National parks are a late-Victorian invention, the product of a time when Americans thrilled to the grandeur of nature and measured progress in terms of the public good. To visit the parks today— particularly the older ones in the mountain West— is to encounter not just nature's wonders but civic monuments from the age that made those wonders a tourist destination. Here you'll find palaces for the people, at least as ambitious in scale and design as the millionaires' camps of the Adirondacks. Bringing creature comforts to the wilderness wasn't easy, so you have to marvel at the determination with which it was done— even though, like the parks themselves, the lodgings have not always flourished in our less public-spirited times.
Old Faithful Inn
Rudyard Kipling had a point when he described the Yellowstone, a vast plateau festooned with sulfurous geysers and boiling springs, as "the uplands of Hell." Aside from scalding eruptions, stagecoach robberies, and the occasional Indian uprising, early visitors to the world's first national park had to contend with accommodations so primitive they didn't necessarily include beds. All this changed in 1904 with the completion of the Old Faithful Inn, a spectacular log-and-shingle château that captures the moment the West went from wild to baroque.
The Old Faithful is the log cabin to end all log cabins. Architect Robert Reamer used native materials— igneous stone, lodgepole pine, hand-wrought iron and copper— to astonishing effect. Anticipating John Portman by 70 years, Reamer engineered a log lobby that rises to a height of 85 feet, ringed by log balconies and pierced by a freestanding stone chimney. Logs climb one atop another— log walls and ceilings, log pillars and railings, log staircases and doors— in a dizzying kaleidoscope of burnished wood. You can sit in a rocking chair and take it all in, or wander out to the second-floor terrace and wait for the next eruption of the geyser. Sipping a Jack Daniel's before dinner, with a herd of bison lumbering through the grounds below, you could almost be Teddy—
"Rose, party of two!"
So much for that reverie. Which is the problem with the Old Faithful: every time you start to succumb, something brings you up short. Take the dining room— a great hall of noble proportions, dominated by an enormous stone fireplace, it could be a stage set for Macbeth. Yet it's a standard-issue tourist joint, slogging out prefab foods that taste of cardboard and cellophane. Then there's the geyser, which draws huge summer crowds that pour into the lobby after each eruption. Maybe this explains why TW Recreational Services, the concessionaire at Yellowstone, runs the dining room and the cheesy gift shop across the lobby as if guests were K-mart shoppers.
In its long-running restoration of the structure itself, however, the company has been relatively sensitive. The sleeping quarters are hardly luxurious, but they're comfortable enough. The recently renovated east wing, which Reamer added in 1913, has pale-yellow guest rooms with splendid views of the geyser just outside— though I'd have been happier if the plumbing had drainage as faithful as nature's. (Reamer's 1927 west wing has now been redone as well.) The 140 rooms in the original section are cozy and rustic: with their oak dressers, copper-top washstands, and rough-hewn pine walls (log on the ground floor), they've barely changed since 1904. Only eight of these rooms have private baths, but the communal facilities are ample and clean and a reminder of how much we take for granted today. In Yellowstone, where people are only visitors, such reminders are not out of place.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.; 307/344-7311; doubles $47-$210; open early May to mid-October.
Jenny Lake Lodge
Grand Teton National Park was a Rockefeller creation, and it shows— especially at Jenny Lake Lodge, which is as exclusive as the Old Faithful is overrun. Hidden beneath towering spruces at the foot of the Grand Tetons, Jenny Lake began as a dude ranch for effete Easterners eager to rough it for a few weeks. Roughing it is no longer an option (the outhouses were replaced years ago, and you don't even have to split your own firewood), but duding is. When you nudge your steed back to the corral and change into jacket and tie for dinner, that's duding. When dinner is served in an intimate, log-paneled dining room and includes fillet in Madeira sauce or lamb medallions in mint béarnaise, that's duding plus.
But the best meal at Jenny Lake is breakfast— succulent huckleberry pancakes, flawless eggs Benedict, hearty enough to fuel you for those foot-and-bridle trails that lead up into the Tetons. There's also cycling, fly-fishing, and float trips on the Snake River, in addition to golf, tennis, and swimming at the nearby Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club. At day's end you return to a snug little cabin of the Ralph Lauren persuasion: rustic bedsteads, plaid armchairs, quilts sewn by two ladies in Rexburg, Idaho.
Two other things about Jenny Lake: its 31 cabins contain only 37 rooms and suites, and many guests book the same cabin for a week or more every summer. They return not just for the rugged vistas and the fresh-air pursuits but for the lingering aura of money. Some still talk about the day Laurance Rockefeller— whose father bought up the Tetons and much of Jackson Hole and presented them to the government some 55 years ago— showed up with a luncheon party in a fleet of motorcars. The place has loosened up considerably in recent years, and the food may have slipped a notch as well— a crustless pâté en croûte, too-sweet Cumberland sauce, a bland chocolate soufflé. But what other lodge gives you unspoiled Western grandeur while shielding you so effectively from the crowds?
Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.; 307/733-4647, fax 307/733-0324; doubles $365-$500, including breakfast and dinner; open late May to early October.
Checking into the Ahwahnee, a grand hotel of the twenties in the spectacular Yosemite Valley, I got that Barton-Fink-goes-to-the-wilderness feeling: amazement tinged with paranoia. The dim lighting, the somber palette, the cobwebby lanterns, the awesome scale— what was I doing in the Sierras anyway?Then I got to my room, which was so dingy it was positively lugubrious. As I gazed out at Upper Yosemite Falls, a 1,500-foot ribbon of silver draped languidly down a granite cliff, it hit me: I was supposed to be outdoors. And the sooner the better.
If Yellowstone, established in 1872, was the first national park, Yosemite was where the cult of the outdoors got started. "Born again!" wrote the young John Muir upon first seeing Yosemite Valley, dedicating himself on the spot to the stewardship of nature. But to appreciate the sublime one must accommodate the flesh. In 1925, after Lady Astor cut short a visit because her rooms were so awful, the National Park Service hired Los Angeles architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood to design something better.
Underwood came up with a remarkable structure— part wilderness lodge, part baronial manor, built of concrete and steel but finished in granite and logs and trimmed with Art Deco ironwork and Native American motifs. A muscular building set against the soaring granite walls of Yosemite Valley, it seems at once massive and minuscule. The log-ceilinged dining room is graced with row after row of 25-foot windows; an equally impressive lounge is warmed by a fireplace big enough to stand in. Even with cobwebs, the place is hard to resist.
Indeed, after looking at Glacier Point from the dazzlingly bright Solarium and watching a coyote from the safety of the clubby Mural Room, I had to rethink my Barton Fink response— especially once I realized that the hotel was in the midst of a renovation. Dramatic flower arrangements and vintage furniture boded well, as did long, delectable dinners— fillet with a pungent green-peppercorn sauce, rack of lamb redolent of rosemary. Work started more than a year ago on the first of the 99 guest rooms, which have been redone in shades of olive and gold, or rose and cream, or gray and taupe. (The 24 bungalows were less ambitiously redecorated several years ago.) By the time you get there, the Ahwahnee will probably be so nice you'll want to stay in your room. What would John Muir say to that?
Yosemite National Park, Calif.; 209/252-4848; peak season (late March to late October) doubles $229.50. Open year-round.