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Time to Book Next Summer's Vacation?


    The Wall Street Journal trotted out a story this weekend advising us all to start making solid plans for next summer's national park vacation.
    "For example," the paper warned, "if you're thinking about getting away to a popular national park or a big sporting event, available lodging space and tickets are already disappearing."
    That's no doubt good news for concessionaires, but these types of stories always make me wonder why some concessionaires feel they must whine to Congress about national park visitation. I mean, if rooms are selling out six and seven months before the season, what's the problem?
    But that's fodder for another post. If the venerable WSJ believes you should be booking your summer vacation now, I feel I should point out some of the better lodges to spend your dollars on.

    Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 national park lodges:

    1. The Old Faithful Inn. This venerable beauty has weathered harsh winters and wildfires. Within its log walls you'll find a charm and coziness in a wilderness setting that other lodges struggle to match. There's nothing finer than following dinner with a short walk to watch Old Faithful erupt, followed by a warm drink in front of the inn's massive fireplace. And kids will love the balconies that climb the lobby's walls; they're perfect settings for a game of cards or checkers or a good book.

    2. Lake Crescent Lodge. On the shores of its namesake lake in Olympic National Park, this lodge offers a variety of accommodations, from a few rooms inside the main building itself to motel units to gorgeous Roosevelt Cabins that front the lake. Inside the cabins you'll find stone fireplaces, wood floors and plank paneling. So popular are these cabins that some folks reserve them years ahead if they have a special date in mind. Odds are they're already booked for the coming summer, but you might luck out if you're flexible.

    3. Many Glacier Hotel. Though this sprawling four-story old lady on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier suffered basement flooding in last week's storm and is due for some restoration work, the breathtaking setting with numerous activities, the hallways with their nooks, crannies and fireplaces, the massive dining room and the Interlake Lounge with its comfortable chairs that face the lake make this a great spot. Families should seek rooms in the hotel's annex, where some units have connecting bedrooms.

    4. The Ahwahnee Hotel. True, most of us mere mortals can't afford to stay here, what with nightly rates approaching $400. But if you can, this stately hotel in Yosemite Valley is arguably the most opulent in the national park system. Native American art can be found throughout the hotel, Mission furniture decorates the rooms, which have DVD players and bath robes, and the fireplaces in the lobby off the dining room are big enough to walk into.

    5. Bryce Canyon Lodge. Actually, the lodge is only used for meals and checking in. But in the forest surrounding the lodge are 40 historic cabins with high ceilings, gas-burning fireplaces, and a cozy feel. The park's famous amphitheaters with their rock sentinels are only a short stroll away.

    6. Furnace Creek Inn. Don't confuse the inn with the Furnace Creek Ranch across the state. There's definitely no comparison. The inn is an historic, Mission-style building nestled on a hillside in Death Valley National Park and surrounded by groves of date palm trees. The rooms are on the small side, but beautifully done. Rates here approach those of The Ahwahnee, but in summer -- Death Valley's slow season -- you can find some relative bargains that won't break the bank. Too much.

    7. Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Yellowstone probably has the best spread of lodgings in the park system, but that's likely in part because the park is so big it needs more than one or two. That said, Lake Hotel is best used for pampering yourself after a backcountry trip and not as a base station for a family vacation. The hotel, which dates to 1891, was gorgeously restored in 1989 and holds tightly to its charm. The hotel's Sun Room fronts Yellowstone Lake, making it a perfect spot to watch storms whip the lake into a frenzy or for an afternoon libation while the sun slowly sets.

    8. Zion Lodge. Right smack dab in the middle of Zion Canyon, this lodge gives you location, location, location for your summer vacation. Easy hikes and guided horse rides are right out the door, the restaurant is reliable, and the rates aren't too steep. As with Bryce Canyon Lodge, aim for one of the outlying cabins rather than one of the lodge's motel units. The cabins offer a greater measure of privacy, have gas fireplaces, and a charm that can only be found in a national park.

    9. Wuksachi Lodge. Though I wasn't impressed with this lodge when it first opened in 1999 because of its "motelish" feel -- although the furnishings and finish of the rooms are comfortable -- the setting in Sequoia can't be beat and the main lodge building with its dining room offers beautiful views of the mountains. Hikes are nearby and the all-you-can-eat BBQ the lodge offers in summer at nearby Wolverton is incredibly family friendly.

    10. Kalaloch Lodge. On an Olympic National Park bluff overlooking the Pacific, this complex of cabins with a central lodge for meals is great for family getaways. The cabins are warm and comfortable, complete with wood-burning stoves and hiking sticks for your walks along the coast. If you opt for this location, be sure to ask for a cabin on the bluff overlooking the Pacific, as some are across the street with no view of the ocean.

    The Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park would have made this list if not for being closed while much-needed renovations are completed. It is expected to reopen in 2008.

    Some runners-up:

    * Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, Yellowstone

    * Grand Canyon Lodge, Grand Canyon

    * El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon

    * Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier

    * National Park Inn, Mount Rainier

    * Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton

    * Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Yosemite

    * Big Meadows Lodge, Shenandoah


If your taste in vacations tends toward backcountry activities, you might still want to plan ahead significantly. Many of the National Parks, and the most popular National Forest wilderness areas accept wilderness permit reservations as far as 24 weeks in advance. A few, like Mount Whitney, have a lottery system for their permits that starts in February for the following summer. Of course, there are less popular routes and trailheads in these areas where permits will be available on short notice because they aren't as popular. But some will surprise you. So my advice is still to plan such adventures the better part of a year in advance, and gather your information as soon as possible.

Stop telling the world about the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge! However, having stayed there several times over the years, while the accomodations remain the same (what can you do with canvas tents and metal cots), the quality of the food at the 'mess tent' has declined.

The Furnace Creek Inn is closed during the summer. The Furnace Creek Ranch is open. Please call 760-786-2345 for more information.

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