In America’s national parks, you won’t risk your Boy Scout badge for secretly longing for a shelter with a door, not a zipper, and a bouncy mattress, not packed earth. Repeat after us: Real campers do stay in cabins.
The National Park Service runs, through concession arrangements, hundreds of beguiling cabins around the country. The properties are neither too hard (campsites) nor too soft (lodges), and they do right by the earth. Because of the agency’s strict oversight, the accommodations embrace green philosophies and practices; the “tread lightly” ethos doesn’t stop at the porch.
Though self-contained, the cabins also are members of a larger ecosystem. Many are part of a central village, with the individual units orbiting a main lodge housing a slew of amenities, such as restaurants, gift shops, activity centers and the requisite grand fireplace. A number of the structures are historic too, built on story plots as entertaining as those you might hear around the campfire. And they all combine the fairy-tale charm absent from chain motels with an independent spirit missing from most how-may-I-serve-you resorts. You will be the king or queen of your cabin — and, best of all, you won’t need to sell any of the royal jewels to pay the bill.
For your next park adventure, we suggest that you keep the tent under the bed and consider one of these plucky cabins scattered around seven U.S. national parks. And don’t forget to hang your Boy Scout badge on the front door.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins
At Bright Angel, nothing comes between you and the canyon, except your own restraint. A handful of the 18 cabins perch like intrepid birds along the South Rim, offering drop-dead gorgeous views of the valley below. To ratchet up the whoa factor, choose a cabin with a fireplace, or book the Buckey O’Neill cabin suite, considered the oldest continuously standing structure on the rim. Those suffering from vertigo can take a step back in a cabin set deeper in the Ponderosa pines.
In the 1930’s, famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was hired to develop guest cabins and remodel the lodge. Colter deferred to nature in her designs, using local materials such as wood, adobe and stone to close the gap between indoors and out. Yet she also recognized the need for creature comforts, adding private bathrooms so that guests wouldn’t have to go to bed with canyon dust under their nails.
Big Bend National Park, Texas: Roosevelt Stone Cottages
All overnight guests who don’t want to pitch a tent end up at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only crash pad in the park. However, only five lucky parties can claim a bed in one of the Roosevelt Stone Cottages. (Other visitors are resigned to the more predictable hotel, motel or lodge rooms.)
The cabins predate by a few years the establishment of the national park in 1944. That’s what we call fortuitous planning. The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), a New Deal program during the Depression, built the structures in the rugged Chisos Basin, 5,400 feet above terra firma. Photo replicas of this era decorate the walls, a nod to the CCC men and their hardscrabble times, while original historic fabrics and materials sprinkled about the cabins advance the idea that you are sleeping in a time capsule.
The cottages comfortably fit up to six, and two of the buildings are attached, creating a duplex for the Smith Family’s Yee-Haw Reunion. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, the structures’ thick walls, stone floors, overhead fans and vaulted ceilings keep the heat in check. You can also make some iced coffee (coffee pot and fridge with small freezer included), kick back on the porch, and listen for the snort and snuffle of incoming javelina.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan: Rock Harbor Lodge and Marina
The call of the wild is pretty loud and clear in this remote park inhabiting a 45-mile-long island in northwest Lake Superior. However, you won’t feel as isolated as a moose in the suburbs at the lodge, a veritable beehive of activity with a marina, dining room, small grocery store, gift shop and cozy shelters. (The lodge is open summers only.)
Twenty cabins inhabit this speck of civilization, settling in the space between the marina and Tobin Harbor, an inlet traced with trails. Reachable only by watercraft or seaplane, the property provides a self-sufficient set-up. Why the Robinson Crusoe treatment? Because if you are suddenly famished, you can’t run out to the nearest store to pick up burritos and beer — there is no nearest store. (The ferry takes anywhere from three to six hours, depending on the departure point; the plane takes a half-hour, weather permitting.) The cabins, which were built during the Mission 66 program in the 1950’s and 60’s, think of everything: kitchenettes with utensils and dishware; private bath with tub, shower and dressing room; double bed and bunk bed; linens and towels; electric heat; and a living room with large picture windows ideal for moose- and loon-spotting. The rate even includes a half-day canoe rental, so you can see for yourself that there isn’t a mini-mart around for miles. A small number of rustic, one-room Windigo camper cabins also are available, each furnished with a futon sofa, 2 bunk beds with mattresses, table and chairs, and electricity but no indoor plumbing.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska: Coastal Public Use Cabins
This southern Alaska park features one of the more extreme landscapes in the country (imagine the American Museum of Natural History coming to life in your freezer), and its coastal cabins fit the profile. Available only in the summer, the Aialik and Holgate cabins come with a heating stove (propane fuel provided), pit toilet, table and chairs, and wooden bunks. You’ll need to bring the rest (sleeping and cooking gear and illumination), plus arrange transportation by floatplane, boat, whale — whatever it takes to get you there.
However, another option also exists, if you don’t mind straying from the NPS family. Within the park, the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge rents chill-luxe cabins on a private wildlife sanctuary with Alutiiq ties. The 16 abodes with bathrooms play hide-and-seek in the dense green landscape, so you can discreetly watch the wildlife frolicking in Pedersen Lagoon without spooking it. Accessible only by boat, the cabins are part of a full-experience package that includes meals and excursions by land, sea and glacier.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins
The country’s first national park is alive with geothermal fireworks that spurt, steam, bubble and burp. At the Mammoth Hot Springs resort (open summer and winter only), a quartet of cabins faithfully — and safely — upholds this hydro-attraction theme.
Located in the northwest corner by the tumbling limestone terraces, the standalone cabins come with fenced-in hot tubs suitable for six bodies. With the exception of the outdoor soakers, the Hot Tub Cabins mirror the other units in the Mammoth collection, the Frontier and the Budget cabins. All three types resemble winsome garden sheds with chair-endowed porches and motel-style interiors. Only the Frontier and Hot Tub accommodations boast a private shower and toilet; Budget guests have a sink but must hoof it over to the communal facility for their other needs. To keep it fair, no one has modern-day distractions; forget about TV’s, Wi-Fi, telephones, radios or air-conditioning. For a diversion true to the setting, sit in your personal hot pot and wait for the elk and bison to come grazing by.
Yosemite National Park, California: Curry Village
Set in Yosemite Valley, Curry Village exudes a happy camper-in-a-cabin feel. No surprise considering its origins: In 1899, schoolteachers David and Jenny Curry established a family camp here with a dozen tents, charging $2 for room and board, half the going rate. A lot has changed since then — for one, the price is now in the $50 – $90 range. Also, the 319 tents have sprouted canvas sides and a wooden platform and frame; sleeping bags have been replaced by beds; and the main source of light comes from electricity, not fire.
Wool blankets provide cocoon-like warmth. However, those prone to chills might opt for a canvas tent with heat (a select number are available early fall through mid-May) or the Signature version, with insulated paneling. You can also trade up for one of about 100 heated wood cabins, with or without a bathroom. Once you are settled in, hike to Glacier Point, hop the free park shuttle, or roost on your deck and let nature come to you.
Olympic National Park, Washington: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
Nature has been very kind to the Sol Duc Hot Springs, and guests reap this generosity. The full-service property in the northwest region of the park sprinkles its 27 cabins in, around or very near an old-growth forest of evergreens, a river heavily trafficked with Coho salmon, a misty waterfall and spring-fed pools that prove irresistible to tired hikers.
The cabins capture the rustic Northwest spirit with patchwork quilts and headboards decorated with cutouts of pine trees and antlered animals. Six of the models mash together two units to create a duplex, complete with full kitchen to feed the hungry mouths of many. As if the tub and coffee maker weren’t enough, cabin denizens are granted free access to the trio of steamy mineral pools and one freshwater pool. With this arrangement, you don’t have to feel bad about double (or triple) dipping.
A Few Hints for Booking a Cabin
- Before booking, ask yourself this crucial two-part question: Will I need to take a bathroom break in the dead of the night and do I have a bad sense of direction? If the answer is a double affirmative, consider a cabin with facilities. Units with a private bath book up faster than those with shared, but at least you won’t have to worry about tripping over a raccoon in your bunny slippers.
- Ask the reservationist if linens ‘n’ things are included. (Trust us, T-shirts make bad towels.) If the cabin comes with a kitchen, inquire about the availability of cooking and dishware. Also, ask if there is grocery store onsite. That said, even if there is one, for lower prices and wider variety you might want to stock up on supplies at a supermarket outside the park.
- Popular parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone fill up fast in the summer high season but free up during the shoulder season and empty out in the winter. If the dates you want are booked, don’t give up; call closer to your desired times to take advantage of possible cancellations. Reservation windows vary, but many let you book up to 13 months in advance.
- There is no centralized reservation system for park accommodations; you need to go to the individual concessionaire. For the link and other lodging options, go to the specific park’s home page and click on Plan Your Visit, then Things To Know Before You Come (or some variation on that phrase). For general information on the National Park Service, plus links to its parks, see www.nps.gov.
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–written by Andrea Sachs
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