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National Park Road Trip 2011: Lodging on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park


The El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, top photo, is one of the grand dames of national park lodging. The cabin, middle photo, might not look like much from the outside, but it holds the Buckey Suite. The cabin is the oldest surviving structure at Grand Canyon Village. It was built in the early 1890s by Buckey O'Neill, a prospector turned tourism promoter. The bottom photo is the interior of a room in Yavapai East Lodge. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: As they wind their way through the Southwest to update their guidebook, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, David and Kay Scott managed to squeeze in a three-night stay on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

We are writing this after a three-night stay on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  We have visited the South Rim over a dozen times but never fail to be awed by it on each trip.  The Grand Canyon is simply the most impressive natural wonder we have ever seen.

Weather on the South Rim has been perfect with moderate temperatures and days filled with sunshine.  This is apparently quite a contrast to weather during the preceding days when the South Rim suffered cold, rain, and snow, much like what we experienced several days earlier in Mesa Verde National Park.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the major concessionaire here, operates all of the South Rim’s lodging facilities, which are extensive. The company has been here for many years following purchase of the facilities from the Fred Harvey Company, a business best-known for its  series of Harvey Houses located along the Santa Fe Railroad.  The lodging concession on the North Rim, formerly held by Xanterra, was won three years ago by Forever Resorts.

Concessions at the Grand Canyon are big business.  The other day we stopped at the park headquarters and talked with concession specialist, Robin Martin, who related that nearly $100 million per year flows through the park’s concessions on both the North and South Rims.

Ms. Robin gained a perfect background for concession specialist when she officially became a badger after graduating from law school at the University of Wisconsin.  Graduating as a golden gopher from the University of Minnesota probably wouldn’t have done the trick. 

Grand Canyon National Park has 21 concessionaires, most of which are involved in river running.  The NPS gets a cut of the revenues, the percentage of which is specified by the contract under which each of the concessionaires operate. 

Lodging on the South Rim is quite diverse, with historic cabins, motel-type accommodations, lodge rooms, and one of the great national park hotels, the El Tovar, where we had dinner one night. 

Even though this is early in the season, vacant rooms are scarce.  The other afternoon we were standing near the registration desk at Bright Angel Lodge when someone asked about a room for the night. He was told there were three available rooms in one facility and four rooms vacant in another facility.   Neither of the lodges with vacancies was directly on the rim.

The South Rim has six separate lodges, although two of the larger units are divided into two sections.  Lodges directly on the rim include Bright Angel Lodge, Kachina, Thunderbird, and the historic El Tovar.  These lodges nearly always fill first because of their location. 

Maswik is a large lodging complex a short walk from the rim and other hotels.  Yavapai, the park’s largest lodging facility, is near Market Plaza, the South Rim’s major commercial area, but further away from the center of activity in Grand Canyon Village.  Most Yavapai guests utilize the free park shuttle for transport to Rim Village.  The distance from Rim Village (about one mile) is the single biggest disadvantage of staying in Yavapai.

Xanterra typically renovates the lodges on a seven-year cycle.  The company just completed a major $2.5 million renovation of Yavapai East where we spent two nights.  Rooms at Yavapai East are large and quite nice with a large picture window, 32-inch flat-screen TV, all-new furniture, and a remodeled bathroom.   These rooms rent for $163 per night.

Our first night was spent at Yavapai West, which was renovated last year.  The rooms in these one-story motel-style buildings are smaller, but the renovation has resulted in a major improvement to what we remember from earlier visits.  Yavapai West rooms rent for $113 per night and might be the best bargain on the South Rim.  Another advantage is being able to park immediately in front of your room.  Parking can be a major issue when staying at one of the four rim lodges.

Xanterra plans to be renovating Kachina and Thunderbird Lodges during the coming winter.  These two lodges, which lie between Bright Angel and the El Tovar, remind us of corporate administrative buildings from the outside, and a nice college dorm when walking down the interior corridor.  However, the rooms are quite nice with a Southwestern décor and the location is nearly perfect.  

The plan is to renovate the El Tovar after Kachina and Thunderbird are complete.

We have stayed in each of the lodging facilities on the South Rim.  If you are only going to visit the Grand Canyon one time and want to splurge a little, try for a room in the El Tovar, but make your reservation early because rooms here are in high demand.  Keep in mind, too, that rooms at the El Tovar start at $178 a night.

We have completed our second week on the road and are preparing to leave for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell Resort, where we will spend two nights.

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Stayed at the El Tovar last December, and we were lucky to be bumped up to the Painters suite, room was just beautiful...great views  !

I love El Tovar and stayed there recently. It went through a lengthy, $3.5 million renovation in 2005, however, so I'm wondering about that part of the report.

The El Tovar was also part of a scene in National Lampoon's Vacation.

We camped a month ago at Mather Campground - $18 a night!  Loved it.  Ate lunches at El Tovar and Bright Angel, and further east at Desert Watchtower.  The trains from Williams bring hundreds of guests daily, allowing a very limited visit, but better than nothing - seems like a good option with the crowding situation.  Everyone should see this wonder at least once!

I really enjoy articles about the inner workings of the national lodges.Where else would you learn about the inside story of the park concessions or the cycle of renovation?Being a detail person,I think these notes are great. We are also at that age when  information about close lodging parking is significant. Thanks for the unique information!

Why did they skip the North Rim?

not as many people

higher elevation

forest area vs. desert area

No skipping, Cornel. It's all about pacing;-) North Rim is coming Sunday. If you recall, going from the South Rim requires either heading west towards Vegas, or northeast to Page and Glen Canyon, then back west.

After almost every mule ride into the Canyon our groups would inevitably end up out on the El Tovar Lounge Deck, watching Condors glide by, people from all over the world and just soak in the experience that we'd just lived.   Very special place indeed!

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