Wandering the West | ParkRecord.com

Wandering the West

by Larry Warren, Record columnist

When I first heard it on the radio a few weeks back, I couldn’t believe it. Would-be campers who didn’t plan ahead are paying scalpers up to $200 per night to buy campground reservations at Yosemite. One camper told MSNBC he’d paid $700 for a three-night reservation.

Mind you, this is not for rooms at swanky Ahwahnee Lodge on the valley floor. This is for a place on well-worn dirt to pitch a tent or park an RV. Yosemite has 895 campsites, and in the summer they’re impossible to get without an advanced reservation. Scalpers have been buying them up, marking them up, and reselling them on Craigslist and eBay.

To thwart the scalpers, the park now requires ID to prove that the name on the reservation and the camper who shows up with the reservation number in hand are the same person. If not, the poor sap who paid the scalper loses the campsite but is then allowed to sign up for it again — by paying the park’s original fee of $20.

It’s not that crazy here, but this holiday weekend you might wish you could buy a scalper’s reservation. They’re still plowing Mirror Lake Highway, so the High Uintas campgrounds are closed due to high snow and muddy conditions. The Forest Service isn’t taking reservations for popular Mirror Lake Campground until July 14. It’s the same story up Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s hard to find dry campgrounds when neighboring Snowbird is still selling ski-lift tickets and operating three lifts. They’re not closing for the season until after the 4th of July.

Ditto for California’s High Sierra resorts. Alpine Meadows, Mammoth, Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl all remain open, as does Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. You can expect any mountain campgrounds nearby are also buried in snow. Farther south, some campgrounds on BLM land in the southern deserts are closing riverside sites because the swift and rising water has flooded them out.

And it’s not just snow and snowmelt that make this year unusual. In the Yellowstone area, three northeastern campgrounds — Soda Butte, Colter and Chief Joseph campgrounds on Forest Service land just outside the park near Cooke City — are closed because of nearby grizzly bear activity. Heck, even getting to Soda Butte is tough now because of a road closure in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, where high runoff washed away a 30-foot section of roadway.

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It’s a fact of life about camping on public lands in the early 21st century: More and more outdoor enthusiasts are competing for limited resources. Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone have finished growing and developing new overnight visitor facilities. Those arriving without reservations find campsites are booked up by 10 in the morning, or taken by those with reservations.

That makes the best defense a good offense. Reserve ahead, or camp midweek if you can. Heading to the Uintas once the Mirror Lake Road opens? With high campgrounds snowed in, campsites will be scarce until mid-July. Showing up on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon just isn’t likely to lead to a vacant site. Better to plan ahead and go to one of these websites that handle many of the prime parks, national forests and BLM lands in the West: http://www.recreation.gov , which covers campsites on federal lands, and http://www.reserveamerica.com , a for-profit site that represents federal and some state campgrounds. For Utah park reservations, try http://www.stateparks.utah.gov .

We all know how crazy this winter was. It is still lingering up high, delaying many camping opportunities. You can’t even drive over Guardsman’s Pass to Brighton yet for heaven’s sake. (But the road to Midway is open now.) High country summers are glorious but short. If you want to squeeze into the six-week window of mid-July until Labor Day, I’d strongly urge you to reserve those sites in advance. I wouldn’t want to see any fellow Utahns tossing two hundred bucks to a scalper for the right to sleep on hard ground.

Park City writer and filmmaker Larry Warren makes the West his beat. He’s been traveling its backloads and telling its stories since landing in Park City in the ’70s. He is the general manager of KPCW.

Insider tip: Check http://www.utahcommuterlink.com for road closures. Some high passes remain closed a few more days. And with high water still pouring down rivers and creeks, watch yourself, your kids and pets along the banks. In the past two months of runoff, eight Utahns ages 2 to 73 have fallen in and drowned.