Thanksgiving in the National Parks: You Don't Have To Look Far For a Feast

No, these toms aren't on the menu. But visit Zion National Park and you might find them strutting about the lawn in front of the Zion Lodge. Photo by QT Luong, used with permission. www.terragalleria.com/parks

For some people, Thanksgiving means a full belly and an afternoon on the couch watching football. For me, Thanksgiving means a full belly and a hike in the fresh autumn air of a national park.

For years, my family either has shared a long weekend together near Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia end of Assateague Island National Seashore or has met for the afternoon in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

Thanksgiving weekend is an especially good time for lovers of wildlife to visit the Chincoteague refuge; it’s the only time each year that a 7.5-mile service road on the island is open to cars. Biking and hiking opportunities abound there, too, as do walks along the surf-pounded beach. (Please note that there likely will be closures from recent storm damage this year, including the service road, so check the Web site or call ahead if you’re considering a trip.)

Shenandoah has more than 500 miles of trail, perfect for working up a big appetite. The paths lend panoramic views of the surrounding mountains with their newly bare forests, and brown and russet hues from the last of the fallen leaves color the ground. The scenery alone is reason enough to be thankful.

Chincoteague does not have a lodge, so we simply head to a local restaurant. In Shenandoah, however, we avail ourselves of the huge buffet at Skyland Resort. While I’ve never counted how many dishes they serve, the number must be staggering. What comes to mind are mounds of plump turkey and ham and the traditional trimmings, fried oysters, a salad table with side salads and 'slaws and relishes and breads, and a dessert table with all manner of cobblers and pies and brownies and mousse.

Such gluttony does offset the hike, but you do what you have to in the name of the holidays, eh?

The lodge sits on top of the mountain and comes complete with a large picture window overlooking the valley. Last year, as we left, the sun was setting in a Fuschia sky, the moon was rising and the night’s first stars were sparkling.

So for a memorable combination of good scenery, good times, and good eats, I offer you a list of lodges in or near national parks that advertise a Thanksgiving extravaganza. It doesn’t purport to be a complete list, so please add your favorites in the comments.

Death Valley National Park, California

You've got options at Furnace Creek. At the Furnace Creek Inn, your choice of entrees include traditional roast turkey, Grilled Denver Leg of Venison, sauteed Halibut, a Porterhouse steak, or Autumn Vegetable Linguini, which features roasted pumpkin and a pumpkin seed Thai-basil pesto. Naturally, each comes with sides: apple-apricot cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied sweet potatoes, and a raft of others that will make you wish you had taken that hike up Golden Canyon before dinner.

Across the street at the Furnace Creek Ranch, the 49er Cafe and Wrangler Steakhouse are serving both roasted free-range turkey or sugar-cured baked ham with sides of chive-mashed potatoes, candied yams and green beans.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The South Rim offers perhaps the most Thanksgiving feasting options in the park system, what with restaurants at El Tovar, Bright Angel, the Arizona Room, and the Maswik cafeteria.

At the Arizona Room, while enjoying views into the canyon you can dig into a dry-rubbed roast porkloin with sweet corn relish; Chile-Crusted Grilled Wild Alaskan Salmon with melon salsa; oven-roasted turkey with cornbread stuffing; a Rosemary Mustard Rubbed Prime Rib of Beef with mashed potato and baby carrots; or a Roasted Vegetable Chimichanga with Ancho Sour Cream, Black Beans and Saffron Rice. If you make it through those, the desserts are just as incredible, ranging from pumpkin pie to Blackberry Peach Streusel and even Cheesecake with Prickly Pear syrup.

Bright Angel is serving a more subdued, yet still traditional, roast turkey dinner complete with your choice of soup or house salad and a main course of white and dark turkey with cornbread stuffing, sweet as well as mashed potatoes, a giblet gravy, and vegetables.

El Tovar's menu is just as decadent as that of the Arizona Room, what with such main courses as Roast Porkloin with Roasted Fuji Apple Puree, or broiled Natural Lamb Chops with mint jelly, or Citrus Ginger Poached Halibut, or oven-roasted turkey, or Applewood-Smoked Black Angus Prime Rib of Beef au jus, or roasted vegetable lasagna parmesan. Still with us? Dessert offerings include Pumpkin Crunch Tartlet, Cranberry Swirl Cheesecake, Chocolate Glazed Butter Rum Bundt Cake, or Low Sugar Lemon Soufflé Cake.

Makes you want to walk the Rim Trail, doesn't it?

Finally, over at the Masik/Yavapai Cafeteria you can enjoy a traditional thanksgiving dinner that includes roast turkey with giblet gravy, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, veggies, and cranberry sauce.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina:

At Fontana Village Resort you get a mouth-watering dinner and much more. You can pick from hikes and movies telling the history of the area, a Ping Pong tournament, mountain gridiron tag football, clogging lessons, a hayride, and a square dance. Stay the weekend, and you can also take part in a scavenger hunt, turkey shoot, and basket weaving classes.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California:

Montecito Sequoia Lodge is a lakeside family camp resort in the high Sierras squeezed between Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks offering a traditional feast with creative appetizers; a sample menu mentions mini crab cakes, shrimp flautas, crostinis and tomato compote, and spinach artichoke dip. The lodge also has guided hikes, social hours, and activities just for kids.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington:

How about dinner in a historic lodge that’s nestled in soft evergreens at the base of a snow-covered volcano? The historic National Park Inn at Longmire is offering up herb-roasted turkey with all the trimmings and hand-carved baron of beef. After dinner, take a walk down a trail to lose some of the calories while enjoying the forests and, if it's a clear day, Rainier's snowy summit.

North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Washington:

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center honors the state of Washington with its special celebration, filled with naturalist-led outings, family art projects, and a locally grown and locally sourced healthful Thanksgiving feast. The bounty includes Penn Cove oysters, free-range organic turkey and ham, cheeses and mashed and sweet potatoes from the Skagit Valley, Washington State cranberry sauce, and apple and pumpkin pies. And, of course, nearby trails to work up an appetite!

Olympic National Park, Washington:

Lake Quinault Lodge, hard on the southwestern border of the national park, has a buffet brunch all day for Thanksgiving, plus fun activities. You can take a walk in the soft drippy rainforest, stroll along the lodge's namesake lake, hike to where salmon spawn and bald eagles fly, or play bocce ball and bowl leftover Halloween pumpkins down the hill. Or just plop down in a chair before the fire and enjoy friends and family.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado:
Near the Rockies’ snowy peaks and a large scenic lake, Marys Lake Lodge is fixing up a brunch with eggs and waffles, plus turkey, ham, prime rib, comfort foods like potatoes and casseroles, and decadence like pistachio crème brulee tartlets. It’s good fuel for an afternoon of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the peaceful snowy woods...if the snow gods are willing, that is.

Yosemite National Park, California:

In addition to waterfalls, El Capitan and an incredible valley, Yosemite boasts several lodges (some in the valley, some not) with big meals and special settings:

Found on the western edge of the park the Evergreen Lodge, while serving up a full Thanksgiving meal, also offers a day full of valley sightseeing tours, guided hikes, a sunset hayride, and an after-dark outdoor fire complete with games and s’mores, just in case you didn’t get enough to eat.

Within the Yosemite Valley, the Ahwahnee Dining Room has a 34-foot-high beamed ceiling, chandeliers, and tables set with linen and fine china. For Thanksgiving, you'll find everything from organic turkey to prime rib to Arctic char, plus Gobble Gobble ice cream, three flavors in a turkey "puff." After dinner you can walk off your meal on one of the nearby trails or relax before the fire in the Great Lounge just off the dining room.

Across the valley floor the Mountain Room has a sumptuous Thanksgiving menu. The vegetarians in your party have plenty of options, including seasonal organic greens and baked tofurky.

Just outside Yosemite's southern gate the Tenaya Lodge promises a Thanksgiving buffet, in addition to family portrait sessions in the hotel lobby, morning-light hikes and flashlight hikes, spa treatments, and a 34-foot-fir Christmas tree to get you in the mood for December’s festivities.

Not far inside the southern gate the Wawona Dining Room is described as Victorian with a rustic flare, accented with sequoia cones and pictures. Its menu includes an impressive array of Thanksgiving favorites. I’d love to try the creamy apple parsnip soup with fried sage.

Zion National Park, Utah

Red-rock and turkey, what could be better? At the Zion Lodge in the heart of Zion Canyon you can stroll amid wild turkeys on the lawn and then head inside for an all-day turkey buffet...if your conscience lets you. Or order up the prime rib or ham, plus some pumpkin pie. After dinner you'll find no shortage of hikes, long and short, to walk off your meal. You can head up to the Emerald Pools or, if you're really ambitious and it's early enough, tackle Angel's Landing.

Mmm, there is plenty to be thankful for on this list. Is anyone else hungry yet?