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National Park Hospitality Association Wants More Lodging In The Parks

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Does Voyageurs National Park need more lodging, perhaps here at Grassy Bay? NPS photo.

There are units of the National Park System, such as Canyonlands, North Cascades, and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, just to name three, that have little or no lodging within their borders. It's just such a lack of facilities, believes Derrick Crandall, that serves as a drag on visitation to the park system.

Parks with little or inadequate lodging, he maintains, have limited allure with the traveling public.

The argument raised by Mr. Crandall, the counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association as well as president and chief executive offer of the American Recreation Coalition, is not unlike many made nearly a century ago, when the thought of a "national park" was just beginning to germinate with politicians, the general public, and business leaders.

In 1911, leaders of the American Civic Association described travel, at the time primarily by rail, to the small handful of parks that then existed as the "dignified exploration of our national parks," as Alfred Runte notes in National Parks: The American Experience. Richard B. Waltrous, the association's secretary, reached out to the preservationists of the day to support travel to the parks, noting "the direct material returns that will accrue to the railroads, to the concessionaires, and to the various sections of the country that will benefit by increased travel" as a way to both draw attention to the parks and to actually help preserve them, Mr. Runte pointed out.

That same summer, Mr. Runte noted, Interior Secretary Walter Fisher announced the federal government's first conference on national parks, to be held at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, saying "the way to start this conference is with the question of how we are going to get to the parks?"

While there are many ways to reach the national parks these days, Mr. Crandall maintains that the general infrastructure of the parks is still lacking even as the National Park Service draws near its centennial in 2016. During a recent House subcommittee meeting he requested that Congress work with private businesses to develop "architecturally outstanding" and "enduring" facilities that would lure more visitors to the parks.

"While visitation to showcase parks remains stable, many other units of the National Park System offer wonderful experiences but are highly underutilized," he said in his testimony (attached). "In many cases, these less-visited, high-potential parks have limited visitor services, and this is an area we urge the Congress to examine. Some have argued that in today’s complex, fast-paced world, even if we build new facilities in these park units, people might not come. We can tell you that the evidence seems conclusive: if we don’t provide park lodging, restaurants and more, people won’t come and the relevancy of parks to our society is threatened."

In a follow-up conversation with the Traveler, Mr. Crandall elaborated on his testimony, saying that lodging capacity in the National Park System has not kept pace with either the growing number of units in the system or the growth of the American population. That lack of capacity, he maintained, is a prime reason why visitation to the system has been relatively flat.

"I think there’s significant awareness that if in fact we want to encourage continued relationships between the national parks and the American public, we can’t do that if fewer and fewer people are coming to the parks," said Mr. Crandall. "And right now we’re looking at a 25 percent increase in the number of Americans, and a park decrease in terms of the number of visits, and that I would say is not a good situation, especially when you’ve grown the park system by 20 percent in terms of units.

“This year, visitation will be down 2 percent. You’re seeing at some of the units where there is a higher level of visitor services, that’s where you're seeing the people go," he continued, nodding to the strong numbers at such parks as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier. "It’s also a reality that Americans go where they hear about, either where they’ve been or where they see some kind of effort in the way of marketing and promotion and I would say the concessionaires, because they do market and promote those parks with visitor services, help to ensure that in fact visitation to the parks you just cited are if not record are at least, certainly they have high levels of visitation."

The National Park Service seemingly has yet to develop a concise and accurate method for counting visitors. Currently, it's hard if not impossible to say with any confidence which course visitation is following, up or down. That said, it's no secret that the agency at times has struggled to keep up its lodging facilities, which in most cases are leased, not owned outright, by concessionaires.

Many of the grand dames of park lodging are approaching, or have passed, 100 years in age, and that age can readily show through. At Mount Rainier National Park the Paradise Inn was closed in 2006 for a two-year period for a top-to-bottom rehabilitation. At Glacier National Park the Many Glacier Hotel has remained open during the high summer season while much-needed repairs were made to address structural and utility woes. Sweeping rehabilitation projects have also targeted Lake Hotel (a 10-year project between 1981 and 1991 accomplished much-needed repairs and improvements) and even the Old Faithful Inn (the 1990s saw many rehabilitation projects in the inn) in Yellowstone, and now Yosemite officials are debating how best to make needed repairs and improvements to The Ahwahnee Lodge.

Quicker acting than age on facilities can be natural events, such as the hurricanes that battered the Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park back in 2005; the lodge was razed last year. In these cases it can take the Park Service in some cases years to respond with suitable plans for replacements. Everglades officials now are considering a six-phase plan for returning visitor services to Flamingo.

Mr. Crandall understandably has a vested interest, in light of whom he represents, in getting Congress to agree that newer and better facilities are needed in the park system. And yet, there are others who maintain that minimal infrastructure is one of the hallmarks of the National Park System. That's not an unfamiliar argument. Not long after National Park Service Director Secretary Conrad Wirth announced his bold Mission 66 plan, one intended to improve national park infrastructure over a ten-year period, from 1956-1966, it received a great deal of criticism, according to Richard West Sellars, a long-time Park Service historian and author of the acclaimed Preserving Nature in the National Parks, A History.

Concerns included the inappropriateness of the location and the appearance of visitor centers and other tourist facilities, the amount of road construction, the design of roads, and whether highways should wind gently through park scenery or provide for high-speed traffic.

To many, the major objection of Mission 66 was that it tended to modernize and urbanize the national parks. In Everglades, for instance, the dirt road to Flamingo, forty miles from the park entrance, was paved early in Mission 66, thus opening the heart of the park to heavy tourist traffic. As described by Devereaux Butcher, a longtime critic of national park management, the small cluster of structures at Flamingo became like a 'fishing-yachting resort of the kind that is a dime a dozen in Florida' -- including a sixty-room motel, a large restaurant, a marina with accommodations for large boats, marine equipment sales, rentals for outboard and inboard boats (including houseboats), and sightseeing operations for daily tours of the park's Florida Bay. This development not only resulted in the dredging of part of Florida Bay to provide access for larger boats, but also required regular transportation of supplies and equipment by truck along the park's newly improved road, in addition to increased visitor traffic.

While Mr. Crandall his testimony to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands cited The Ahwahnee in Yosemite and El Tovar in Grand Canyon National Park, two of the highest priced lodges in the entire system, as examples of the sort of park-appropriate architecture he envisioned, during his telephone conversation with the Traveler he said that there's a need for lodgings at all price points, and not just in the 58 "national parks."

“I sure think that what we have to do is get off the focus of just the 58 national parks and understand there are 392 units. A lot of what we’re talking about is expanding the visitor services in other units, that are not your Yellowstones and Yosemites, and really where the public doesn’t have very much in the way of help in terms of enjoying the great outdoors," said Mr. Crandall.

“We’re talking about places like Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, which I think is a great candidate for some better lodging and other kinds of visitor infrastructure than they currently have," he said. "What we really have never done is look at what does it take to distribute the visitorship across the park system. What can we do to provide high quality park experiences in all of the 392 units? Sometimes it won’t be any kind of infrastructure inside the park itself. It can be done in gateway communities."

Mr. Crandall said his vision includes both replacing existing facilities that have overstayed their usefulness and adding to the number already found in the parks.

"I don’t know if you’ve been to Lake Mead recently, but the in-park lodging at Lake Mead should never be there. I think there could be some lodging at Lake Mead, but certainly it needs to be a park-appropriate design as opposed to what’s there," he said. “In other cases we’re looking at either new units or units that have the potential to provide a lot more service, a lot more experiences, and with some LEED-certifiable, ADA-compliant structures, I think the public will be well-served.”

Looking to the Many Glacier Hotel, Mr. Crandall noted its historic significance -- the Great Northern Railway built the hotel between 1914 and 1917 to cater to its customers -- on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, but also questioned why the Park Service is spending so many taxpayer dollars to bring it up to code and comfort.

“I think it’s very appropriate," he said of the rehabilitation project under way. "I think that we shouldn’t be spending $30 million of appropriated capital there. I think that could have been done, should have been done, the way it was first built, with private capital."

While not calling specifically for the Park Service to have razed Many Glacier and started anew, Mr. Crandall said that should have been part of the conversation when park officials were examining options for addressing the hotel's needs.

“I think that needs to be part of the consideration. I think it’s certainly a historic structure and you hate to lose a historic structure, but with the problems they’ve had with the foundation, problems they’ve had with the design and just the operation of Many Glacier, I think you would have to give some consideration to whether there would be better use of capital to actually replace that structure," he said.

“I’m not telling you that I favor that. I’m saying that should have been a consideration.”

When asked how he would balance the argument that many of the national parks should be left in their natural condition against the one for more infrastructure, Mr. Crandall voiced the opinion that there is room enough for both.

“I don’t think the Ahwahnee Hotel ... in any way deteriorates from Yosemite National Park. I think you can find a balance," he said. "The truth in the matter is parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, 90+ percent of the park still is very close to a wilderness experience. It takes no time and very little energy to get beyond where there is any significant human presence.”

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Comments

Lynn:
I know that Yosemite has some excellent winter rates for the Curry Village cabins, but why would I want to go there in the winter when I already live in snow country? I go to hike and enjoy the hot summer weather and you cannot do that in the winter. I don't even drive on the icy roads in my own town during the winter. I have lived in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon where the snow comes and stays all long periods of time. I don't like to take vacations to see more snow. lol

Yeah - but there is something different about a place like Yosemite in the winter. The Ahwahnee has a great fireplace, and there's great cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

And you can't hike during the winter? I took this picture hiking up the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail. At the top I was postholing through 18 inches of snow. I had no snowshoes or crampons. It was a blast. I turned back at the bridge over Yosemite Creek.


Adam:
The problem is that concessioners who lease out lodges or campgrounds inflate prices. Remember when campsites were only 5 or 10 dollars max? and now, In Quinault where I live, campground fees can be as much as 25 dollars for a campsite. Concessioners are thieves, always were and will always be.

Campsite fees for federally owned campgrounds are regulated by the agency. It doesn't even matter who runs it. I've found $20 fees at all single-family sites in Yosemite Valley, and all of those are operated by NPS. Mazama Campground at Crater Lake is $21, and run by Xanterra.

You'll only find $10 campsites if you're willing to live without running water and stay in a less than prime location.

I don't necessarily think the concessionaires are always looking out for the best interests of the public, but I doubt they're responsible for higher campground fees.


TO: y_p_w

I know that Yosemite has some excellent winter rates for the Curry Village cabins, but why would I want to go there in the winter when I already live in snow country? I go to hike and enjoy the hot summer weather and you cannot do that in the winter. I don't even drive on the icy roads in my own town during the winter. I have lived in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon where the snow comes and stays all long periods of time. I don't like to take vacations to see more snow. lol


This is the same boohoo is me rhetoric that concessioners have been saying since the parks were founded. That without the ability of their company to make money, then visitation will be low. But the fact is that those lodges have never catered to the majority of the visiting public, what average citizen can afford 200-300 dollar night stays?

The problem is that concessioners who lease out lodges or campgrounds inflate prices. Remember when campsites were only 5 or 10 dollars max? and now, In Quinault where I live, campground fees can be as much as 25 dollars for a campsite. Concessioners are thieves, always were and will always be.

If you are curious why visitation is down, its because concessioners charge an arm and a leg for people to experience a public resource. The National Parks are ours, not for private lodging companies.

National Parks were there because they were cheaper vacations then staying in the ritzy places. Now the ritzy companies want a monopoly on lodging.

put the fancy lodging in the gateway towns where it will benefit the communities, not in the parks.


Lynn:
Now, regarding regular lodging in the park. What a joke. The average person would have to rob a bank to stay the night. We are retired and even Curry Village is out of our price range. I would love to stay at the Yosemite Lodge, but again, robbing a bank or taking out a loan isn't an option. IF, the park had a broader range of affordable lodging that would be nice, but it doesn't. The Ahwahnee is only for the rich and famous, because their rooms start at $435 a night and go up from there.

Curry Village unheated tent cabins are something like $40 in the winter.

The Ahwahnee has reduced rates in the winter for a few rooms. The key is that they can only be walk up, and they don't advertise. Occasionally they'll have off season specials.


There are some really good responses to this article. My two cents is thus: I travel from Oregon to California's Yosemite National Park at least every 3 to 4 years. It used to be that campsites were easy to come by. Last year, we wanted to camp again in the valley, but there was nothing, and I mean nothing available for the whole summer months. There are only two places within decent driving distance to the park: Lee Vining to the Tuolumne Meadows area and El Portal to the Valley. We were able to find an RV site in El Portal that wasn't to bad on price and Tuolumne Meadows seems to always have RV and campsites available because that area isn't visited as often as the Valley. El Portal is a 40 minute drive to Curry Village and Lee Vining is approximately a 30 minute drive to the Visitor's Center at Tuolumne Meadows. If you plan on stating for an length of time, i.e., 7 to 14 days, then the traveling back and forth adds additional fuel to your vacation and time out of the day to hike if that is your goal.

Now, regarding regular lodging in the park. What a joke. The average person would have to rob a bank to stay the night. We are retired and even Curry Village is out of our price range. I would love to stay at the Yosemite Lodge, but again, robbing a bank or taking out a loan isn't an option. IF, the park had a broader range of affordable lodging that would be nice, but it doesn't. The Ahwahnee is only for the rich and famous, because their rooms start at $435 a night and go up from there.

I live about 90 minutes from Crater Lake. Again, there is camping in the park, but not always easy to come by. There is the Crater Lake Lodge which starts at $115 a night and the Mazama Motor Inn which is also expensive. Both of the lodging facilities are out of our price range. There is no "gate-way" town or city close by for lodging. Fort Klamath has a few places to stay, but since they have the monopoly on the lodging in the area, they are also expensive.

I don't believe our parks need to increase what lodging they have, but I do believe they need to make the prices more affordable to the average person. The reservation process for Yosemite is such a joke. When they changed the process a few years ago, it has made it much more difficult to get any type of campsite within the park....I know, because I have tried it for several years.

There might not be a solution to this issue in the near future. With the way the economy is today, more and more people are staying around where they live for vacations. They are looking for better deals on lodging as well as airfare. I normally make one major trip each year, but unfortunately this year and next we are going no where. I hope to make a trip in 2012 if the economy has improved by then.


Emily:
I'm from Upstate New York, and when I visited Yosemite National Park I flew in. I had enough stuff and paid enough fees without having to take all of my camping gear with me. Also, the climate there is much different from here, so I wouldn't know what to expect if I were camping there. I would rather see someone stay in a lodge than have a bear attack their campsite (not everyone knows how to deter this from happening). I think some parks, such as Yosemite, could use more lodging. I had to book my room a year in advance, and had to take a more expensive room because none of the cheaper ones were available.

If you've been camping in some parts of Upstate New York, I'd think there would also be bears to be death with. However - I don't think they're Yosemite bears. All campers are given instructions on food storage, and the bear boxes at campsites are pretty large.

As for more in-park lodging in Yosemite - it would probably still fill up quickly. The cheapest hard-sided accomodations would be the Currey Village cabins, and there is a scarce supply. I've heard they've taken out many over the years, and after the recent Glacier Point rockslide they decided to close off a few more cabins and tent cabins.


I'm from Upstate New York, and when I visited Yosemite National Park I flew in. I had enough stuff and paid enough fees without having to take all of my camping gear with me. Also, the climate there is much different from here, so I wouldn't know what to expect if I were camping there. I would rather see someone stay in a lodge than have a bear attack their campsite (not everyone knows how to deter this from happening). I think some parks, such as Yosemite, could use more lodging. I had to book my room a year in advance, and had to take a more expensive room because none of the cheaper ones were available.


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