Search This Blog

Monday, March 22, 2021

Railroads and National Parks

by Patti Sherry-Crews

 March 2021.

It’s been well over a year since I’ve had a proper planned vacation. As we’re seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel, I’m counting my blessings by remembering wonderful trips we had as a family. 

One of my favorites was taking the Amtrak Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. We got off at Glacier National Park. Traveling with two children, we opted to book a family bedroom, which came with our own personal attendant who booked our meals in the dining car, and while we were at dinner, he'd convert our couches into beds. It was an excellent way to travel where we all could sit back and enjoy the views. 

I remember traveling for hours through the golden grasses of the Great Plains, which seemed to go on forever. And then detraining at Glacier National Park where we stayed at one of the old great lodges of the National Park Service.

It was during this trip I became aware of the history of the partnership between the railroads and the National Park Service, which enjoyed a golden age of railroad travel beginning at the beginning of the 20th century and lasting until the 1950’s.

Teddy Roosevelt and environmentalist, John Muir, first saw the benefit of setting aside protected areas as national treasures. Then in 1903, the Union Pacific Railroad and The Chicago & Northern Western Railroad formed the Bureau of Service to National Parks and Resorts, establishing resorts at Yellowstone and the Rocky National Park.

In 1915, railroads promoted parks at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The exposition was meant to highlight the Panama Canal, but massive exhibits of the parks drew the crowds' interest, which included a 4 ½ acre replica of Yellowstone complete with geysers and the Old Faithful Inn.

In 1916, the National Park Service and the railroads partnered up. As the parks were only accessible to the general public by rail at that time, the railroads constructed the buildings to support the tourist trade: lodges, cabins, and dining halls. Destination travel to the west was born. The train wasn’t only a means to get from one point to another anymore. This type of organized travel with an agenda and means of vehicular transport within the parks opened up the wilderness to the person who sat somewhere between adventurer and armchair traveler. For instance, Circle Loop took travelers in comfort through Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon.

Circle Loop

The art departments at the railroad got busy with a campaign glorifying the natural beauty of the parks making travel posters and paintings. The film departments shot footage to be shown before movies at cinemas across the country to lure tourists. The posters have become iconic.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was commissioned to design the facilities. His buildings in the so-called National Park Rustic Style or Parkitecture  became the standard for later development, using native stone and timber to create his lodges, cabins, and dining halls.

Ahwahnee Lodge, Yosemite Park, Designed by Underwood

The Interior of Old Faithful Exemplifying the Organic Nature of Parkitecture (Designed by Robert C. Reamer)

After 1918, the army who had been charged with manning the parks were replaced by the Park Rangers we know today.

We can thank the railroads for helping preserve the parks. Train travel has a relatively benign impact on the environment. Early on all the railroad companies involved agreed to ban billboards, so the train passenger could enjoy uninterrupted views. The rails followed the natural contours, rather than trying to plough straight through the landscape. And by limiting the number of stops, much land was left undeveloped—and free of litter.

Of course, bringing tourists to the west wasn’t always an easy relationship between the native American Indian tribes and the railroad development was an uneasy dance at times. But the railroads and National Parks did introduce travelers to a side of native American culture they otherwise might not have seen. The National Park Service is under the Department of the Interior, as is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Demonstrating Navajo Weaving

In the 1950’s automobile travel overtook train travel, which struggled to compete. In 1972, the railroads donated all the facilities at Zion, Bryce, Cedar Breaks, and the Grand Canyon to the National Park Service.

My dream is to visit all the National Parks, and if not stay in the Great Lodges, at least step into the lobbies. Maybe have a bite to eat in the dining hall. Have you stayed or visited any of the Great Lodges? What National Parks have you been to?


  1. Patti,

    Oh gosh. At first thought, I didn't think I'd been to any national parks except three of the four in Colorado: Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The one I haven't been to is Mesa Verde. I've been to the Great Sand Dunes many times.

    So, I looked up the list of US National Parks, and it jogged my travel memories. haha

    *Grand Canyon, but only from the rim. I'd like to take a helicopter tour.

    *Petrified Forest - Arizona

    *Saguaro - Arizona

    *White Sands - New Mexico

    I went on a round-trio train excursion from Lamar, Colorado to Kingman, Arizona a few years ago. I traveled coach. It wasn't horrible. haha I'd like to go on another train trip, but with a private room.

    1. Hu, Kaye. I have been to Mesa Verde. We were there sometime after a big fire uncovered more ruins and there were a lot of blacken, twisted trees. It was pretty cool. I would like to go back to Grand Canyon, but without little kids in tow next time. I'm very afraid of heights and having two little ones and a husband with a different comfort zone about things like the edge of cliffs, it was beautiful, awesome, and terrifying!
      I should add too that having been on other train trips such as Chicago to St. Louis, which can be a like a step above a Greyhound bus, I would advise people interested in train travel to book on one of their primer lines such as the Empire Builder I've been to Saguaro too and Petrified Forest is on my list--well they're all on my list to be honest (get me out of my house!).

  2. We no longer have passenger train service on the prairies; trains are strictly for hauling grain, oil and manufactured goods. I still remember riding the train from our small town to Medicine Hat. I had to change seats because riding backward caused me to become nauseous. But back in the sixties, we still had passenger service and my husband arranged for me to have a sleeper compartment on my trip east from Calgary. I had the privacy of my own bedroom at night and could sit on it and watch the world go by the window. The attendants were wonderful to this lone traveler. How wonderful that you can take these scenic trips by train and I hope you get the chance to visit all these wonderful parks. I so enjoyed your post as I doubt very much I'll be able to take such a tur through yur beautiful western parks. A great blog, Patti.

    1. The prairie goes on and on! I'd look out the window to see grasslands, take a nap, wake up to grasslands, eat a meal--still in grasslands. It was very beautiful but astounding to me how much land remains uninhabited. There are some great train vacations in parts of Canada I've had my eye on. I like the train trip for us because I HATE driving and so it's left up to my husband who gets tired of being the one with his eye on the road and missing the scenery. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. What marvelous trips. If we can't actually travel, we can travel virtually through such a lovely post as this. I adore those vintage posters too.

    1. Hi, C.A., I'm glad you got a virtual tour. I've had some great train trips in UK back in the day. Very fond memories. Once when going to school there, a friend and I had a sleeper on the Flying Scotsman traveling overnight to Edinburgh. Thank you for stopping by and hoping we can all travel again soon.

  4. I'm bursting with jealousy that you've done the Empire Builder--I'd love to do that. I took a sleeper down to New Orleans from NY years and years ago; I don't suppose that runs any more. As for the National Parks, well, too many to list I'm afraid--I just went through the Wiki list and counted 24, but that list isn't complete. :-) Great post, Patti!

    1. Andi, that's so awesome you've visiting so many parks. I have a book The Great Lodges of the National Parks and I'd love to at least step in the lobby of each one. How was the sleeper to New Orleans? The Empire Builder is one of their showpieces and it felt almost like traveling in another time where train travel was grander. Funnily, I mentioned to my daughter I was writing about this train trip and she said, "I tell everyone that was the worst vacation I ever had." To each his own! Me, I'd love to travel from Chicago to the end of the line one day.
      In my daughter's defense, our return trip was less than great. There was flooding in Minnesota and the tracks were underwater so we had to get off there and take nasty buses to a place where we could board again, and by that time we were exhausted.

  5. The parks sound and look amazing, Patti! Thanks so much for sharing your memories of them. I love the double-decker trains, too, they look so impressive. Thanks for a lovely blog!

    1. Thanks, Lindsay! I'm thinking about travel again. I just got vaccinated, so my mind at least is a wandering. I would do a train vacation again in a heartbeat. I do love the Grand Lodges in the Parks. The details are beautiful. Another trip I'd like to do is renting a canal boat and traveling in UK. Thanks for stopping by!