Lodging In the Parks: Why There Are No Rooms At The Inn

The last time the Old Faithful Inn was expanded was in 1927, when the park greeted 200,000 visitors. Last year Yellowstone's visitation reached 3.4 million. David and Kay Scott photo.

Traveler readers have at one time or another most likely experienced frustration while trying to obtain a reservation at a national park lodge.

Booking a room in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, or Bryce Canyon can be a daunting task for the busy summer season, especially if you are set on staying at Old Faithful Inn, the Ahwahnee, El Tovar, Many Glacier Lodge, or a Western Cabin at Bryce Canyon.

In the coming weeks we will offer some suggestions on how best to successfully bag a national park lodge reservation. In the meantime, let’s take a look at why rooms in national park lodges can be so difficult to reserve.

Tour Companies Secure Blocks of Rooms

We have heard complaints that tour operators swoop in to grab a major portion of the rooms, and that they do so for less money than the rest of us pay. A portion of this criticism may have some validity, depending upon the park, but probably not to the degree that most people believe.

According to Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Yellowstone National Park Lodges, tour operators on average take about 15 percent of Yellowstone’s rooms, and they do so at the same price paid by individuals and families booking rooms on their own.

Alicia Thompson, director of marketing and business relations for Glacier Park, Inc., said tour operators also consume about 15 percent of the rooms in Glacier National Park. And like Yellowstone, Glacier Park, Inc. does not offer discounts to tour operators or commissions to travel agents. The same policy is followed at Grand Canyon’s South Rim according to Bruce Brossman, regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra South Rim.

More Tourists, Not More Rooms

The most important factor creating the shortage of openings is that the limited quantity of rooms available has failed to keep pace with an increasing number of travelers.

Consider that, despite increased visitation, no rooms have been added to many parks for decades. Two lodges, Dunraven and Cascade, with approximately 80 rooms, were added to the Canyon area of Yellowstone in the 1990s, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge was constructed in the late 1990s. However, the latter replaced an older and smaller Snow Lodge that was demolished in 1998. By comparison, Yellowstone welcomed more than half a million more visitors in 2011 than in 1990. Essentially, the park has the same number of rooms available for a much larger number of visitors.

Even more telling is that the last addition to iconic Old Faithful Inn, the Y-shaped West Wing, was completed in 1927 when park visitation numbered 200,000. Additional park lodging has subsequently been added, but most visitors, especially those visiting for the first time, prefer a stay at the inn.

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Major renovations are continuing at Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier. David and Kay Scott photo.

Many Glacier Hotel, the most popular lodging facility in Glacier National Park, was finished in 1917, a year in which park visitation numbered 18,000. Last year the park attracted 1.8 million visitors.

No lodging units have been added to Glacier for many years. In fact, overall room availability decreased for the 2011 and 2012 seasons as portions of Many Glacier Hotel closed for major renovations. A lodging facility in the Manzanita Lake area of California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park was closed in 1974 due to the potential for rock slides, leaving Drakesbad Guest Ranch with 19 rooms as the only lodging accommodations in this outstanding park. The National Park Service recently added 20 camper cabins at Manzanita, but these units do not have electricity or running water. (By the way, we were never quite certain the rock slide story held water.)

Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park closed for the entire 2007 and 2008 seasons while major structural repairs were taking place. This took 120 rooms out of service and left only National Park Inn, a small facility with 25 guest rooms.

Log Cabin Resort in Olympic National Park currently has no concessionaire and it is uncertain whether the facility will be open for the 2012 season. Elsewhere, Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for lack of a concessionaire during the 2011 season and will be closed again for 2012. No lodging facility replaced Alaska’s Denali National Park Hotel that closed in 2001, and Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, lost to hurricanes in 2005, has not been replaced. Yosemite Valley lost hundreds of lodging units following major flooding in the late 1990s and rock slides in 2008. In the meantime, between 1990 and 2011, Yosemite saw an annual increase of more than 800,000 visitors.

The two newest lodging facilities on Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, Yavapai East and Maswik North, were constructed in the 1970s. Meanwhile, annual visitation increased by approximately 1.7 million between 1975 and 2011.

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The historic Red Horse Cabin opened on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon this year, but it offers just two bedrooms. David and Kay Scott photo.

A decade ago there was talk of demolishing Thunderbird and Kachina, two South Rim lodges with approximately 100 rooms, but the possibility of losing the two buildings now seems more remote. True, the concessionaire opened the historic Red Horse Cabin for guests, but it offers but two bedrooms. Other than two employee dorms converted to offer 40 guest rooms, no lodging has been added to Grand Canyon’s North Rim since World War II.

California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks added two guest facilities in the late 1990s, Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia and John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon. Consider, however, that Wuksachi, with 102 guest rooms, was constructed following the demolition of lodging in nearby Giant Forest and remains the only lodging facility in Sequoia. Annual visitation to the parks has increased by nearly 20 percent since 2000.

More Rooms In the Parks? Hard To Come By And Not Always A Net Gain

Plans are afoot that may increase room availability in some parks, but travelers shouldn’t hold their breath.

The possibility exists for a new and expanded hotel in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. The major structural work on Many Glacier Hotel should be finished by the end of the current season so that all its 214 rooms are available to visitors for the 2013 season. Hopefully, the National Park Service will locate a concessionaire to assume management of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Bluffs Lodge, whose contract is being packaged with Peaks of Otter Lodge and Rocky Knob Cabins.

Likewise, the National Park Service is currently doing renovation work at Olympic National Park’s Log Cabin Resort that may entice a concessionaire to operate the facility during the coming year.

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Cost has prompted Everglades officials to look past 2010 conceptual drawings for reviving the Flamingo area. NPS graphic.

There also is talk about a new lodging facility to replace vanished Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, but it is difficult to know when or even if this will come to fruition since there appears to be little funding available for the facility.

During a 1999 or 2002 visit (we can’t remember which) to Mesa Verde we stopped at ARAMARK’s Mancos, Colorado, office to talk with the general manager at Far View Lodge. He told us about plans for a new lodge to replace the existing motel-type units that would be razed or converted to employee housing. That was a decade ago, and though plans may still be in the works, that's the last time we heard about the project. Funding being the way it is, visitors hoping to find more room at the inn any time soon should definitely not count their chickens.

David and Kay Scott, authors of The Complete Guide To the National Park Lodges, spent much of last summer touring the parks to produce a new edition of their book. It is expected any day now. They graciously toil as the Traveler's lodging experts.

Comments

Well I wonder who would pay for new lodges, the NPS or the concessionaires who run these parks? It seems like Aramark, Xanterra and the others could be coming up with plans and funding from stock sales to push some new projects through.

Jay,
Aramark and Xanterra are privately owned, so a stock sale to raise funds for a new lodge isn't in the cards. Forever Resorts, another major national park lodging concessionaire is also privately owned.

Not only is it very hard to get rooms at National Park Lodges, often even campsites can be hard to come by. If there isn't funding available for much-needed expansions of lodging and campsites, surely there must be a way to build the cost of construction into the lodging and campsite overnight fees in order to fund these facility upgrades!

This article omits mention of a crucial point: NPS philosophy on development changed considerably in the last few decades. When NPS started building lodges, the agency needed to develop places for visitors to stay because there weren't any options in the remote parks. More recently, NPS has chosen to limit new lodge development when other opportunities exist in nearby gateway communities and the need is met by the private sector. There are perhaps multiple reasons for this shift in policy, but the most important in my mind is that any development has an impact on park resources - why build inside the park when you can build outside?

The Denali park hotel, mentioned above, is a great case in point. When the original hotel burned down in the 1970s, a hasty temporary structure was put into its place with every intent of replacing the hotel with a new one. But before the replacement was funded, new commercial services (including lodging) were built just across the river, outside the park. By the time a firm funded plan arrived in the late 80s/early 90s, there wasn't a need for the new accommodation. An Inspector General's report and a new DCP later and the decision was made to pull the temporary structure without replacement. Thus, the decline in room availability inside national parks is an intentional NPS decision made with the agency mission in mind, not the result of lack of funding or simple inability to keep up with demand.

As a side note and a response to Sabattis, private operators outside national parks have sometimes been vigorous in opposing competing commercial services inside the parks. I have noticed this particularly with campground operators who have fought to prevent parks (like Denali) from expanding campgrounds. Perhaps it has happened with hotel accommodations as well.

I work for one of those major concessionnaires and I can tell you that we put a really large amount of money into capital investment as part of our contract, as do other concessionnaires in national parks. Most often, anything purchased by a concessionnaire, including renovations,
furniture, vehicles, etc. mostly becomes the automatic property of NPS.
Just thought that was an important point.

Also, Private concessionnaires aren't generally allowed to build large, occupied spaces. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be the pattern I've noticed across the country. That means no structural building would be possible for Xanterra or Aramark or Forever.
Keep in mind, next time you are frustrated and can't get a campsite reservation or a lodging reservation in a national park, that congress constantly short-changes the national parks. As of about five years ago, Yellowstone was $10 million dollars behind in just general maintenance and our buildings have been falling apart for years. How can there be new lodging when the neccessities aren't even being met?

These parks belong to every American in this country... it's up to you to make sure they stay intact and to offer what you need to visit. Don't just sit idley by and wait for "someone else" to do it then complain about the parks being in shambles or not up to par with the needs of visitors.
Now get out there and experience them!

Gee, why don't we just pave them over. Put a Holiday Inn or Super 8 on every corner. Hey maybe even a big box or two to make shopping convenient. So ironic that this site is dedicated to the preservation of the parks but then complains because there isn't enough development. I agree with Charlie - why build inside the park when you can build outside - without spending taxpayer dollars.

I have worked in parks for 29 years and have seen both sides of this issue from the inside and out. Many points are made by previous commenters that are valid and noteworthy. The most important things to remember are: Who pays for the new construction? (usually the taxpayers through park appropriations) Who provides most of the maintenance on these facilities, other than routine cleaning? (park staffs, again using taxpayer appropriations) Why are the parks there to begin with? (protect our natural and cultural treasures, even if that means protect them from overuse) and Who makes the profits from these lodging facilities? ( I know from experience that noone makes enough profit to be worth mentioning) Even our largest parks and concession providers operate on very small profit margins, if any. And with the squeeze on park budgets, the maintenance and upkeep on the buildings and associated infrastructure is oftentimes overwhelming. Building more facilities usually doesn't equate to increased profits for concessionairs and most likely doesn't come with an equilivant increase in park maintenance and operating budgets. Given isolated locations, short operating seasons and, yes, pressure from the private sector, there just is not enought money made to enjoy tremendous financial rewards.
That said, I have stayed overnight in a lot of our national parks and have found that if you plan far enough ahead of time and have the patience to try again and again you can usually end up staying where you want. You can't expect to just jump in a car and stay at Old Faithful Inn when you get there. My stay there in September 2009 was the result of daily availability checks for about three weeks in April. My wife and I enjoyed 5 wonderful nights in the old section of the Inn and I wouldn't trade the experience for 5 nights anywhere else in the world. It can happen for you - you have to make it happen.

For those not already familiar with it, the book Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks, by Joseph L. Sax, offers insight into the preservation vs. use/development issues of the national parks. It's available online at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/sax/index.htm

Grand Canyon lodging is greatly supported by recently incorporated town of Tusyan and many significant hotels with more planned. Believe Xanterra (a major Parks concessionaire) recently purchased one of the major properties there outside the park. Many job positions have been moved to Flagstaff rather than housed in the Park.

I'd note that Delaware North Companies (also privately held) bought out the Yosemite concession from MCA back in the 90s. Since then they've branched out into some other NPS areas such as SEKI and Yellowstone.

They're not tiny either. They own an NBA arena.

Anonymous:
Grand Canyon lodging is greatly supported by recently incorporated town of Tusyan and many significant hotels with more planned. Believe Xanterra (a major Parks concessionaire) recently purchased one of the major properties there outside the park. Many job positions have been moved to Flagstaff rather than housed in the Park.
A lot of parks have their headquarters off the park proper. Yosemite's headquarters and a lot of their operations are actually in El Portal on NPS owned/leased land. I remember passing by Lassen Volcanic NP's headquarters in the unincorporated down of Mineral well outside the park itself. Mt Rainier NP is headquartered in Ashford, also outside the park. There's a single facility in Moab, UT that houses the HQ for Arches, Canyonlands, and two national monuments that are far away.

As for gateway towns and areas outside the park, Delaware North actually owns several facilities, including Tenaya Lodge outside the south entrance to Yosemite, and a Holiday Inn and two other hotels in West Yellowstone, MT. They actually manage them under their "Parks & Resorts" division that includes concessions at Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Yosemite.

Interesting about Xanterra and the Parks Service. We as the general public certainly don't have the information about cuts to the park service. We should. And we should certainly let congress know our priority is to give money to the Parks, which are a precious national heritage, rather than dropping bombs in some strange country, which destroys other countries, and bankrupts our own.

Amen, Anon.

A counterpoint is that many concession lodges and restaurants are barely squeeking by in this economy with low bookings, despite being located in fabulously wonderful NPS units which have visitation statistics uncorrelated with the value of the experience and resource. Visitors frustrated with bookings at a big "Y" or "G" park should seek out other opportunities for a great visit and no waiting.