“If you build it, they will come” could apply to the railroad companies who laid tracks in the early 1900s to lure wealthy Easterners westward. But these scrappy companies took the declaration an inspired step further by building luxury hotels at the end of the line.
The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway financed the spectacular Arizona lodge El Tovar. Union Pacific backed lodges at Bryce and Zion. Northern Pacific bankrolled hotels in Yellowstone, and the Great Northern Railway built Glacier Park Lodge, many Glacier Hotels, and the Prince of Wales Hotel. Today, the rails don’t drive tourism to the parks, but the lodges still do. And you don’t have to be wealthy to stay in one. Here are the best of the lot.
El Tovar, Grand Canyon
Set atop the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, El Tovar blends so well into the landscape, with its stone, wood, and earthy tones, that it looks almost like another tier of the multilayered canyon. With the elegance of a European villa and warm atmosphere of a rustic log cabin, it is arguably the most luxurious of the lodges.
Opened in 1905, El Tovar was designed by architect Charles Whittlesey. Built for $250,000, it had 95 rooms, electricity, indoor plumbing, steam heat, solariums, and lounges. Originally, Jersey cows and poultry grazed on site, and greenhouses provided fresh herbs and flowers for guests feasting in the dining room. One of its most famous diners and overnight guests was Teddy Roosevelt, who, according to local lore, came to dinner in muddy boots and dusty riding gear. For its 100th birthday two years ago, the hotel received a $4.6 million restoration. (photo, top)
Old Faithful, Yellowstone
Shock and awe may best describe the reaction of people entering the lobby of Old Faithful Inn in stunningly beautiful Yellowstone Park. Its 76-foot high lobby has four levels of balconies with supports created with gnarled branches from a tangle of trees reaching the ceiling. Construction costs of $140,000 were financed by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Yellowstone Park Association. Wings were added to the hotel in 1915 and 1927 — it would be difficult to duplicate the inn’s construction today, since cutting down trees, gathering wood, and quarrying rock inside the park are now illegal.
The park’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, is less than 100 yards from the inn. Approximate times for the geyser’s eruptions are posted in the lobby.
Lake Louise & Banff Springs
In the late 1800s, William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, said, “Since we can’t export the scenery, we will have to import the tourists.” And so they did. The railroad developed Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, both of which opened their doors in 1890.
While the great lodges of America’s national parks have a comfortable hunting-lodge aura, the Banff and Lake Louise accommodations have a stately, opulent ambience. Fairmont Banff Springs, a mile walk from downtown Banff, is styled after a Scottish baronial castle. Combining the best of the past with the amenities sought by modern-day travelers, the hotel offers tennis, golf, bowling, horseback rides, indoor and outdoor swimming, and one of the largest spas in Canada. Surrounded by snow-tipped mountain peaks and the majestic Victorian Glacier, Chateau Lake Louise (photo, right) is on the shore of pristine Lake Louise, where you can hike, downhill or cross-country ski, cycle, and canoe.
Bryce Canyon Lodge
Bryce Canyon Lodge was the second structure built in the Union Pacific’s Loop Tours building program, which included Cedar Breaks, Zion, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and a stop at Kaibab National Forest. The lodge, located in a grove of ponderosa pines within walking distance of the rim, opened in 1925 with 70 guest rooms, three deluxe suites, one studio room, and 40 log cabins. The property was known for its “sing-aways,” where employees lined up in front of the lodge and sang a farewell to departing guests. When plans to build another lodge on the rim didn’t materialize, a gift shop, soda fountain, barbershop, and auditorium were added.
Glacier Park Lodge
An eclectic interior design with towering tree trunks highlights Glacier Park Lodge. Samuel L. Bartlett was the architect of record, but Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, controlled every aspect of the design. Hill patterned the lodge, which opened in 1913, after the Oregon Forestry Building he saw at the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland. He had 60 Douglas firs (40 feet high and 40 inches in diameter) shipped in from the Northwest for the colonnade.
When rail passengers arrived at Glacier Park Station, they saw Indian teepees scattered across the lawn as part of a show presented to visitors, colorful banks of flowers, and the majestic lodge, all set against the backdrop of Glacier National Park.
The park and lodge were heavily promoted. On top of the half a million dollars it took to build and furnish Glacier Park Lodge, Hill spent $300,000 on artists, filmmakers, calendars, playing cards, and a special train car with a public exhibit. The New York Times said, “Next to Col. Roosevelt, L.W. Hill is about the best advertising man in the United States.”
Blending into a backdrop of granite cliffs, the elegant Ahwahnee Lodge, which opened in 1927, is six stories tall with three wings in a “Y” layout. Despite its natural look, it also had a regal bearing, and that was most likely deliberate. NPS Director Stephen Mather believed that attracting wealthy folks into Yosemite would lend support and congressional funding to the national parks system.
Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was commissioned to build a first-class fireproof hotel that blended in with the landscape. In order to resist fire, concrete was formed within timbers and then dyed to resemble redwood. The motifs and patterns found in the basketry of the local Indian tribes were used on the ceiling beams, stained-glass windows, and concrete floors. Luminaries who have signed the lodge guest book include Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and Clark Gable. (photo, right)
Crater Lake Lodge
When Crater Lake Lodge opened in 1915, it was anything but grand. The exterior was covered in tarpaper, fiberboard separated the guest rooms, bathrooms were shared, and electricity seldom worked. But visitors loved it anyway because of the lake views.
The lodge was completely rebuilt and reopened in May 1995. Perched on the rim of a defunct caldera filled with cobalt blue water, it has a fantastic deck as well as an architectural trademark — a massive stone fireplace. The period feel is reflected in lodgepole pine columns, gleaming wood floors, and stone fireplaces in common areas. As a result of the amazing lake views, rooms at the lodge are often booked a year in advance. Plan ahead as this is the only “in-park” place to stay by the lake. Rim Village, east of Rim Visitor Center. 71 rooms. Restaurant, no phone, no TV. $130-$250. 541/830-8700 or 888/774-2728. www.craterlakelodges.com.
What to Expect
Some lodges were built more than 100 years ago, when rooms and beds were smaller. However, the difference in room size is more than offset by the huge amount of public space offered on the properties. The availability of television and Internet access varies from lodge to lodge.
Other Great Lodges
Belton Chalet — Glacier National Park
Grand Canyon Lodge — North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park
Lake McDonald Lodge — Glacier National Park
Many Glacier Hotel — Glacier National Park
Prince of Wales Hotel — Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada
Zion Park Lodge — Zion National Park
To Reserve a Room
Reservations should be made six months to a year in advance directly with the lodge’s Internet sites; however, you can always check for last-minute cancellations. Be wary of other Internet reservation services that charge a non-refundable fee of up to 12 percent to book the lodging.
See Fodor’s updated National Parks page