Grand old lodges pack 'em in

Parks: Built of massive logs, these historic places give their guests one-of-a-kind views and unforgettable stays.

Destination: American West

July 04, 1999|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Honeymooners Mike and Erica Grotte of Portland, Ore., were staying in a Crater Lake campground, but for drinks and dinner they opted to come to the national park's historic lodge.

"A beautiful place," Erica Grotte said, as the couple sat on the hotel terrace drinking in the panoramic view of the lake.

Indeed it is. Recently restored at a cost of $15 million, Crater Lake Lodge is one of a handful of early 20th century park lodges that have become tourist attractions in themselves. Not only does the lodge command a stunning view of the incredibly blue lake from its perch on the crater rim, but its stone-and-wood facade and its pine-paneled interior impart a warmth and a sense of history that no modern park motel can match.

The same is true of America's other historic park lodges. Most were considered rustic accommodations when they were built in the early years of this century. Now the lodges are so venerated by visitors that thousands are turned away every year.

To book a room in Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, for example, you must make reservations as much as a year in advance. So many people want to have Christmas dinner at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Inn that the management runs a lottery to choose the 1,675 lucky diners. Visitors willingly climb as many as four sets of stairs at Glacier National Park's elevator-less Many Glacier Lodge, just so they can have a room with a view of Swiftcurrent Lake and the striated mountains behind it. Visitors clamor to stay at Grand Canyon's El Tovar even though very few rooms offer a look at the famous gorge.

Typically, America's historic park lodges were built from local stone and wood by railroad companies or park concessionaires to accommodate the tourists who were just beginning to discover the wonders of the West in the early years of this century. Many have soaring lobbies supported by giant log columns and beams, enormous fireplaces and Indian motifs in their decor. Guest rooms tended to be small and Spartan -- and some still are.

Most of these lodges have superior locations -- including some that might not be countenanced if they were being built today. El Tovar, for instance, is just 20 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon. Crater Lake's lodge perches on the caldera's rim, and Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn sits a short stroll from the famous geyser.

So distinctive is the rustic style of these historic lodges that something called "national park architecture" has crept into our language and contemporary life. When Walt Disney World built its Wilderness Lodge a few years ago, it deliberately copied styles from the real lodges. It has great columns painted to look like wood logs, a huge stone chimney reminiscent of the one at Old Faithful Inn, heavy wood furniture similar to that in many lodges, and even an artificial geyser to put guests in a national-park frame of mind.

As authentic as Disney's lodge might seem, there's nothing like the real thing. Here's what you'll find when you visit some of America's best known park lodges.

Old Faithful Inn

Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

Huge lodgepole pine columns support the soaring lobby of this most famous of all national park lodges. Tiers of balconies -- all made with logs and planks of Douglas fir -- circle the atrium, and dominating the lobby is a 40-foot-high, four-sided stone chimney.

Near the top of the 75-foot-high atrium is a platform called the Crow's Nest, which offers a dizzying view of the lobby. It's closed to visitors now, but once in a while the management relents, as it did a couple of years ago to let a young couple say their marriage vows there.

The lobby is Grand Central for day visitors to the park as well as hotel guests, so don't expect quiet if you're staying in the hotel. On the other hand, the inn is close to several major thermal fields and makes a fine base for exploring the area.

The gabled inn, which dates to 1903, has 325 rooms. Some have views of the famous Old Faithful geyser, which is close by, but even the best rooms are somewhat Spartan. Not all of them in the old central building have bathrooms.

Rates range from $54 to $154. The hotel is open May 7 to Oct. 11 this year. Information and reservations: 307-344-7311; Web site:

Crater Lake Lodge

Crater Lake, Ore.

In 1935, a breakfast of bacon and eggs cost 35 cents at the Crater Lake Lodge. The price is considerably higher today, but the superb view of the lake is the same.

Built in 1910, the lodge underwent a $15 million renovation in the 1990s that shored up its shaky structural supports and reduced its guest rooms from 150 to 71.

Its Great Hall is in the best tradition of park lodges. Douglas fir logs (with their bark left on) support the ceiling; large picture windows open onto the lake. The two large fireplaces were rebuilt with the original stones. The dining room, also with large windows looking over the lake, is a cozy place.

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