by J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer | July 01, 2016

“Park fever” is sweeping the country. There was a record-breaking number of national park visitors in 2015 and even more are expected in 2016. This flurry of interest can be attributed, at least in part, to centennial celebrations marking the 100th birthday of the National Park Service (NPS), created on August 25, 1916. “Park fever” is sweeping the country. There was a record-breaking number of national park visitors in 2015 and even more are expected in 2016. This flurry of interest can be attributed, at least in part, to centennial celebrations marking the 100th birthday of the National Park Service (NPS), created on August 25, 1916.

 

A little-known fact is that when the NPS was created 100 years ago, 14 national parks already existed; that is, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other parks are actually older and more historic than the government agency that oversees them. Today, however, there are 411 areas managed by the NPS, which include national parks, preserves, reserves, battlefields and seashores, among other designations. And with all of the surrounding publicity, it has never been a better time to look to these sites as unique settings for upcoming meetings.

Yellowstone National Park is the granddaddy of the national park system. Established in 1872 and set amid 3,500 square miles, the park supports hot springs and gushing geysers, including iconic Old Faithful, a migrating population of bison and various other wild animal life. With two distinct seasons, Yellowstone can host summer meetings at six locales: the expanding Canyon Lodge & Cabins, the park’s largest lodging facility, with more than 500 guest rooms and cabins; Grant Village; Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins; Old Faithful Inn, the largest log structure in the world; Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins; and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins, a National Historic Landmark now 125 years old. In the winter, meetings are confined to Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, which will be closed for renovations for the next two winter seasons.

Famed around the world for its ancient sequoias and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains offers meeting packages for up to 550 attendees. Although many of the facility names have changed due to a dispute with former concessionaire DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, a subsidiary of Delaware North, the offerings remain the same. Venues include the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee), which is undergoing renovations, and the Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly Yosemite Lodge); both are open year-round and offer meeting space for up to 150. Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona) can also host events of up to 150. It’s open from late March through November and from mid-December through early January, and features whitewashed Victorian buildings and a nine-hole golf course. Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village and open daily mid-March through November and mid-December through early January, then weekends only January to mid-March) has 481 lodging choices, including 403 tent cabins, and for events, there’s a central pavilion and a nearby amphitheater. Just outside Yosemite’s west entrance, the 143-room Rush Creek Lodge just opened its doors in June, welcoming groups of up to 250 people.

The breathtakingly deep gorge of the Colorado River is the central feature of Grand Canyon National Park. Connected to Williams, Arizona, by the Grand Canyon Railway—an experience in itself—the park is so popular with tourists that it restricts meetings to its off-season, November 1 to March 15. Although small gatherings can be accommodated at El Tovar (which tends to be booked at least a year in advance), Kachina Lodge or Thunderbird Lodge, groups generally make use of the 250-room Maswik Lodge complex. All are located on the South Rim.

Southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park nestles around its centerpiece, the 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier, billed as the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Subalpine wildflower meadows ring the icy volcano. The 121-room Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is open mid-May to early October and welcomes group events with a large dining area. Elsewhere in Washington State, the moss-draped rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is home to Olympic National Park, with four lodges that offer conference capabilities, though limited to no internet access. The only one open year-round is the coastal Kalaloch Lodge, located on Highway 101.

The “Crown of the Continent” is situated in Montana’s Rocky Mountains: Glacier National Park, whose scenery and myriad wildlife—from mountain goats to grizzly bears—wow attendees. Glacier’s largest lodging is the 215-room Many Glacier Hotel (open mid-June to mid-September), built 1914-1915 on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. It welcomes meetings, though half of the hotel rooms, the lobby and some other spaces will be closed for construction this summer. The 82-room, chalet-style Lake McDonald Lodge (mid-May through September) is just 10 miles inside the park’s west entrance and is known for its balconies, porches and original furnishings (the property dates back to 1913). And just outside the park, in East Glacier, the 162-room Glacier Park Lodge (June to late September) welcomes association groups with golf, rafting and ample event space.

Big Bend National Park in western Texas sits on the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert in the country. Birdwatchers flock to the park in April and May, and a popular year-round stop is Big Bend’s 72-unit Chisos Mountains Lodge. It welcomes small gatherings and offers special group room rates in January and June through August.

Associations that count golfers among its membership might be interested in taking attendees to play the lowest-elevation golf course in the world, found at the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley National Park, which straddles California and Nevada. The park’s premier lodging is the 66-room Inn at Furnace Creek, built in 1927. A variety of conference spaces are on hand, and board meetings are particularly welcome. Less than a mile away, the 224-room Ranch at Furnace Creek is another option. The ranch is open year-round whereas the inn’s season is mid-October to mid-May.

Not all national parks and national park lodges lie in the western half of the country, of course. Lovely Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—just 75 miles from Washington, D.C.—contains a section of the Appalachian Trail and can be traversed north to south via the 105-mile Skyline Drive. Situated along the highest point of Skyline Drive is the Skyland Resort (late March through November), which features 177 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 80 people. The park’s Big Meadows Lodge (May to early November) was built in 1939 of stone and native wormy chestnut, a wood that’s now virtually extinct. It offers 97 guest rooms and cabins and a meeting room for up to 35 people.

The centennial celebrations for the National Park Service serve as a reminder of the scenic splendors and unique wilderness activities provided in our natural parks. Pretty natural settings make for memorable meetings, as well.