Classification System Explained

Evaluated on Individual Merits

U.S. National Park Lodges range from rustic canvas-sided tent cabins to five-star luxury hotels with every conceivable comfort and the latest amenities. Some lodges are "hike-in" camps with a dinner bell; others are full-fledged resorts with internationally-respected cuisine.

Similarly, architecural styles range from humble cabins to massive Victorian structures. Some parks have no lodging within their boundaries, while others have a little of everything: from classic "parkitecture" lodges to sterile "mission 66" motels.

standard guest room

photo courtesy of Xanterra

The task at hand is to rate the various lodges, camps, hotels, motels and resorts -- each on its own merits -- not by comparison to structures that are by no means comparable.

It makes no sense to compare a canvas-sided camp in the High Sierras to a contemporary resort in the desert. It is rather a question of individual significance:

Does this particular lodge enhance the park experience?

Room quality plays little part in the NPLAS classification system. The room shown in the photo above is from the El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon National Park, currently owned and operated by Xanterra. With few modifications, the same photo could easily be confused with a room at Kachina Lodge, or Maswik, or perhaps Yavapai Lodge. All are at the Grand Canyon, all Xanterra properties with nice furnishings and decor, perfectly cleaned and well maintained. All are equally excellent places to sleep, but of the four listed above, only El Tovar is "classified" by the NPLAS.

Inferior rooms, however, can cause a facility to suffer in the classification process. The logic is that a superb room doesn't make a bland hotel spectacular, but a poorly maintained room can make a spectacular hotel seem less so.

To be classified, the structure and/or the decor must add an element of interest to the National Park experience. Does the building evoke a sense of wonder? Is the imagination inspired? Does a comfortable chair in a cozy corner beckon one to relax? The best park lodges do all these things and more. Each are judged on their own merits within the following classifications:

Classification I

el tovar 1909

These are the places that established the ultimate standard for architectural artistry in a National Park Lodge. A visit to one of these lodges is an integral part of the park experience. If you are fortunate enough to procure lodging, you will find that room quality and cleanliness are both superb. The dining experience is not to be missed. Time spent anywhere in these lodges affords you new sensory experiences, sights, and discoveries. These are among the oldest lodges, and are the "criteria" that defines a National Park Lodge. The NPLAS currently recognizes The Ahwahnee, Crater Lake Lodge, El Tovar, and the Old Faithful Inn as Classification I.

Classification II

lobby at many glacier hotel

These facilities will greatly enhance a park visit. An overnight stay will be an unforgettable experience; the design and decor of these lodges are important examples of National Park Lodge architecture. Time spent anywhere in these lodges affords you new sensory experiences, sights, and discoveries. Virtually every aspect of these lodges is "superior."

Classification III

bright angel hotel

These facilities will enhance a park visit. Design, decor, location, or historic value is important and an overnight stay will be memorable. The atmosphere adds to the park experience and these lodges should be considered "premium."

Classification IV

Special Merit
cedar grove lodge

These facilities offer design, decor, ambiance or historic value that can definitely enhance an overnight stay, however, lodges in this classification may not be suitable for guests who expect certain comforts and amenities. Many NPLAS members appreciate the unique atmosphere of Classification IV lodges. With the cautionary statement that they are not for everyone, these lodges all have "special merit."

Classification V

painted desert inn

These facilities played an important role in the brief history of park lodging, and have either been demolished or no longer provide overnight accommodations. All efforts should be made to study and preserve these structures or locations considered "historic."


Facilities that offer no enhancement to the park experience other than location are not classified by the NPLAS. Those that are reviewed are only those that provide a high quality room and/or location, they are only unclassified as to the extent that they do not provide an atmosphere traditionally associated with national park lodging.

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When a Lodge isn't really a "Lodge"

Random foliage

Many National Park Lodges don't fit the classic perception of "lodge." An example from the west is White Wolf Lodge in Yosemite National Park, which is a collection of canvas-walled "cabins" with a central dining lodge and shared bath facilities. In the east, Charit Creek Lodge in Big South Fork offers a few very rustic wood cabins and a couple of bunk rooms, along with the requisite dining hall and shared baths. Most of these "lodges" are in remote areas, with no electricity and few modern comforts. Some are scions of 1900's era tourist camps, where canvas cabins were standard fare. Classification of these "lodges" is difficult; many of them provide a fantastic park experience, but are just a notch above camping and as such are unsuitable for many people. As a result, most of these are listed under Classification IV, and are described extensively on their individual pages.