Thunderbird Lodge was belatedly constructed to meet the needs of the NPS "Mission 66" plan, to provide additional beds for growing ranks of visitors to Grand Canyon's South Rim. Like its later twin the Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird is efficient to a fault; as for architectural artistry it is little more than a concrete bunker that seems to have emerged from the ground like a bad effect from a 1960s spy movie.
above, Thunderbird may be a plain vanilla structure, but room quality is top-notch and location can't be beat. Photo courtesy Xanterra.
The facade conjures visions of a cold, sterile compound built as part of a cold war preparedness program. As part of "Mission 66" it was designed for efficient lodging in clean, comfortable rooms, with absolutely no provision for traditional concepts of "parkitecture." What Thunderbird lacks in charm it makes up for in location, which is unbeatable.
Guests at the Thunderbird check-in at the front desk of the timeless Bright Angel Lodge (NPLAS Classification III) where heavy wood beams and beautiful rustic fireplaces evoke images of vintage park lodging. After registering, guests exit the Bright Angel to enter the foreboding, sterile edifice known as the Thunderbird Lodge. Looking for the lobby? Head back to Bright Angel Lodge, or take a walk up to El Tovar (NPLAS Classification I) where you are free to use the first floor facilities just like a regular guest.
Rooms are spotlessly clean and in very good condition. They are neither as large nor as nice as those at Yavapai Lodge, however the Yavapai does not have the advantage of being right on the rim as the Thunderbird does. Guests at Thunderbird have to take the approach that "I'm not here to stay in a room, I'm here to see the canyon, so it doesn't matter how plain the lodge is." Repeat that mantra, and you'll get by. But if you can stay at El Tovar or Bright Angel, do so, no question.
To the Harvey Company's credit, the color and shaping of the Thunderbird and sister lodge Kachina blend as well as they can with the Grand Canyon rim. The coloring of the concrete edifice matches perfectly to the immediate canyon rim below, minimizing the visibility of the structure. Unfortunately it is set in one of the most spectacular locations on earth, and the rectilinear design is hopelessly out of place between the grand El Tovar and the rustic Bright Angel. This fact has not been lost on the National Park Service, and in 1995 Thunderbird and Kachina were slated for removal in 2010, with replacement lodging to be built at Yavapai. If and when it finally is removed, it's hard to imagine that anyone will ever miss the Thunderbird. By the same token, the occupancy rate will probably remain at 100% right up to the end.