Reports of a crush of visitors to the great American outdoors may be exaggerated -- or, at least, premature.
It's true that California state parks logged a one-day record of more than 10,700 reservations on Feb. 1, when campsites for the Labor Day period became available. (The previous record, about 7,000, was Feb. 1 last year.)
Lodge reservations are running 7% ahead of last year for Grand Canyon National Park and 11% ahead for Yellowstone National Park, which last year had nearly 3 million visitors, a record, according to Judi Lages, vice president of sales and marketing for the concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
In these uncertain times, "people are staying closer to home, bonding together and doing all things American," she says. And camping is frugal.
But that doesn't mean there will be no rooms to rent or places to pitch your tent at parks this summer. Take heart because:
* The volume of campsite reservations overall for national parks is "about normal" this year, says Dan Myers, project manager for the reservations service. U.S. parks generally have been getting fewer visitors since 1999, partly because fewer foreigners are coming.
* Lodge reservations are down at Death Valley National Park, Lages says. Houseboat reservations at Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border, Lake Mohave near Laughlin, Nev., and Lake Shasta near Redding, Calif., are running about 20% below last year, says Karen Lippe, director of marketing for concessionaire Seven Crown Resorts. Bookings for Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border are also down. Lodges at Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming report about the same business this year as last.
* Even the best-known parks may not be fully booked at peak times. In a recent check of www.grandcanyonlodges.com, I found rooms at the Yavapai Lodge for the Fourth of July holiday and all but five nights available in July at Bright Angel Lodge. At Yosemite's Curry Village, about 80 tent cabins were still open for Memorial Day. (Availability may have changed since I checked.)
* About two-thirds of California state park campsites can be reserved. The rest are first come, first served. Only about 10% of national parks -- the most popular ones -- are on the reservation system. So you usually have a shot at grabbing a spot somewhere.
You can increase your chances of getting the lodge room or campsite you want by following several strategies, according to those who run the reservation systems. Among their tips:
* Know the rules and deadlines: The Internet is a good source. Visit www.parks.ca.gov for campsite reservations at California state parks, reservations.nps.gov for national parks.
You can book California state campsites seven months out. Savvy campers get the jump on Labor Day spots by booking them Feb. 1, when August opens up, and extending their stay into the September holiday.
National park campsites have a tighter booking window. For instance, on April 5 you can reserve campsites through Sept. 4 for most parks; for Yosemite, the Labor Day booking period opens April 15.
For California and national parks, you can book campsites online or by phone: (800) 444-7275 for California state parks; (800) 365-2267 for more than 20 national parks; (800) 436-7275 for Yosemite.
National park lodges are booked through various concessionaires. Visit www.nps.gov and select a park for details.
* Stay outside the park: No room at the inn -- or campground -- at a popular park? Consider staying at a less-known park in the region, such as Capitol Reef, northeast of Utah's heavily booked Zion National Park, suggests Jolene Johnson, reservations program manager for the National Park Service. You can make day visits to Zion.
Or try camping nearby at sites run by the Forest Service or Army Corps of Engineers, she adds. For information and reservations, contact the National Recreation Reservation Service, (877) 444-6777, www.reserveusa.com.
Hotels and private campgrounds in nearby communities may also have space.
* Book the shoulder season: Go in April, May, September or October, when summer crowds are gone but the weather is still good at many parks, suggests Jim Luscutoff, who manages concessions and reservations at California state parks.
National park lodges sometimes are discounted in spring and fall. At Yellowstone you can save up to 40% in May and late fall if you call Xanterra, the concessionaire, Lages says. In any season, lodge rooms and campsites are generally easier to get midweek.
* Find an overlooked gem: "Getting a beach [reservation] in one of our southern coastal parks is like hitting the lottery," some customers tell Luscutoff. One reason: California's population is expanding, but state camping facilities are not. To better your chances for a campsite, go inland or north of Santa Cruz, where state parks draw fewer crowds, he says.
There are many national parks with wonderful features and relatively few visitors, says Holly Bundock, National Park Service spokeswoman for the Western U.S. In her view, these include Lassen Volcanic National Park, southeast of Redding ("great hiking, wildflowers and lake swimming"); Lava Beds National Monument, near California's northern border ("a lot of great lava tube caves and high desert vistas"); and Nevada's Great Basin National Park, southeast of Ely ("hiking, caves, sweeping vistas of the Wild West and 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak").
In the East and Midwest in this category, the park service's Johnson likes Maryland's Greenbelt Park near Washington, D.C.; Catoctin Mountain Park near Camp David, Md.; and Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, among others.
With a sense of adventure, you may find that getting pushed out of your favorite park -- or into a season you hadn't considered -- yields interesting and enjoyable alternatives.
Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.