Major Lodging Changes Coming To Yellowstone National Park

More guest rooms are being eyed at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone under the park's proposal for a new lodging concession contract. Photo by David and Kay Scott.

Significant changes are in the offing for lodging operations in parts of Yellowstone National Park, where officials envision tens of millions of dollars of improvements.

The just released National Park Service contract proposal for Yellowstone indicates a number of major changes will take place in the park’s lodging facilities. The contract will run for 20 years and requires an estimated initial investment of nearly $45 million from the selected bidder. Additional outlays of $135 million will be required in a variety of facility improvements.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the existing concessionaire, currently operates all nine lodging facilities within the park. Xanterra is operating under a three-year extension that expires in November 2013, when the new contract is to take effect. The park’s other major concessionaire, Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, operates 12 general stores that are not part of the newly-issued contract proposal. Delaware North does own three hotels just outside the park’s west entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana.

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Frontier Cabin at Canyon. David and Kay Scott photo.

Major changes are due for a number of the park’s lodging facilities. As an indication of the mammoth size of the park’s concession operation, consider that in 2010 gross revenues of the concessionaire amounted to $86 million, and the Park Service received franchise fees from the concessionaire of more than $2 million. Not surprisingly, the largest outlay by far will be at Canyon, Yellowstone’s biggest lodging complex and the one with the greatest need for upgrading. Other major outlays will be required in Mammoth, Lake, and the Old Faithful area. Another expensive project will deal with the Fishing Bridge RV Park.

The major improvement programs and outlays include:

Mammoth Hotel Area ($6.1 million) - Renovation of the vacant Haynes Photo Shop (south across the parade ground from the hotel) so administrative offices currently in the hotel’s second floor can be moved there. Vacated space in the hotel will be reconfigured into seven additional guest rooms, including one suite, three rooms without private baths, and three rooms with private baths. Construction is to commence in 2015 and is to be completed the next year. In addition, 14 cabins currently used as employee housing will be returned to use as guest cabins, necessitating the concessionaire to acquire employee housing outside the park.

Old Faithful Area ($9.7 million) - Construction of a 77-room employee dormitory so 67 cabins currently used by employees can be returned to visitor use. This project is to commence by 2016 and reach completion by 2018.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel ($16.5 million less $8 million provided by the existing concessionaire) - Retrofitting the hotel for seismic structural stabilization. Expanding deli services (currently a small operation in the east wing) by moving the current hotel administrative services (currently near the lobby in the east wing) to an adjacent boiler building that is to be remodeled and retrofitted for seismic stabilization. This work is to be completed by 2015.

Lake Area ($14 million) - Construction by 2016 of a 60-room employee dormitory as a replacement for the existing dormitory that is to be demolished. The expected cost is $5.4 million. At Lake Lodge Cabins, the proposal calls for rehabilitation of 19 Pioneer cabin buildings, rehabilitation and relocation of 15 additional Pioneer cabin buildings, and relocation of six four-plex Western cabin buildings. The expected cost of Lake Lodge Cabin renovations is $8.6 million.

Canyon Area ($70.5 million) - Construction of five lodges with a total of 407 guest rooms.

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Frontier cabins, Old Faithful area. David and Kay Scott photo.

These include 60 lower-cost rooms with shared bathrooms, 10 suites, and 337 rooms similar to those currently in Dunraven and Cascade lodges that were constructed in 1999 and 1993, respectively. The new lodges will replace 407 guest rooms currently available in cabins that will be taken out. Thus, the number of guest rooms at Canyon will remain unchanged. The plan is to keep approximately 300 guest rooms open during the construction of the five lodges. Construction of the lodges is expected to be completed by 2018.

Fishing Bridge RV Park ($17.7 million) - Replacement of most of the infrastructure, redesign of three loops to handle larger RVs, remodeling of comfort stations and the camper services facility, and construction of a comfort station with showers. Construction is expected to take place in 2017 and 2018 when portions of the RV park may be closed.

In all, there will be a net increase of 88 guest rooms in the park.

The bottom line to all this appears to be that the Park Service has decided the time has come to undertake some long-delayed major projects that will be quite costly. In return, they are allowing the concessionaire (and the park, through added franchise fees) to take in additional revenues with added guest rooms, upgraded guest rooms that will almost certainly be rented at a higher price, a longer season for many rooms, and added food and beverage service that will in some cases be subject to an extended season.

The NPS is also taking the unusual step of allowing a 20-year concession contract, double the length of the typical contract for national park lodging facilities. It would be difficult to entice a concessionaire to agree to all the stipulated construction and renovations using a 10-year contract. The minimum franchise fee under the new contract is 6.8 percent of gross revenues. This seems considerably higher than the same fee under the existing contract that appears to be 2.5 percent based on gross revenues and the franchise fee paid in 2010.

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Pioneer cabin, Lake area. David and Kay Scott photo.

Using 2010 gross revenues of $86 million, the new franchise fee of 6.8 percent would produce nearly triple the amount paid by the concessionaire to the Park Service. Unless the concessionaire operates on narrower margins, it would also suggest the cost of lodging and food will increase to cover the higher fee.

The changes will result in more overnight guests, especially in the Old Faithful area where additional rooms will be made available. Consider the masses of visitors and vehicles in this area with the current room count and then add an additional 67 cabins being released for public use. Additional overnight guests, in turn, will require additional employees. And the beat goes on.


David and Kay Scott are the authors of The Complete Guide To The National Park Lodges. Along with updates in their recently released 7th edition of the book is the insertion of full-color images from lodges and settings in the national parks.

Comments

I rember stawing in the Frontier Cabins when I was little. Even though they are old (really Old) I hate to see them go. A cabin is always nicer to experience nature!

Having worked at Canyon Village for several seasons, we agree with "Anonymous" that a cabin is a nice way to experience nature. We recall a young father with several children saying that he was thankful for these very affordable accomodations, and now we hear of plans to destroy many of them. Our grandchildren finding a porcupine under our Frontier Cabin was a highlight of a family vacation. We appreciate that some desire the generic luxury such as the Cascade Lodge, but you truly experience Yellowstone when a buffalo is shaking your cabin by rubbing against it with his shoulder. We can't believe that in the 21st century the idea of an economy room is one with a shared bath. Are you going to let your child go down the hall alone in the middle of the night? We feel there is room for both simple and luxury accomodations. The Lake and Old Faithful solutions seem a better alternative than several more luxury hotels.

I am so happy to hear that some of the renovations are being considered... however, my daughter and I have been coming to Yellowstone for the past nine summers and we ALWAYS stay the majority of our time at Canyon... WE LOVE IT!!! As said above, the frontier cabins are simple and primitive but staying there is one of the highlights of our trip. We love the Snow Lodge but are most happy at Canyon. Wish they weren't taking this away. And, too, the food in the Park leaves a lot to be desired... expensive and not enough variation. Also, the hours are not conducive to folks like us who like to go watch wildlife until almost dark or hike, etc. Most of the time, by the time we get back to the cabins, the food vendors are closed!!!!!!! Not good! All in all, Yellowstone is our "happy place" and we love going back in time there. Wish they would leave it alone!!

I have been coming to the park since I was probably 6 months and I am 56. I have seen many changes and the prices go up and up. We always stay in cabins but even this year we are going to stay in a tent because we can't afford the cost of the cabins this year. But my biggest complaint has been the concessionaires. They have already driven the price of a meal outrageous as far as we are concerned. We are and have been really unhappy with Xanterra and the high prices they brought into the region when they were put in as concessionaires years ago. I think it is really sad when families have to struggle to go visit our national parks. They are for everyone not just the elite and rich. I don't mind a wide margin but there should always be a range. People that can afford, they can stay in the higher priced rooms and then a family can still stay in a budget cabin but the food prices need to reflect that also. I remember the time a few years ago when we hadn't eaten in the park for awhile and we went into Roosevelt to eat dinner. Sticker shock doesn't even come close. $15 for a chicken dinner. there were 3 of us and that was the cheapest thing on the menu. So, we bought 2 and split them because we were expecting to pay about 25-30 for the three of us and we drank water. Needless to say that was the last time we ate dinner in the park. Now we drive outside the park. At that same visit I heard a family of 5 getting BACK into their car , kids crying, because the family left because they couldn't afford the meal and were going to go somewhere else. That shouldn't happen in our national parks. Its for everyone.

I loved my little cabin at Lake Lodge, and the cafeteria nearby was surprisingly affordable. Having never visited Yellowstone before last autumn, I truly didn't know what to expect. I discovered I had chosen the perfect location for an inexpensive stay at the park. Renovations are always needed, and will be ongoing for such a popular park. But if costs increase too dramatically, it becomes harder for many people to plan a vacation there. So glad I visited when I did (before construction projects and probable cost increases).

I agree that it's a little bit upsetting to see many of the affordable cabin lodging options taken out, although I would note that there are quite a few basic employee cabins that seem to be going back for public lodging. However, 300 cabins being taken out at the Canyon area in favor of more expensive lodging would appear to cater to a more monied crowd. The lodge rooms in Canyon are currently $178 as opposed to the $98 (I remember it was cheaper when I visited) for the Frontier Cabins.

Also - the park dining options are always tricky when there's only one place to dine in an area, and they decided to go upscale. The areas with cafeteria style dining are more affordable to some degree, but that's primarily in the Canyon, Lake, and Old Faithful areas.

Right now there is a certain amount of competition for dining, since Delaware North runs many restaurants in separate buildings as Yellowstone General Stores. The Canyon soda fountain isn't terribly expensive. It's also practical to prepare your own meals to some degree, although you'd need to bring a stove and find a place where you can cook. I believe that has to be a picnic table that has a BBQ grill.

Wat hasn't gone up in price in this country? Are you aware, that Yellowstone, is a main source of revenue, for all of our National Parks in this country? I can remember getting a cabin in the Park for $5.00, but I also bought a car for under $1000 too. Inflation has effected all of us over the years. Our National Parks are still, the very best, and affordable, option for a family to vacation in. One need to plan ahead and budget accordingly. I think that Yellowstone is the most amazing place in this planet. There are ways to be able to afford to go and enjoy the Park. One just has to do a little research.

Anonymous:
Wat hasn't gone up in price in this country? Are you aware, that Yellowstone, is a main source of revenue, for all of our National Parks in this country? I can remember getting a cabin in the Park for $5.00, but I also bought a car for under $1000 too. Inflation has effected all of us over the years. Our National Parks are still, the very best, and affordable, option for a family to vacation in. One need to plan ahead and budget accordingly. I think that Yellowstone is the most amazing place in this planet. There are ways to be able to afford to go and enjoy the Park. One just has to do a little research.
What?

Yellowstone is not the main source of revenue for NPS. Taxpayer dollars are the main source of revenue. If you're talking entrance fee collection, then Yellowstone probably isn't even top 5. Yosemite and Grand Canyon have more visitors, and don't have a combined entrance fee where a group entering another national park (Grand Teton) can pay somewhere else with the fees going to that park. I'm thinking that Zion (charges per person during the peak season) might take in as much entrance revenue as Yellowstone and perhaps Mount Rainier is close.

If you're referring to concession revenues in Yellowstone, that goes to Xanterra and Delaware North right now. Yellowstone may be the largest single concession because of the location and number of rooms available, but it's not exactly the "main" source across all of NPS.

The criticism isn't necessarily that prices are inevitably going up. It's that the prices are going up because NPS is deliberately approving projects that replace rustic economy units with "upscale" lodging as well as trying to discourage camping in backhanded ways. After the Merced River floods in the mid 90s, about half the campsites in Yosemite Valley were taken out without any replacements. There is talk that Yosemite Lodge might get more rooms, but they go for over $200 a night. Right now there is no place in Mt Rainier NP for campers to shower. When the old Giant Forest Village at Sequoia NP was removed (and I agree with the rationale) with its affordable cabins, a campground, and affordable dining, the replacement was Wuksachi Lodge a few miles north. They replaced cabins that would probably now go for $80/night with upscale lodge rooms that go for upwards of $200/night. Then the deli/market with affordable meals was replaced with a fancy restaurant with $20 menu items. I would just drive to Lodgepole and dine at the snack bar.

What they're doing is adding about 140 economy rooms while taking out 400. That's why you're hearing complaints. I stayed in the budget cabins. They weren't fancy. They needed a bit of renovation. However, they were clean and reminded me of my youth when my family would stay in simple spartan accommodations at rock bottom prices.

YPW-hear hear! It seems we're going backwards to the 'olden days' when only the wealthy could afford to visit the more distant or isolated NPs. With the 'cheapest' hotel rooms going for upwards of $100.00 per night (for a small 'old side' room w/shared bath at OF Inn) to $600.00 per night (for a standard room at the Ahwanee), it's shortly going to get to the point where many people, especially many retirees (who need that bathroom!) & young families (who require more than just a small room), will no longer be able to stay 'in park'. A real shame. Yes, costs are going up all around us, but shouldn't part of the NPS's mission be to make a stay in our parks accessible to all, no matter their income? It's a shame that they're getting rid of the budget cabins, they were so reasonable. Unfortunately, other parks will follow suit if it makes $$$$$. Once again, I can see the problem clearly, but unfortunately, the solution eludes me. I'm sure the concessionaires want the big dollar hotels and the NPS wants the concessionaires.

Write your representatives and senators to demand more funding for the NPS. With decades of cramped budgets the NPS has no other alternatives than to turn to these revenue producing outlets. It's far from ideal, but it is predictable and understandable. Our tax dollars should go toward staffing all the vacant positions, reparing the maintanence backlog, and making entrance fees obsolete too, but the wise folks in Congress deem other things more important.

My memories of my childhood included staying at cheap cabins when my family really couldn't afford anything more expensive. I recall regular trips to Lake Tahoe where the rustic style cabins were typically less than $20 and demand frankly wasn't that high. I don't remember it, but I was told that we stayed in a rustic cabin at Curry Village. We stayed in a cabin at Giant Forest Village. As a small kid I thought it was awesome.

A few years back we went on that grand adventure that we never took as a family when I was younger. Most of the stays in NPS properties were in the budget style cabins, although I might have been on the border when I had to get creative with dates because availability was becoming and issue. For three people, we got some incredible rates. Maybe $70 a night at Old Faithful without a bathroom. $72 a night at the Pioneer cabins at Canyon Lodge. $62 for the Roughrider Cabins in Roosevelt. $80 a night (with phone and TV) in one of the quad cabins at Maswik in Grand Canyon NP. It was a bit on the expensive side at $110/night at one of the cabins in Colter Bay, but that was a real log cabin. I did splurge a bit and booked a night at Bryce Canyon Lodge, but $150 got a cabin designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood for the Union Pacific.

I don't know if I'll have those opportunities these days. Whenever there exists opportunities to remove budget accommodations due to maintenance issues, NPS seems to approve their removal with replacement in the form of higher priced lodging options. In some ways I understand this from a business standpoint. The concessionaire is going to want to make money, and more revenue will mean more money back to NPS. However, I have fond memories of this kind of lodging, and I'd love to be able to visit like this now that I have my own family. I'd just like the NPS to put their foot down and put it in contracts that budget lodging should be maintained because it's for the greater good. There's been talk about how we can have our youth appreciate our national parks rather than staying at home playing video games. Keeping affordable lodging that is within the reach of young families would be a pretty good start.

Y_P_W:

I agree completely! What's a kid growing up to think if they start out staying in upscale lodging when the goal is to appreciate the wild places and take with them the rich's and not leave their parents savings behind. My whole deal is to encourage the opportunity to connect with these places and much of the Hotel Management Concessionaire's Corporate mindset is focused on other priorities.

While I agree with your concern for affordable accomodations, it's not the concessionair's fault. These decisions are made by NPS (they are such control freaks that they even dictate what type and wattage light bulb goes in each fixture). How could the concessionair be making any decisions at YNP when the contract has not been awarded yet. The article clearly states that NPS is increasing their take by almost 300%!!! If you have a complaint, thank the elitist beaurocrats that run the Parks.

There was a story on the news the other night about the "graying" of our national parks, and how the average visitor age is going up, and how worried the park service supposedly is about this. If they were really worried, they'd be doing their best to provide inexpensive ways to visit the parks, including camping, lodging, and food. Especially since the price of gas is making a trip to the parks even more expensive.

Hi YPW,

I'm a reporter for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, and am working on a story about the redevelopment plans. Care to voice your opinion in a phone conversation? You'd be quoted in this Wednesday's weekly paper. Please give me a call at 9524127344 if you're interested.

Thanks,

Mike

Backcountry camping is not so pricey. We would all love to return to the good old days when everything was practically free. We could pet the grizzlies, ride the buffalo and wrestle Rangers. Swim where we want, drive wherever we want, pay for lodging only if we were ttally pleased with the accomodations, eat it and beat it for meals, etc. The world has changed, since then.

What anonymous says is very true. The park service sets all of the rates, including room rates and how much you pay for food. The conessionaires do not set the rate.

I watch the shows about lodging in the national parks and then check the prices and come away feeling these are only for the well to do citizens. Rooms costing $400.00 a night. We all pay taxes to keep them running but most find it very expensive to get to the park and then the rooms out of reach. At Yosemite to rent a tent with a wood floor ($125.00 a night) is very expensive. These sites must have been paid for a thousand times over. I know some say if you can't afford it then just camp out. Well we have done that and even backpacked for a week but Im just saying that these Parks seem to be way out of line on somethings.

I worked in housekeeping at Canyon in 2006, and cleaned many of the cabins which (I presume) will be going away. At the time, many were deemed unsafe and were condemned, and rightly so. They have been in need of renovating/replacing for quite some time and, in fact, one section of cabins had recently been remodeled. Those (remodeled) cabins were renting for about the same price as a room in Dunraven/Cascade, but to be fair, they were also larger than the other, more dilapidated cabins. Certainly, it's sad that the cabins were allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair, and even more sad if losing those lower-cost housing options prevents people from seeing Yellowstone. But something had to be done. Hopefully people who are able will consider tent camping. My wife and I spent over a week a few years ago camping around Yellowstone and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and it was a lot cheaper than even the Canyon cabins would have been.

Why don't they put hostels in national parks? Or maybe there are some already?? Seems like hostels and parks would be a good fit for a certain demographic, no?

There is a hostel in Point Reyes National Seashore. I believe it is the only lodging in the park.

Moonpie:
Why don't they put hostels in national parks? Or maybe there are some already?? Seems like hostels and parks would be a good fit for a certain demographic, no?
Bob mentioned Point Reyes. There is already one in the Marin Headlands section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There's one in development in Redwood National Park as well as one nearby. In addition to that, there are hostels extremely close to national parks.

http://norcalhostels.org/files/nr_110215.pdf

There's one near the east entrance to Glacier NP:

http://hiusa.org/eastglacierpark

Yosemite Bug outside of Yosemite NP has hostel accommodations:

http://www.yosemitebug.com/lodging.html

Good point, mkjanssen. As I understand things, the cabins they are planning to demolish were built as "temporary" structures in the 1950s. 60 years later, they're really not safe. I do wish there were a way to replace them with affordable, safe, permanent structures. But with the funding cuts that the NPS has seen in recent years and the staggering level of unmet maintenance needs, I doubt that will be high on the priority list. Still, it is quite sad that, for many, staying in our national parks is simply out of reach.

While it is true that NPS is control freaks, it is also true that the concessionaire invests as little as possible into the properties. Xanterra prefers to let the old properties run down, and uses monies that could be invested in maintaining them for buying new properties instead. There is a continual push for more properties/more contracts on the part of Xanterra. Perhaps Xanterra could have invested in one less contract and instead kept up the cabins?

For instance, at Grand Canyon, the Bright Angel Lodge has been in a state of disrepair for some time. Yet, instead of giving the lodge the necessary maintenance needed- the concessionaire is responsible in part for upkeep- Xanterra has chosen to continually acquire more properties. It is as though the owner of Xanterra is a collector, and has no concern for the actual condition of that which he collects or for those employed therein. (To my knowledge, Mr. Anschutz has only been to the park once since purchasing Xanterra in 2008.) Employees are tired of working and living in broken down facilities, and continually apologizing to guests for outdated and broken facilties which are continually misrepresented by a Central reservations office that will do anything to get a commission. Morale is low as a result of this.

For its part, NPS could better spend the monies they do receive. Why waste so many resources micromanaging? Leave it to the businessman to decide what type and color paint to use, the wattage light bulb, the exact food items on menus, etc. Monies used toward these items could at least contribute to budget woes in other areas, even if they did not resolve them. NPS needs to concern itself more with safety of guests and employees alike- something their concern seems to be lacking in- not micromanaging every detail. Personally, I would liken given NPS a bigger budget to giving a child a bigger allowance simply because they have wasted the one that you gave them in the first place. I need to see the current allowance is being spent responsibly before agreeing to an increase.

NPS might be able to attract a better concessionaire as well if they did not micromange. A concessioanire that had the business ethics to maintain their properties and to not misrepresent themselves. One that had pride in upkeep. I can not imagine most hotel chains- either budget or luxury being willing to tolerate the bullying NPS does to run the park concession. Can you imagine a Marriot, Sheraton, or Disney being told exactly what to put on their menu or what light bulb to use?

Just a different take, I think you're using a broad brush in some areas. While I know there are many complaints out there about concessionaires in general, and Xanterra specifically, I also know that in the not too distant past Xanterra did a great job rehabbing some of the units at Canyon in Yellowstone (http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/09/musings-yellowstone-national-park), spent quite a bit on the historic Red Horse Cabin at Grand Canyon (http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2012/01/historic-red-horse-cabin-grand-canyon-national-park-reopens-guests9314), and also has done some major remodeling to cabins at Zion (http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/05/national-park-road-trip-2011-zion-lodge8188).

As for the Park Service and micromanaging, I also have heard some of the stories over concessionaires waiting for the agency to decide on paint colors. That, though, is tied to historic preservation more than a desire to micromanage. Could it be done more quickly? Probably.

To be fair here and correct some of the inferences directed toward Xanterra there have been restoration projects going on with historic facilities at the Canyon. There has been a project finished recently that brought back to use by the public, the Red Horse Cabin situated just off the Rim and to the West of Bright Angel Lodge. Among the less expensive historic cabins to stay in. The Bright Angel Lodge has gone through a major remodel as has the Maswick Cafeteria and Brew Pub. There have been other efforts to better maintain many of the historic facilities. To be fair also to the owner, Mr. Anschutz, who I believe to be an honorable man, it's the corporate leadership that is most directly in charge and should receive the attention both good and bad wherever it may apply. There are suttle changes I've noticed (for the good) that, I believe, are Mr. Anschutz's handiwork. I remain hopeful of continued improvement in this, the Public's Park with success in achieving something special for visitors and financial success for NPS Partners/Concessionaires. A laudable goal I believe.

I H ope Zanterra Loses Their Contract in 2013. They are Money Hungry. They Treat Their Employes With NO RESPECT. Yellowstone a great place. Currently Employed IN Canyon