Outdoors purists, the hearty backpacking types, will tell you there's no place better than a backwoods campsite, away from the crowds and away from the curio shops, to appreciate the full beauty of America's national parks.
Well, don't believe them.
The views are just as stunning from the windows of many of the grand old national park lodges. You're apt to sleep a lot more comfortably, too; and even at the busiest lodges, you are not so removed from the wilderness that you won't occasionally spot visiting wildlife.
A huge silvertip grizzly, rarely seen except in the most remote reaches of the West, wandered right past Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park one evening last September, startling tourists who scampered from its path. Lodge guests, says manager Rick Morrissey, "emptied out the dining room" for a glimpse of the intruder.
National park lodges, many of them great old rambling palaces of stone and wood, are wonderful places to stay. Most sit right in the midst of some of the country's most appealing landscape. The El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon overlooks the very edge of the chasm. From the dining room, guests can watch the setting sun splash rose hues on the jagged cliffs.
Given today's conservation ethic, to build on such a site now would be unthinkable. But lodges (or resort hotels) like El Tovar, named after an early Spanish explorer, are relics of the earliest years of this century, when the idea behind the lodges was to attract visitors to what was then primarily wilderness. You wouldn't want to see any new hotels at the canyon, but it is a pleasure to have the old one still around.
Fortunately, many of the buildings were designed to be as appealing to look at as the scenery around them. Some are massive, built to match the grandeur of their setting. And most have the rustic, natural look, both inside and out, of a mountain cabin, half hidden among the trees. Old Faithful Inn, which is a gigantic log cabin, is an architectural delight that is almost as much of an attraction as the geyser that gave it its name.
Not all of the original lodges have survived, many of them falling victim to fires, earthquakes and neglect over the years, but most that remain have been refurbished and are thriving. You have to make reservations months in advance to spend a few summer days at Old Faithful Inn, and the same is true for almost all national park lodges.
What little lodging construction is allowed in today's national parks is mostly to replace (and relocate) cabins that are being torn down because they intrude on the scenery or on a wildlife habitat. There is, therefore, no additional lodging space, and not likely to be, as the demand grows and the waiting lists get longer.
One reason for the popularity of national park lodges is that many of them (but certainly not all) are inexpensive, especially for accommodations so ideally located. Rooms for two at Old Faithful Inn begin at just under $30, and the principal recreation -- sightseeing, hiking and fishing -- is free. No roadside motel can match the majesty of the inn and its surroundings, and few can even compete with the price.
Each lodge is different (and they are managed by many different concessionaires), which is a big part of their appeal. Several lodges are really large hotels; others are a collection of individual cabins clustered around a main lodge building housing the office and dining room; and at least one resembles a typical small country inn.
An excellent picture-book guide, "Old Lodges and Hotels of Our National Parks" (1983, Icarus) by Bill McMillon, describes 22 surviving lodges, all but two of them (both in Great Smoky Mountains National Park) located west of the Mississippi River. (Some of the country's 48 national parks, especially those established in recent decades, have no overnight lodgings other than campsites.)
However, McMillon excludes Zion Canyon Lodge in Utah -- and others that are still operating -- because, he says, they have been so substantially altered that "the ambiance of the earlier period has been lost." That may be true, but the Zion lodge -- a cluster of cabins around a main lodge and dining room -- retains an agreeably rustic look, and it is a very nice place to stay.
A couple of years ago, we took a pleasant cabin at Zion that faced a canyon cliff towering high overhead. In the mornings we hiked or rode horseback over park trails, and in late afternoon we returned to read on our pine-shaded private porch, watching the shadows play on the face of the mountain.
For some reason, McMillon also ignores Jenny Lake Lodge at Grand Teton National Park, certainly one of the most enjoyable (and expensive) places to stay in any national park. Like Zion, it, too, is a cluster of 30 individual log cabins with an adjacent lodge building housing the office and dining room. Originally, the cabins belonged to homesteaders who settled northwestern Wyoming at the turn of the century.
These old homes, no two of them alike, were acquired in the 1920s and moved to a grove of pines near Jenny Lake, away from the park's heavy tourist traffic. The exteriors were left intact, but the interiors were transformed into deluxe rooms with comfortable furnishings. From rocking chairs on each porch, guests look up 7,000 feet from the floor of Jackson Hole valley to the snowy peaks of the Tetons.
The daily rate at Jenny Lake is high for a park lodge, a hefty $215 per couple. However, it does include two excellent meals and "unlimited" trail rides, morning and afternoon. Considerably less expensive cabins are available elsewhere in the park.
Whatever the rate, there's a timeless quality and charm to these historic lodgings, even though in some of the oldest you may have to share a bathroom down the hall. But as Old Faithful's Morrissey explains, travelers today are willing to accept the inconvenience to stay in the inn's oldest wing, the 1904 "Old House," where the wonderful log-lined rooms are filled with the original hand-crafted furnishings.
Less adventurous visitors will find quite modern plumbing in other Old Faithful wings and at most park lodges. And several lodges, despite rustic exteriors, are quite elegant inside. The earliest guests tended to be the wealthy -- they had the time and the money to travel to remote places -- and interiors were designed to please their tastes.
That elegance -- with an outdoor flavor -- remains in the vast lobbies and surprisingly cozy sitting rooms of such grand hotels such as the Grand Canyon's El Tovar and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, where Queen Elizabeth stayed on her visit to California in 1983. Her sixth-floor suite faced across green meadows to the famous Yosemite Falls, which splashes in great clouds of spray hundreds of feet down sheer granite cliffs.
No campsite view could be more spectacular. And like many holidaying visitors, it's a good guess the Queen preferred the comforts of a soft bed to a night in a mountaintop sleeping bag.
Here are four of America's finest national park lodges:
*The Ahwahnee, Yosemite National Park, California: The "Queen's Suite," as it is now called, includes a bedroom and sitting room and rents this summer for $310 a night for two people. Standard rooms for two are $139 a night, climbing to $153 in 1986.
At those prices, the Ahwahnee ranks as one of the most expensive national park lodges, but still you have to make reservations months in advance, especially in summer. During the Christmas season, the Ahwahnee's five "Bracebridge Dinners," reenactments of a 19th-century Yorkshire Christmas, are so popular that guests must enter a lottery 12 months in advance to get a room, and many don't.
The Ahwahnee is probably the finest of all the national park lodges, and it is set in Yosemite Valley, one of the loveliest mountain meadows anywhere. Overhead soars a sheer granite wall called the Royal Arches. The combination is unbeatable.
A six-story structure of native granite and concrete (stained to look like redwood), the Ahwahnee blends beautifully with its surroundings. It has the look of a southwestern Indian pueblo, in which succeeding floors climb like irregular steps.
The Indian motif is carried inside with the stained-glass designs in the 10 floor-to-ceiling windows of the Great Lounge as well as in Indian rugs, mosaics and furnishings. "Ahwahnee" was the name of an Indian village in Yosemite, home of the Ahwahneeches before the arrival of settlers in the 19th century.
From its opening in 1927, the lodge has catered to famous and well-to-do tourists, drawing at least 10 U.S. presidents and countless Hollywood celebrities, from Mary Pickford to Judy Garland and Robert Wagner.
One often-told story is that Herbert Hoover, when he was secretary of commerce, checked into the hotel soon after it opened for a fishing outing on nearby Merced River. Returning to the hotel, the soon-to-be president was halted by a disdainful doorman, who refused to believe anyone dressed in such fish-smelling clothes could really be a guest at the Ahwahnee. Even today, men should expect to wear a jacket to dinner.
The hotel's public rooms are huge and impressive, and yet the natural wood and stone of the interiors -- and the hardwood floors and wrought-iron chandeliers -- give them a cozy warmth, as do the mammoth fireplaces blazing during the winter months at both ends of the Great Lounge.
One summer night a few years back, a wind storm knocked out the electricity, and we dined by candlelight. We easily believed -- with sugarpine beams crossing overhead and stone walls around us -- that we sat in the large banquet hall of an ancient castle. In the darkness, wild deer approached to nibble on the lush grass just outside the opened doorway.
The Ahwahnee has 121 rooms, 24 of them in seven cottages set on grounds designed by the famous Olmstead landscape architectural firm. Nearby, there are two tennis courts and a heated swimming pool. But the most enjoyable recreation is walking the miles of valley and high mountain trails that begin just outside the Ahwahnee's door.
For reservations: Yosemite Park and Curry Co., Central Reservation Office, 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno, Calif. 93727, (209) 252-4848.
*Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: The curious thing about Old Faithful Inn is that it does not directly face Old Faithful geyser, as you might expect. Instead, the inn is angled so that your first view of the geyser is through your car windshield the moment you drive under the porte-cochere to check in. If Old Faithful is spouting, it's a dramatic welcome.
We, however, were greeted by what seemed like a cavalcade of buses ahead, unloading masses of tourists and mounds of luggage. Unlike the Ahwahnee, Old Faithful Inn is anything but exclusive. Its 340 rooms sleep 1,100, and at rates of from $29.12 to $54.08 a night for two, they fill up from early May (season's opening) to the closing in mid-October.
As a result, the lobby is always bustling, and sometimes there's up to an hour's wait to be seated in the dining room (no reservations). And yet a night or more at Old Faithful Inn is not to be missed. Built in 1904 of native wood and stone, it is a gorgeous building, a huge log cabin or maybe chalet; and it overlooks one of the most spectacular concentrations of active geysers anywhere in the world.
"The first time I walked in, I fell in love with it," says manager Rick Morrissey, who's been in charge for three years. "There's so much history and so much character. It gets in your blood."
The lobby is superb. It rises, like the interior of a cathedral, a full 85 feet. The gnarled and twisted trunks of lodgepole pines form unique and intricate wood balconies that ring this vast open space. And a massive stone fireplace reaches up through the lodgepole pine rafters high overhead. You can climb to one of the balconies to escape the hubbub below or to watch the swirl of visitors, stepping inside just to see the lobby.
The balcony above the porte-cochere is an excellent place to wait for Old Faithful's more-or-less hourly eruption; meanwhile, other less-regular geysers may spout off almost anywhere you look. Our first morning at the inn, I opened the window of our room to see, just beyond the walkway, dozens of wisps of steam rising from the meadow, as if it were on fire. It was both unsettling and fascinating.
If you stay at Old Faithful Inn, you definitely are going to see a lot of thermal activity. And you might even see a bear.
For information: TW Services, c/o Reservations, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190, (307) 344-7311.
*El Tovar, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: A sprawling, low-slung luxury hotel, the El Tovar was built of boulders and massive hand-peeled logs in 1905 to harmonize with its magnificent setting on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Now 80 years old, it has in the past decade been rebuilt from inside out, a major project to (among other goals) replace rotting exterior logs. Much care was taken to maintain that original harmony with the landscape, despite some unusual problems.
For one thing, it wasn't easy to find hand-peeled logs to redo the exterior. Hand-peeling, a disappearing trade, gives the logs a special texture that would be lost if the look couldn't be duplicated. The El Tovar management searched for months, ultimately finding a peeler in Elk City, Idaho, but only after advertising in forestry trade magazines.
The interior restoration, begun in the early 1970s, reduced the number of rooms from 125 to 78 so that modern bathrooms could be installed. Rates for two are from $80 to $95 a day. Suites with sitting room are $115 to $200. The $200 suite has a private balcony at the north end of the hotel looking out over the canyon. The hotel is open year-round.
From the front of the hotel, you can take long walks in either direction along the canyon's South Rim, or bus tours if you prefer. The strong of leg and lung can hike into the canyon on a cliff-hanging trail that plummets quickly. It is deceptively easy going down; coming back up can be a struggle, and you should always carry plenty of water.
Just a hundred yards or so from the hotel entrance is the corral where each morning adventurous tourists gather for the famous mule rides into the canyon. Even if you are not going yourself, it is fun to watch the riders' apprehensive faces as their huge mounts step from the rim in solemn, scarey parade.
For information: Fred Harvey Co., Grand Canyon National Park Lodges, P.O. Box 699, Grand Canyon, Ariz. 86023, (602) 638-2401.
*Jenny Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: The vacation season is very short at Jenny Lake Lodge, only from early June to mid-September. In winter, the mountain snowfalls are so heavy that the lodge's 30 cabins frequently are buried completely, and snowmobilers zip overhead.
Strangely, the snow acts as something of a preservative for the empty cabins. "It's almost like they've been freeze-dried," says lodge manager Judee Anderson. When her housekeepers reopen in the spring, the rooms are completely free of dust.
Jenny Lake is a Rockresort, one of Laurance S. Rockefeller's six highly rated and distinctive luxury resorts. It caters to guests who can afford the lodge's high rates. Years ago, the Rockefeller family deeded more than 32,000 acres in Jackson Hole to enlarge the park.
"Jenny Lake is special," says Anderson, who explains that because the lodge is so small, guests get very personal attention. There is a staff of 42, and very shortly after you check in, they are greeting you by name.
For guests who get up with the dawn, fresh Austrian pastries and coffee are waiting in the main lodge at 6 a.m. Sleepyheads can have them delivered to the cabin later in the morning. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are also left in front of the door.
Despite the rates, most guests come for a week, and some remain for several weeks. Many return annually, and they get first choice on the following year's accommodations. The lodge appeals particularly to people in "high-stress" occupations, such as doctors, "who want to get away," says Anderson. There are no TV sets, no radios and only one pay phone in the main lodge.
And, as Anderson puts it discreetly, it is "not child-oriented," although a few children do accompany their parents.
Jenny Lake Lodge is, basically, a place to relax, and the climate cooperates. Days are warm; nights are cool, and the air is dry and fresh. "Anyone wanting a lot to do," says Anderson, "should go elsewhere. There's a lot of rocking and reading in front of the cabins."
She is exaggerating just a bit, since there are things to do. Miles of trails wander the park, either on the valley floor or high into the Tetons. One of the nicest walks is around Jenny Lake itself. The trail, shaded by pines, keeps the lake in view, and every bend offers an inviting place to rest and wiggle your toes in the clear blue water.
Experienced horse wranglers lead morning, afternoon and day-long trail rides on valley or mountain paths, departing from the stables just behind the cabins. Outfitters nearby offer float trips down the Snake River, which twists like a snake through the park.
But, the truth is, you do spend a lot of time at the cabins rocking and reading. Named for wildflowers ("Wild Iris," "Indian Paintbrush"), they are comfortably furnished, and they all open onto a dramatic view of the Tetons. The clouds, playing among the peaks, put on a lovely afternoon show.
The lodge's small, cozy dining room has a reputation as one of the finest in the region, and dinners -- the evening's principal entertainment -- are leisurely and enjoyable.
And afterward, on the walk back to your cabin, the stars seem brilliant in the dark of the night. You breathe the pine-scented air and hear the whistle of the wind in the trees, and you hope your vacation never ends.
For information: Jenny Lake Lodge, P.O. Box 240, Moran, Wyo. 83013, (307) 733-4647. A half-year or more in advance is not too soon to make reservations