THE SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES #1/ The Great Circle

THE SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES #1

Nov. 9, 2011

THE GREAT CIRCLE

I submit that one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World has to be “The Great Circle” (by far the greatest concentration of magnificent national parks in the world).  Although I have been making pilgrimages to them ever since my parents introduced them to me during my growing-up years, it took Ken Burns’ landmark PBS National Park Series to crystalize their significance to me.  Up to that series, I had more or less just taken these national wonders for granted. Same for the legendary hotels and lodges that grace them.

Shortly after the series had aired, we received a telephone call from our traveling partners in crime, Bob and Lucy Earp of Tennessee.  Bob asked, “Did you watch the Ken Burns PBS National Park Series?” When we said “Yes,” he followed up by asking us what we thought of it.  When we answered in the superlative, he asked what we thought of the idea of visiting the Northwest national parks and lodges after the 2010 Zane Grey’s West Society convention in Gold Beach, Oregon.  And so it came about that we took in half of the Great Circle (most of them are national parks, monuments, or forests; some are national wonders we took in along the way).

So early summer of 2010, we loaded up our rental Lincoln (with the deepest car trunk in the industry), and headed out, visiting Crater Lake and staying in Crater Lake Lodge, followed by Oregon Caves National Monument and the Oregon Caves Chateau.  Those two were followed by Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge; Mt. Ranier National Park and Paradise Inn; Lake Chelan, North Cascades National Park, and Stehekin Landing Resort; Leavenworth and Enzian Inn; Olympic National Park and Lake Quinault Lodge, also Lake Crescent Lodge; we visited the northern loop of the North Cascades National Park, followed by Grand Coulee Dam; then Yellowstone National Park and Old Faithful Inn, also Lake Yellowstone Lodge; Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Lake Lodge; then Glacier National Park and Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel; and we visited Lake McDonald Lodge.

Should you be interested in vicariously traveling with us and visiting each of those parks and lodges, you can scan back through our archived blogs starting August 4, 2010 through February 9, 2011.

In late spring of 2011, we completed the Great Circle by visiting the Southwest National Parks.  We will begin that trek next Wednesday.  We will be visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reefs National Park, Bryce National Park, Zion National Park, North Rim and South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, the Loneliest Road in America (Highway 50), and Great Basin National Park.  In each blog, we will cover the story of how the park or monument came to be preserved, how the lodge or hotel came to be constructed and preserved, and our reactions to each park and lodge.

When we did the Northwest Parks, they were generally uninterrupted; this time there will be more breaks for other topics, but sooner or later, all will be chronicled for our armchair readers.

RANKING THE NORTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES

It has been quite a journey, for I began this blog series on the Northwest National Park Lodges way back on August 4, 2010, with just a couple of interruptions, it has taken until now to achieve closure. 

Just to recap, right after the Zane Grey’s West Society convention in Gold Beach, Oregon last June, our cherished friends, Bob and Lucy Earp of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Connie, and yours truly, finally managed to shoehorn all our luggage into the ample (we thought) deep trunk of a Lincoln Town Car.  To an onlooker, we’d have been considered the counterpart of Desi and Lucy in films such as their Long Long Trailer.  Finally—and I do mean finally—,we all made our nests, asked God to bless and protect us, and headed up that stunningly beautiful Oregon coast.

We were on the road almost a month.  Amazingly, at the end, we were/are still friends!  Truly a miracle; if you doubt it, just try cooping up four independent-minded free spirits in one box for that long a time without fireworks.

It proved to be a journey none of us will ever forget.  And we’d never have thought of doing it without the Ken Burns PBS Series on the National Parks and the Christine Barnes books on the National Park lodges.

If you’ve been following our trail week by week, I hope you’ll let us know your reactions.  If you have tuned in lately, I encourage you to torque up your mouse and vicariously travel along with us since that first August 4 entry.

* * * * *

We have found these lodges very difficult to rank, for there are so many variables to take into consideration.  Especially the differing reactions to the lodges compared to the parks themselves.  Not surprisingly, rarely were the two experiences ranked the same.  Note reasons why: 

CRATER LAKE LODGE.  We have all stayed there a number of times over the years so our conclusions were multi-layered.

OREGON CAVES CHATEAU.  It was the fist time for all four of us, and since we hadn’t booked it for the night, our rankings did a disservice to it.  But we’ve all vowed to return and stay over night there.

MOUNT HOOD LODGE.  Only I had been there before.  Since it was swamped with skiers, it was anything but a serene experience to stay there.  And given the fact that TV sets were in the guest rooms, the experience was totally incompatible with the atmosphere found in the other lodges.

PARADISE INN.  Only Connie and I had stayed there before. 

STEHEKIN.  The cabins were so recent that they by no means could be considered historic or unique.  But the village itself was both historic and unique.

LAKE QUINAULT LODGE.  It was the first time for all of us.

CRESCENT LAKE LODGE.  It was the first time for all of us.

OLD FAITHFUL INN.  We’ve all been to Yellowstone many times over the years, however, it was the first time any of us had ever stayed over night at Old Faithful Inn.  Because of the incredible congestion, none of us are likely to stay there again – however, we wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!

YELLOWSTONE LAKE HOTEL.  One of the undiscovered gems in the pantheon of National Park lodges.  It was the first time for all four of us.

JACKSON LAKE LODGE.  All of us had stayed here before, and each time have vowed to return.

LAKE McDONALD LODGE.  All of us had visited the lodge before, but none of us have ever stayed over night there.

GLACIER PARK HOTEL.  All of us have stayed here before, and returned.  It is a very special place.

MANY GLACIER LODGE.  We’d all stayed here before, and we return every blessed chance we get!

PRINCE OF WALES HOTEL.  We’d all stayed here before, and love returning to it.

THE RANKINGS

 

In order to separate our hotel evaluations from our Park evaluations, we are listing them separately.  One thing will be obvious to you as you compare rankings: it is amazing that we concluded the journey friends!

 * * * * *

   
Lodge Rankings
   
 
Joe
Connie
Bob
Lucy
Total
Composite
Many Glacier
1
1
2
11
15
3.75
East Glacier
7
9
2
1
1
4.5
Paradise Inn
8
3
6
4
21
5.25
Lake Quinault
6
7
3
6
22
5.5
Crater Lake Lodge
4
5
7
7
23
5.75
Prince of Wales
3
4
11
10
28
7.0
Crescent Lake
11
2
12
5
30
7.5
Timberline Lodge
12
8
5
8
33
8.25
Old Faithful
13
13
4
3
33
8.25
Jackson Lake
10
12
9
2
33
8.25
Yellowstone Lake
9
6
10
9
34
8.5
Stehekin
2
10
13
12
37
9.25
             
   
Park Rankings
   
 
Joe
Connie
Bob
Lucy
Total
Composite
Glacier National Park
1
1
2
11
15
2.0
Grand Teton National Park
3
3
6
1
13
3.25
Yellowstone National Park
1
9
5
2
17
4.25
North Cascades & Stehekin
6
5
4
3
18
4.5
Crater Lake National Park
7
4
3
6
20
5.0
Olympic National Park
5
7
2
7
21
5.25
Mt. Rainier National Park
4
2
8
8
22
5.5
Oregon Caves
8
8
9
5
30
7.5
Mt. Hood
9
6
7
9
31
7.75
             

 * * * * *

Some last questions:    Do you like the addition of photos to the blogs?  Do you think we ought to make the series available in book form for travelers?  Of course, we’d have to first find a publisher interested in printing and promoting such a book.

* * * * *

Do you think we ought to risk our friendship once more by journeying through the Southwest National Park Lodges together?

Thanks so much for taking the journey with us.

PEOPLE WHO WORK IN NATIONAL PARK LODGES

We’ve
come to the end of this series of blogs celebrating Northwest Loop
lodges. But lodges are far more than wood, steel, stone, and glass:
it takes flesh and blood people to bring them to life. Since most
NW lodges close during winter months, it should come as no surprise
to discover that most workers are seasonal, many being students
during the winter months. I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to
life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Americans
(especially the young) flooded out of the cities and into the
nation’s heartland, seeking enough work to stay alive.
“Brother, can you spare a dime,” the mantra for that
generation. The difference this time having to do with our
changing mores. Back then, most of those who left home were
males; that is not true today. When we asked those who waited
tables, cleaned rooms, or otherwise kept the park lodges running
smoothly, where they came from, we quickly discovered that they
came from all across the U.S., Canada, and from around the
world. When asked why, one response predominated: “Since I
couldn’t get a job, I decided to follow my dream and see places
I’ve always wanted to see.” Or, “Since I couldn’t afford
college tuition, I logged in at websites such as Coolworks.com to see what was
available out there.” Some were recent graduates unable to
land a full-time job. Collectively, these workers were a very
attractive mix: clearly the best, cleanest-cut, most adventurous of
their age-group. Since I’m such a romantic, I asked a number
of them what resulted from the juxtaposition of young people of
both sexes in these lodge facilities. They’d smile and admit
to “lots of romances—more romances than marriages.” Yet, a
surprisingly large number spoke of marriages. One young man,
at Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier National Park, paused after my
questioning before musing, “You know . . . I must be a throwback to
my parents. . . . They met at a facility like
this, and have worked in parks ever since. They
love what they do! So it’s affected me
too. Growing up in the great out-of-doors, I couldn’t even
imagine being cooped up in a city! . . . . So, yes, I’ll
probably marry one of my co-workers just like my folks did.” They
were a most mobile group. Freed by the worldwide web to soar
across the nation and the world at the flick of a mouse, state or
national borders meant nothing to them. Shoot! All they
needed was a backpack and enough money to put food in their mouths
and pay the small fees required at youth hostels. They were
unabashedly rootless and loved the life. Their preferred
network: word of mouth. In a rain forest near Lake Quinault,
Bob and I met three very attractive coeds who were building
railings on park trails for the Oregon counterpart to FDR’s
Civilian Conservation Corps. Clearly, they were having a
wonderful time! Indeed, they were bubbling over
with joie de vivre. At Stehekin, that “island”
in time of a Shangri-la on Lake Chelan, one of the young waitresses
could be found during off-hours reading Jane Austen on a rustic
wooden bench, meditatively dreaming the vision of water and
mountains away. At Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a young string quartet
from one of the most prestigious music schools on the East Coast
confessed to coming here every summer, so that they could interact
with like-minded people from all around the world, work with
students who, like them, were lovers of the wide world, adventurers
all, and revel in hikes into every corner of Yellowstone and the
Tetons. “What’s not to like about that?” * * * * * But we
were more surprised by the number of older people we found working
in the park. At Stehekin, the postmaster chuckled as she told
of her daily excitement: carrying her bag of outgoing mail to the
boat just before it returned to Chelan. “Postal regulations
mandate that I lock the door when I leave, but I really don’t need
to. People here are honest.” When asked if she was a
native, she laughed again, “Oh, goodness, no! My husband and
I, as retirees, were sick and tired of the sameness of our lives,
so when we heard of this job, we jumped at the chance to move
here. My husband works in maintenance. Here I’m
needed, and we’ve just fallen in love with the
people here. I just couldn’t imagine leaving this magical
place.” At Old Faithful Inn, that madhouse of seething humanity,
during the unnatural serenity of one of the Old Faithful
Geyser-induced ebb-tides, I asked a lovely young woman,
effervescent, radiating happiness, and eager to be of service to
people like us, what brought her there—but before she could even
answer, an older woman broke in: “But what about me—aren’t you even
interested in me?” Then it was almost
like a dam broke as she poured out her story: Left alone at
midlife, she chanced to come to Old Faithful Inn to work for the
summer–and got hooked. She said, “I’ve been coming back here
every summer for over twenty years. It’s my life! I
live for coming back here every summer. Those who work here,”
and she looked fondly at her beautiful co-worker, “are my
children, and they treat me as though I’m
their mother. Oh the stories I get to hear!” In Colorado, I
met a United Airlines pilot retiree, who when I told him where I’d
been, responded with, “Let me tell you about my folks. Many
years ago, my mother-in-law, then a college student from back East,
from a well-to-do family, suddenly decided she wanted to go out
west to work in Yellowstone for the summer. Her father,
aghast at his daughter even daring to do such a thing, reluctantly
permitted her to go, but first made her accept a derringer for
protection. So when I asked him what happened afterwards, he
paused, a far-away look in his eyes: “Well, she never had to use
her derringer—but she did marry her employer,
the manager of Old Faithful Inn.” * * * * * These are just a few of
the stories we heard during our all-too-brief visits to these
wonderful old lodges. As an author, I’ve discovered that most
everyone I meet has a fascinating story to tell, reminding me of
that moving observation by Hans Christian Andersen: Each
of our lives is a fairy tale, written by the hand of
God
.

JACKSON LAKE LODGE

If you have ever stood at Jenny Lake and looked across to Cascade Canyon weaving its way towards the summit of the Tetons, you will know the joy of being in a sacred place, designed by God to be protected forever.

                            —Horace Albright (Duncan and Burns, 229)

             As we drove the short distance to the south end of Yellowstone, we couldn’t help reminiscing back to our earliest visit to the park in the 1960s, when cars would be stopped for miles as stupid people like us fed panhandling bears from our cars.  Naturally, there were incidents—some of them gory, when bears took the arm as well as the proffered food.

            We also noted that, 32 years after the devastating fires of 1988, the park is greening up again.  It is difficult, though, to know when you’re leaving one park and entering the other, as Rockefeller purchased, then gave, a 23,777 acre corridor between the two parks to the American people.  Today it’s called the “John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.”

View from Jackson Lake Lodge

            Even though it was too early to check in, we stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge to make dinner reservations for the Mural Dining Room.  Since neither Bob nor Lucy had ever been inside the hotel before, Connie and I watched for that magical moment when someone walks up the wide terrazzo stairway into the Grand Lounge.  That view!  I know of only one comparable view in North America: Grand Canyon at sunset from the North Rim lodge’s dining room.  We were not disappointed: in the faces of Bob and Lucy was that look, as they internalized for the first time, in one I-MAX-size frame, 12,605-foot Mount Moran dead center, bookended to the south by Mount Woodring and to the north by Bivouac Peak.  Concentrated in this 40-mile-long range are seventeen white-crowned peaks ranging from 10,000 to almost 14,000 feet in elevation, with close to 7,000 feet of vertical thrust straight up without foothills.  Needless to say, seen for the first time, this once-in-a-lifetime view, in short, staggers.

            And how terribly hard it has been to preserve it!

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROCKEFELLER!

            Mountain men were the first non-Native Americans to discover this great watering hole.  In fact, not only is the valley named for a fur trader named Davey Jackson, Leigh Lake and iconic Jenny Lake are named for a fur-trading couple: Dick and Jenny Leigh.

            General Phil Sheridan, early on (with his cavalry) the savior of Yellowstone, argued in 1882 that Yellowstone needed to be expanded to include the Tetons and their lowlands in order to protect the natural grazing range of the world’s largest surviving elk herd.  But politicians in Washington turned a deaf ear to his argument.

            Down through the years time and time again, just when it seemed the Tetons would be preserved for future generations,Wyoming special interest groups would sabotage those efforts.  On one of their first inspection trips of the national parks, Park founding fathers Stephen Mather and Horace Albright first set eyes on Jackson Hole: “Mather and I were both flabbergasted,” Albright wrote.  “I had never beheld such scenery.” (Duncan and Burns, 228).

            Both men pushed the idea of adding the Teton basin to Yellowstone, but no matter what forward momentum they achieved, ranchers, farmers, sportsmen, and the U.S. Forest Service (often jealous of the national parks) together made it impossible to get a bill through Congress.

            One never-to-be-forgotten day in our nation’s history, Albright learned that the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wife Abby, and their three children (John, Nelson, and Laurance), were traveling incognito in Yellowstone National Park.  Since Rockefeller had already put up the money to make Acadia National Park possible, Albright extended every courtesy to them.  But it was on their second visit, in 1926, as Albright was driving the Rockefellers through the Tetons, that the great moment came: When John D. and Abby expressed dismay at what was happening as developers ruthlessly destroyed what nature had taken ages to create, Albright leaped at the opening and shared his dream with them.  Four months later, John D. informed Albright that he’d decided to embark on a long—and perhaps fruitless—quest to help save the Tetons.  Though the U. S. Forest Service oversaw 2,000,000 acres of forest land in the area, in the past their directors had proven all too willing to permit special interests to take what they wanted.  But, Rockefeller warned Albright, secrecy was essential for if word leaked out that he was buying up land in the area, the asking prices would skyrocket.

            Two years later, Congress finally redesignated some national forest land to create a small Grand Teton National Park—both Rockefeller and Albright were dismayed at how little had been preserved.  Meanwhile, all through the Depression years, Rockefeller secretly continued to buy.  Again and again, Rockefeller offered his holdings as a gift to the American people—and was turned down each time.

Grand Tetons

            Finally, on March 15, 1943, Rockefeller had had enough: he wrote FDR a letter informing him that since the nation refused to accept his gift, he was going to sell it off for whatever it would bring.  That certainly got the President’s attention.  Despairing of getting Congress to buck special interests in this case, he and his Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes concluded their only hope was to use the Antiquities Act as a vehicle for creating a national monument with this land.  On March 15, 1943, the President signed an executive order establishing Jackson National Monument, placing 221,610 acres of public land on the eastern borders of Grand Teton National Park under national park control.

            Wyoming promptly declared war, even trying to ram through a bill to abolish the national monument.  FDR vetoed it.  When Roosevelt died in 1945, the battle was still raging.  Five years later, President Truman brokered a compromise wherein all parties gave and took.  Result: Jackson Hole National Monument became part of an enlarged Grand Teton National Park (included was Rockefeller’s 32,000 acres), bringing the park’s total acreage to 309,994 acres. 

And so ended what has been called “the greatest conservation project of its kind ever undertaken.”  It had taken Rockefeller a quarter of a century to give the land to the American people!  Well might we all shudder just to think of what the Grand Teton country would look like today had there never been a John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to champion its cause. (This section: Duncan and Burns, 229-33, 311-12).

UNDERWOOD UNDERSTATES

Joe at Jenny Lake

            Not long after World War II drew to a close, the American people, so long repressed (1929-1945) because of the twin holocausts of the Great Depression and Second World War, gradually came alive to the realization that life was good, everything was looking up, and that it was high time they checked up on their national parks.

            In fact it was this sudden invasion of American tourists that caused the Rockefellers to re-evaluate their role as leading hospitality provider in the Tetons.  Clearly, more accommodations were needed—perhaps most needed of all was a great hotel that would enhance the stature of their fledgling Grand Teton National Park.  The Rockefellers, one memorable day, climbed up to the top of a knoll that was incredibly dear to them—for it was here, from which point they could look out at one of the grandest views on the planet, that the dream for the park had been born.  Now, one dream realized, they determined to build a great park hotel at the bottom of their beloved knoll.  Next time you’re in the Tetons, take a few minutes to climb that knoll and read the plaque on the modest monument to the Rockefellers there.

Front of Jackson Lake Lodge

            John D. never thought small.  Once the decision was made, he requested the services of the nation’s top architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, catapulted to fame by his already legendary 1926 creation, Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel; building upon that reputation with Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, Bryce and Zion Lodges in Utah, and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Now Underwood basked in the impressive title of, Supervising Architect for the United States. Underwood accepted the offer, realizing that, because of infirmities of age, this might well turn out to be his life’s capstone.  It would take five long years to build.

            But times and architectural styles had dramatically changed since the rustic parkitecture of Ahwahnee.  Now steel, concrete, and plate-glass windows were the vogue.  As to the crucial question of the exterior of this new hotel, Rockefeller and Underwood were of one mind: the hotel must not be permitted to upstage one of perhaps the five greatest views in the world.  Thus it would not be an Ahwahnee or Old Faithful, self-standing icons in their own right.  But rather the exterior must be so understated if would seamlessly blend into the landscape.  But inside—ah!  That would be the challenge: to focus 100% of the visitors’ attention on one thing only—the view in the west.  It is said that John D. had scaffolding put up so he and his son Laurance could climb up to the same height and position where the massive window would be positioned in the Grand Lounge.  Only then were they convinced they’d be guaranteed the same sense of awe one gets walking into Old Faithful Inn or down into the Grand Canyon Lodge of the North Rim’s dining room.

            But neither did they desire a massive hotel; instead Underwood sketched out what turned out to be 385 rooms, only 37 of which would be in the main lodge—all the rest would be cottages.  For the first few decades after they were built, one might have questioned such a decision.  But not today, now that all the trees planted then have reached maturity and softened the cottages’ visual imprint.

* * * * *

            After making our dinner reservations, we climbed back into the faithful Lincoln, and drove down to Jenny Lake.  At her loveliest, Jenny Lake, with her magnificent setting, almost takes your breath away.  But not today—in fact, with clouds obscuring the sun, she seemed a tad dowdy.  But that was because Connie and I had seen her in show-stopping attire.  I told Bob and Lucy about one never-to-be-forgotten day 44 years before when I’d taken our little son Greg on the longest hike of his young life: around Jenny Lake and seven more miles up to Lake Solitude and back.  Looking back at my life, I considered that hike up Cascade Canyon to be perhaps the most—even though I’ve exhausted the adjectives in my thesaurus, not even the word “glorious” is adequate to the challenge of describing the sensual impact of that one day on us.

View from the Chapel of Transfiguration

            Then, after first taking in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and the now world-famous Church of the Transfiguration, we returned to Jackson Lake Lodge and checked into our cottage. Wisely, even though the lodge is modern (dedicated in 1955), there are no TVs in the rooms.  Consequently, we quickly drifted back to that mesmerizing grand lounge, with its two fireplaces with hammered steel hoods and moose-head andirons; the Eagle’s Nest and Crow’s Nest getaways for those who wish more solitude, the Pioneer Grill with its “world’s longest lunch counter,” the Blue Heron Lounge, and the Mural Dining Room.

            After having to pry Lucy and Connie from the outside deck (they were fascinated by the wildlife-watching taking place in the meadow—a grizzly sneaking up on its intended prey, moose, deer, elk, etc).  Finally, we were ushered to our window seat in the Mural Dining Room, where few bothered to look at Carl Roter’s great wood-carving reproduction of Alfred Jacob Miller’s sketches of the Jackson Hole Valley.  Instead, our eyes were riveted on the continually changing vision out the windows.  The dinner proved equal to holding its own, but not equaling its competition.  We stayed there in order to watch the sunset.  Silence . . . the only possible response.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Tune in next week for Glacier National Park.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [a splendid chapter on Jackson Lake Lodge].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2002). [Invaluable source of information on the long struggle for Teton parkhood].

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

LAKE YELLOWSTONE LODGE

A poignant moment, as we left Old Faithful Inn: This wonderful National Park Lodges Tour that we’ve anticipated and planned for, for over a year, is nearing its terminus. How true the closing line in Dumas’ powerful novel, The Count of Monte Cristo—that all human wisdom is distilled in just two words: Wait and Hope. Indeed, for those like us who have reached the autumn of our lives—without new goals, new dreams, new directions, new places to see, new people to meet—our bodies would close shop on us. It is our dreams that energize each day’s awakening, and give us torque and joy.

Then it was time to leave. Actually, it was harder to leave than I thought it would be. Perhaps because of all I now knew about Robert Reamer, who’d dreamed up this magical place, who’d done the same with Lake Quinault Lodge, and transformed Lake Yellowstone Hotel—which I could hardly wait to see. After driving away from a place I now felt we knew personally, I (as navigator) read the entry in Barnes’ second book having to do with the Lake Hotel. What an incredible difference it makes to arrive at a hotel you already know inside out because of all her research, words, and photographs!

Yellowstone Falls

Soon we angled off to Artist’s Point on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Bob and Lucy had never been here before so, with them, we were able to experience vicariously that once-in-a-lifetime moment when someone first takes in the sights and sounds of those prodigious waterfalls thundering over their wide ledges into the abyss over a thousand feet below us. This incredible vista never fails to overwhelm us with its grandeur—and Bob and Lucy’s silence was testimony to how deeply it affected them.

By mid-afternoon it was time to head for another of the world’s most beautiful sights: twenty-mile long Yellowstone Lake, framed by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains (with peaks towering over 12,000 feet). At first, we missed the turn-off for the hotel—which is not surprisingly given the undeniable fact that it is publicized so little. As many times as we’d been to the park over the years, we’d not only not seen it—we’d not even heard about it! In fact, it hadn’t been included in Barnes’ first book at all (but Old Faithful Inn had). Only during the last year had I discovered it even existed.

Lake Yellowstone Lodge

Then we turned a corner—and there it was! Real after all. A very long wooden structure radiantly golden in the afternoon sun. As out of place stylistically yet paradoxically just as much at home as is true of the Stanley Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. As Robert L. Wheaton put it,

Lake Hotel represents a rare survivor of the large Colonial Revival-style hotels and resorts that once sprawled along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine and inland at mountain retreats. At Yellowstone National Park, it was a symbol of civilization in the wilderness. (Barnes, 32).

After driving up the sweeping drive to the porte cochere, we parked behind one of the hotel’s eight vintage White Motor Company motorbuses, painted yellow like the hotel of course. Inside, we walked into a scene that could not be more at variance with old Faithful’s were it on the moon. A grand hotel out of the Golden Age of a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the likes of Greenbriar Inn and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. And as serene:

Solitude seekers hike and pack into the far reaches of the park and lose themselves in its beauty. For those simply looking for a room to soothe the soul, far from the marvels at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, the butter-yellow and white Colonial Revival facade of Lake Hotel . . . simply beckons an attitude adjustment. (Barnes, 17).

THE LAKE HOTEL’S STORY

When Robert Reamer was hired on to be the equivalent of “court architect” for Harry Child in 1903, it was with the understanding that he would design everything Child entrusted to him—which turned out, meant everything! Virtually every building that has endured for the last century came about because of this collaboration of kindred spirits. More often than not, there were many concurrent projects going at once. Just so, it was with Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Northern Pacific Railroad wanted a hotel on Yellowstone Lake, but all they had was a plain-looking box with the ambiance and appeal of an Army barracks. Reamer’s job was to transform the ugly duckling into a swan.

Interior of Lake Yellowstone Lodge

During the 1903-1904 period, Reamer doubled the size of the facility, and by the introduction of twelve 50-foot-high ionic columns transported all the way from Chicago (these supported the porticos), dormers, false balconies, huge iron coach lamps, balustrades, verandas, enlarged windows, etc., he pulled off his miracle: transforming a plain box into an elegant hotel. By summer of 1904, the Lake Hotel had 210 rooms and the ability to accommodate 466 persons, and was advertised as the largest hotel in the park. Because its opening predated that of Old Faithful Hotel, it is considered today to be the oldest public lodging in the park.

Twenty years later, so popular had the hotel become that Reamer was asked to expand its size by adding 113 rooms, and 59 additional bathrooms. Inside, major changes took place: the dark redwood paneling was removed and replaced with light painted woodwork and plaster; “reed-style furniture ordered from San Francisco and large potted ferns replaced the heavy, wooden Colonial Revival ladder-back furniture, giving the hotel the feeling of an East Coast ‘summer resort’ . . . .” Not only that, but now Reamer also constructed a larger, four-hundred capacity, dining room, complete with large picture windows, curved bay window, and self-standing torchere lights.” Adjacent to it, in an inspired mood, Reamer constructed “a lounge solarium set between the columned portico and new porte cochere at the west end of the hotel. This beautiful sun-filled lounge seemed to be the architect’s final grand statement.” (Barnes, 24-28).

The hotel reached its peak beauty just as the Great Depression hit. It was closed down from 1933 – 1936, and only partially opened in 1937. By 1940, the decision was made to tear it down. That summer, the rear wing was demolished. What was left remained empty until 1947. “Neglected and unappreciated, the hotel stood like an aging grand dame with a saucy new era mocking its once stately beauty.” (Barnes, 32).

It was all down-hill from there. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased the derelict from the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company. During the last 30 years, gradually the hotel (now a National Landmark) has been restored to its former glory. Since 1995, it has been managed by XANTERRA.

* * * * *

View of Yellowstone Lake from the Lake Lodge

Our own room on the second floor front looked out at the deep blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. After exploring the hotel, none of us wanted to leave the sunny lounge solarium. Nor, apparently did the hotel’s other guests. Since (as is generally the case with these old lodges) there was no TV in the rooms, families either explored the outdoors or relaxed, read, chatted, played board games, or spent money in the gift shop. Later on, we sat down in the large dining room, and took a long time to dine. Outside: the great windows we never tired of. Later, as darkness fell, the Lake String Quartet (a group of professional musicians from New York City, here for their fourth season) performed from a wide musical menu—from classical, semi-classical, easy-listening, pop, to jazz. The audience loved them!

Afterwards we retired. My head spun; I had the sniffles—the bug had got me too.

Next morning, we ate breakfast in that lovely dining room, then delayed our moment of leaving until check-out time. Afterwards, we drove over to another old facility (also managed by XANTERRA, the rustic Lake Lodge (built during the 1920s) and its 186 wooden cabins (away from the lake). The main lodge has a large lobby with two impressive gas fireplaces, a cafeteria dining area, and long veranda equipped with rocking chairs so comfortable neither Lucy nor Connie wanted to get out of them. As we drove out, just north of the Lake Hotel, a great bull buffalo grazing next to the road posed for photos.

CANYON HOTEL—PARADISE LOST

We must not close this series of Robert Reamer-designed hotels without bringing up a very sad story. In the fall of 1909, the Childs and Reamer boarded the steamship S. S. Mauritania for Europe. Once there, they studied European architecture in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Germany. On their return, his head whirling with visions of all the romantic architecture he’d studied, Reamer dreamed up his Xanadu: a great European-inspired hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Construction began in June of 1910, of the largest building ever to be constructed in the park. Thanks to Northern Pacific’s deep pockets, money was no object, and it showed. It cost half a million dollars—a staggering sum for the times.

Lake Lodge

It was 600-feet long by 100 wide, and contained 375 guest rooms—huge fireplaces added to the overall dramatic effect. The great three-story-high lounge was 200-feet long by 100-wide, and became renowned for its two spiral staircases, and grand staircase; the magnificent lobby was 85-feet high, 175-feet-long, and 100-feet-wide, complete with signature fireplaces. Twenty years later, so heavily booked was it that Reamer added a 96-room-wing to the already enormous hotel. The great masquerade balls and dances became the stuff of legend.

That Reamer knew he’d created a masterpiece is borne out by these words: I built it in keeping with the place where it stands. Nobody could improve upon that. To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence. (Quinn, 79).

But then the Great Depression hit, delaying completion of the 96-room-addition until 1935. By then it was all too clear that the euphoria of the Jazz Age would not return; nor would the wealthy clientele that filled great resort hotels like this for months at a time.

It remained a forlorn relic of that bygone age for 25 more years until it was demolished in August of 1960. But it did not perish ignominiously to the wrecking ball—somehow, it suddenly ignited and roared into an inferno.

Quinn’s requiem reads thus: “The Grand Canyon Hotel is second only to Old Faithful Inn in fame and recognition of Reamer’s talents. Numerous Yellowstone visitors today return with fond memories of lunches eaten, dances enjoyed, or summers engaged as employees at this grand hostelry. For those who experience it only vicariously through photographs, it is a romantic reminder of grander, gentler times.” (Quinn, 78).

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Jackson Lake Lodge

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [most informative!]

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable source for both the Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone hotels].

Scott, David L. and Kay W. (The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

OLD FAITHFUL INN

            After leaving Grand Coulee Dam, we drove south along shimmering blue Banks Lake (a Grand Coulee reservoir) to Coulee City, then turned east on hwy 2, taking us to Spokane and Interstate 90.  We stayed at a Best Western in Coeur d’Alene that night.  Next morning we continued along I-90.  Now, the scenery became more mountainous and scenic—well, as scenic as interstates ever get.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we made few stops en route to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed at the Hampton.

            Already the differences between the world of the old national park lodges and the world of chain lodges was beginning to be more and more marked in our minds: small bedrooms and large lobbies compared to small lobbies and large bedrooms; serenity compared to electronic noise; camaraderie compared to isolation; deep thoughts about life compared to electronic stifling of thought—not coincidentally, TVs everywhere to no TVs at all.

Historic North Entrance gate to Yellowstone National Park

            Next day, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the famous Gardiner Gate at the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Virginia Cascade, en route to Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK       

            Before 1872, there was not in the entire world such a thing as a “national park.”  For almost three quarters of a century, reports of its wonders had occasionally trickled out, but no one believed them.  Not until 1870, when Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson not only saw those wonders but returned with proof: Moran’s stunning panoramic paintings and Jackson’s memorable and convincing photographs.   On the premise that it was useless to developers, the bill for its preservation passed almost unanimously.  It was signed into law by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

            But creating a national park and protecting it proved to be two different things.  Gradually, conditions deteriorated to the point where the park’s very survival was at risk.  At this critical point, George Bird Grinnell (influential editor of Forest and Stream and close friend of young Teddy Roosevelt) and General Phil Sheridan (hero of the great Civil War poem, “Sheridan’s Ride”) joined forces; since the government refused to protect the park, Sheridan sent his cavalry in—thirty years later, they were still there.

            Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883, John Muir in 1888, Rudyard Kipling in 1889.  By then most everyone was calling the park “Wonderland.”  On April 24, 1903, Roosevelt, on a transcontinental 14,000-mile speaking tour, spent two weeks in Yellowstone.  Dedicating the new entrance arch in Gardiner, Montana, TR said,

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world. . . .  Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved.

                                                                        —(Duncan and Burns, 92).

Old Faithful Geyser

            Yellowstone’s iconic symbol is Old Faithful Geyser—most appropriate since, with over 10,000 hydrothermal features, the park offers the largest concentration of geysers (over 300) and geothermal activity on earth.  1,700-foot-deep Yellowstone Canyon is by itself one of the greatest natural wonders on earth; and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet.  But Yellowstone is also perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife sanctuary, with grizzlies, black bears, elk, moose, wolves, bison, and so much more.

            In short, 2,200,000 acre Yellowstone is the parent stock for all the national parks around the world that have come into being during the last 138 years. 

THE STORY OF OLD FAITHFUL

            Have you ever noticed that it is the best-known, most famous, subjects that prove the hardest to get your arms around?  Just so, it is for Old Faithful Inn, without question the best known hotel in national park history.  Strangely enough it is just as much an international icon as Old Faithful Geyser itself.

            Over 3,000,000 tourists from all over the world swarm Yellowstone each year, almost all during the short summer season—so they come at the rate of almost a million a month.  And it appears that no one dares to come here without worshiping at the shrine of both Old Faithfuls.  Who’d believe they’d been to Yellowstone without photographic proof that they’d actually stood there in front of those two semi-immortal entities?

            So how did the lodge get here in the first place?

            Well, in the early days they could get by with just tents.  But all that changed in 1883 when railroad tracks reached the North Entrance in Gardiner.  Park administration continued to complain about the failure of tourists to stay long enough to see much; but the reason was obvious: they had to find lodging somewhere by nightfall.

            The breakthrough came in 1901 when Northern Pacific Railroad sold its controlling stock in Yellowstone Park Association to the Yellowstone Transportation Company; Harry Child was named president.  Up till then, the park had lacked a focal center, a final authority.  Child would rule supreme in Yellowstone for the rest of his life.  Almost immediately, he set about searching for an architect he could count on, not just for a building or two, but for the long haul.  He found that in the person in a self-taught architect by the name of Robert Reamer.

            Reamer journeyed to Yellowstone in 1903 via a career trajectory beginning in Ohio, and continuing through Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and California.  When Child first heard of him, Reamer was making a name for himself in San Diego, especially in terms of his projects for the already legendary del Coronado Hotel (first opened in 1888).  It proved to be a perfect fit: Child and Reamer worked together for the rest of Reamer’s life.

            Old Faithful not only was Reamer’s first major project, it would remain his life’s greatest achievement.  Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1903 visit to the park, upon seeing Reamer’s designs for park hotels, expressed his delight.  Northern Pacific Railroad came up with $100,000 to construct it.

Interior of Old Faithful Inn

            Reamer designed the iconic core of the hotel in 1903, the East Wing in 1913-14, and the Y-shaped West Wing in 1927; eventually providing 327 rooms for guests.  The seven-story stair-stepped-inn is striking enough from the outside, but Reamer’s biographer, Ruth Quinn, maintains that the píece de résistance has to be the lobby:

                        For most visitors the lobby stands as the structure’s distinguishing feature.  From its polished maple floor to the peak of its log paneled ceiling, it measures more than 76 feet in height.  The lobby of Old Faithful Inn is a maze of twisted branches, inviting staircases, and welcoming balconies described by one historian as rusticity gone berserk!  Upon viewing the lobby, many are drawn beyond, to experience it—to touch its enormous stone chimney, to stroke a beautifully polished log, to inhale the scent of the wood, to listen to the creak of the stairs and the chatter of admirers.  This is a building to delight the senses.  It is a public space with a strong sense of place where many feel at home.  All eyes are carried upward, one gapes and wonders, Who could have imagined this? (Quinn, 1).

            Old Faithful Inn would become the template, the inspiration, for other great park hotels such as El Tovar, East Glacier, Many Glacier, Prince of Wales; Crater Lake, and Ahwahnee.  It would be reproduced life-size for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and is the inspiration behind Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

            Though it has been loved to death from the start, almost we lost it during the 1970s.  Barnes notes that “Rotting logs, worn shingle siding, and a deteriorating roof were the obvious problem. . . .  There were joints coming apart, the roof was collapsing in sections, logs were falling off the building.”  The NPS seriously considered demolishing it, but the public was outraged at the very thought! (Barnes, 24).

            It took ten years and over $7,000,000 to fix the problems and shore it up for the next half century.  Periodic earthquakes are always a problem since Yellowstone itself is the world’s most active volcano.

            The entire world watched with bated breath, however, in 1988, when it appeared certain Old Faithful Inn was doomed.  In that terrible forest fire, when almost a third of the park burned over, only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the lodge for posterity.

* * * * *

Exterior of Old Faithful Inn

            Over the years we’d been to Old Faithful Geyser and Inn many times, but had never stayed here.  Since it’s booked a year in advance, it was not easy to get rooms in the Inn itself.  Turns out we didn’t spend much time in our bedrooms, because the hotel itself is so fascinating.  Especially the people-watching.  The clock everyone watches is the one that tells everyone when Old Faithful Geyser is due to erupt (the intervals used to be about an hour long, but since the last big earthquake, it has extended to about an hour and a half).  About fifteen minutes before it’s due, the tide goes out; five minutes before, the inn is all but deserted.  When it’s over, the tide surges in again—but in one long sustained tsunami.  And the cycle is faithfully repeated night and day.  The poor Inn never sleeps.  One clerk told me, “I get here at 6 a.m., and chances are the lobby will be jammed already!”

            What’s most fun is to sit on the second floor mezzanine and watch the faces of people young and old as they stream in—especially the moment of shock when they freeze in motion and stare up and up in awe, jaws dropping.  It never fails.

            Since dinner reservations are so difficult to secure, our travel agent made ours over half a year ahead of time.  Eating in Reamer’s great dining room was a feast for the senses as well as for the food itself.

            Next morning, Bob and I took a tour of the Inn.  Our guide, in period costume, really made the old hotel live, telling us behind-the-scenes anecdotes and secrets most people would never know.  We learned that the last major quake stopped the great fourteen-foot clock and messed up the chimney in the huge fireplace—no one knows when they’ll be up and running again.

            But unlike sister park lodges, because of the continual tidal surges there is little serenity here—though, later in the evening, we came fairly close when a pianist played old standards and brought about the first lessening of the decibels since we’d arrived.  And breakfast was considerably quieter than dinner was.

            So we weren’t sorry to go.  Wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  But once was enough.  Perhaps Reamer’s next hotel would be quieter.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Robert Reamer’s Yellowstone Lake Lodge.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Splendid chapter on the hotel].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009). [The most definitive history of Yellowstone Park I’ve ever read].

                        The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable biography of the builder of Old Faithful Inn].

Scofield, Susan C, and Jeremy C. Schmidt, The Inn at Old Faithful (no p.: Crowsnest Associates, 1979).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Graphic Society, 2009). [Helpful].