National Parks' Hidden Gems: Backcountry Lodges
With each step, I drop deeper into the Grand Canyon. It’s a lot like walking into a convection oven. At just a bit past 7 a.m., the canyon walls are already shimmering under the sun’s rays, which dry up any sweat my body can summon before I get to appreciate its cooling effects.
True, the average high temperature on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in June is a comfortable 81 degrees. But nearly a mile below, on the shores of the Colorado River—my destination—it typically climbs another 20 degrees. By mid-July, when the South Rim temperature is only in the mid-80s, the mercury ascends to a merciless 106 degrees along the river corridor. Why couldn’t I have traveled through the canyon by raft?
I try to ignore these numbers as I descend the South Kaibab Trail, ticking off the geologic formations the river sawed through long ago. There’s the Coconino Sandstone, the Manakacha Formation, the Redwall Limestone and Bright Angel Shale. By the time I reach the river, I’m down to the bands of the Vishnu Group and Zoroaster Granite through which the river now runs. Two hours after leaving the rim—with a stop 65 feet above the river in the middle of the Kaibab Suspension Bridge—I reach Phantom Ranch.
Across the national park system, there are thousands of places to stay in the form of cabins, motel-type rooms and luxury suites. Lake Hotel in Yellowstone has nearly 300 rooms, while the Old Faithful Inn has 327. There are roughly 900 rooms on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon alone, including 78 at the historic El Tovar Hotel, while Yosemite has more than 1,200 available during the summer season, including 123 at the elegant Ahwahnee, which just might be the finest lodging in the entire park system.
The problem with these accommodations, though, is that roads lead to all of them. This tends to make it hard to really get away from everything, even in the national parks. To find some true solitude, you need to be willing to sweat a bit, as I learn at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Phantom Ranch, located near the point where Bright Angel Creek spills its waters into the Colorado River, has been popular for a long time. When Major John Wesley Powell went ashore here in 1869, he discovered riverside Puebloan ruins that date to between A.D. 1060 and 1150. Passing the ruins, which include a ceremonial kiva, I soon find myself outside the ranch’s canteen, where I cool my feet and enjoy a lemonade while resting in the shade of cottonwood trees, which thrive in the relatively moist environment created by the joining of the creek and the river.
Designed by Mary Jane Colter—the Santa Fe Railroad architect behind the elegant El Tovar Hotel interiors, high above on the canyon’s South Rim—Phantom Ranch opened for business in 1922, and little has changed since then. Constellations still fill the night sky, and you still fall asleep to the murmuring Colorado. Structures made of river rock and wood—some cabins, some bunkhouses assigned by gender—still house guests, while family-style meals (dinners include New York steaks, vegetarian plates, and beef stew) are taken at the canteen.
There is, of course, no need to descend into Dante’s inferno to find solitude in the parks. Whether you head east or west, you can discover backcountry retreats that require a little extra effort. The payoff is not only rustic charm, but also a more intimate encounter with one of America’s national treasures.
At Glacier National Park in Montana, thick forests of cedar and hemlock line the trail as you leave Lake McDonald behind (by foot or horseback) for the two-story Sperry Chalet. Not quite seven miles later, the craggy views of the roof of the continent are revealed. Though no forests line the Highline Trail, which runs 7.6 miles along the Garden Wall from Logan Pass to the Granite Park Chalet, you often find yourself sharing the path with mountain goats.
Both the Sperry and Granite Park chalets date to 1913–1915, when the Great Northern Railway ordered the building of eight backcountry chalets for parties that crossed the park on horseback long before the Going-to-the-Sun Road was constructed.
Sadly, only these two remain. But providentially, they underwent intensive restorations in the 1990s, and today are in high demand by twenty-somethings, retirees and young families in search of a slightly different national park experience. Both are handsome facilities, but Granite Park is more spartan.
Described as a “hiker’s chalet,” Granite Park offers a community kitchen where you prepare your own meals, plus rooms with bunk beds and an optional linen service. At the Sperry Chalet, the twin, double and bunk beds come with sheets and blankets to ward off the northern Rocky Mountain chill at 6,500 feet, and meals are served family-style in a dining room located 400 feet away in a separate building.
At both chalets, your flashlight is your best friend at night—electricity doesn’t reach these parts, and candles and fuel-powered lanterns are not permitted in rooms.
Just over two thousand miles to the east, LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park also requires you to hoist a pack on your back and wander off into the mountains. Reached via one of five trails (the Alum Cave Trail is the most direct at just 5.5 miles, but it’s also the steepest, climbing 2,560 feet), the lodge perches not far below the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte. The cabins and two- and three-bedroom sleeping lodges (which work well for families) date to 1926, four years before the park itself was designated.
As with the Glacier chalets, you’ll find no electricity at LeConte Lodge—and there are no showers—but kerosene lamps brighten the nights, propane heats the cabins and lodges, and the toilets flush. The rocking chairs that beckon you to sit awhile and gaze across the misty Smokies and the striped Hudson’s Bay are understandably popular. Family-style meals are served in the main building, and for an extra $8 per person per night, you can enjoy wine with dinner.
Nature Near the City
Think of Boston’s history, and the Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall spring to mind. But Georges Island is part of Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (nps.gov/boha), which encompasses 34 islands and hosts the country’s oldest continually operated light station, Boston Light. You reach the island via one of the park’s shuttle boat, which leave from 66 Long Wharf.
Find yourself in San Diego with some free time? Cabrillo National Monument, located just west of the city at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, pays homage to 16th-century Spanish explorers who put down the first written description of the West Coast. Remnants of World War II coastal defenses also can be found in the monument, as can the old Point Loma Lighthouse (nps.gov/cabr).
Other urban units of the National Park Service include:
Boston: Minute Man National Historical Park
New York: African Burial Ground National Monument, Castle Clinton National Monument, Federal Hall National Memorial, Gateway National Recreation Area
St. Louis: Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
San Francisco: Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Washingotn, D.C.: Ford’s Theater National Historic Site, Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial
KURT REPANSHEK is a freelance writer in Utah and editor of NationalParksTraveler.com.