To mark the US National Park Service turning 100 this week, Mary Caperton Morton picks the best places to stay, from hotels and cabins to campsites, in the country’s favourite parks
On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the most visited park in the country, attracting more than 10 million visitors in 2015. Rough it for free in one of the 12 primitive Appalachian Trail backpacker shelters or relax in an Almost Heaven log cabin in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is the gateway to the park and has a range of dining options, or save money by cooking in the cabin, which has a kitchen, outdoor barbecue grill, outdoor pool, private jacuzzi and fireplace.
• One-bedroom cabins from $145 a night, almostheavenresort.com. For shelter reservations (most are free of charge), see hikinginthesmokys.com
It may come second in terms of total visitors but it’s number one for sheer grandeur. Both the north and south rims have campsites, cabins and hotel rooms but the most unusual place to stay is at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch. Accessible only by foot, mule or raft, this bolthole has been welcoming travellers since the 1920s. Reserve a private cabin or a bed in the bunkhouse and enjoy a steak or stew at the historic canteen restaurant as a reward for hiking the seven miles from the south rim.
• Cabins from $142 a night, bunks from $49, grandcanyonlodges.com, book well in advance
The mountains stretch from northern New Mexico all the way to Canada and this stretch, near Estes Park, protects a small pristine pocket of alpine habitat north-west of Denver. One of the best places to stay is Moraine Park Campground, 2½ miles south of the Beaver Meadows entrance. It’s a picturesque place to begin acclimatising to the high altitude of the site (2,487 metres). It is open year round and reservations are recommended in the summer.
• Vehicle $26 a night, nps.gov/romo
The Majestic Yosemite, formerly the Ahwahnee, is one of the service’s showcase hotels, built in its signature rustic style from native stone, wood and plenty of windows to frame the famous towering granite walls. But, at $500 a night, it’s beyond the budget of most visitors. Instead, head to Camp 4. This walk-in, tents-only campsite has been climbers’ preferred basecamp for decades – the nine-metre-high Columbia Boulder is at the edge of the site and boasts several challenging climbing routes, including the iconic Midnight Lightning.
• Pitches $6pp a night, nps.gov/yose
Built in 1904, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn (named after the famous geyser, just a stone’s throw away), is another historic lodge built in the rustic style. This is the largest log hotel in the world and, some say, the world’s largest standing log structure. Above the multistorey lobby, a series of stairways and catwalks lead into the Crow’s Nest, a tree-house-like perch where musicians used to play for guests. Old Faithful’s regular eruptions can be viewed from the front porch.
• Doubles from $229 room only, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com
Nestled in a canyon carved into dramatic red, pink and white sandstone by the Virgin river, Zion is a mecca for hikers, climbers and desert lovers. Outside the east entrance is the 4,000-acre Zion Ponderosa Resort, a historic ranch with accommodation ranging from well-appointed holiday homes to rustic cabins and refurbished wagons. The ranch also offers fine dining, cowboy cookouts, 4WD rentals and horse riding.
• Cabins from $200 a night, wagons from $60 a night, zionponderosa.com
This is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to hike from a sandy beach, through a rainforest to a glacier-covered peak. After exploring all of these diverse ecological zones, soak aching muscles at the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. These natural springs along the Sol Duc river in the north-west of the park were used by Native Americans long before the resort was built in the early 1900s. Today, there are three pools, ranging in temperature from 37-40C.
• Cabins from $200 a night, and RV and tent pitches are $40 and $20, respectively, olympicnationalparks.com
Once you set eyes on the Tetons, you may not want to close them, even to sleep. But to enjoy all the activities that the valley of Jackson Hole and the range have to offer, it’s best to sleep inside the park, on the shores of Jenny lake, where you’ll wake up to the mountains in their full glory, across the water. Get closer to those dramatic peaks by boat, bike, or on foot. Kayak and canoe rentals are available at Jenny Lake Boating or hop on the bike path that runs past the campsite. It circles the lake and connects to the popular Cascade Canyon trail to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.
• Vehicle $25 a night, gtlc.com
This park is on twin-lobed Mount Desert island, off Maine’s scenic and rugged coastline. Three campsites are the only places to stay inside its boundaries: two are on the main island and another’s on Isle au Haut, reached by ferry. To rent a seaside cabin or holiday home, the Cranberry Isles, to the south of the main island, are home to thriving communities of mariners, lobstermen and artists.
• Pitches from $15 a night, nps.gov/acad; cabins and holiday homes from $160 a night, airbnb.com
It’s easy to see how this park got its nickname as the Switzerland of North America when you look at the chalet architecture and alpine setting of the Many Glacier hotel. On the shores of Swiftcurrent lake in the east of the park, Many Glacier is reached by driving north on the scenic Going-to-the-Sun road. From the hotel there are pontoon boat trips across the lake, canoes to rent and hiking trails to the Grinnell glacier.
• Doubles from $220 room only, glaciernationalparklodges.com, pitches from $10, glaciernationalparklodges.com nps.gov/glac
Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer based in Big Sky, Montana. Follow her attheblondecoyote.com
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