Reserving a spot at a national park Planning: You can now phone in your request for popular campsites as much as five months, or a year, in advance. But fees have increased.

March 30, 1997|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Families planning to camp in the most popular national parks this summer should be sure to catch up with a major change in reservation methods. In January 1996, the phone reservation system used for 4,500 campsites in the most popular National Park Service areas was given a wider window: It is now possible to reserve a site five months in advance instead of only eight weeks, or in the case of Yellowstone, a year in advance.

The Park Service has also revised 93 fees in popular parks, most particularly entrance fees and interpretive-tour fees. Some of these changes came last November; others were announced March 12. Most will be in effect by May 23.

Probably the biggest shock for frequent park visitors is the rise in the fee for the Golden Eagle pass to all federal lands -- from $25 to $50. However, the lifetime Golden Age Passport, available to citizens or permanent residents at least 62 years old, will remain at $10. This pass admits a vehicle and all its passengers.

The five-month camping reservation system, which opens up an entire month for reservations on the 15th of each month, means that reservations in 15 popular parks for June 15 to July 14 became available Feb. 15, and for July 15 to Aug. 14 became available March 15. On April 15, reservations for Aug. 15 to Sept. 14 will become available.

While the weather and the rules allow camping in many areas after Sept. 15, the start of school means that demand diminishes in September. However, popular places go fast, led by the prime rim sites at the Grand Canyon.

More pressure on parks

The long-term trend shows increasing pressure on the national park system, although estimates of visits for last year showed a drop, probably because of government shutdowns caused by lack of a budget as well as fires and floods. The estimated visits for 1996 to all areas administered by the Park Service was 265.7 million; the 1995 number was 270 million and the 1983 total 207 million.

The majority of the national park campgrounds still work on a first-come, first-served basis. It is the areas most heavily in demand that are on phone reservations. The areas available through the system operated by Destinet, a San Diego company, have expanded from 12 to 16 parks.

The additions are Everglades in Florida, Gulf Islands in Florida and Mississippi, Greenbelt in Maryland and Katmai in Alaska. Greenbelt, which has 1,100 woodland acres, accommodates campers in recreational vehicles or tents, and is intended to provide inexpensive living space for families while they explore Washington. The fee is $13 a night, and the limit is 14 days in a calendar year, seven days in summer.

From March 1 to Sept. 30, the Destinet phones are open Monday to Friday between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Pacific time (10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time), and Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern). After Oct. 1, the hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.

Phone for reservations

The main reservation number, 800-365-2267, handles these camping areas: At Acadia in Maine, Blackwoods; at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, Oceanside drive-ins and tent walk-ins, Bayside; at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, Ocracoke; at Death Valley in California, Furnace Creek; at Everglades, Flamingo and Long Pine Key; at Gulf Islands, Fort Pickens; at Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mather on the South Rim and North Rim sites; at Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Smokemont, Elkmont and Cades Cove; at Greenbelt, all 174 sites; at Joshua Tree in California, Indian Cove and Black Rock; at Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin; at Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California, Lodgepole; at Shenandoah in Virginia, Big Meadows; at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, Oak Bottom tent sites, sites on water and recreational-vehicle sites.

For Yosemite in California, the reservation number is 800- 436-7275. Because of the floods in January, reservations in Yosemite, which has historically accounted for 40 percent of the reservations handled by phone, opened only in February. Campsites at Upper Pines for July 15 to Aug. 14 opened Feb. 15. Gary Styve, head of quality assurance for Destinet, said a handful of sites at Upper Pines might be open for reservations before July 14. At North Pines, reservations for May 15 to Aug. 14 opened March 15. Because of the floods, Upper River and Lower River will not be opened; they are being moved to less environmentally sensitive places in the Yosemite Valley, according the the National Park Service.

At Yellowstone, reservations are handled separately under a contract with Amfac Resorts, which operates lodges in this and other parks. The number for the Yellowstone service is 307-344-7311; there is no toll-free number. The hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain time (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time).

Yellowstone sites

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