When it comes to breathtaking scenery, Americans are blessed with a national park system that is the envy of the world -- 58 parks in total, encompassing nearly 52 million acres of dramatic landscapes that practically beg to be explored.
And then there are the great lodges -- equally unforgettable, with their soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplaces and front-row views of the park's natural setting. Together, they make for a scene that could be plucked right out of a travel brochure.
Roughly three dozen national park inns remain, many in the marquee Western parks. Many are still serving the public 100 years after they were built, which is a testament not just to the quality of their construction but to our enduring affection for national parks as vacation destinations.
PLANNING A TRIP
Getting a room isn't easy.
Considering their architectural grandeur, absolute primo location and generally reasonable rates, overnight stays in the great lodges are wildly popular. Reservations are typically booked a year in advance, and the popular inns fill up quickly, especially for summer visits. There are no waiting lists.
A bit of good news -- because there are no cancellation fees and deposits are largely refundable, there's a decent chance of nabbing a vacancy in the spring, when folks who scooped up rooms months earlier change their summer plans. After trying all May and June last year to snag a room at Yellowstone's iconic Old Faithful Inn, my family lucked into a cancellation less than two weeks before our arrival.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Many first-time lodge visitors are disappointed with the guest rooms, expecting the same level of splendor seen in the lodge's public areas. Remember that these lodges were originally built to house affluent visitors who were traveling across the country by train and staying for several weeks. They were eager to socialize with other travelers, so the emphasis was on building oh-so-grand communal spaces for dining, entertaining and activities instead of glorious private rooms.
1. OLD FAITHFUL INN
OPEN Mid May-October
The poster child of national park lodges, the Old Faithful Inn is almost as much of an attraction as the namesake geyser it overlooks -- so much so that free 45-minute tours are offered throughout the day. The world's largest log structure, the inn's trademark log-and-limb lobby rises four stories and features a massive free-standing stone fireplace. Amazingly, it was all built over the winter of 1903-04 by the Northern Pacific Railway. Filled with gawking tourists all day long, the Old Faithful Inn and its architectural grandeur can only be appreciated fully in the wee hours, so stay up late or wake up early at least once to do so.
ALTERNATIVES Although it doesn't look it, the park's oldest inn is the New England-style Lake Yellowstone Hotel (1891). Other historic options are the Art Deco-era Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (1937) and the Roughrider Cabins at Roosevelt Lodge (1920) in the eastern Lamar Valley area.
2. THE AHWAHNEE
If the Old Faithful Inn is the most famous of all national park lodges, the Ahwahnee is probably the most elegant. Built in 1927 for well-heeled travelers who didn't care to rough it, the fireproof Ahwahnee commands the best views, boasts the best service and delights the senses with its grandeur and design. Even if you can't stay here, check out the Great Lounge and dining room with its head-on views of Glacier Point. You will be impressed.
ALTERNATIVE An hour away from the crowds at Yosemite's most famous sights is the wooden, double-porch Victorian Wawona (1879), the oldest still-operating lodge in any national park.
3. EL TOVAR HOTEL
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
On its 100th anniversary in 2005, the El Tovar got a $4.6-million makeover. A cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian villa, the El Tovar features log-slab siding and dark, paneled interiors, and is only 20 feet from the canyon rim. Justly celebrated for its fine dining, the El Tovar's open-air lounge is the perfect place to imbibe both the hotel's century-old ambience and timeless unparalleled view.
ALTERNATIVES The Bright Angel Lodge and cabins also sit right on the rim of the canyon. So, too, does the equally artistic Grand Canyon Lodge, though it is on the North Rim.
4. MANY GLACIER HOTEL
Glacier National Park, Montana
OPEN Mid June-September
Glacier National Park is the true bonanza for grand historic hotels, with three top-flight contenders, all dating from the 1910s: The Lake MacDonald Lodge, the Glacier Park Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel. Of the three, the Swiss-themed Many Glacier is probably the most rewarding by virtue of its still-isolated location (we saw five grizzlies there last August) and its rough-and-ready, activity-oriented flavor. Be sure to catch the rising sun burnish pyramidal Grinnell Point across Swiftcurrent Lake. The lodge is undergoing major renovations this season, but it remains open.
5. CRATER LAKE LODGE
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 541-594-2255, craterlakelodges.com
OPEN Mid May-October
Perched 1,000 feet above the nation's clearest and deepest lake, 96-year-old Crater Lake Lodge is truly a place to just relax and enjoy the view. In fact, that's just about all you can do here as the only trail down to the lake is on the far (northern) side. Guests can look up in almost as much awe at the lodgepole pine-pillared Great Hall and dining room as they can out on the lake itself. Sunrises, sunsets and the night sky are all to be savored from the lodge's deck.
6. THE INN AT FURNACE CREEK
Situated 214 feet below sea level in one of the hottest places on Earth, The Inn at Furnace Creek certainly has novelty going for it. But it also has elegance. The stone and adobe-brick lodge looks out over the rugged and desolate Panamint Mountains. Inside, it sports all the comforts of the posh resort, including a warm (85 degrees) spring-fed swimming pool, its own 18-hole golf course and its famous afternoon tea.
7. PARADISE INN
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
OPEN Late May-October
Perhaps the least ostentatious of the great national park lodges, Paradise Inn more than compensates with jaw-dropping views of the 14,441-foot glacier-capped mountain seemingly arising out of a sea of blooming wildflowers. The lodge itself features an enormous lobby framed by Alaskan cedar columns. Situated in the popular Paradise area, the Paradise Inn is convenient to the Henry Jackson Memorial Visitor Center and is the starting point for the five-mile round-trip hike to Panorama Point, halfway up Mt. Rainier.
8. JENNY LAKE LODGE
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Founded as a series of simple, rustic cabins in the 1920s, the Jenny Lake Lodge is a four-diamond eco-resort and the most expensive lodging option in any national park. The price includes a gourmet breakfast, a five-course dinner, bicycle rental and horseback riding. Needless to say, the cabins, set amid lodgepole pines with open views of the majestic Tetons, are the epitome of the term "rustic elegance."
9. LECONTE LODGE
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
RATES From $116 a person ($85 ages 4-12), includes breakfast and dinner
The only noncamping lodging inside America's most-visited national park, LeConte Lodge sits near the top of a mountain of the same name. The only way to get there is by hiking at least five miles. LeConte Lodge is rustic; there's no electricity -- kerosene lanterns are used for light and propane heaters for heat in the rough-hewn cabins. But the views are spectacular. For an added thrill, hike up or down alongside the thrice weekly supply train of pack llamas.
10. BIG MEADOWS LODGE
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The closest national park lodge to Long Island, Big Meadows is smaller in scale than most of its Western counterparts, but still boasts a traditional Great Room, complete with a stone fireplace, and a suitably rustic dining room -- both with exceptional views. It maintains its 1930s ambience, with the dining room featuring entrees such as Roosevelt's fried chicken and the New Deal Turkey Platter.
ALTERNATIVE At the highest point on Skyline Drive, Skyland Lodge offers amazing eastward views.
TIPS FOR RESERVING A ROOM
BE PERSISTENT: Check the inn's website frequently -- every day if possible -- and grab the first option that works. You can always cancel if a better one materializes.
BE OPPORTUNISTIC: Commercial travel agencies sponsoring group tours are obliged to return any unsold rooms 30 days out. As a result, multiple vacancies often become suddenly available 31 to 35 days before the target date. Another good time to pay attention (especially for an upgrade if you already have a room) is 8 to 10 days out, just before deposits become nonrefundable.
BE FLEXIBLE: Consider reconfiguring your itinerary to open up alternative dates or staying at one of the other inns -- historic or otherwise -- inside the park. You can always still hang around and eat at the headliner lodge.
BE INFORMED: Don't assume the inn's oldest rooms are the best. Often they do have the best views, but structural limitations may have limited the extent to which they can be updated. The most comfortable and spacious rooms are often in the additions that have been added over the years.
BE PREPARED: Don't count on having a TV, phone or Internet connection in your room; these modern amenities are often deemed to detract from the historic and rustic ambience. If these are essential, inquire first. Ditto for elevators.