National Park Architecture Road Trip

Our big summer vacation was a road trip through some National Parks and, as importantly, their lodges. While I intended to do a quick post on here focusing on the architecture/design elements of our trip, I got SO MANY logistical questions from those of you following along on IG stories (which I saved on my story highlights if you want to watch!). So I’ll go a bit more in depth on the planning of our trip, our route, where we stayed, and how we organized our days – specifically in Yellowstone! Obviously our trip was tailored to our family, our traveling speed, and our region so by no means am I sharing this so you can copy it down to the day. But I hope it encourages you to scoop up a reservation and see that rustic NP “park-itecture” – and, fine, the breathtaking natural landscapes too!

Within the 61 National Parks here in the US, I’d say there’s about a dozen must see iconic historic lodges, with many others having more “minor” but also amazing lodging options as well. But for that quintessential rustic National Park architectural experience, many built by railways in the early 1900’s, this is my list:

Yes, I’m missing some amazing places on this list. One hundred percent don’t miss Quinault Lodge (one of my favorite places EVER) outside of Olympic, or small but so sweet Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon, or The Stanley outside of Rocky Mountain. Those are worth a trip too, they just aren’t the in-park giants that come to mind when you think of the iconic “park-itecture” of the National Parks.

On this trip, we hit 3 of the biggies on our travels through 4 parks (Zion, Bryce, Tetons, Yellowstone), including the crown jewel of them all: Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. At this point we’ve seen all but Glacier and Crater Lake and would recommend every single one, not to mention the dozens of less iconic but nevertheless exciting lodgings in so many parks – some are 100 year old log cabins and some are quirky mid century accommodations. If you are looking for the ultimate list of every park lodging option, this book looks very thorough!

 

Zion National Park

Lodging: Our first destination was Zion National Park, where we stayed in the historic Western Cabins of Zion Lodge. The lodge was built in 1925 and the cabins followed soon after. The main lodge burned down in 1966 but was rebuilt that same year following the original plans. The cabins themselves were untouched by the fire and are nearly 100 years old! They are stone and log with fireplaces. There is nothing like waking up inside the canyon surrounded by sheer red rock cliffs.

Itinerary: We only did one night in Zion, but spent the night before in nearby St. George and were in the park by 9am, giving us one full day and night and half of the next day. We planned on hiking the Narrows for most of that first day, something my husband and I have done before but an experience our kids have never had. However, there was a flood advisory so we instead swam in the Virgin River along the Pa’rus Trail, played chess in the lodge, did some little hikes (Lower Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock), and watched the deer on the lodge lawn. We rearranged the following day to include a shorter Narrows hike, only to wake up to a swollen twisted ankle on one of the kids. Ugh, such a bummer. But we will be back. On our way out, we discovered an awesome swimming hole and wished we spent more time there.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Lodging: Next up was Bryce Canyon. Once again we stayed in the Western Cabins of Bryce Canyon Lodge. I loved these ones. Very similar layout to the ones in Bryce, but more spread out with charming little lighted pathways between them. They were mere steps away from the edge of the actual Bryce Canyon! We were able to meander over to watch the sunset and the sunrise.

Itinerary: Again, we only did one night here. The first afternoon was spent in the Visitor Center, exploring the lodge, taking the shuttle to all the Canyon overlooks, and just relaxing. The following day we did a longer hike into the canyon, the Queen’s Garden to the Navajo Loop through Wall Street, that was out-of-this-world gorgeous.

Grand Teton National Park

Lodging: Grand Teton National Park, our next destination, doesn’t have a historic grand lodge, but the park has some fun lodging nonetheless. We opted for the rustic log cabins at Colter Bay Village. Full on log cabin living and the nearby bay is beautiful.

Itinerary: I feel like the Tetons get overshadowed by neighboring Yellowstone, but they are so gorgeous and worth a visit. It’s a very different landscape and feel. The actual mountains themselves are reminiscent of the Alps with beautiful alpine hikes (great when you don’t have complaining kids!) and easily accessible sparkling lakes for swimming, different than Yellowstone where swimming is generally discouraged in the park. We did a few short hikes around Colter Bay and spent most of our Teton time in the water. Jenny Lake is stunning, but we opted to spend most of our swim time in extremely shallow (and warmer) String Lake.

Yellowstone National Park

General Yellowstone tips: Next stop was Yellowstone, where we stayed for a few nights in different areas of the park. I was flooded with questions about how we did Yellowstone. It is huge and I get how it can be overwhelming to plan a trip. The road through the park is shaped like a figure 8 and lodging options are every 40 miles I believe (original visitors to the park were transported in carriages so each are placed about a day’s ride down the road!). I recommend that you plan at least 3 nights inside the park, more if you are a slower traveler and really like to take it easy and soak it all in. We are fast travelers and 3 nights was perfect for us. I also recommend that you stay in a different place each night (or every 2 nights if you are doing a long stay), preferably in some circular path around the park so that you aren’t backtracking. Each day, work your way around the loop and see the sights! My preferred stops are: Canyon Village, Mammoth, and Old Faithful. There are multiple lodging options in each area. I talk about how I make reservations at the end of this post. TripAdvisor Yellowstone forums are SO helpful! So is a detailed map of the park. Most every stop of interest is noted on official park maps. If you are there for a few days or more, you have time to pull over at every stop and to do several hikes of your choosing. Even if you aren’t a planner, almost everything is marked along the road so you just pull over at the signs (or the crowds) and get out and explore if the spot looks interesting (they all are interesting). I’m here for the geothermal freak show, the Old Faithful Inn, and THE ANIMALS! I personally keep my evenings wide open so that we can drive around and look for wildlife. Sunrise and sunset are prime animal viewing time, and crowds with binoculars gather in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley during those times. We saw plenty of bison and elk in those spots and beyond, but stumbled upon a grizzly and her cubs on the side of the road at 11am in the morning near Mt Washburn (I KNOW!!!!!!! happy tears). No guarantees, but it sure is fun to try. Day one itinerary: We entered the park through the Southern entrance and traveled counterclockwise around, with our first overnight stop in Canyon Village.

Canyon Village Lodging: This was our first time staying in the Canyon Village area because often online forums will say how crowded it is, but we loved the central location and the quirky mid century at summer camp vibe! We got a Western Cabin at the Canyon Lodge & Cabins. The cabin architecture is funky in the best way and, while the interiors are stripped of retro character, they are a nice place to spend a night. The nearby main building, housing various restaurants and shops, is mid century National Park architecture at it’s best. Even the interior is designed with the original architecture in mind. Bonus of staying here was being able to drive back down to Hayden Valley after dinner to animal peep during primetime – which we all agree was our favorite activity of all in the park! Day two itinerary: I would have stayed our second night at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel but it was undergoing renovations during our trip and I was more than happy to do two nights at my ultimate destination, Old Faithful Inn, and have to backtrack a bit one of the days. So for us, our day 2 was spent covering the upper loop area between Canyon and Mammoth, including Lamar Valley. This is the day we saw the grizzlies right after we got on the road oh my goodness!!!! We ended with an afternoon hike to an lesser known river/hot springs spot right on the Montana state line (but the springs were extremely hot and the river was fast so I don’t recommend it for younger kids). Then we drove straight to the Old Faithful Inn and spent the rest of the night soaking up Old Faithful Inn. More on that in a second.

Day three itinerary: We did the first Old Faithful Inn tour of the day (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and free) on the morning of our third day, then drove back up past Norris Geyser and covered the area south of that that we had missed the day before. We also spent some time at a not-always-map-marked swimming hole in the Firehole Canyon Drive loop. (Fun story, 15 years ago my husband lost his wedding ring in this spot and we thought it was gone forever. My husband shouted out “$100 to anybody that can find my wedding ring!” Some locals with snorkels got to work and somehow found his ring in the rapids within the hour. Best $100 ever spent!)

Old Faithful Inn: Old Faithful Inn is the largest log cabin structure in the world and inspiration for countless other lodges, National Park related and not. It was built 1903-4 by a crew of 50 men who WORKED THROUGH THE WINTER to complete it. This is unfathomable to me considering the sheer size of the structure; it’s hard to even convey the cavernous height in a photo. The lobby is truly stunning and massive, built as tall as the lodgepole pine forest from where its materials came, complete with an indoor tree house at the very top (closed to visitors – fire codes). One person’s job was literally to find the “freaks” of the forest to use on the railing detail and throughout the lodge for interest. The architect, who was only 29 years old when he got the job, insisted on imbalance and imperfection to mirror nature. We booked a room in the “Old House”, the original part of the lodge. Most of these historic rooms do not have their own bathroom, though they do have a sink. There are nice shared bathrooms on each floor of each wing so it was fine. I would gladly trade not having an in-room bathroom to be able to stay in such a special building. Nights after tourists left (and early mornings too) were magical. Guests gather in the dimly lit lobby, reading, playing cards and watching lighting storms roll in from the deck. Words cannot describe. We ate in the dining room one night and our kids parked themselves for the entire evening at one of the cute little secretary desks placed around the upper levels of the lobby, drawing comics. The next night we did a twilight walk through the nearby geysers and spent hours playing Uno surrounded by logs. Our time in the Inn was truly amazing and a dream come true for me. Stay there!!! And take one of the architectural tours!!! My cell phone pictures obviously cannot begin to do this magnificent structure justice.

Logistics

I’m not much of a camper and like to keep it moving, and architecture is often as much of a destination as nature for me. If you are similar, I 100% recommend STAYING in the lodges when visiting a National Park! Visiting the Old Faithful Inn for an hour or two just can’t give the same experience as spending a night will. It is worth the money! We are fast travelers so we generally plan on spending a little more money on lodges than we would camping, but we stay for shorter durations…camping slows you down and steals time from seeing the sights. This trip had us staying in a different place almost every night, something that just isn’t feasible when you are packing tents. But even if you are camping, camp INSIDE the parks whenever possible. It is always worth the hassle of getting a reservation.

Speaking of reservations, I operate on a grab-up-cancellations system. I never have my crap together far enough in advance to book reservations (sometimes a year out at the most popular parks) so I always just spend a week or two obsessively checking cancellations once we’ve decided on a trip. It hasn’t failed me yet! This time, our main destination was the Old Faithful Inn and we had a lot of flexibility over when we could travel during summer. So in March, when we started planning, I scooped up two nights on a cancellation there and built the rest of the trip around those dates. We did spend 3 nights outside of the parks in transit. We try to stay in cute, smaller towns when we need to break up a drive and this trip brought us to St. George, Utah TWICE (on the way up and the way down) and Park City, Utah in between Bryce and the Tetons. Hot tip: newer Hyatt Place hotels in smaller towns are our current preferred in-between lodging. They are nice, clean, cheap, have pools, and free breakfast if you sign up for their free rewards program. And even cheaper if you book through Costco wink wink.

A note about budgeting. I’m always interested in how other families manage this, so I’ll share what we do. Traveling is high up on our priority list so we put aside a substantial amount each year to do this, a couple thousand dollars. We have a master list of places we’d like to travel with our kids before they fly the nest and we do what we can to make it happen. I know that isn’t feasible for everyone, or even important for everyone, but we are more than willing to cheap out on other areas of life to make this happen….the bathroom remodel we continually put off and scale down or the old car we drive. I get everyone is different, but this is where we spend. To save money we usually rent cars for road trips – to keep the wear and tear down on our own vehicle, and also because it’s a 17 year old gas guzzler. This trip we brought along a ton of quick breakfast foods (oatmeal) and picnic lunch items and then went out to dinner each night. Eating a meal or two in the lodge dining rooms is not to be missed! I would always rather have a shorter trip in an enjoyable hotel/lodge than a longer trip in a depressing one, so if a place feels pricey but we want to stay there, we skimp on days, not accommodations.

Let me know if you have any other questions or want more specific ideas for a certain location! I don’t think travel agents are a thing anymore, but I would love to plan trips all day.

PS A few years ago I started chronicling our design-related trips so check those out right here if you are into weird old architecture + travel.

Happy trails everyone!


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