As people hit the road for summer vacation, there's a problem at one major destination: Yosemite National Park. Scalpers started snatching up cheap campsite reservations online and selling them for as much as six times their face value. Now, the National Park Service is cracking down.
If you show up to Yosemite to camp without a reservation, your first stop should be the campground office. You probably won't get a campsite on the spot, but you will get wait-listed. And in the afternoon, park ranger Kirk Robinson hands out any sites that come open.
For those who don't get to camp in the park, Robinson hands out lists of nearby campsites. He says the closest campgrounds are about an hour from Yosemite.
Nearly two million people will visit the park this summer, but Yosemite Valley has fewer than 500 campsites. Only a handful are saved for walk-ins. The rest sell out for the summer on the day reservations open.
One man who did get a spot had an easier time than the rest. He bought the $20 reservation for $60 from a scalper. The park is still trying to determine whether what he did was illegal. Regardless, scalping is against the rules and because of that, the man asked us not to use his name.
He says rangers let him stay at his campsite, but they're starting to check campers' ID's at the gate to make sure they match the names on the reservations. This camper only decided to make the trip two weeks ago.
"And it was easy, and not ungodly expensive, and I didn't have to plan my vacation six months in advance," he says.
The park is cracking down on the problem, because every time a scalper snags a campsite, someone else gets robbed of their chance at a cheap night's stay. Rangers say sites this year sold for up to $120 a night on Craigslist. That's enough to get a hotel room in most cities.
For people who did follow the rules, getting a spot started back on a February morning at 7:00 sharp. Mark Seed and his brother-in-law both started clicking at the same instant.
"But within a minute, everything was booked for the entire month," Seed says. "It was instantaneous, like you just kind of had to take what was there."
They only got one campsite, but it's enough space to bring the kids and roast some marshmallows.
Seed says when he did this four years ago, it took 20 minutes for the campsites to fill up, as if real people were online picking and choosing. But this time, he says, there was "something unnatural" happening.
Like most campers, he believes scalpers used a computer program this year to book campsites faster than humanly possible. The Park Service is investigating that theory and how to make the reservation website more secure. There's already self-policing going on as well. Since the problem came to light, most of the scalpers' posts on Craigslist are flagged as prohibited and removed in a hurry.
Back at the campground office, ranger Kirk Robinson helps three road-tripping young men from Colorado plan the rest of their day.
"Whatever way you're going out, stop at one of the giant sequoias going out," he tells them.
The crackdown on scalping comes too late to do them any good. But the generosity of another camper who did get a campsite salvaged their plans. He offered to split his space with them.
And the park doesn't have any rules against sharing your good fortune.