservations at Many Glacier in January for August in 2009 and August/September 2010. For my trip to Yosemite in March 2000, I made a reservation for the Wawona in November 1999. The Yosemite people called and said sorry, we are cancelling the reservation in Wawona (groan) but we have a cabin for you in Curry (yippee)! For the trip to Joshua Tree in March 2000, I had little trouble getting a reservation at the Desert Hot Springs Hotel not long before that March. For my Acadia trip in May 2008, I forget when I made the reservation at the nearby Best Western, but there were so many vacancies when I got there I supsect I could have made one the day before. (Joshua Tree and Acadia have no lodging in the park(s)).

I would think that the big western parks with the Parkitecture lodgings are harder to get and require more lead time and planning.

Steve Nelson (I don't know why it won't let me use my registered user name)

Anonymous (aka Steve Nelson):
I would think that the big western parks with the Parkitecture lodgings are harder to get and require more lead time and planning.

It varies depending on the park, the lodging, and the time of year. Trying to get a late spring to early fall spot at Yosemite Lodge (not exactly "Parkitecture" though) typically requires a year in advance. I was curious about Crater Lake Lodge, and found scattered availability 3 months in the future. I don't think the Ahwhanee sells out ASAP even for the prime season because it's so expensive. I understand they might have walk-up spots for half price during winter if you're willing to ask.

A long and winding trip I took included Bryce Canyon. I sort of ended my reservations at Ruby's Inn, and I figured we could wing it from there on the way home. However - I looked up Bryce Canyon Lodge, and managed to book a single night almost exactly one month in advance. This was one of their historic cabins designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood for the Union Pacific. I don't know if it was a late cancellation or just a scattered night. I eventually added a night at a timeshare in Brian Head - to visit Cedar Breaks NM.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide