Editor's note: Winter can be a blissful time to visit the national parks. You can head south, and enjoy the warm weather and simply pitch your tent, or you can head to the snow belt and explore the parks on skis or snowshoes. But where should you stay? We asked our lodging experts, David and Kay Scott, for their recommendations.
Most travelers plan national park visits and lodge stays for the busy summer season. Summer is when the majority of us choose to take our vacations and when national park units generally offer a full range of activities and services. Summer is also when the lodges are typically crowded and reservations are most difficult to obtain, especially if your available travel dates are limited to a narrow time frame.
Unfortunately this is also the time during which some lodge concessionaires charge the highest room rates. Booking a room at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park or Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park during July or August can be as difficult as finding space in an Indianapolis hotel during the week of the Indy 500.
Several national park lodges experience strong visitation during the winter months because of favorable weather. Ritzy Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley National Park has heavy winter visitation and is closed from mid-May to mid-October when heat envelopes the low desert. Volcano House (currently closed for renovation) in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has always been a popular winter destination, and Cinnamon Bay in Virgin Islands National Park is a great place to spend a week during the winter months. Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park had peak visitation during the winter until the motel units and cabins were destroyed in fall 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. (Plans are under way for a replacement facility.) Each of these lodges offer a respite from winter northern climes of snow, ice, sleet, and freezing temperatures.
Lodges in some of our major national parks are popular throughout the year, even in locations where winters can be quite cold. Parks including Grand Canyon (South Rim only), Yellowstone, Yosemite, Big Bend, Zion, and Sequoia are well-known winter destinations.
A Christmas stay at The Ahwahnee or the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is a dream vacation for most folks. How about a New Year’s Eve stroll along Grand Canyon’s South Rim following dinner in the elegant El Tovar dining room? One night at Big Bend’s Chisos Mountain Lodge we stepped outside our room on a cold, crisp December night and were met by the glow a spectacular full moon rising in the east.
A number of smaller and less well-known national park lodges remain open during the winter months. Often less-expensive and less-crowded compared to guest facilities in the most-popular parks, these lodges can provide winter visitors with a memorable and intimate experience. Here are some national park lodges you may not have considered for a winter visit.
* National Park Inn (360-569-2275) in Mount Rainier National Park’s Longmire area remains open year round. The hotel is small, with only 25 guest rooms and a cozy full-service dining room. Guests gather around an over-sized stone fireplace in the comfortable lounge where fresh scones with wild blackberry jam are offered each afternoon. On clear days, majestic Mount Rainier is visible from the front porch, dining room, and upstairs guest rooms on the inn’s front side. Guest rooms without a private bathroom range from $110 to $147. Rooms with private bathrooms cost from $148 to $187. Winter packages including lodging and sports equipment are offered November through April, excluding holidays. Snowshoes and cross-country skis may be rented at a country store next to the Inn.
* Also in the state of Washington, consider a visit to Kalaloch Lodge (888-896-3818) in Olympic National Park. Kalaloch is located on a bluff overlooking a wide, sandy Pacific Ocean beach that is great for long walks, kite flying, and bird watching. Kalaloch has a store, restaurant, and several types of accommodations, many of which offer fireplaces and/or ocean views. The main lodge and the Seacrest building have rooms and suites from $142 to $312. Two types of cabins are available including several offering ocean views from the bluff. Cabins vary by size (a few can accommodate up to 6), kitchen facilities, type of fireplace, and location. Cabins start at $152 and go to $323.
* Eighty miles up the road from Kalaloch, the same concessionaire (Aramark Parks & Destinations) operates Lake Crescent Lodge where four Roosevelt Fireplace Cottages are available for rent on weekends (including Sundays) from November to mid-April. The one and two-bedroom cottages rent for $230.50 and $242 and require a two-night minimum. Each cottage has a microwave and mini-fridge. The remainder of the lodging facility, including the restaurant, is closed, so guests must bring their food.
* If you love the snow and activities associated with it, Triangle X Ranch (307-733-2183) in Grand Teton National Park needs to be on your agenda. The ranch offers cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. And if you are into outdoor photography you will be in heaven. The ranch is open from December 26th to mid-March and has 20 one-, two-, and three-bedroom cabins. The rate of $125 per-person/per-night includes three meals a day which the ranch calls “four-star dining.” The meals are served in the main house, which also has a family room with a large fireplace, great for evening gatherings. There is a two-night minimum.
* Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona can experience brutally hot temperatures during the summer months, so a winter visit can prove ideal. Experienced Navajo guides lead half-day tours of the lower portions of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly, stopping frequently for pictures. The 3½-hour tours leave at 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM, with a minimum of six people required. Tickets cost $49 per adult and $38 per child. Thunderbird Lodge (800-679-2473) offers 73 guest rooms, a restaurant, and a gift shop with a great Indian rug room. The discounted winter rates are $66 for a single room and $73 for a double. Winter Weekend Packages include a room, continental breakfast, and 10 percent off tour tickets and gift shop purchases.
* Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park can prove to be a winter paradise. Activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, snow tubing, downhill skiing (Boston Mills and Brandywine ski resorts), and even ice fishing in the lakes and ponds. Over 125 miles of hiking trails are open year round. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (800-468-4070) offers a few special November trips for adults, including “Ales on the Rails” and “Grape Escape Wine Train.” The famous “Polar Express” runs through December 19. The only lodging facility within the national park is the Inn at Brandywine Falls (888-360-3381), a true bed and breakfast. The inn has six rooms, all with private bathrooms, four in the main house and two suites in the carriage house. Cost ranges from $139 to $225, with slightly higher rates on weekends and holidays.
* Perhaps you would be interested in a winter cave tour? Mammoth Cave National Park offers a variety of cave tours year round, with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Short tours start at $10, while the $45 Wild Cave Tour lasts six hours and has tour members crawling on hands and knees. Another possibility is walking through the cave by lantern while taking the $15 Violet City Lantern Tour. A list of cave tours and reservation information is available at this site, or call 877-444-6777. Cabins at Mammoth Cave Hotel are closed during the winter, but Heritage Rooms in the main hotel, $89, and Sunset Terrace Rooms, $99, are open (270-758-2225). The restaurant is also open year round.
* A final possibility is a unique island getaway that includes ferry transportation from the mainland to the island, lodging in a 19th century mansion, and three meals a day including an elegant candlelit gourmet dinner. Readers who have not visited Cumberland Island National Seashore are in for a treat. The winter months with cool, sunny days and few insects make it an excellent time to visit this south Georgia paradise. Rates at Greyfield Inn (866-401-8581), the only lodging facility in the national seashore, start at $395 for rooms with a shared bath, to $595 for a suite. Rates are higher on weekends and holidays. The price also includes a naturalist-guided jeep tour of the island and use of the inn’s bicycles, beach equipment, and fishing gear.
David and Kay Scott are authors of The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, which was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.