Historic Lodging in the National Parks
Multi-million-dollar renovations blend historic preservation with exclusive accommodations.
When people think of America’s national parks, they picture epic landscapes—the view across the Grand Canyon, the desert expanses of Death Valley, and the mountain lakes of Glacier. Or such iconic natural wonders as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. But architecture is also a big part of the experience, playing a compelling role in the history of hospitality and the development of tourism in the American West, especially at classic hotels that date back to the parks’ earliest days.
There’s even a word for this architectural genre: Parkitecture. And so, Xanterra Travel Collection® strives to preserve the character of its national park lodges, while updating the buildings with modern comforts and employing sustainability measures to protect the environment for future generations.
Yellowstone National Park
The country’s oldest national park, Yellowstone is home to historic lodges where you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the past.
Consider the Old Faithful Inn, a national historic landmark built in 1903-1904. Constructed from local rhyolite stone and lodgepole pine, it’s the world’s largest log building. Designed by architect Robert Reamer, the inn is renowned for the exquisite craftsmanship of its soaring lobby, especially the 500-ton central fireplace and the rough-hewn railings and beams that give the seven-story space a rustic grandeur. A highlight of any stay is dinner at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, which is notable for its woodsy ambiance and the use of sustainable, organic ingredients sourced locally whenever possible. During summer months, music often fills the air as guests retreat to comfortable chairs in the heart of the grand room, or on one of three mezzanines, to read, play games, enjoy a snack or people-watch. Open from early May through mid-October the Inn also features a lounge, snack bar, gift shop and daily tours.
Forty miles away, Lake Yellowstone Hotel has a very different look. First opened in 1891, in an era when guests arrived by stagecoach, the Grand Old Lady of the Lake was restored to her Colonial Revival heritage , including a grand entrance with a row of stately white columns. Sunlight streams through the lobby and you can gaze out on Yellowstone Lake from the comfort of an armchair in the elegant Sunroom. The hotel underwent a $28 million renovation and rigorous Earth-friendly measures earned it gold-level sustainability certification from Green Seal. A National Historic Landmark, the update refreshed guest rooms, the dining room, bar, public spaces and redesigned the deli. Guests now have access to wired Internet service and a business center. Walking tours of the hotel are offered for those interested in learning more about the history, hardships, and idiosyncrasies of this National Park treasure.
Grand Canyon National Park
With numerous structures enshrined as national historic landmarks, the Grand Canyon is the country’s top destination for parkitecture. The grandest of all is the El Tovar Hotel, a history-rich lodging experience on the South Rim of the Canyon. Charles Whittlesey, Chief Architect for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, designed the hotel to be a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian Villa, a result he believed would appeal to the elites of the era. Today, El Tovar retains its elegant charm offering guest rooms and suites that reflect the colorful history of the property and its global appeal to visitors that have ranged from Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein to Sir Paul McCartney. You enter from a front porch constructed of local limestone and into an intimate cabin-style lobby with peeled log posts and historic paintings. Legendary architect Mary Colter created the lobby’s interior design and it’s the perfect place to soak up the classic national park ambience—although you’ll also want to settle in on a rocker along El Tovar’s many porches, including one barely 25 feet from the rim.
Another must is a meal in the El Tovar Dining Room, where vintage murals depict Arizona tribes and the menu showcases regionally inspired favorites, from blue cornmeal pancakes to signature salmon tostadas. In keeping with Xanterra’s environmental commitment, the dining room is a certified green restaurant.
A further representation of historic lodging at the Grand Canyon is Bright Angel Lodge. A rustic complex of cozy cabins around a central lodge building, also designed by Colter, sits directly on the edge of the canyon at the foot of Bright Angel Trailhead.
Glacier National Park
Designed in a Swiss Chalet-style consistent with the area’s long standing identity as the “Switzerland of America,” Glacier’s grand dame is the Many Glacier Hotel. Opened by the Great Northern Railway in 1914, the hotel along Swiftcurrent Lake was constructed using Douglas fir logs brought in from the Pacific Coast and local wood cut at a nearby sawmill to lure tourist to the Wild West. Sections of the roofline seem to echo the angles of the surrounding peaks. This secluded, five-story hotel offers visitors a window into the past with old-world style guest rooms and a Swiss Alpine theme. While dedicated to honoring its historic roots, the 214-room gem has undergone multi-million dollar renovation that included remodeling rooms, updating furniture and lighting and restoring the dining room to historic standards. Also included was the return of the “missing staircase.” Once part of the grand lobby, sharing space with soaring beams and a massive fireplace, the original double helix staircase stretched from the lake level of the hotel to the lobby. It was torn out in the mid-’50s to make way for a gift shop. As part of the recent remodel, the magnificent spiral staircase has been restored to its former glory.
Two hours away, Lake McDonald Lodge also has a Swiss Chalet look but its frontier-style interior draws inspiration from the park’s indigenous tribes. Look down at the imitation flagstone floor and you’ll see messages in Blackfoot, Chippewa, and Cree, while Native American designs adorn the large fireplace and hanging lanterns in the lobby. One curiosity is that the main entrance might seem more modest than the rear of the hotel, which faces the lake. That’s because in the lodge’s early years, most guests arrived by boat. Enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Glacier is truly one of the Earth’s special places. Xanterra Travel Collection® employs important environmental measures here, working with a local company that picks up food waste, transforms it into compost, and returns it to nourish the flower beds at both Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge.
Death Valley National Park
Take nearly a century of history, add a $150 million renaissance, and you have The Oasis at Death Valley, a world-class desert resort that’s better than ever. Designed by prominent architect Albert C. Martin (he also worked on Los Angeles City Hall), the original Mission-style structure built with adobe bricks has grown from 12 rooms into the luxurious Inn at Death Valley. Set in a palm-shaded oasis, The Inn is famous for its spring-fed swimming pool, which remains perpetually in the mid-80s, and views that look across Death Valley to the snow capped Panamint Range.While adding luxurious and private casitas, the renovation project not only retained but enhanced The Inn’s historic character, as well as that of its sister property The Ranch at Death Valley.
The Ranch’s new cottages, which began accepting reservations in late 2021, and a redesigned town square add to the resort’s Spanish character. And not all of the improvements are immediately apparent: Greater efficiency and recycling efforts mean that there is no net increase in the resort’s water usage and the careful placement of low-wattage lighting helps preserve the dark skies that have made Death Valley a globally significant stargazing destination.
For more travel experiences available from the Xanterra Travel Collection® and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/stories.