Traveler readers have at one time or another most likely experienced frustration while trying to obtain a reservation at a national park lodge.
Booking a room in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, or Bryce Canyon can be a daunting task for the busy summer season, especially if you are set on staying at Old Faithful Inn, the Ahwahnee, El Tovar, Many Glacier Lodge, or a Western Cabin at Bryce Canyon.
In the coming weeks we will offer some suggestions on how best to successfully bag a national park lodge reservation. In the meantime, let’s take a look at why rooms in national park lodges can be so difficult to reserve.
Tour Companies Secure Blocks of Rooms
We have heard complaints that tour operators swoop in to grab a major portion of the rooms, and that they do so for less money than the rest of us pay. A portion of this criticism may have some validity, depending upon the park, but probably not to the degree that most people believe.
According to Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Yellowstone National Park Lodges, tour operators on average take about 15 percent of Yellowstone’s rooms, and they do so at the same price paid by individuals and families booking rooms on their own.
Alicia Thompson, director of marketing and business relations for Glacier Park, Inc., said tour operators also consume about 15 percent of the rooms in Glacier National Park. And like Yellowstone, Glacier Park, Inc. does not offer discounts to tour operators or commissions to travel agents. The same policy is followed at Grand Canyon’s South Rim according to Bruce Brossman, regional director of sales and marketing for Xanterra South Rim.
More Tourists, Not More Rooms
The most important factor creating the shortage of openings is that the limited quantity of rooms available has failed to keep pace with an increasing number of travelers.
Consider that, despite increased visitation, no rooms have been added to many parks for decades. Two lodges, Dunraven and Cascade, with approximately 80 rooms, were added to the Canyon area of Yellowstone in the 1990s, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge was constructed in the late 1990s. However, the latter replaced an older and smaller Snow Lodge that was demolished in 1998. By comparison, Yellowstone welcomed more than half a million more visitors in 2011 than in 1990. Essentially, the park has the same number of rooms available for a much larger number of visitors.
Even more telling is that the last addition to iconic Old Faithful Inn, the Y-shaped West Wing, was completed in 1927 when park visitation numbered 200,000. Additional park lodging has subsequently been added, but most visitors, especially those visiting for the first time, prefer a stay at the inn.
Many Glacier Hotel, the most popular lodging facility in Glacier National Park, was finished in 1917, a year in which park visitation numbered 18,000. Last year the park attracted 1.8 million visitors.
No lodging units have been added to Glacier for many years. In fact, overall room availability decreased for the 2011 and 2012 seasons as portions of Many Glacier Hotel closed for major renovations. A lodging facility in the Manzanita Lake area of California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park was closed in 1974 due to the potential for rock slides, leaving Drakesbad Guest Ranch with 19 rooms as the only lodging accommodations in this outstanding park. The National Park Service recently added 20 camper cabins at Manzanita, but these units do not have electricity or running water. (By the way, we were never quite certain the rock slide story held water.)
Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park closed for the entire 2007 and 2008 seasons while major structural repairs were taking place. This took 120 rooms out of service and left only National Park Inn, a small facility with 25 guest rooms.
Log Cabin Resort in Olympic National Park currently has no concessionaire and it is uncertain whether the facility will be open for the 2012 season. Elsewhere, Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for lack of a concessionaire during the 2011 season and will be closed again for 2012. No lodging facility replaced Alaska’s Denali National Park Hotel that closed in 2001, and Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, lost to hurricanes in 2005, has not been replaced. Yosemite Valley lost hundreds of lodging units following major flooding in the late 1990s and rock slides in 2008. In the meantime, between 1990 and 2011, Yosemite saw an annual increase of more than 800,000 visitors.
The two newest lodging facilities on Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, Yavapai East and Maswik North, were constructed in the 1970s. Meanwhile, annual visitation increased by approximately 1.7 million between 1975 and 2011.
A decade ago there was talk of demolishing Thunderbird and Kachina, two South Rim lodges with approximately 100 rooms, but the possibility of losing the two buildings now seems more remote. True, the concessionaire opened the historic Red Horse Cabin for guests, but it offers but two bedrooms. Other than two employee dorms converted to offer 40 guest rooms, no lodging has been added to Grand Canyon’s North Rim since World War II.
California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks added two guest facilities in the late 1990s, Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia and John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon. Consider, however, that Wuksachi, with 102 guest rooms, was constructed following the demolition of lodging in nearby Giant Forest and remains the only lodging facility in Sequoia. Annual visitation to the parks has increased by nearly 20 percent since 2000.
More Rooms In the Parks? Hard To Come By And Not Always A Net Gain
Plans are afoot that may increase room availability in some parks, but travelers shouldn’t hold their breath.
The possibility exists for a new and expanded hotel in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. The major structural work on Many Glacier Hotel should be finished by the end of the current season so that all its 214 rooms are available to visitors for the 2013 season. Hopefully, the National Park Service will locate a concessionaire to assume management of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Bluffs Lodge, whose contract is being packaged with Peaks of Otter Lodge and Rocky Knob Cabins.
Likewise, the National Park Service is currently doing renovation work at Olympic National Park’s Log Cabin Resort that may entice a concessionaire to operate the facility during the coming year.
There also is talk about a new lodging facility to replace vanished Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park, but it is difficult to know when or even if this will come to fruition since there appears to be little funding available for the facility.
During a 1999 or 2002 visit (we can’t remember which) to Mesa Verde we stopped at ARAMARK’s Mancos, Colorado, office to talk with the general manager at Far View Lodge. He told us about plans for a new lodge to replace the existing motel-type units that would be razed or converted to employee housing. That was a decade ago, and though plans may still be in the works, that's the last time we heard about the project. Funding being the way it is, visitors hoping to find more room at the inn any time soon should definitely not count their chickens.
David and Kay Scott, authors of The Complete Guide To the National Park Lodges, spent much of last summer touring the parks to produce a new edition of their book. It is expected any day now. They graciously toil as the Traveler's lodging experts.