The accomplished American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the U.S. National Parks system “America’s Best Idea.” Some of the most divine natural real estate in the world has been protected by statute from the onslaught of development. American icons like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone remain as pristine as can be in the modern world. But less celebrated and equally less well-known are the hotels, inns and lodges that have, over the last century, been built to allow nature lovers to not just visit the parks but actually stay in them. The most historic and traditional have earned the nomenclature of “Parkitecture” -notable architectural buildings within the confines of the National Park Service. None are lavish but they present a stark contrast to the contemporary tourist love affair with all-inclusive destinations in hot-spots like the Caribbean. They are largely exercises in “Rustic Chic” and echo an era of travel at the speed of trains when simply escaping the heat and grime of the city was bliss for those who could afford to. They remain a remarkable bargain in the vacation marketplace. Several media publications have published their favorites in the past few years so we thought it was high time that we weighed in on the subject as well. Here is Escape Here’s 12 best National Park-architectural wonders.
12. Chateau Lake Louise -Banff National Park, Alberta
What better way to begin a list than with a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Banff National Park boasts the Victoria Glacier and the famous emerald green waters of the lake named after Queen Victoria’s daughter who married a Canadian Governor General. It is 350 miles due north of Spokane or 110 west of Calgary depending on your national point of view. It began as a simple wood chalet in 1890, expanded and burned to the ground. Much of the current structure dates from 1925. The activities are year-round but the skiing is truly world-class. The train station might look familiar if you’ve seen the movie Dr. Zhivago, but for a more current reference, The Bachelor also shot an episode at the hotel. The luxury extra 7th floor is called a hotel within a hotel with furnishings like you’ve never seen before.
11. Prince of Wales Hotel -Waterton National Park, Alberta
One of Canada’s iconic railway hotels right on the Montana border, the Prince of Wales Hotel was actually built not by Canadian Pacific but by an American railroad company for well-heeled visitors traveling to Glacier National Park (see below) by horseback. The trip cost $1000 then, over $13,000 today. A gorgeous design like an over-sized alpine chalet jutting out into the lake, it has unfettered views of some of the best scenery in the history of scenery. Built in 1927 in the teeth of a hurricane-force blizzard, it is now a Canadian National Historic Site.
Mingle with wild elk herds that also like to stroll on the town’s streets. At current exchange rates this hotel will run about US $162 per night.
10. Chisos Mountains Lodge -Big Bend National Park, Texas
Situated remotely on the Texas-Mexico border, 300 miles southeast of El Paso and 5,000 feet in elevation, this park is named in honor of the meander of the Rio Grande. The natural beauty is gob smacking and the Lodge is ultra-convenient for hiking trails and prime bird-watching points. It’s also nicely isolated and at least until the publication of this article, away from the maddening crowds of the National Park superstars. The Lodge itself is no architectural gem but there are more handsome stone and adobe cottages that can be booked up as much as four months in advance.
9. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel -Yosemite National Park, California
Likely the finest work of art in the system, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel is a uniquely imaginative amalgam of Art Deco, Native American and even a dash of Middle Eastern and it has been welcoming park lovers since 1927. It also has the virtue of being in the middle of nowhere in the Sierra Nevada; 93 miles east of Fresno, which is the very definition of the middle of nowhere. Luxuriously appointed rooms have ridiculous views of Yosemite legends like Glacier Point, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. Inside, a dining room with a soaring ceiling and the Great Lounge are memorable sights to call home even for eyes spoiled by the Park’s natural beauty.
8. Paradise Inn -Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Completed in 1916, this classically rustic Inn is both on the National Register of Historic Places and even better, on the small side with 117 guest rooms. Interestingly the interior was built with timber from Alaskan cedars that died from a fire and roasted to a silver color. The handiwork including furniture, giant clock and piano (which Harry Truman liked to play) is all original from a German artisan in 1919. The lodge provides spectacular views of majestic Mount Rainier, though it might be asked if there are any views of Mt. Rainier which are not. Massive beams and fireplaces adorn the lobby. The Inn’s website calls it a mountain paradise with “spectacular views of massive glaciers, meadows lush with wildflowers and breathtaking waterfalls.” Perhaps best of all, there are rooms from $117, the same price as breakfast at a luxury hotel in the city.
7. Old Faithful Inn -Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Imagine looking out your hotel room window and seeing Old Faithful the geyser spouting about a 3-iron shot away. It seems almost impossible to top that but the lobby takes a decent shot. A lovely composition in handcrafted stone and wooden beams that support the fantastic vaulted ceiling which is almost 80 feet high. The first part was finished in 1903 and the survey results note it has hosted “six Presidents and all Three Stooges.” One review says rooms are straightforward and furniture ordinary, as if a sane person would go to Yellowstone for the décor. The Inn’s website also repeats over and over “Televisions, radios, and air conditioning are not available in park lodging.” Now that is the 21st century version of Paradise. Or for millennials, Hell on Earth.
6. Crater Lake Lodge -Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Locals claim this to be the most beautiful lake in America. While that may be debatable, two things are not; it is certified as the deepest and it’s ungodly beautiful, the thought occurs that when that vastly superior intelligence from another solar system decides to drop by it will most definitely be here. More seriously and importantly, it is an important part of Native creation belief systems and it radiates an intensely spiritual feeling. Dating from 1915, the Lodge itself actually underwhelms from the outside but a 1995 renovation marries Northwest rustic with the Jazz Age opulence, though the Lodge is adopting a modern mantra of sustainability and the dining room stresses locavore values and dishes. Oregon Valley grass fed beef, Oregon mussels and of course in a state that worships the University of Oregon football team, they dare not print a menu without duck.
5. Lake Crescent Lodge -Olympic National Park, Washington
The historic main lodge (built in 1916) is not lavish by any stretch but it fits the surroundings as rustically handsome with stands of evergreen and second floor views of the lake. Speaking of which, if you go to the website and see the view of moon-rise on the lake with peaks in the distance you will truly understand how it got to be our number five choice. There are adorable little cottages and even an excellent impersonation of a motel. If it weren’t in jaw dropping countryside, sitting in the Adirondack chairs by the lodge reading or doing Sudoku would be idyllic. Better used as a base camp for sightseeing or something more strenuous, it still retains the charm of the resort of long ago.
4. El Tovar -Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Perfectly perched on the rim of the Grand Canyon, El Tovar opened for business in 1905 before the Canyon was a National Park. At the time it was so remote, drinking water had to be brought in by train. It was designed by Charles Whittlesey, then the Chief Architect for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad so some may say El Tovar has an architectural pedigree. Whittlesey was from the then design capital of the U.S. -Chicago, and despite location, he wanted to cater to the Europhile taste of the American masses at the time. For the longest time it was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi and has been a Historic Landmark since 1987. Morning coffee or evening cocktails overlooking the South Rim after a day taking in the natural wonders is a sublime experience. Eminent guests include Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton, Sir Paul McCartney and Teddy Roosevelt. Winter rates start from US$89?? This must be a typo on the website.
3. Jackson Lake Lodge -Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
This large lodge is more resort-like than most of the others in our list with and things like a heated outdoor swimming pool, golf and boat rentals. There are excellent hikes of varying degrees of difficulty to be found that can bring you face to face with the 4 massive peaks in the Grand Teton range. Only some of the 400 rooms have prime views but the huge lobby with floor to ceiling windows lets everyone get the postcard-worthy view of the mountains and nearby lake as the elk, bison and even moose wander not far off.
At only 22 miles away from Yellowstone, whichever place you stay, there’s an unequaled double-your-National-Park-fun option.
2. Many Glacier Hotel -Glacier National Park, Montana
Built by the Great Northern Railway at the onset of the First World War, Many Glacier is set on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake surrounded by the Rockies. It is like a giant Swiss chalet and like others has a lobby that is the centerpiece of the building, three stories high with wooden beams, interior balconies and a cone shaped fireplace actually suspended from the ceiling. The website says rooms are rustic yet comfortable and are “old-world style in keeping with the era in which the hotel was built,” which primarily means no TV or AC. Take an evening glacier tour, try some fly-fishing (it’s renowned) hey, it’s the Rockies after-all; there is lots to do and see. It isn’t our number two pick for nothing.
1. Pisgah Inn -Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville North Carolina
Bible experts know the name Pisgah from the Book of Deuteronomy as the mountain from which Moses first saw the Promised Land, and honestly no other spot in all the New World is more aptly named. Words cannot express the beauty on view from The Inn on this 5,000 foot high peak that looks out over the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Highlands. The National Park Service says “The Parkway was the most visited unit of the National Park Service every year from 1946-2012.” The 51 rooms are comfy but plain, though they come with everything from Adirondack rocking chairs to LED lighting, solar panels, satellite TV and WiFi. The area is rich with natural, cultural and historic sites to visit. For the more active, the hiking in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a hundred miles to the west is ranked in the Top Ten in the entire National Park Service. then at the end of the day, the renowned kitchen’s specialty, walnut-crusted fresh mountain trout with blueberry butter attracts many out-of-staters. Spring to fall rooms start from US $138. Seriously.