President Ulysses S. Grant decreed Yellowstone the nation’s first national park in 1872, and a series of parks (like Sequoia and Yosemite) joined its ranks by the late 1890s. Early national park architecture was a blend of the eclectic styles of the late-19th century—incorporating everything from the Queen Anne style to pioneer-rustic structures.
A more cohesive style took root with the founding of the National Park Service in 1916, as an increasing number of parks needed shelter for visitors and lodging facilities. Taking inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, national park architects idealized a “back-to-nature” aesthetic that advocated the use of natural building materials.
Gradually, a cohesive park architecture in the American West centered around a “rustic” design. Parkitecture came to embrace six principles of what park buildings should look like: They should be in harmony with their environment; buildings should blend with each other; horizontal lines should dominate; rigid lines should be avoided; stone, log, and timber work should be in scale for a well-balanced design; and stone and log work should be oversized so that the natural forest and rocks don’t dwarf the buildings.
Of course, later architectural movements—like Art Deco, modernism, and postmodernism—all made their mark on buildings in our National Park System. But since the 1980s, rehabilitation efforts have sought to preserve and rehabilitate the more rustic parkitecture and build new buildings in a neo-rustic revival style. Today, parkitecture has become so pervasive that large-scale timber or stone buildings are what’s expected when visitors travel through national parks, and especially the American West.
In honor of all things parkitecture, we’ve rounded up some of the most stunning examples still standing in our parks. Steeped in history—many are on the National Register of Historic Places—these buildings embody what our national parks are all about.
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in Yosemite National Park
You can’t go far in Yosemite National Park without encountering significant historic architecture: Badger Pass Ski Lodge is a rustic lodge with Swiss influences and one of the first alpine ski resorts in California; the historic Wawona Hotel opened in 1876; and Ansel Adams's own gallery is in the park, a spot where he taught photography workshops.
But the jewel of the park is Gilbert Stanley Underwood's 123-room Majestic Yosemite Hotel—formerly called the Ahwahnee Hotel—which opened in 1927. Boasting three different three-story wings that surround a central six-story tower, the Majestic shows the large-scale granite chimneys, log-beamed ceilings, and massive stone hearths popular with the rustic style.
Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park
Constructed in 1903, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn is one of the earliest examples of how parkitecture seeks to harmonize with its surroundings. Lodgepole pines were used in many ways—peeled, unpeeled, varnished, and unvarnished—to create the scaffolding for the 92-foot, seven-story lobby.
As one of the few log hotels still standing, it also boasts a massive stone chimney and the peaked roofs that mimic the mountains surrounding it. The shingle-style Old Faithful Inn also shows how parkitecture blended other architectural styles into its vernacular, in this case a bit of Queen Anne and Adirondack rusticity.
Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park
Sometimes called the Switzerland of North America, Glacier National Park is a picturesque location by any measure. The understated Many Glacier Hotel, which opened in 1915, lets the environment take center stage.
Situated on the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake, the hotel was the largest of the lodging properties built by Great Northern Railway to host the influx of passengers they were bringing by rail. The four-story buildings look like a chain of chalets, with an emphasis on horizontal rooflines. Inside, a four-story atrium is ringed by dark, peeled timber and decorative balconies, while a copper fire hood links to a suspended chimney.
Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park has a number of prime examples of rustic architecture across four historic districts. In the district that bears its name sits the Paradise Inn, the park's first lodging property completed in 1917 by the Rainier National Park Company.
From afar, the Inn's most distinctive feature is the long pitched roof that looks like it stops just short of the ground. The lobby interior reveals the intricate log work that allows the dramatic roof line and opens space up for 50-foot stone chimneys at either end.
Moraine Park Museum and Amphitheater in Rocky Mountain National Park
Unlike some of the other sites on this list, the best example of rustic design in Rocky Mountain National park is not the iconic hotel at its doorstep, which, in this case, is the Georgian Revival style Stanley Hotel completed in 1909 by Stanley Steamer inventor F.O. Stanley. Instead, it's a lone (and much more modest) example of the type of lodges that used to inhabit the park: the Moraine Park Museum.
In 1936, the building was renovated into the museum that stands today, and the nearby amphitheater was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that same year. The amphitheater is notable in its own right as an example of a landscape architecture counterpart to rustic design.
Crater Lake Superintendent Residence in Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park has two districts full of rustic architecture: Rim Village and the Munson Valley. While the Village Historic District holds Crater Lake Lodge, which unfortunately was plagued with construction issues from 1915 till its latest renovation was completed in 1995, the Munson Valley Historic District is home to the impeccably built and preserved Crater Lake Superintendent Residence.
There are plenty of attractive rustic style dormitories and other residential structures in the parks system, but few can match the scale of the stone and wood work of this National Historic Landmark. The boulders that make up the lower half of this one-and-a-half story building are massive, some reaching five feet across. The timber beams form a dramatically pitched roof covered with cedar shakes. Native materials and the careful use of the site illustrate the height of the rustic style's power to draw visitors (or in this case, residents) into the setting.
El Tovar in the Grand Canyon
The Charles Whittlesley-designed El Tovar Hotel was built in 1905 and is located directly on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. While it’s no longer the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi, the 78-room El Tovar is one of the prettiest of the national park lodges and serves as a top-notch base to explore the Grand Canyon National Park.
Beyond its identification as parkitecture, the El Tovar refuses to be pigeonholed into any other architectural category. The building boasts an eclectic blend of Swiss and Norwegian styles, with a bit of Adirondack lodge and Victorian turrets thrown in. Its horizontal lines, stone features, and log interiors are classic national park rustic style.