Summer savings in the USA's top national parks

Grand Canyon. Yosemite. Glacier National Park. These amazing outposts of the American wilderness have always been a great bargain for travelers, but never more so than in 2009. This year, a battered economy and a bruised national psyche have collided to bump the traditional summer vacation from many people's must-do list. With reduced visitation levels, attractive deals, and greater availability than many parks have seen in decades, there's never been a better time to rediscover America's national parks than this summer.

"We saw a significant decline in bookings during the early part of the year and into the spring," says Dave Hartvigsen, who represents sales and marketing for national park concessionaire Xanterra Parks and Resorts. "The summer is still filling up, but it's taking longer than in most other years."

Translation? "People have a reasonably good chance of finding a place to stay at any park this summer, provided they have flexibility with their dates," says Hartvigsen. And that's great news for bargain hunters and late bookers alike.

Grand Canyon National Park

Getting a hotel room at the Grand Canyon's crowded South Rim isn't as hard as you might imagine this year. Look for the best availability in the first two weeks of June (right after Memorial Day) or the first two weeks of September (after Labor Day). The last two weeks of August are also less busy in relative terms than the remainder of the summer. Because there's no penalty for cancellations at the South Rim until 48 hours before arrival, many rooms become available at the last minute. Most rooms can be booked online or through the general reservations line at 888-297-2757. The park accommodates about 30 to 40 walk-ins a day, even in the summer months.

To get beyond the rim, consider one of the Learning & Lodging packages offered by Xanterra Parks and Resorts. These include meals, accommodations, and two days of hands-on guided hiking into the canyon led by an expert from the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Summer packages start at $443.54.

Yosemite National Park

To borrow a phrase from Dickens, summer at Yosemite National Park is both the best of times and the worst of times. On the plus side, the whole park is open, the wildflowers are in bloom, and there's no shortage of things to do: hiking, swimming, biking, and rafting, to name a few. On the negative, it has a reputation for being extremely overcrowded. But this is 2009 and fewer people are traveling, so forget everything you thought you knew about summer crowds.

Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, which maintains 1,667 guest rooms within the park, is offering numerous special packages and reduced rates throughout the summer. Regular room rates are readily accessible, too. At press time, there were still rooms available for dates throughout the summer.

Acadia National Park

Home to the tallest mountain on the country's Atlantic Coast, Acadia National Park embodies the beauty and rugged spirit of the Northeast. Every year, tourists are drawn to Acadia for its coastal scenery, historic carriage roads, and eye-popping views from the top of Cadillac Mountain, not to mention the quirky shops and restaurants of Bar Harbor, Maine.

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