Editors' pick: Originally published August 19.
National parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion are practically household names, treasured and beloved parts of our country's landscape and history, as well as the highlight of many childhood vacations and summer road trips.
But for some, the historic lodges inside the parks are far less well-known. Treasures in their own right, often dating back to the park system's earliest days, national park lodges run the gamut from grand and elegant architectural creations to simple, almost bare bones rustic offerings.
Yet what they typically have in common is the ability to put guests exactly where they should be when visiting such stellar territory - at the rim of the canyon watching the sunrise, in the heart of the forest where bears gather or at the edge of a dormant volcano.
"There's just something special about the experience of staying in one of the national park lodges. They're rustic, they're beautiful, they're grand, they're everything the parks themselves represent," says James Kaiser, author of several national park guidebooks, including a Grand Canyon guide. "And they provide a comfy place to stay after a day of exploring,"
There are fewer than 100 national park lodges in the U.S., and AAA recently released a list of those that are Diamond rated.
Among the top ranked properties are The Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, Jenny Lake Lodge in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park and The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (more well known to many as the Ahwahnee).
Others that received high marks on the AAA list include The Lodge at Bryce Canyon, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, in Denali National Park and Volcano House in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
While these highly regarded properties represent some of the crown jewels of the park's lodges, there are many others that are equally loved for their quieter, simpler charm and more understated offerings. And that's the beauty of the park system really, there is something for everyone.
"The lodges are inspired by a different era," says Ted Sindzinski, an adventure traveler and blogger. "They have an ambiance and character that is wonderful and not beholden to television or a WiFi connection."
As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial anniversary, here's a look at some of the lodges, big and small, iconic and underrated, that travelers say they love most.
The El Tovar Hotel may well be the most famous place to stay when visiting the Grand Canyon, but there are those who insist the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge is also a true slice of heaven.
"The Grand Canyon Lodge offers the only overnight accommodations on the north rim, including private cabins with amazing views," Kaiser says. "The lodge is perched right on the edge of the north rim, giving you a really unique view of the canyon, one that is very different from the views you get on the south."
The lodge was the brainchild of Stephen Mather, the park service's first director whose goal was to create grand properties that would attract visitors to the parks.
The Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge offers expansive views of the canyon from two open-air terraces. In between the two terraces there's a sunroom room filled with inviting leather chairs that face an enormous picture window overlooking the canyon.
During the day, says Kaiser, the terraces are an ideal place to relax, read a book and soak in the view. At night, there's often a fire crackling in the stone fireplace on the hotel's eastern terrace, and a dazzling blanket of stars in the sky above.
A 76-room property located in the middle of one of the country's most fascinating national parks, Zion Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building dates back to the 1920s (originally designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood). Years later it was damaged by a fire. And in the 1990s the property was restored, an effort that brought back its original, historic appearance.
"When you walk in, you exhale and think, 'I'm in a real national park lodge,'" says Dan Howard, of the Park City Chamber/Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's got that romantic feeling, large beams, use of wood everywhere."
The location of the property is also hard to beat. It's surrounded by 2,000-foot canyon walls, providing stellar views from nearly every room.
"There's nothing like staying at a lodge that's right in the center of the park; it just gives you the freedom to explore the park more fully," Howard says. "You're immersed in the park and wake up in the middle of everything."
Brooks Lodge, Katmai National Park
Perhaps the most remote and basic property on this list, those two features are what many visitors love about Brooks Lodge.
Getting there requires a combination of bush and float planes, as the lodge, which was originally built as a fishing camp, is located on an isolated Alaskan island.
"It's quite an adventure getting there," says Melanie Tucker, owner of Rare Finds Travel, who adds that when it comes to activities, exclusivity, and adventure, the lodge on the banks of the Brooks River tops her list.
The building itself is a tiny structure, the highlight of which is an open fire pit where guests gather to warm their bones on rainy Alaskan afternoons, read or sip hot chocolate. Accommodations a spread out in a string of tiny cabins.
What makes a visit here so extraordinary, though, is that Brooks Lodge puts travelers in the center of grizzly bear territory. The wildly beautiful bears gather at Katmai's famous falls every July and September in search of the migrating salmon. The park and lodge allow visitors to be in the same space as the powerful creatures, says Tucker.
"The beauty of Katmai is that it has these boardwalks that the rangers patrol, so you can go out anytime and see the bears because you're up on the protective boardwalks, there's no guide needed," explains Tucker.
"Frankly it's one of those experiences that changes your life," she adds. "I can remember exactly what it felt like to go through the woods there. It's one of those things you invest in, a once-in-a-life-time experience."
Designed during the Roaring Twenties to accommodate affluent and influential travelers, the Ahwahnee, (which is a AAA four diamond property) is at the top of many traveler's list of favorite park lodgings.
The main building has 123 rooms and like the other properties on this list, is right in the heart of the park. Strolling through the building and around its grounds visitors have views of the park's famous Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and Glacier Point.
"The hotel offers understated rustic luxury in a historical location," says travel blogger Jessica Norah, who writes Independent Travel Cats. "The formal dining hall has beautiful stained glass windows, there's grand common rooms with giant fireplaces, which are perfect in the winter, and free guided hotel tours."
Another highlight at this lodge, says Norah, the events, such as the spectacular Bracebridge Dinner, during which the lodge's great dining hall is transformed into a 17th century English manor for a special Christmas celebration.
"This traditional celebration began in 1927, the year the hotel was opened, and harkens back to the early days of the national park system," says Norah.
Built between 1924 and 1925 using local materials, the Lodge at Bryce Canyon is another property designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood. As one of the only lodges of the era to remain largely intact, it represents an outstanding example of the rustic design made famous by national park lodges.
The accommodations range from western cabins to standard rooms and suites, but all are just steps from Bryce's famous amphitheater filled with stunning, otherworldly ancient rock formations. And the entire 114-room property is located within an fragrant stand of old-growth Ponderosa Pines.
"The building has a very special history," says Howard. "Bryce's lodge was created to have that national park lodge feeling. It has an incredible dining room and when you walk into the lodge itself, you know you are somewhere special."