Planning a trip this summer? Why not make it family friendly with at trip to a national park? While we love spending our days hiking, biking or riding the river, we’re not always about camping out or grabbing the nearest roadside motel after a long day outside. Here are some of our favorite luxe hotels in or near national parks:
Budget Tip: Time it right by visiting a National Park in the US on August 25th (National Park Service Birthday), September 28th (National Public Lands Day) or Veterans Day Weekend (November 9-11th), the parks won’t charge admission!
Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park with 2.2 million acres of natural wonders and wild animals. Top sights include the Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Prismatic Spring on the Lower Loop, Mammoth Hot Springs on the Upper Loop and Yellowstone Falls near the shared section of the two. At the southern edge of Yellowstone Park lies Grand Teton National Park, which boasts majestic views of the jagged peaks of the Teton Ranges and miles of hiking and wildlife watching by Snake River.
Stay here: Hotel Terra Jackson Hole (Jackson Hole, Wyoming)
Located at the gateway to Grand Teton National Park and a short one hour drive to the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the LEED-Silver Certified and AAA Four Diamond luxury Hotel Terra Jackson Hole’s has a special “Passport to the Parks” package that offers three nights lodging, a seven-day park pass and more.
Or Try: Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa (Teton Village, Wyoming)
The AAA Four Diamond Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa is also steps from the entrance to Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and one hour south of Yellowstone. Their “National Park Explorer” package includes a $50 gas voucher and daily breakfast credit for a three-night stay, as well as a seven-day park pass.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and has a depth of over a mile. Known for its visually overwhelming size and intricate and colorful landscape, the Grand Canyon boasts some of the world’s most jaw-dropping and dynamic views.
Stay Here: L’Auberge de Sedona (Sedona, Arizona)
Situated just 45 minutes south of The Grand Canyon in Sedona, Arizona, this luxurious hotel offers a special package that helps guide travelers to and from the canyon named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The two-night package offers a day-long tour and breakfast credit.
Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest
Divided into two sections, called districts, Saguaro National Park is 91,442 acres, 70,905 acres of which are designated wilderness. The park gets its name from the saguaro, a large cactus, which is native to the region. Close by is the Coronado National Forest, which is spread throughout mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Divided into five ranger districts, each consist of multiple “ski island” mountain ranges.
Stay here: Tanque Verde Ranch (Tuscon, Arizona) Tanque Verde translates as the “green pool,” a name given by the Pima Native Americans due to the seasonal river that runs through the land to create a mountainous desert oasis of vibrant cacti and various unique plants. All-inclusive rates mean that three meals daily are covered, and the resort offers a number of activities, including guided hikes, biking and horseback riding.
Banff National Park
Spanning 2,564 square miles of valleys, mountains, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers, Banff National Park is one of the world’s premier destination spots and one of the most visited national parks in the world.
Stay here: Fairmont Banff Springs (Alberta, Canada)
Nestled in Canada’s first national park and the world’s third, the Fairmont Banff Springs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in 1888 as a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) hotel.
Shenandoah National Park
This 200,000-acre park is haven to deer and songbirds and is an ideal location for outdoor activities for the whole family. It’s also an easy drive from major cities like Washington, D.C., and Richmond. If we were planning a day trip, we’d do the challenging yet manageable hike called “Old Rag” along Skyline Drive and take a pre- or post-trip visit to nearby Charlottesville.
Stay here: Salamander Resort & Spa (Middleburg, Virginia)
Salamander Resort & Spa is set to open this August in the heart of Virginia wine and horse country in the quaint 18th-century village of Middleburg and a short two-hour scenic drive along Virginia’s Skyline Drive to Shenandoah National Park. Set on 340 acres of farmland, the brand new resort offers a culinary program led by Chef Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant in D.C., including two restaurants, a wine bar, a cooking studio and a two-acre culinary garden; a world-class spa with 14 treatment rooms and an onsite equestrian program to rival any other in the world.
Just outside of Sydney, Australia‘s city limits are the Blue Mountains. The region has gorgeous plateaus and cliffs that are covered in lush greenery that seem as though they have never been touched. Flickr user VernsPics slept in a cave and rose with the sun to get this unbelievable sunrise peeking through the clouds.
In the northern Arusha region of Tanzania near the border with Kenya, a geological oddity pokes its nose out of the rift valley floor. It’s Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only volcano in the world that erupts with natrocarbonatite lava.
Natrocarbonatite is half the temperature of the glowing silicate lava you see oozing out of Hawaiian volcanoes and it flows many times faster. It spills forth like water in black frothing streams. If you don’t want to melt your Merrells in 950-degree rivers, you have to watch your step on the summit.
In the Maasai language, Ol Doinyo Lengai means “Mountain of God.” The Maasai’s supreme god and the creator of the world, Ngai, has resided there since time immemorial. Presumably it’s rent controlled.
From afar, the peak of Ol Doinyo Lengai looks like it’s puffing out small clouds, as would a cartoon train. Up close it’s apparent that little clouds have condensed around its cone. It’s not that high, though, at just under 10,000 feet. But height is not the only obstacle to summiting the volcano. When you travel to the middle of nowhere with no guide, luck is a huge factor.
Twenty of us were in Tanzania on a geological field trip with our university’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. As an aside, if you want to travel for work, don’t become a travel writer. Become a geologist. You’ll spend way less time in front of a computer and far more time in the middle of beautiful nowheres.
After landing in Nairobi, we rented a 4×4 and two vans to haul us – 19 students and one enduring, stoic professor – into and around Tanzania for two weeks. By the time we reached the turnoff from the paved road to Ol Doinyo Lengai, our luck had expired.
The road to ODL angled parallel to the shoulders of the Gregory Rift, part of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, across flat expanses of grassy savannah and past a skeletal acacia trees. We were at the tail end of Tanzania’s brief dry season and the acacias had been picked clean months before. The new grasses had yet to take hold in most places, and the road rapidly deteriorated into fields of soft earth. Our vans constantly sunk deep into the loose soil and even our 4×4 lost its footing regularly.
On the uninterrupted African savannahs, you can see a plains storm from a long way off. The dark clouds billow across the sky and below them a torrent of rain dims a uniform trapezoid on the horizon. Dramatic to watch from afar, but impossible to drive through on the unprotected veld.
At this time of year a storm brought more than rain. In front of us on the road, a dark squall sagged heavily looking like a bubble waiting to burst. The fierce winds whipped up dust and sand from the parched fields in skinny sepia tornadoes. We eventually came to a complete halt as we plunged deeper into the storm. The visibility dropped to zero, and we had to sit it out with nothing to look at outside but a uniform swatch of cafe au lait dust.
By the time we arrived at where we thought the Maasai village was supposed to be, 9 hours had passed, and the sun had long since gone down. As we searched for the village in the pitch black nowhere, one van’s bash plate (the protective cover on the bottom of the engine) tore off and then the 4×4’s radiator went on the fritz, causing its engine to overheat and die.
Jerry-rigging a temporary fix for each took time and it was already midnight when we finally found the village. Our plan to begin climbing at 2 a.m. in order to avoid getting roasted by the equatorial sun was completely out the window. None of us had slept. The base of the volcano was still an hour’s drive away. And since we had two broken vehicles we that meant we had to shuttle three separate groups to the mountain in the one working van. Starting at 4 a.m. the first group set out on a couple hours of sleep. With any luck we would get everyone there before the sun launched a full assault on our climbing party.
No luck. The final group began the ascent at about 11 a.m., just as the sun came down on us like Thor’s hammer. I was part of the last group. It took me 5 hours to climb up the steep barren slope, feeling every step like Sisyphus, and clawing my way up on hands and knees near the top. The porters were up in only a few hours, bouncing from rock to rock as if they hadn’t heard of gravity.
At the top I crawled into a shaded tent and collapsed into dreamless sleep. The sun, sensing my respite, sought out my hiding place and began to suffocate me inside. Two ravens named Never and More then lived at the top of the volcano and they squawked with displeasure from their perch on the crater ridge as I burst from the tent gulping for air.
We spent the day exploring the summit, taking samples and clambering around the outer edge of the crater. The summit is filled with tiny peaks called hornitos, which are formed from solidified lava. We came across one spewing forth natrocarbonatite, black like oil. It gushed out of a wound in the hornito’s side and cascaded rapidly down the crater’s slope. Natrocarbonatite lava is completely dehydrated, so it reacts quickly with humidity in the atmosphere and turns white within hours. You can tell how old a lava flow is by its color.
The view from the crater’s ridge was superb. Storms lashed the sky at the depths of the scene, though it was calm and clear nearby. The volcanic ash that has landed around Ol Doinyo Lengai (and other long-dormant volcanoes in the region) creates an extremely fertile soil that grass thrives in, which in turn supports the expansive grasslands’ millions of wildebeest, antelope, zebras and a pantheon of famous predators. An apt name, the Mountain of God.
Night came quickly, as it does by the equator. I was looking forward to a night’s rest on the soft, pliant floor of the crater. Earlier, my friend and I hadn’t thought to tie down our tent because it was so calm in the shadow of the crater ridge…
… Our tent billowed as the gale-force winds became more powerful. We recognized when the tent was smothering us that someone would have to sort this out. I stepped out to pin it down and was immediately soaked and almost knocked over in the wind. None of the pins held when I stuck them in the soil. I called my friend out of the tent to hold it down. He emerged, got soaked, and clutched one corner as I gripped the other. The tent began to lift off the ground, pulling us up and away. We had idiotically attached ourselves to a massive sail. We dug our heels into the ground and braced against the wind. After a moment we looked at each other knowingly, and with a nod let go of the tent. It whipped away, plunging into the blackness.
We fled, pelted by the rain, to the nearest shelter, an occupied one-person tent that had already flooded. The three of us crammed close together to keep warm, knees to our chests, and tried to sleep under one sleeping bag in two inches of water. I listened to the others shivering and noted the cruel irony of being freezing cold while sleeping above a lake of lava.
In the morning light, we found the remains of our tent 20 meters away where it had sailed into the crater wall. I hope his few seconds of freedom were worth it.
With only one van at the bottom of the volcano to bring us back, we decided to retrieve the second van from camp, lack of bash plate be damned. We had driven about 3 miles from the volcano toward the camp when the rumble of a deflated tire brought us to a stop. We had a spare, but predictably the tools to remove it from the underside of the van were AWOL.
Incredibly, after a futile hour of trying to jar the bolts loose with a metal rod, another vehicle came by on the lonely road. A tour guide was scouting out the volcano for a hike the next week and he offered to drive one of us back to camp to fetch the other van. Several hours later, as we sauteed on the road in the no man’s land between the mountain and camp, the injured van came hobbling along, and we were able to use its tools to release the spare tire.
The group reconvened at camp by the early afternoon. We fixed the radiator leak in the 4×4 with an egg, strung up the bash plate with a bit of flimsy wire and negotiated down the porters, who were trying to fleece us for double what we had agreed to pay. As the sun winked out, we lurched away from camp, navigating through honking zebras in the dark, soft-soiled open plain.
The wire holding the bash plate in place promptly failed within 20 minutes and every time the metal intestines of the engine crunched against the hard ground we held our breath. Like an inauspicious totem, I changed vans and immediately my new transport was rendered immobile. I hopped out to check what was going on and saw the van was perched happily on solid ground. We tried four different gears and none would engage. Our clutch was shredded.
Under the van’s headlights we attached a tow strap to the 4×4, which snapped on cue each time we drove through a dip in the road, significantly shortening our lead. When we got up to speed again on the final gravel section, the front of our van was no more than four feet from the rear of the jeep. When the 4×4 braked, if we didn’t react we would careen into its bumper. As we hit 50 miles an hour on the last stretch of gravel road, I turned around to see everyone in the back snoring obliviously. Then I looked over to Jake in the driver’s seat, staring wide-eyed at the taillights of the 4×4, taking deliberately long breaths and blinking on purpose.
When we reached the paved road it was 5 in the morning, 11 hours after we left the village. Jake engaged the parking brake, stepped down unsteadily from the driver’s seat and collapsed in a deep sleep directly on the pavement.
Under a clear night sky next to a crackling fire on a Zanzibar beach two days later, we sipped cold Kilimanjaro beers and toasted our calamitous success. Some adventures are meant to be enjoyed in memory only.
Besides, it could have been worse. Thirteen months to the day that we had slept on the summit, Ol Doinyo Lengai blew its top, spewing ash and lava over the plain in the largest eruption seen in decades. Where we slept on the summit is now a deep crater.
Our battered Coleman tent has been through years of service and cost something like $80 at an end-of-season sale at the local Target. It’s a workhorse and held up on gravel and snow and kept the campers inside it dry in pelting rain, letting in nothing more than a little damp on the corners and collecting a little condensation on the liner. But for all its practicality, there is one thing it is not: pretty. It is an olive green and tan little dome that looks like every other olive green and tan or red and tan or blue and tan little dome lined up on the grass in the tent meadow at any campground.
Enter the Field Candy tent. I can’t speak to the efficacy of these gorgeous little temporary shelters, but I also can’t decide which one I want the most. The one with the cow on it? The one that looks like a battered old suitcase? Yeah. That one. No, wait. I like the one that looks like a slice of watermelon because to see that when you pull up in your Subaru full of camping gear would crack you right up.
The Field Candy tent has all the stuff you’d expect from a decent camping tent – shock corded poles, a waterproof fly, and the easy clip up assembly. As a camper in wet climates, I’m suspicious of the cotton inner tent because it seems like something that would take a while to dry should it get wet. It’s got the bucket style ground sheet – you have to have that! – and a bunch of other features that look well thought out. This is no $80 clearance Coleman, some of them are over $700, so I’d expect performance as well as style.
But on the surface, it’s all about appearances. I want one. Maybe the one that looks like a circus tent. Or, no. The sandwich. Yeah, that one. No. Wait…
Since when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.
We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.
Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.
Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.
But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.
Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.
I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).
If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.
Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.