Sleeping cheap on federal land
How to land a cheap room at a historic inns in a National Park
The forest-like lobby of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.
Sometimes, you just get lucky.
A few weeks ago, Troop 116 arrived in Yellowstone National Park just in time to miss a performance by Old Faithful. We three tired Scoutmasters decided to bag the afternoon touring plans and ensconce the troop on the upstairs porch of the Old Faithful Inn (www.travelyellowstone.com/old-faithful-inn-96.html), sipping cocoa (the boys) and wine (the adults) and waiting 90 minutes for the next show.
Once the Oos and Ahhs were over, by unspoken agreement Stew Lee went to get another bottle of wine, John Agnew wandered down to the front desk on the off chance there had been any cancellations, and I explored this national historic landmark of a hotel—built in 1904 around an amazing 76.5-foot central atrium held up by a forest of burnished tree trunks.
I returned to the porch to find the boys on their third round of cocoa, but no adults. I heard my name called out from above and saw, framed in the centermost dormer window of the five hotel rooms overlooking the porch, the grinning faces of Stew and Agnew.
The snug room was immaculate, with three queen-sized beds and a host of antique accents—cast-iron radiators, multi-filament light bulbs, and walls and ceiling swathed in the original cedar paneling. There was no bathroom—just a designer sink in one corner—but there were shared baths down the hall, including one with claw-foot tubs.
Stew took the wine and a book and retired to a tub, Agnew inquired about tours of our historic inn, and I returned to the porch to break the news to the boys: instead of hunting for a free campsite in one of the National Forests wedged between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park tonight, we'd be roughing it in one of the Old Faithful Inn's original rooms—for just $85.
[2012 note: The summer 2012 rate for these rooms will be $101; double rooms with private bath start at $132]
Finding a Room at the Inn
One of the original rooms at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.
"Every morning there are rooms available in Yellowstone," said Tom Mesereau, a spokesperson for Xanterra, which runs 21 lodges in Zion, Bryce, Crater Lake, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon (888-297-2757, www.xanterra.com). "It may not end that way, but it starts out that way."
That's because there are 2,000 rooms ranged across Yellowstone's nine lodges. I asked Tom about snagging a room specifically at the Old Faithful Inn, and he said, "There's no hard and fast rule, but as soon as you know that you want to go to the park, you should probably call." He added that they start taking reservations on May 1 of the year before, when many people call to request specific rooms—and the room we stayed in was among those popular ones
Yellowstone is not the only park with gorgeous historic lodges, and deals like the one we found are common—though it does pay to book ahead. There are links to everything from lodges to camping facilities for every National Park at www.nps.gov.
But even better than getting a great deal on a classic national park lodge was all the free camping we discovered on federal land throughout the country. The trick was knowing where to look...