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Discriminating Explorer: Lake Hotel, Yellowstone National Park's Elegant Lady, Renovated And Invigorated

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Lake Hotel is the oldest standing hotel in Yellowstone/Kurt Repanshek

When Robert Reamer approached the task of remodeling a simple lodge in the still fledgling Yellowstone National Park, he had a backdrop of a sweeping lake rimmed by mountains that remained jacketed in snow well into summer. And yet, to draw Eastern society out to this wilderness, he realized he would need more to lure them than a stunningly beautiful setting.

The result was a sprawling Colonial Revival hotel that more than doubled the original hotel's 80 rooms, featured flourishing touches in the form of columns, and eventually came to hold a lounge and decorative porte cochere through which visitors would arrive and depart. 1904-1905, Reamer, who had just finished the Old Faithful Inn, started working on the Yellowstone Lake Hotel. He transformed this typical railroad rest stop into a stylish respite in the park's interior. As with his other buildings, Reamer came back numerous times over the century to renovate and remodel the Lake Hotel. During his first attempt, he extended the roofline in three areas, with Ionic columns supporting it, added false balconies to some of the windows, and decorative moldings elsewhere. A wing was also added to the building at this time, as the hotel was far too small to house all of the people interested in visiting the park. While this was occurring, the original fireplaces were also taken out, as evidenced by floor plans and photographs. During a later renovation, Reamer put in another fireplace in a slightly different location, which is there to this day. -- Megan McCullen, An Archeological Investigation of a Historic Refuse Dump Associated with the Yellowstone Lake Hotel.

The finished product was a grand statement that still stands on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake in roughly the same location where 19th century mountain men would gather for their annual rendezvous. Although, there was a time in the 1970s when the National Park Service considered razing the then-ailing structure.

"The guest rooms, there were still a large number of rooms without bathrooms. You had to hike down the hall," recalls Jim McCaleb, who worked in the park then and continues to count Yellowstone a home of sorts as a vice president of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park's main concessionaire, and general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges. The rooms, he adds, held "green metal hospital furniture."

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The view of Yellowstone Lake, and Mount Sheridan beyond, at Lake Hotel/Kurt Repanshek

Several rounds of renovations have not only kept Lake Yellowstone Hotel from falling to the wrecking ball, but ensured it remains one of the most picturesque and pampering places in the National Park System to unpack your bags. Of course, a room in the hotel, arguably the flagship of the park's six lodging destinations -- Mammoth Hot Springs, Roosevelt Lodge, Canyon, the Old Faithful complex, Grant Village, and, of course, Lake -- doesn't come inexpensively. 2014 rates range from $319 a night for a room with a queen bed that faces away from the lake to $629 for the presidential suite. 

The hotel's dining room offers views through the pines of the lake and mountains. The menu, one of the best in the park, has prices that can be daunting for those on a tight budget. Still one of the best bargains in the park is the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, which runs $14.75 for adults and $6.50 for kids and includes such items as French toast, oatmeal, baked goods, cold cereals, sausages and bacon, fresh fruit, egg dishes, and even cold-smoked Alaskan salmon. Order the smoked Alaskan salmon (served with a toasted whole wheat "Everything" bagel, romaine lettuce, fresh tomato, sliced red onion, capers and dill cream cheese) off the menu and it'll run more than $11. The dinner menu, though, can catch your breath, with $13 appetizers (the Crab Cocktail) and main courses that range upward of $35 (Rack of lamb).

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The dining room at Lake Hotel/Kurt Repanshek

While the Park Service approves rates by comparing them to those charged in comparable facilities -- in this case, hotels in cities that surround Yellowstone -- the cost of maintaining a building as large as Lake Hotel in an environment that requires it to be winterized and shuttered every fall and then readied for guests every spring is not insubstantial and surely contributes to the rates. Beyond that, there's the regular maintenance involving paint, carpeting, and furnishings that goes into the hotel. 

The most recent renovation (there was one in 1989-90) concluded just as the 2014 summer season was getting under way. The project, launched in 2012, ranged from tackling the unseen -- structural enhancements to help stabilize the hotel during earthquakes -- to the notable -- new red oak flooring throughout the lobby area, Sun Room, and dining room; room renovations that included freshly tiled bathrooms, new fixtures, carpeting, and light fixtures; the addition of four suites through room consolidations; full ADA compliance, and; plenty of fresh paint and stain throughout. In some cases, carpenters removed century-old trim and windows where necessary to accomplish work before reinstalling them.

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The cabins behind Lake Hotel/Kurt Repanshek

The work, conducted in two phases at a cost of $28 million, put a brightened face on the hotel on its 125th birthday. It also came with a 20-year concessions contract, a term twice the more typical 10-year contract. 

"I can tell you there's no way a 10- to 15-year contract can justify what's called for in this contract," Mr. McCaleb said while discussing the renovations. "These improvements will be dramatic at the end of the day."

Though a stay at Lake Hotel is on the high end of typical park lodgings, if you make just one trip to Yellowstone in your lifetime, the splurge might be well worth it. And yet, if the nightly rates are out of reach, there are less expensive alternatives that allow you to enjoy the setting of Yellowstone Lake cradled by forested mountains with towering Mount Sheridan just beyond the lake's south end. Adjacent to the grand hotel is the "Annex," a two-story hotel that once housed employees but now offers "Sandpiper" rooms that start at $155 a night. Loops of Frontier Cabins ($149/night) are just beyond Lake Hotel's parking lot, and beyond them stands Lake Lodge surrounded by nearly 200 Western ($194), Frontier ($125), and Spartan Pioneer ($79) cabins. To ease your meal budget, Lake Lodge has a cafeteria where breakfasts run less than $10, lunches less than $15, and dinners under $20.

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The Annex/Kurt Repanshek

While Lake Yellowstone Hotel most certainly is on the high end of lodging in the park, there are options to suit just about any budget (Summer 2014 rates).

* Old Faithful Complex

Mention "Old Faithful" and what usually pops into mind is the grand old log lodge. And while the Old Faithful Inn is the centerpiece, here you'll also find the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins and the Old Faithful Lodge with its cabins.

There are three flavors of cabins at Old Faithful -- Western Cabins ($155), which are quite nice and reasonably affordable; Frontier Cabins ($104-$124), which have showers, sinks and toilets, and; Budget Cabins ($74), which have beds and sinks with communal restrooms a short walk away. The Western Cabins near the Old Faithful Snow Lodge also offer some accessible cabins with ramps and accessible bathrooms.

The front-side rooms ($221-$230) at the Old Faithful Inn offer geyser basin views, though not necessarily one of the Old Faithful Geyser itself. The furniture is well-kept, beds comfortable, and bathroom facilities more than adequate and actually handsome, with a colorful tile pattern that carries a wildlife motif. Other rooms in the Inn, some without bathrooms, many without views of the geyser basin, range from a low of $103 per night to a high of $525 (the suite).

Perhaps the best aspect of staying at the Inn, as opposed to the Snow Lodge or Old Faithful Lodge, is enjoying the lobby with its massive stone fireplace or retreating to one of the balconies with a book, jigsaw puzzle, deck of cards, or game of checkers to wait out a rain, or snow, storm.

Dining options at Old Faithful range from the Inn's dining room, one at the Snow Lodge that lacks the rustic charm of the Inn's, and a cafeteria at the Old Faithful Lodge. Dinner entrees across this culinary landscape range from the $13.65 bison meatloaf at the lodge cafeteria and a $26.25 pecan-encrusted trout dish at the Snow Lodge to a $29.25 New York Strip Steak at the Inn that comes with buttermilk-mashed potato, buttermilk fried onion rings, and seasonal vegetable. The best deal might just be the Inn's "Signature Dinner Buffet" that offers you prime rib, sauteed trout, salads, vegetables, mashed potatoes, soup and dessert for $28.

* Canyon Lodge and Cabins

Though distant from the Upper, Midway, and Lower geyser basins, the complex here is right on the lip of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and just a dozen miles from the Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most colorful thermal basin in the park.

The big news for 2014 is that the lodging is pretty much being reinvented. Some 200 cabins were removed following the 2013 season, (in the end some 300 will be taken out), and five new lodges are going up on their places. Three were under construction going into the Fourth of July weekend, and construction on two more is expected to get started next year with completion in 2016. Interestingly, the new three-story lodges are modular in construction. Those to go in this year were being built by Martel Construction and will be brought into the park later this year and lifted into place by cranes. This approach is expected to take unpredictable weather conditions out of the construction equation and result in a sturdier lodge. 

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An artist's rendering of the lodges coming to Canyon/Xanterra Parks & Resorts

While construction in a national park raises questions of whether the human footprint is growing, Mr. McCaleb said that won't happen at Canyon.

"The footprint is actually going to be reduced," he said, noting that the "A-Loop" of cabins will be taken out and the landscape restored.

While construction is ongoing (you can keep track of the project via this timelapse video), there's still a mix of accommodations here: Lodge rooms ($194) that, like those at Grant Village, are motelish but comfortable; recently updated Western cabins (also $194), and; more dated and simple Frontier cabins ($99).

The Western Cabin is the best bet at Canyon. Inside character-rich beetle-killed pine is in heavy use throughout, from the bed frame to the desk, dresser, wainscoting and even the trim.

Meals continue to be served at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room and its associated cafeteria. Both have received lukewarm reviews over the years. Xanterra hopes to address that by remodeled this cafeteria as well as those at Old Faithful and Lake Lodge with a service focused on fresher, sustainable ingredients and "quick-service" meals.

* Grant Lodge

Grant Village is a great location for boaters, as it's right on Yellowstone Lake and offers a boat launch. The rooms are in six long, rectangular buidlings and are comfortable, but not elaborate. The "hotel room with bath" ($155) here is decidedly motelish in both building layout and room style, but it is more than comfortable, the log furnishings nicely done, and the hot water in the shower readily available and ample.

The Grant Village Dining Room in the stand-alone lodge offers three meals a day that accomplish the job without a lot of flare. The Lake House Restaurant, along with offering views of the lake, offers a pub-type atmosphere with meals built around burgers, sandwiches, and salads.

* Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins

At park headquarters you'll find another nice range of options, from simple rooms ($90) in the hotel with bathroom facilities down the hall and rooms with bathrooms ($129) to cabins -- some with bathrooms ($145), some without ($89), and even some with hot tubs ($239) -- surrounding the hotel.

The Mammoth Hotel Dining Room is a step below the formal setting of Lake Hotel's, and the menu also a slight step down. The Bison Top Sirloin comes in just under $28 for dinner, while $19.25 will get you the Huckleberry Balsamic Marinated lamb kabobs. 

* Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins

Though farthest from the park's geothermal wonders, this lodge arguably is the front door to excellent wildlife viewing in the Lamar Valley just to the east. Wolves, elk, bison, antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes and even bears can be seen in the early summer and fall in the valley.

The main lodge is for taking meals, while the surrounding cabins come in two flavors: Frontier cabins ($124) offer two double beds and a simple bathroom, and Roughrider ($74), which have one or two beds, a short walk to communal bathroom facilities, and a woodstove to keep warm when the nights turn cold.

For many long-time Yellowstone visitors, Roosevelt Lodge holds a special spot, in part for the rocking-chair view of the Lamar Valley on the front porch and the cornbread that comes out of the kitchen. Dinner entrees top out at Teddy's Top Sirloin, an 8-ounce steak, at $23.50.

For more details on the lodging options, and a look at the various menus, click here. When planning your visit to this majestic national park, you won't have to look too hard to find an accommodation to fit your budget. But due to the demand, you should secure a reservation at least 6 months, if not 9 or even 12, in advance of your trip.

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About fourteen years ago, the last year of the company that had the contract before Xanterra, I stayed in both the Mammoth Hotel and the Old House part of the Old Faithful Inn for less than $30 a night in October. 

I do so wish they'd quit renovating, because every time they renovate, the prices go up.  To some of us, $100 a night is more than we can afford, and, no, I'm not going to camp alone as a woman in bear country (never mind that the only way to stay at OF anymore is in a room or a cabin).  It's getting to the point where I'm not going to be able to go to Yellowstone because there aren't any reasonably-priced rooms or meals anymore.  Even the gateway towns are overpriced.

The thing I remember best about this hotel is that the restaurant served a surprisingly good veggie burger.

good veggie burger.

Oxymoron ;)

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