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.

Summer accommodations fill up quickly even in these tough economic times, but many people think the best time to visit Acadia is actually the late summer and early fall, anyway. A week's rental at the rustic Hutchins Cottages, tucked away in nearby Southwest Harbor, starts at $700. Owner Kristin Hutchins, who manages the property on-site, says there's still plenty of availability for stays between August 29 and October 10. Ranger-led tours, such as the $100 Beaver Trek, are another bargain. It's a priceless opportunity to get up close with the furry little "aquatic engineers" who have changed Acadia's landscape.

Glacier National Park

A few years ago, Backpacker magazine named Glacier National Park the best in the country. Boy, did they ever get it right. Home to 37 glaciers, 700 miles of hiking trails, two historic backcountry chalets, and a veritable lost world of Ice Age scenery, Glacier is one of the great American wonders. Unfortunately, it's also melting. Some estimates figure that all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.

So, what are you waiting for? The folks at Glacier Guides, Inc., report that there's still plenty of availability for half-day and multi-day rafting trips. Three hours on the Flathead River, for example, starts at about $50 through September 10. Through June 15, enter promo code "halfday" when you book online to save 10%. There are also still some spaces available on a late-August backpacking trip to the Granite Park and Sperry Chalets inside the park. This Ultimate Six-Day Chalet Tour goes for $1,765 per person.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It's hard to beat the price of admission at Great Smoky Mountains, the country's most-visited national park. That's because all 800 miles of hiking and horseback trails in the Smokies are free. Accommodations are cheap, too. You can camp for as little as $14 a night, or hike to the only lodge inside the park, LeConte, where two meals and a bed will cost you just $110 a night.

Shenandoah National Park

Just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is perhaps best known for the spectacular mountain vistas along twisty-turny Skyline Drive. Home to some 500 miles of wilderness trails, including many that are easily accessible from Skyline Drive itself, Shenandoah also hosts 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Only by getting out of your car and inside this 105-mile-long park can you truly experience everything it has to offer. Do it on a tight budget with the two-day Blue Ridge Package, which combines one-night of lodging at Skyland or Big Meadows, as well as dinner and breakfast for two at the Main Dining Room, starting at $198. Some blackout dates apply.

Denali National Park

The crowning glory of our 50th state, Denali National Park is celebrating Alaska's half century of statehood this year. With it comes a host of attractive new deals. The best of the bunch is the Sourdough Special, valid through September 20, which slashes rates by a whopping 50% compared to last year's prices. Other discounts include second-night stays for just $50 and a free second night for visitors turning 50 this year. (Notice a theme yet?) The discounted prices are available at McKinley Chalet Resort, McKinley Village Lodge, Grande Denali Lodge, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel.

Everglades National Park

At first, it may seem a little strange to consider a trip to the Florida Everglades in the heart—and heat—of summer. But if you're already heading South for the beaches or theme parks, don't pass up the opportunity to visit the country's only subtropical wilderness. Best known for its sawgrass marshes, towering cypress trees, and tangled mangroves, the Everglades is also home to blue herons, wood storks, egrets, alligators, and crocodiles. (Yes, alligators and crocodiles—the only place in the world where the two species live virtually side by side.)

See them all on a summer day trip with a professional guide from North American Canoe Tours, which specializes in up-close Everglades exploration. A half-day canoe or kayak trip costs $124 per person. You can save $25 on the tour by combining your trip with an overnight stay at the Ivey House Bed and Breakfast in Everglades City.

Haleakala National Park

Venture into the crater of Hawaii's "other" volcanic national park for an experience unlike any other. Towering 10,000 feet above Maui, the cinder cone landscape of Haleakala National Park invites comparisons to the red sands of Mars. Get up close and personal with a day hike on the Sliding Sands trail, or better yet hitch a ride on horseback with Pony Express Tours. The half-day Ka Moa O Pele Junction Ride descends 2,500 feet into the volcano. Save 10% off the $182 price tag by booking online at the company's website. At press time, availability looks good for day trips throughout the summer months.

National Parks Annual Pass

Why settle for just one park? The summer road trip is an American tradition, and if your plans call for visits to more than one park you may want to invest in an annual pass. Available for $80, the pass covers entrance and amenity fees to all federal recreation sites for up to four people traveling in the same vehicle. (Children under 16 are admitted free.) Seniors can get a lifetime pass for just $10.

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