High-Low List: National Park Accommodations for All
Should you prefer a chocolate on your pillow, our national parks have you covered with serious luxury lodging. But if you’re willing to sleep on the ground, campsites average less than $20 bucks.
Historic Luxury in Grand CanyonWhen you first see El Tovar lodge on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, transcendentalism may occur. You could be metaphysically transported to 1905 when guests arrived by carriage or perhaps just back to your sofa and another rerun of National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” Both things happened here. Named for Spanish explorer and conquistador Pedro de Tovar, the Swiss/rustic chalet was constructed to accommodate tourists traveling on the Santa Fe Railway. The lodge’s steam heat, electricity, comfortable beds and freshly grown vegetables were unique luxuries for the time. El Tovar still strives to carry on finer traditions. Even if the rooms are all taken ($215 -$500), a visit to the lounge is a must. If you’d rather commune with nature, hikers swear by the pet-friendly Mather Campground ($18). 960 1280
Sleep Famously in YosemiteNature lovers, architectural purists and people obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining” all have the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park on their bucket list – as it should be. Built to woo the wealthy and influential, the Grand Dame of the NPS is a structural wonder and once hosted Queen Elizabeth II, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable and Gertrude Stein, to name a few. At least take a seat in the lobby and enjoy the piano player, who is rumored to accommodate the most obscure requests. Depending on the season, rooms can cost upwards of $500 a night. 960 1280
Best Camping in YosemiteTo the south of the Ahwahnee is Bridalveil Creek Campground, one of our favorite destinations for its proximity to the waterfalls and creek. The crowds are also a little lighter than other camping facilities and it has flushing toilets. Hey, it’s the little things. Sites start at $18 a night and the horse-riding set can hitch up Trigger for an additional $30. 960 1280
Pay for the View in Glacier
The Many Glacier Hotel is unique for myriad reasons, including its historic one-of-a-kind parkitecture, unparalleled convenience to the national park’s outdoor activities and jaw-dropping views of Swiftcurrent Lake. Additionally, unlike your favorite Hampton Inn, there are no in-room TVs or air conditioning.
Or Get Away in Glacier
The Cracker Campground is a six-mile hike from the Many Glacier Hotel with a 6,000-foot ascent into backcountry. The park requires that requests be submitted online prior to your arrival. Take nothing away and leave nothing behind and you’ll be handsomely rewarded with the experience of a lifetime.
High Life in Death ValleyThose seeking a high thread count and resort-style amenities should look no further than the four-diamond 66-room Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. It boasts an 18-hole golf course (the world’s lowest if you’re into that sort of thing), an airstrip, tennis courts and a sparkling pool. The cocktail lounge’s expansive windows provide (literally) epic views of the desert and we hear the G&Ts are especially refreshing after a day of 0% humidity. Rooms are from $309 to upwards of $600. 960 1280
Or Desert Trailer ParkAttention all glampers: Death Valley van camping is fast becoming the ALT Burning Man with large groups of caravans taking over the RV spots for weekends of desert frolic. Clocking in at roughly 3.4 million acres, that’s plenty of parking space. The bold and the hydrated are rewarded with mysterious sliding rocks, a wacky castle in the middle of nowhere and real ghost towns. Camping at Furnace Creek is $18 a night and four pets per site are permitted. Nearby park concessioner Stovepipe Wells has 14 RV sites with hookups for $33 a night and 190 campsites for $12 a night. There’s also a pool and showers. 960 1280
Keys to the KingdomWe’ve taken you to the far west, now let’s turn our attention to the southern extremes. As there are no federally run hotels or sanctioned concessioners at Dry Tortugas National Park, may we suggest Key West’s historic Casa Marina, which opened its storied doors on New Year’s Eve in 1920. Three days later, President Warren G. Harding came to visit and in 22 years the U.S. Navy acquired it and consequently used the facilities as officer's quarters for the duration of World War II. In the 50s, Casa Marina reestablished itself as a luxury hotspot hosting Gregory Peck, Ethel Merman and golden girl Rita Hayworth. The champagne corks have been popping ever since. When you’re ready to rough it, the concierge will gladly arrange everything you need to hop over to the nearby “people’s beach.” 960 1280
Your Private ArchipelagoNow that you’ve seen the splendor in the grass, may we suggest a splurge on the sand. Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the often-overlooked treasures on the parks roster. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, camping on its sandy shores is a unique and memorable experience. You’ll enjoy world-class snorkeling, bird watching and turtle spotting, or just relaxing in a hammock. Camping fees are only $15 per night and the ferry is $10. Keep in mind that there’s no snack bar, no fresh water source and no bathrooms. In the laid-back spirit that defines Key West, pets are permitted on Garden Key and boaters are welcome to drop anchor and enjoy the island with proper permits, which are free and can be picked up at Garden Key. 960 1280
Paddle the Pacific
Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Park, just off the coast of Los Angeles, is home to some of the best kayaking on the West Coast. Rich with marine life and boasting the much-photographed Arch Rock, Anacapa is the perfect day trip or overnighter for the city dweller looking to get into some rough water. It’s a cliff island, so beware of winds, currents and fog.
Float the BorderThe mighty Rio Grande runs through Big Bend National Park in Texas, but it also represents the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Rafting down the river not only takes you through some eye-widening scenery, like 1500-foot deep canyons, but will also toss you back and forth across the border. 960 1280
Hit the Sandy Slopes
Colorado has Aspen, one of the most famous skiing destinations on the planet. It also has Sand Dunes National Park, one of the only sandboarding and sandsledding destinations on the planet. Slalom down the granular slopes like some diabolical combination of Jean-Claude Killy and Lawrence of Arabia. Hit the dunes early in the morning or late in the evening, lest you roast in the 150° midday heat. And don’t forget the lip balm.
Cold StorageThe upper regions of Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park have over 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow, providing a year-round paradise for hearty souls who consider ice camping a pleasure. If you’re going to stay the night on the mountain, securely lock your vittles to keep them from the clutches of foxes and other aggressive winter wildlife. 960 1280
Take in the LightsMinnesota's Voyageurs National Park sits just below the Canadian border and offers campers a ringside seat to the Northern Lights. Voyageurs encompasses 270 campsites only accessible by watercraft, but we recommend the remote Echo Lake Campground for best visibility. Check a variety of weather services to determine your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights. 960 1280
Yosemite GlidingIt may seem crazy, but people have been leaping off Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park for decades. Hang gliding was once sanctioned and overseen by park employees. These days the private Yosemite Hang Gliding Association coordinates it. 960 1280
The RaftersIf a weekend of seething whitewater just doesn’t cut it anymore, try an eight-day Grand Canyon raft trip down the Colorado River. There are a host of operators who will happily guide you down 200 miles of rapids. By the end of it, you’ll have seen Native-American ruins, mile-high cliff walls and countless eagles. 960 1280
Hit the Heights
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park boasts rock formations that will set a climber’s mouth to watering. The 415-square-mile park is a full-service climbing destination, featuring opportunities for scaling rock, wall, ice and snow. Lumpy Ridge and Longs Peak are favorites of local and international climbers. Whether you are an experienced sport climber or a beginning boulderer, be safe and leave no trace of your visit.