Preparing for the 2008 Yellowstone Season: The Lodging Challenge

It’s a beautiful day, the kids are entering their final weeks of school, and you’re finally thinking about that summer vacation. Given recent hikes in airfares, flying the family somewhere is out of the question, so you decide on a automobile vacation. And what better destination for a car trip than Yellowstone National Park?

Good luck with that plan, bub.

As has been the case in recent years, lodging in American’s oldest national park is extremely tight as we approach the summer season. Except for four scattered dates in July and August, Old Faithful Inn is completely booked for the summer (that is, June, July and August). The same for the Old Faithful Snow Lodge — but the available dates don’t coincide with the available dates for Old Faithful Inn, so you can’t be hoppping around park accommodations. Same with Canyon Lodge and Cabins and Grant Village. There’s literally no availability in the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins, and rooms aren’t open in Mammoth Hot Springs, Lake Lodge and Cabins or Roosevelt Lodge Cabins until the end of August. There are a scattered numbers of days in June, July and August where rooms are available at Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

So what can you do? Plan ahead for next summer, obviously, but that doesn’t help you this summer. (More on planning ahead later.) Instead, you’ll need to come up with some sort of game plan that maximizes any room availability with other housing resources in the area.

If you are set and determined to spend three or four nights in the Park given the scattered number of available rooms at the various facilities, we’d recommend you make reservations by phone (866/439-7375) rather than through the Xanterra (www.travelyellowstone.com) website. Though you can check availability of different lodges and hotels on the Internet, you can’t compare open dates simultaneously to yield a four-day stretch where you can snare rooms. You’ll want to be on the go anyway; a popular way of touring the Park is to focus on one specific area, hikes and all, for a one- or two-day stretch, and moving to different hotels certainly fits within this ethos. Granted, this late in the season you might end up with some expensive (as in the case of Lake Hotel).

Camping is one alternative. Though there is an abundance of campgrounds and RV parks in Yellowstone, only five are available for reservations via Xanterra: Bridge Bay Campground, Canyon Campground, Grant Village Campground, Madison Campground and Fishing Bridge RV Park. And of those, Fishing Bridge is limited to hard-sided RVs. The rest of the Yellowstone campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Your best bet is to pick an open campground, head there early in the morning and grab a slot when someone departs (check-out time is 10 a.m.). If you are locked out, keep on the move — but don’t assume you can just pull the car over at night and sleep while parked at a pullout. In the old days Park rangers may have looked the other way, but these days they’ll ask you to move along.

Most folks want to head to the Park with a clear idea of where they will be sleeping; if you fall in this category, your only other alternative is to stay outside the Park. Communities like West Yellowstone, Cooke City or Gardiner offer a variety of accommodations, and they tend not to sell out as quickly as the Park lodges and cabins do. For instance, we did a search of open properties in Gardiner, located just outside the North Entrance, on June 18, July 9 and July 26. There were plenty of rooms available in all three cities, including Cooke City (which was a little bit of a surprise; usually it’s very difficult to find a rokm there in the high season). Now, staying in Cooke City may seem to far out of the way, but it’s a lovely community and the drive through the Lamar Valley — particularly when done in the early morning — is one of the best chances to see wildlife in the Park.

Still, many want to experience Yellowstone National Park in its entirety, and that means a stay at a lodge. That’s why you really need to begin your 2009 planning now. On May 1 Xanterra opened up reservations for the 2009 season. As it stands now, things are wide open, and if you’re thinking at all about a trip next summer you’ll want to reserve a room. Yes, you’ll need to put down a deposit — one nights’ worth no matter how long your stay — but it’s fully refundable should you decide in the next 12+ months to cancel your trip. The piece of mind and the flexibility associated with a reserved stay in the room type of your choice is well worth the deposit price.

(Publisher Kevin Reichard already has his rooms reserved for the 2008 and 2009 summer seasons.)

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