The Grand Canyon’s historic El Tovar Hotel sits about a hundred feet from one of the grandest natural views in the world: the overlook into the canyon from the South Rim. In 1903, President Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon, and in a speech, he implored onlookers to leave the area as it was, unspoiled. He was concerned that any building, even the smallest cottage, would mar the beauty of the canyon.
Pretty much as soon as he left, construction began on the El Tovar Hotel, which opened its doors in 1905, fourteen years before the Grand Canyon became a national park. Now the centerpiece of the South Rim of the canyon, there are several additional lodges, gift shops, restaurants, and a visitor center nearby to keep it company.
The El Tovar Hotel played a role in determining the path we’ve taken over the past decade. Years ago, when visiting the Grand Canyon, we stepped into the lobby of the El Tovar for the first time. “We’re home,” I said to Karen with a sigh. The log walls, the mission-style furniture, and the animal heads–moose, bison, deer, pronghorn–looking down at the visitors are a few of the things that make it the quintessential national park lodge. It wouldn’t have surprised us if Teddy Roosevelt himself had walked through the lobby. You feel the history in the building; it takes you back to the era when these western national parks were in wilderness areas that could only be reached by train. It wasn’t long after that visit that the idea started percolating: What if we quit our jobs to visit all of the National Parks?
Over the past several years, we’ve stayed at the El Tovar a few times, lucking out by catching cancelations; it’s an extremely popular destination and usually booked far in advance. On one of these trips to the canyon that we planned at the last minute, we were also able to catch a cancelation at Phantom Ranch: the cabins at the bottom of the canyon that were built in 1922. We hiked ten miles down to Phantom Ranch, ate dinner at the Phantom Ranch Cantina, spent the night in one of their cabins, and hiked back up to the South Rim the next morning. That was one of our most memorable trips because of the challenge and excitement of hiking to the bottom of the canyon and back, seeing Phantom Ranch for the first time, and spending the night at the El Tovar.
It was June when we hiked out of the canyon, and to avoid the scorching heat of the afternoon, we started before the sun rose. We made it to the South Rim well before check in time at the El Tovar, and exhausted from the hike, we had just enough energy left to sit on the back porch of the hotel bar and have a leisurely brunch while looking over the canyon, trying not to pass out before our room was ready. What a great memory that was.
A stay at the El Tovar wouldn’t be complete for Karen without wandering through the hotel gift shop to look at the Mimbreno pottery. She always buys one piece to remember the trip. They’re reproductions of pieces used in the dining cars of the Grand Canyon Railroad when it began bringing visitors to the Grand Canyon in 1901. The Fred Harvey Company built the El Tovar Hotel so the railway passengers would have a place to stay when they reached the Grand Canyon. The railroad tracks end just a short walk away from the front of the hotel.
Despite being over a hundred years old, the rooms at the El Tovar all have en-suite bathrooms thanks to a significant renovation in 1983. When we visit the park, even if we can’t get a room at the El Tovar, we still go there and have dinner and drinks in the hotel bar. The hotel has a restaurant, which is nice, but we prefer the more casual atmosphere of the bar. Plus, we’ve accumulated so many fond memories of sitting there after long days exploring the park that we’re drawn back there every time.