Some of my fondest memories revolve around family time spent amid the natural wonders of Yellowstone National Park. There’s so much to see and do. Yet fully appreciating that abundance requires some effort. Yellowstone’s size alone makes it a challenge. At 3,500 square miles, the park is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. More than 350 miles of paved highways radiate from the center of the park to its five entrances — three in Montana and two in Wyoming. The west and east gates are 100 miles apart. So while you could conceivably tour it in a day or two, you’d miss much of what makes it unique.
Despite all the elbow room, Yellowstone’s popularity guarantees times when the better-known attractions will be simply overrun. On any given day in July, for example, upward of 30,000 people enter the park, most of them, it seems, intent on seeing Old Faithful erupt. The resulting congestion certainly degrades the experience.
Then there’s the vexed question of where to stay. The park’s first hotel was a one-story, sod-covered log building, about 25 by 35 feet, “very primitive,” according to Ferdinand Hayden, who had led a geological survey into Yellowstone in 1871. “In lieu of a bedstead,” he wrote, the accommodations consisted of “12 square feet of floor room.” The options certainly have improved in the intervening years, but there are still no five-star accommodations. The famed Old Faithful Inn, for example, is a masterpiece of rustic architecture, but that charm does not extend to its 327 merely functional bedrooms, and hospitality remains an elusive concept. What you get at Old Faithful Inn or other lodging within the park is proximity to Yellowstone’s natural attractions.
On a recent visit, we chose to overnight at the freshly renovated Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins on the north shore of the lake at an elevation of 7,795 feet. The yellow-clapboard, white-columned hotel was built by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1891, and owes its good looks to major renovations overseen by Robert C. Reamer, the architect who designed the Old Faithful Inn. To what had been a plain-looking, three-story shingle structure, Reamer added a wing, three porticos supported by Ionic columns, a dozen decorative balconies and a magnificent sunroom. Like so many other historic structures in the park, the Lake Hotel suffered from years of neglect, but it at least survived, while others, such as Reamer’s imposing Canyon Hotel, had to be razed.
In 1981, the Lake Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Park Service and the concessionaire embarked on a 10-year restoration program. That was followed in 2013-14 by a comprehensive $28.5 million upgrade. Our suite turned out to be spacious and comfortable, with tall windows that granted views of the lake and the Absaroka Range. Craftsman-style furnishings in dark wood included a roomy armoire in lieu of a closet. Two chairs and a small round table offered a pleasant spot for morning coffee by the window. A writing desk sat next to the double doors that separated the bedroom and the living room. Patterned wall-to-wall carpet of burgundy on gold extended into the living room, which was similarly furnished with lamps, tables and another armoire, as well as a sleeper sofa. A bank of cabinets near the door held a small sink and a Keurig coffeemaker.
The well-lit, clean-lined bath retained the character of an earlier age: marble-topped vanity, vintage-look fixtures, mosaic tile floors and white subway tile wainscot. A mullioned window framed a view of the lake. There is no air-conditioning, television or Wi-Fi; rooms are wired for third-party Internet service that costs $12 per day.
If you’re determined to stay within Yellowstone, the Lake Hotel offers easily the best lodging.
The hotel’s vast dining room with its wall of windows overlooking the lake accommodates hotel guests and drop-in diners alike, and it’s a busy place, serving 500 or more dinners on a typical night, clearly a challenge for the kitchen and waitstaff. The menu features more or less what you’d expect, given the location: Montana lamb, ranch-raised bison, locally farmed trout, Wyoming beef and so on. Our server was hard-working and good-natured, and we’d like to report that the dining experience was satisfactory. But she was overwhelmed, frankly, as tables along her route to and from the kitchen competed for her attention. Drinks were slow to arrive; appetizers scarcely beat the entrées to the table; the food was uninspiring. Next morning at breakfast, the room was far less crowded, but no less chaotic. Our buttermilk pancakes arrived with no butter and no maple syrup, and by the time the missing items appeared 10 minutes later, every cake in the stack was as cold as the look our server gave me when I asked him for fresh, hot pancakes.
We understand the obstacles facing the concessionaire. The season is short and the park’s popularity taxes the infrastructure. The mostly young staff, primed for an adventure in Yellowstone, bring more enthusiasm than skill. We applaud the park management’s plan to preserve and improve the facilities. Our suite was a huge upgrade from anything offered in the park until recently (and at $650 per night, so is the rate). If you’re determined to stay within Yellowstone, the Lake Hotel offers easily the best lodging, but be prepared for inconsistent service and ho-hum food.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Proximity to Yellowstone’s attractions.
DISLIKE: Mediocre service and ho-hum food.
GOOD TO KNOW: For choice accommodations and dates, reserve a year in advance.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins 89 Suite, $650. Lake Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Tel. (307) 344-7311.
The other option, staying outside the park, requires to-ing and fro-ing — not such a bad thing, really, since in Yellowstone every drive is a photo safari that’s apt to lead through a cluster of bison along the road, or past a moose wading a stream. Two longtime recommendations come to mind. Firehole Ranch sits on 640 acres along Montana’s Hebgen Lake, 18 miles from West Yellowstone and the park’s western entrance. The ranch hosts a maximum of 20 guests in log cabins. Two stand-alone cabins with private porches offer the most desirable accommodations. The food is delicious, served in the historic main lodge or, on barbecue night, under the Big Sky with live music; breakfasts are cooked to order. Although fly-fishing is the featured activity at the ranch, there are also trail rides, canoeing and hiking, and most anything you want to see or do in Yellowstone can be arranged.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Authentic Western ambience.
DISLIKE: Lack of unified rate that includes all ranch activities.
GOOD TO KNOW: Two stand-alone cabins, “Watkins Creek” and “Caddis,” offer the most privacy.
Firehole Ranch 94 Luxury Cabin, $750 per person per night; activities extra. 1207 Firehole Ranch Road, West Yellowstone, Montana. Tel. (406) 646-7294.
Rustic Jenny Lake Lodge sits at the foot of the Teton Range, about 45 scenic miles south of Yellowstone. Although it’s not an ideal location, with an early start, you can tour the major attractions in a day, including Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. However, once you’ve settled into one of the cozy log cabins, scattered randomly among pine trees with the mountain peaks towering above, you may choose not to go anywhere else. (I recommend the larger suites with separate living rooms and woodburning stoves.)
The lodge is a genteel, hospitable place. A card in your cabin when you arrive invites you to a 5 p.m. reception by the stone fireplace in the lobby, where champagne, wine and hors d’oeuvres are provided. For many, apparently, a week or longer at Jenny Lake is an annual event. They hike, bike, fish or go looking for another stunning photograph, but most also find time to relax on the porch in a rocking chair and watch the light play along the peaks. Last fall, when we returned to the lodge for an anonymous visit after several years, low clouds shrouded the mountains, but the aspens were aglow with gold.
The three dozen cabins date to the 1920s and ’30s. About half are duplexes with a shared wall and shared porches; the rest are stand-alone. All are nicely restored and comfortably furnished; baths are snug. We had forgotten our own advice and reserved one of the single-room cabins, which on this trip, we found just a little too cozy for our luggage and gear. Happily, a larger suite was available, so while we enjoyed dinner in the inviting log dining room, a helpful staffer built a fire in the larger cabin’s woodburning stove, and when we moved in after dessert, the living room and separate bedroom were toasty.
The nightly rate includes a delicious breakfast and an unhurried, five-course dinner; jackets are recommended, but few were in evidence during our stay. The staff know you by name, and service is polished and polite. Night had fallen while we ate, and as we made our way along the path through darkness scented by smoke from the cabins’ wood fires, we were treated to the distant sound of bugling elk. The next day, the clouds parted, revealing the majestic Teton spires, powdered with fresh snow.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Gorgeous, tranquil setting at the foot of the Teton Range.
DISLIKE: Small baths.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel offers rustic comfort rather than luxurious accommodations.
Jenny Lake Lodge 90 Suite Cabin, $870 to $960 (includes breakfast and five-course dinner). Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Tel. (307) 733-4647.