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'Sold out': Visiting Yosemite, other popular national parks this summer will be tricky — here's what you need to know

"Crowds can really thin out in September."

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Twenty/20

America's national parks are always popular with summer vacationers, but this year may be one of their most in-demand yet. With many vaccinated travelers eager for a post-lockdown vacation, and a number of international destinations still off-limits to American tourists, the parks present an opportunity for a closer-to-home getaway.

But if you're looking to get out into nature this year, you'll have to get in line. From May 21 to September 30, Yosemite National Park will require reservations to visit. Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park, and Acadia National Park have also implemented reservation requirements.

Many parks will have Covid-related capacity restrictions as well. Last summer, Yosemite operated at 50% capacity; this year, its visitor capacity will fluctuate based on Covid-19 infection rates in surrounding towns.

These new restrictions and protocols can make booking a trip challenging, says Pauline Frommer, editorial director at Frommers.com. "Everyone who would normally be going to Italy or France, they're going to the national parks."

Xanterra Travel Collection owns hotels in many national parks, including Yellowstone National Park, Zion National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park. Chief marketing officer Betsy O'Rourke says the company has already "sold out" many of its hotels for the season.

If you you want to visit a national park this year, here are some tips for making sure you get a reservation.

For park reservations, accommodations: 'Book now'

If you want to visit a national park this year, make your reservations now, Frommer says. That goes for accommodations, too. Whether inside or just outside the parks, lodging is booking up quickly, she says.

"Our national park lodges continue to see great demand, and we are sold out for most dates throughout the summer and early fall," O'Rourke said in her statement. "Given relaxed cancellation policies for so many brands, my advice is to book now, as availability is diminishing and prices can only go up as demand increases."

Wait until fall to visit a popular national park

Almost one-third of American travelers say they want to visit a national park this summer, according to a Travelzoo survey taken in early April. If you want to visit a park but don't want to stress about lodging or reservations, go after summer ends, suggests Ariadne Barrios, travel deals expert at Travelzoo.

"Aiming for shoulder season, or just before or after schools are in session, is a great way to avoid crowds and better guarantee you get the reservations you want," she says. "Crowds can really thin out in September."

Check out a lesser-known national park or trail

Almost 4.5 million people visited Yosemite in 2019. With its new Covid capacity limits, the park will likely not be able to host that many travelers this year.

Barrios suggests thinking outside the box for your vacation. "Look beyond the most popular parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, and visit parks that are lesser-known but just as gorgeous."

Instead of Yosemite, consider a trip to Mount San Jacinto State Park, outside Palm Springs. Visit California, the state's nonprofit travel marketing agency, describes the park as "a pine- and fir-clad wonderland dominated by the granite massif of 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto."

Aiming for shoulder season, or just before or after schools are in session, is a great way to avoid crowds.
Ariadne Barrios
travel deals expert at Travelzoo

As an alternative to Yellowstone, Outside magazine suggests Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on the Wyoming-Montana border, which boasts "world-class trails" and "expansive vistas of enormous granite walls and high-alpine plateaus."

If your heart is set on a popular park, try to branch out from the highly trafficked areas for a better experience. "If you must visit one of the biggies, then stay away from the most popular trails and explore other areas of the park that may not receive a large amount of foot traffic," Barrios says.

Make it a day trip

Staying an hour or two from the park and making a day trip can help you "circumvent the demand for onsite accommodations," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo.

"Channel Islands National Park, off the Central California coast, can be enjoyed as a day trip," he says. "Take a boat ride from Santa Barbara or Ventura to scope out wildlife on islands like Santa Cruz."

Wherever you book, make sure you're prepared. Check your reservation regularly to stay informed about what Covid-19 restrictions or protocols might be in place when you arrive.

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