5 Hidden Parkitecture Gems You Need to See for Yourself

Part of the appeal of visiting state and national parks is the immediate—and sometimes drastic—change of scenery they provide as you make your way onto park property and past the welcome sign. In some cases, there’s a particular rock formation, striking waterfall, or rare landscape found within the park that draws tourists from around the world. For other parks, the appeal is simply the chance to be surrounded by nature and reap its benefits while strolling on well-maintained trails.

But unless you’re in need of a restroom, you probably don’t deliberately seek out the manmade structures found in parks. In fact, you may not have even noticed them in the first place, as they seem to blend in with their surroundings—architecturally camouflaged. As it turns out, that is usually by design—specifically, a style called National Park Service (NPS) Rustic, but affectionately referred to as “parkitecture.” Here’s a brief look at the history of this aesthetic, how it made its way into state and national parks across the country, and a few examples of parkitecture you can visit on your summer road trip.

What is parkitecture?

When the country’s first national parks were established in the late 19th century, many of their early public-facing buildings—like lodges and information centers—were constructed in a similar rustic, Arts and Crafts style, using materials like wood and stone that are native to the area. The idea was for the structures to appear as if they were part of the natural environment instead of standing out and drawing attention away from the landscape—taking on the form of log cabins in heavily forested areas, or Pueblo-style architecture in parts of the southwest.

The first official architectural guidelines for parks were established in 1918, two years after the creation of the NPS itself, and stipulated that “in the construction of roads, trails, buildings, and other improvements, particular attention must be devoted always to the harmonizing of these improvements with the landscape.” This “back-to-nature” aesthetic became known as NPS Rustic, or, colloquially, as “parkitecture.”

To the future and back

Around the same time, outside of the parks, Arts and Crafts–style architecture was falling out of fashion: The intricate craftsmanship it required wasn’t financially feasible following World War I, and the sleek lines of modernism complemented the social and public health progress and reform of the time. While some Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings were constructed within national parks—including several examples in the Mammoth Hot Springs section of Yellowstone—the more traditional rustic style never went away.

This is especially evident in the work of architect Herbert Maier who, throughout the 1920s, designed some of the first museums and interpretive centers in parks across the country, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Bear Mountain State Park in New York. The most influential of these was the Norris Museum, which opened in Yellowstone in 1930—and continues to function as the visitors’ gateway to the Norris Geyser Basin today—and helped define what became the six principles of parkitecture.

But the most widespread proliferation of parkitecture occurred between 1933 and 1942 with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of the New Deal. This Depression-era program put young people to work constructing everything from trails to lodges in both state and national parks across the country, with most buildings and signage being in the classic NPS Rustic style. This was no coincidence: Maier was the CCC’s regional officer for the southwest, giving him the chance to implement parkitecture design on a massive scale. 

In 1956 the NPS launched Mission 66, which aimed, in part, to modernize national parks and make them more automobile-friendly in time for their 50th anniversary in 1966. More than 100 new visitors centers were constructed during that period, most of which embraced the simplicity of modernism—not only for its popularity in midcentury America, but also because the style was far less time consuming than the handcrafted look of parkitecture. While construction on Grant Village in Yellowstone began under Mission 66, it continued over the course of three decades and utilized a range of styles, including postmodernism (most notably the dining room). But the era of modernism in the national parks came to an end in the early 1980s, when the NPS decided to return to its architectural roots and embrace parkitecture once again. Since then, most new buildings and renovations to older structures feature a Neo-Rustic Revival style.

Visit these classic parkitecture buildings

There are still many early NPS Rustic buildings in state and national parks throughout the country that you can visit today. If your summer road trip involves a trip to a park, here are five examples of parkitecture you shouldn’t miss:

The Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Considered one of the first large-scale examples of parkitecture, the Old Faithful Inn opened its doors in 1904 and will begin welcoming guests once again the first weekend of June 2021. With views of its namesake geyser and a grand lobby that is still one of the largest log structures in the world, the inn remains one of the most popular lodging options in Yellowstone. A must-see for fans of parkitecture, the Old Faithful Inn still contains many of its original decorative features, including etched glass panels, a large stone fireplace, timber columns, log stairs with pine railings, hickory furniture, and an antique, handcrafted clock made of copper, wood, and wrought iron.

El Tovar Hotel and Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Chicago architect Charles Whittlesey envisioned El Tovar Hotel as a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Norwegian villa, constructed using native stone and logs from local trees so it would seamlessly blend into its surroundings at the Grand Canyon. El Tovar opened in 1905—as did the Mary Colter–designed Hopi House, originally used as a souvenir shop and modeled after 10,000-year-old Hopi dwellings. Its rectangular shape and reddish-brown sandstone walls offer a different version of parkitecture than the one directly across the street at El Tovar Hotel, incorporating both indigenous materials and cultural inspiration. It’s possible to visit both buildings on a trip to the Grand Canyon, though it’s tough to snag an overnight stay at El Tovar, which books up months in advance.

Bear Mountain Inn, Bear Mountain State Park, New York

When the Bear Mountain Inn opened in 1915, The American Architect gave it credit for being one of the “finest examples of rustic Adirondack architecture in America.” Constructed using local chestnut timber and stone from colonial-era boundary lines found in different parts of the park’s property, Bear Mountain Inn is an early example of parkitecture. While some of the decorative motifs and historic details were lost or concealed during changes made to the building between the 1930s and 1980s, many were restored during a nearly-six-year renovation that began in 2005. The inn is currently open, and remains a popular weekend getaway from New York City.

Sylvan Lake Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota

Sylvan Lake Lodge was built in 1937, nestled in a hillside forest of pine and spruce trees—a location that Frank Lloyd Wright had recommended. Constructed using local timber and stone, the lodge overlooks Sylvan Lake and the rock formations that surround it, allowing visitors to experience the natural landscape of the Black Hills regardless of whether they were hiking outdoors or having a meal indoors. A new wing with additional rooms opened in 1991, and the property also includes 31 cabins scattered throughout the hillside. This year, Sylvan Lake Lodge will welcome visitors at the end of April and is currently accepting bookings.

Gallery: Bookmark These 11 Places on HipCamp for Your Next Outdoor Retreat (Architectural Digest)

  • Slide 1 of 12: Thank goodness for the outdoors. As much as we love eye-catching interiors around here, it’s impossible to overstate how grateful we are for open spaces in the midst of a pandemic. Nature brings us back to neutral, clearing our minds and boosting our spirits with little fanfare—and it feels good to get this kind of a break whenever possible. Traveling to more crowded destinations still poses risks, which is why more rugged alternatives feel more feasible right now. We’re thinking about rental properties that can be thought of as literal escapes, like off-the-grid locales where WiFi is nonexistent but wildlife is plentiful, and it’s easy to recharge with a few cozy amenities and lots of pretty views. Sure, it may be a far cry from what you’re used to, but these 11 HipCamp tiny homes and campsites promise to shake up your routine. And these days, that sounds pretty appealing.

  • Slide 2 of 12: Nestled between Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead in the mountains outside Los Angeles, this cozy A-frame has all the brightness of California with all the action of the wilderness. An expansive deck and a projector above a wide fireplace are welcome respites after daytime hikes, swimming, and climbing excursions a short trip away.

  • Slide 3 of 12: Set on 13 private acres with panoramic views of towering trees, this light-filled carriage house in upstate New York epitomizes getting away from it all. Hiking trails surround the area, and lakes for boating and fishing are within a short drive. But you could stay close by with a campfire and a good book—no one would blame you if you did.

  • Slide 4 of 12: For those who prefer a hideaway that’s more adventurous than comfortable, this WiFi-free cabin in Michigan delivers. Its timber frame is outfitted with solar panels, a 12-volt refrigerator, a water filtration system, and a wood-burning stove—in case you needed to know how off-the-grid it really is—and it promises breathtaking natural scenery at every turn. In the summer, it’s possible to surf on Lake Superior, and in the winter you can take to the trails in snowshoes.

  • Slide 5 of 12: Built on the banks of the Atlantic and overlooking the mountains of Acadia National Park, this A-frame cabin presents the best of Maine for two. The main bedroom has a wall of windows above the water, and a small adjoining deck can be the perfect spot for s’mores. Pets are allowed, too, in case you’d like to upgrade this trip for three.

  • Slide 6 of 12: A pair of bikes and kayaks are included when you book this tiny cabin in Indiana, which capitalizes on the various state parks and Lake Michigan shoreline nearby. But don’t spend all your time away from this spot. A fully stocked kitchenette complete with shiplap walls and butcher block counters sit beneath a loft with a king-size memory foam mattress. There’s a cedar wood-fire soaking tub, too.

  • Slide 7 of 12: Open shelving, plenty of windows, and colorful accents succeed in making this New Mexico tiny home a stylish getaway, but its location is also entirely photogenic. At an elevation of 6,300 feet, the area is surrounded by intricately formed mountains that are ideal for hikes in the summer and skiing in the winter. And when you could use a nap, a lofted bed awaits.

  • Slide 8 of 12: At just 100 square feet, this A-frame in Oregon is the sophisticated version of camping under the stars. The natural wood build has enough space for two to sleep comfortably under linen or wool blankets, and it’s within steps of a private swimming hole. A communal kitchen, sauna, and shower house are just beyond the A-frame and its matching counterparts, so you’re bound to go home with new friends.

  • Slide 9 of 12: With views of Mount Shasta in the distance, this California outpost transforms a canvas campsite into a luxury escape—that still totally feels like roughing it. The campsite itself is on a secluded farm, and has a communal kitchen and bar area for guests. It’s possible to buy local meats and produce from the farm, and then retreat to a screened-in slumber after the feast.

  • Slide 10 of 12: Perched in Texas’s Lost Pines Forest, this dog-friendly and solar-powered treehouse has all the amenities of a typical rental—like a kitchen, air conditioner, and propane grill—with all the whimsy of being dubbed a “hobbit’s nest.” Large circular windows spill light onto honey-colored wood, and the front walkway is accented by curved branches. An outdoor shower makes for the perfect end to various hiking trails, too.

  • Slide 11 of 12: The sleek black exterior of this off-the-grid cabin in Maine beautifully contrasts with the natural wood inside, and that balance between new and old comforts continues with every detail. A nearby river and rolling hills surround the cabin, making it possible to spend the day canoeing or meandering through the grass. At night, lanterns and string lights add a warm glow, as bright stars shine overhead.

  • Slide 12 of 12: Care to get away from it all and go back in time? It’s possible to do both at this log cabin in Indiana, which was built in 1850. Exposed beams on all walls and traditional features like quilt-covered beds transport guests with timeless style, and the surrounding alpaca farm provides built-in entertainment at a slow pace. At night, a brick pizza oven is a must for dinner.

Thank goodness for the outdoors. As much as we love eye-catching interiors around here, it’s impossible to overstate how grateful we are for open spaces in the midst of a pandemic. Nature brings us back to neutral, clearing our minds and boosting our spirits with little fanfare—and it feels good to get this kind of a break whenever possible.

Traveling to more crowded destinations still poses risks, which is why more rugged alternatives feel more feasible right now. We’re thinking about rental properties that can be thought of as literal escapes, like off-the-grid locales where WiFi is nonexistent but wildlife is plentiful, and it’s easy to recharge with a few cozy amenities and lots of pretty views. Sure, it may be a far cry from what you’re used to, but these 11 HipCamp tiny homes and campsites promise to shake up your routine. And these days, that sounds pretty appealing.

The Juniper Hideout A-Frame Cabin

Modern Carriage House

The Copper Cabin

Off-Grid Oceanfront A-Frame Cabin

Luxury Tiny Beach Cabin

Tiny House With Amazing Views

Moon A-Frame Cabin, Cedar Bloom

Certified Organic Belcampo Farms

Hobbit’s Nest

Heated Off Grid Tiny Cabin

Vintage 1850 Log Cabin Glamping

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