The National Park Service turns 100 years old this summer, sending Americans to the Grand Canyon and Zion in droves. In a statement earlier this month, President Barack Obama estimated that travel to these vast open spaces would support a $646 billion national outdoor economy, with nearly $17 billion going to the communities on the parks’ fringes. By all accounts, last year’s record-setting visitation numbers—which clocked in at more than 305 million travelers—are being outpaced in 2016.
All the buzz means two things: Heading to the national parks this summer will require more than a little elbow wrestling, and securing exclusive access will be more valuable than ever in the face of intense crowds.
But there’s good news. A number of high-end lodges have recently opened as close as legally possible to such parks as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, and they’re transforming traditionally dusty vacations into truly elevated experiences. Many are every bit as impressive as Kestrel Camp, which pushed the envelope for comfort and conservation when it brought high-end yurts to Montana a few years back. This isn’t glamping; it’s straight-up luxury living in the middle of America’s most rugged places.
Grand Canyon Under Canvas
Fifty-six acres is hardly a large chunk of land when you’re in the middle of Grand Canyon National Park, but it’s still a substantial parcel for the 40 tents that make up Grand Canyon Under Canvas. Created by the same hospitality group that has set up luxe camps in Moab, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks, its accommodations are stocked with ample creature comforts: king beds, wood burning stoves, campaign-style furniture, and even free-standing bath tubs in some of the en-suite bathrooms. Most notable is the location, at the base of Bill Williams Mountain and 40 minutes from the canyon’s southern rim, all in the shadow of one of the largest Ponderosa Pine forests in the world. Use it as a base camp for white water rafting, horseback riding, or taking scenic flights across the canyon rim.
Rush Creek Lodge
Until last week, when Rush Creek Lodge opened, Yosemite hadn’t seen a new resort in more than 25 years. Now it has one with zip-lines, hot tubs, and a 2,400-square-foot saltwater pool. It’s set roughly three hours from San Francisco by car—on 20 woodland acres right at the park’s entrance. Spend your days hiking around the redwood forests (there’s a general store on property for all your picnicking needs), then retreat to sunsets with dramatic mountain views and nightcaps by the fireplace. As a bonus, the whole thing is built with the environment and local community in mind: There are more than 200 solar panels, thorough water recycling programs, and a youth employment initiative that targets high-potential, low-income kids.
It may not be in a national park per se, but this property run by Ted Turner Expeditions is set on landscapes that are every bit as grand and expansive. Formerly the media mogul’s private home, Casa Grande has just been renovated as a show-stopping resort and the cornerstone of Vermejo Park Ranch, Turner’s 590,000-acre natural reserve. The park is a refuge for such wild species as pronghorn antelope and bison and an excellent place for birdwatching and fishing. And just as important, it’s almost certainly the most opulent property of its kind in the U.S.
Smith Fork Ranch
The leather-makers behind luxury accessory brand Ghurka struck gold when they opened Smith Fork Ranch in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains more than a decade ago; it’s become emblematic of a luxury Wild West vacation. Now they’re launching a new tented safari experience at the top of Sink Creek, a private camp 10,000 feet above sea level. The two-day trips take guests hiking up 150-year-old trails with connections to the native Ute Indian tribes. The camp itself sits in the shadow of Mount Guaro—a remote, pristine location that’s perfect for alpenglow panoramas and luminous stargazing.
Though it’s a mecca for skiers and snowboarders come winter, Jackson Hole is undervalued for its summer pursuits—notably, it’s a gateway for exploring Grand Teton National Park, just five miles away. The 58 rooms in the city's first boutique hotel are upscale but understated, with plaid throws over the beds, L’Occitane bath amenities in the bathrooms, and gas fireplaces in each room. Opt for the more expansive suites; they have Native American-inspired rugs, reclaimed wood paneling, and views of both downtown Jackson Hole and Snow King mountain.