In the early 1900s, railroad companies built the first lodge hotels to lure well-off Easterners westward, promising easy living against a stunning backdrop. A century later, the clientele has changed, but the appeal has not. We chose national park lodges that are urban and remote, refined and rustic, classic and contemporary. Some are creaky-old and rife with history, like Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake Lodge, host to both Rockefellers and Princess Grace of Monaco; others have gone modern with yoga classes and spa treatments, such as California’s Cavallo Point Lodge, which opened in 2008 in Golden Gate Park National Park. All say “summer escape” and fill up fast – so book early.
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Bound by California's craggy Sierra Nevada mountain range and roughly the size of Rhode Island, Yosemite is a park of dramatic backcountry grandeur. Befittingly majestic, the massive granite, glass, and timber Ahwahnee is an impressive piece of the past that dates back to 1925. In terms of both history and architecture, it's among the most iconic national park lodges in the country, with a roster of past guests that includes Queen Elizabeth II, Clark Gable, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The design is a blend of Art Deco and Native American styles, and the lobby boasts elegant tapestries, floor-to-ceiling windows, and fireplaces big enough to stand in. To top it off, almost every room, suite, and cottage offers a prime view of famous natural landmarks – Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point.
Built under the auspices of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1887, the four-diamond Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta has the look of a Scottish baronial castle and the feel of an indulgent weekend retreat, rather than the rusticness of other national park lodges. A Fairmont property, all rooms are appointed with de rigeur comforts and most offer views of the Bow River or Tunnel Mountain. There’s golf, tennis, and mountain biking, but the primo activity takes place at the Willow Stream spa, a 38,000-square-feet operation: Many of the treatments involve native plants and minerals (making the wildflower meadow come to you). Yet even an Alpine Aromatherapy Massage can’t compete with the miles of unadulterated Rocky Mountain beauty just outside the door.
Tucked into Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah is an easy and scenic 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C., but feels just as remote as more far-flung national park lodges. At Big Meadows Lodge, televisions are scarce; instead, guests watch deer and black bears wander through the nearby meadow for which the lodge is named. Accommodations, with views of the sprawling Shenandoah Valley, run from private cabins to in-lodge rooms and suites. An architectural attraction in itself, the interior of the lodge is paneled in native oak and chestnut, while the outside is made of chunky stone mined from the nearby Appalachians. The park has gotten serious about its food in recent years, hiring chef Peter Bizon to infuse the menus at Big Meadows and nearby Skyland Resort with Southern-inspired flavors, as well as oversee occasional cooking workshops and wine-pairing dinners.
This national park isn't one piece of land, but a composite of sites in the Bay Area, including spots in San Francisco. In 2001, the park acquired Fort Baker, a historic army outpost a mile from Sausalito in Marin County, and transformed it into Cavallo Point Lodge. Opened in 2008, the national park lodge's accommodations in both the new and restored buildings are hardly barrack-like – the park wisely partnered with the folks behind Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur, and the results are stunning, with plenty of coveted extras like spa services and yoga.
Famous for its intensely blue water, Oregon's Crater Lake is one of the deepest and most pristine lakes in North America. Hovering near the edge of its steep rim (the lake formed in a collapsed volcano 7,700 years ago), Crater Lake Lodge is the park’s only actual lakeside hotel and, thanks to a major overhaul in the 1990s, its most comfortable. The national park lodge originally opened in 1915, and despite the remodel, it retains the feel of days gone by, down to the rustic rocking chairs on the veranda overlooking the lake and the families who claim them for remarkable stargazing after dark. With no modern distractions at the lodge, diversions center around the lake, where there is hiking, biking, boating, or fishing for rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. From mid-October to early summer, roads to the park are covered in snow, which makes for a short tourist season (it opens in late spring). Early reservations are essential – especially for the precious few rooms with water views.
The first guests arrived at Grand Canyon's El Tovar in 1905; it received a $4.6 million renovation for its 100th birthday in 2005, including a major sprucing up of guest rooms (the most upscale in the park). In between, the sweeping, multi-tiered structure has hosted no fewer than eight U.S. presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Built during a period of architectural mash-up, this national park lodge has been described as a cross between Swiss chalet and Norwegian villa, with the interior of a hunting lodge (taxidermy included). Situated just 100 yards from the canyon’s south rim, the view all but steals the show. It can be appreciated from many angles – on the lounge porch during cocktail hour; in the dining room over buckwheat pancakes drizzled with prickly pear syrup; or sitting on the private deck of one of three suites with prize views, which consistently sell out more than a year in advance.
There are more accessible places to play golf, but few are set among such rugged beauty, where clear lakes border wildflower meadows and elk, caribou, and moose roam freely. The 88-year-old course at Canada's Jasper Park Lodge, designed by the legendary Stanley Thompson and ranks among the best in North America, is 224 miles away from the Edmonton airport in Alberta, Canada, but it’s worth the trek. This lakeside national park lodge (a Fairmont property) is a sprawling compound of cedar chalets and log cabins, with Signature Cabins like the eight-bedroom Milligan Manor, overlooking the first fairway.
For those who prefer equal parts rusticity and refinement, there’s no better choice among national park lodges than the classic Jenny Lake Lodge in northwest Wyoming. Grand Teton, as well as Yellowstone Park to the north, get slammed with visitors in the summer, but quiet Jenny Lake offers a respite. Bordering a bucolic wildflower meadow, the lodge’s 31 cabins have handmade quilts, dark-wood floors, and stunning views of the Tetons towering above. Nightly five-course dinners (jackets suggested) evoke the park’s Rockefeller roots (the famous philanthropist played a major role in its creation); the lack of tech gadgets is in keeping with the sylvan setting. Conceived as a dude ranch for Easterners in the 1920s, the lodge has since hosted Rockefeller offspring, Princess Grace of Monaco and her family, and an exceptionally loyal clientele who return year after year. The loyalty factor, combined with the limited number of cabins, means that early reservations are a must. Breakfast, dinner, bicycling, and horseback riding are included in the price. Other activities range from fly-fishing and float trips on the Snake River to golf and tennis at the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club.
If there was ever a time to visit Glaicer National Park in northern Montana, it’s now: Of the 120 glaciers that existed in the park more than a century ago, only 25 remain. Scientists predict if global warming continues at its current rate, they all might disappear by 2030, adversely affecting the ecosystem and landscape. For now, the air and water are magnificent, and the species of flora and fauna are practically unchanged since the park’s inception (which is rare). With more than 740 miles of trails, it’s ideal for backpackers of all levels. At the park’s center sits the isolated Swiftcurrent Lake, next to the charming, Swiss chalet-style Many Glacier Hotel. At 98 years old, the national park lodge is starting to show its age, but the basic rooms are quaint. The suites with balconies looking out on alpine views (watch for bears), the cozy lobby where afternoon fondue is served, and, ultimately, the unparalleled location all make the hotel worth seeking out – before the park changes forever.
The last eruption of Mt. Rainier, the 14,410-foot peak an hour's drive southeast of Seattle, occurred more than 150 years ago, and though scientists predict there may eventually be another, the park is safe for visitors (for now). Its top lodge is the historic Paradise Inn, built in 1916 from hand-carved Alaskan cedar logs. Closed for 2 years for a renovation, the lodge reopened in May 2008: Besides a few new rooms and a fresh menu at the café, the changes at the national park lodge were largely structural. Rooms are still spare and small, but you’ll want to spend your time outdoors anyway enjoying the wildflowers, miles of secluded hiking trails, and spectacular mountain views.