Great Lodges of the National Parks

"If you build it, they will come" could apply to the railroad barons who laid track 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.

In 1901 the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway finished a 65-mile railroad spur from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and soon after built the spectacular Arizona lodge El Tovar. Union Pacific helped finance lodges at Bryce and Zion, Northern Pacific was behind the hotels in Yellowstone, and the Great Northern Railway built Glacier Park Lodge, and many other Glacier hotels. Today, the rails don’t drive tourism to the parks all that much. But the lodges still do. And you don’t have to be wealthy to stay in one.

What makes them great? Unlike previous wilderness accommodations, which were built like city hotels so guests could feel safe, these new lodges incorporated materials from the environment like the lodgepole pines and rhyolite stone used in building Old Faithful Inn. As long as these nature-inspired structures had creature comforts—which then, and in some cases now, doesn't include in-room televisions—architects felt guests would be happy.

Top Lodges

El Tovar, Grand Canyon

“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder, which, so far as I know, is in kind unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” said Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, speaking from the area where the El Tovar would open two years later. “What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see."

Set atop the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, El Tovar so blends into the landscape, with its stone foundation and rugged beams, that it looks almost like another tier of the multilayered, multihued 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 named for Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Tobar (the “b” was changed to “v” to avoid people saying “to the bar”) and 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 came to dinner in muddy boots and dusty riding gear—or so says local lore. In addition to Roosevelt, seven other presidents have stayed here. For its 100th birthday, the hotel received a $4.6-million restoration.

Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite

Blending into a backdrop of granite cliffs, the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel, which opened in 1927, is six stories tall with three wings in a “Y” layout. Then-NPS Director Stephen Mather believed that attracting wealthy, influential 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.

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone

Amazement and awe may best describe the reaction of people entering the lobby of Old Faithful Inn for the first time. Its 76-foot-high lobby has four levels of balconies with supports created from a tangle of gnarled branches reaching the ceiling. It was built in 1903–1904 at a cost of $140,000; wings were added to the hotel in 1915 and 1927. It would be difficult to duplicate the inn’s construction today, as 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 its eruptions are posted in the lobby.

Bryce Canyon Lodge, Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon Lodge was the second structure built in the Union Pacific’s Loop Tours building program, which included lodges in Zion and the Grand Canyon National Parks. In a grove of ponderosa pines within walking distance of the rim, the lodge opened in 1925 and expanded throughout the late 1920s. It now has 70 guest rooms, three deluxe suites, 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 a second lodge on the rim didn’t materialize, a gift shop, soda fountain, barbershop, and auditorium were added.

Crater Lake Lodge, Crater Lake

When Crater Lake Lodge opened in 1915, it was anything but grand: the exterior was covered in tar paper, fiberboard separated the guest rooms, bathrooms were shared, and the electricity seldom worked. But visitors loved it anyway because of the lake view.

Due to its structural defects and lack of funding, the building was closed to the public in 1989. Public pressure convinced the National Park Service to spend $15 million for renovations, and the lodge was completely rebuilt and reopened in May 1995. Perched on the rim of a defunct caldera filled with cobalt blue water, the lodge has a fantastic deck, as well as an architectural trademark: a massive stone fireplace.

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 based the lodge, which opened in 1913, on a Christian basilica, creating a rustic, cathedral-like building. He had 60 Douglas firs (averaging 40 feet high and 40 inches in diameter) shipped in from the Pacific Northwest for the construction.

When rail passengers arrived at Glacier Park Station, they saw Native American teepees scattered across the lawn as part of a show presented to visitors, along with colorful banks of flowers surrounding the majestic lodge.

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."

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise & Fairmont Banff Springs Lodges, Banff

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, Canada's Banff and Lake Louise accommodations have a stately, opulent ambience.

Fairmont Banff Springs, a mile-long walk from downtown Banff, is styled after a Scottish baronial castle. Combining the best of the past with the amenities sought by contemporary 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 is on the shore of pristine Lake Louise, where you can hike, downhill or cross-country ski, cycle, and canoe.

Reserving a Room

Reservations at historic lodges should be made six months to a year in advance (for Yellowstone, definitely 12 months in advance) directly with the lodge’s websites; however, you can always check for last-minute cancellations. Be wary of other Internet reservation services that charge a nonrefundable fee of up to 12% to book the lodging. Dining reservations at lodge restaurants often can be made when you book your room.

Please note that some lodges were built more than a century 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.

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