We usually review trails on The Outdoor Society. The trips we share involve muddy boots and dusty backpacks. We tend to celebrate the wild part of the outdoors.
But this time, I want to talk about something different. It’s another stunningly typical outdoor experience. A trip to one of the great National Park Lodges.
Most National Parks around the country offer ranger stations and visitor centers to inform and educated, but it’s the great lodges of the West that were built for visitors of the parks to stay in the most magnificent places our country has to offer.
The Lake Crescent Lodge, like many of the lodges around the West is a place seeped of history. The grand lodge has the magnificent fireplace, the iconic elk head on the wall and a lakeside location surrounded by mountain peaks. Lake Crescent is Washington State’s second deepest lake, and has quite an extensive history.
The lodge is located along Highway 101 about 25 minutes drive west of Port Angeles. The hotel and surrounding cabins were built privately in 1914, changing hands several times before the National Park Service took over ownership in 1951. Most notably in 1937 FDR visited the lodge while touring the Peninsula. There, he discussed the proposal for the creation of the Olympic National Park.
Today the lodge is owned by the National Park Service and operated by Aramark.
The grand lodges are really fascinating places. You have the rich history, the beautiful locations and the incredible architecture representing the American West. The lodges of the National Parks exist in the present, yet represent a time and space so completely far from where we are today. The lodges are an invaluable part of culture that needs to be preserved. The Lodges of the National park Service are a huge honor to visit and explore, and yet another underrated gem of many National Park experiences.
As a European, I grew up around 1000 year old castles, and churches with golden ceilings which withstood several brutal wars.
It took me awhile to appreciate the lodges here in America for what they are and what they represent. Not unlike the castles and churches, those lodges are a reminder of a special time and place in the American conscience. In many ways, a time now long gone.
Not to sound too melancholic here, but the opportunity to build these buildings, out of those precious materials, in those locations, would be impossible today. For better or for worse.
Anyway, in the hear and now, Lake Crescent Lodge houses a hotel, a restaurant, and a gift shop. It’s an ideal getaway, and a great place to rest and relax. Friends of mine had their wedding on their lawn, surrounded by trees and the sparkling waters of Washington State’s second deepest lake. On sunny days people enjoy the lake on kayaks, while hikers use the adjacent cabins as basecamps for their expeditions into the Olympic Mountains.
We arrived on a glorious sunny evening after a long day hiking on Hurricane Ridge, just a short drive from the lodge. The sun was setting, but still was still warm enough on our skin that we had to restrain ourselves from taking a dip in the lake.
W didn’t come for swimming. We came for dinner.
The lobby of the lodge was bustling with activity. Overnight guests briskly walked passed us, wrapped in beach towels on their way to their upstairs rooms. Around the room, visitors were milling about, most appearing to be content in finding a place in the shade with a cold beverage.
We made our reservation, and were able to have enough time to take a stroll to the lake and skip a few stones. As the slowly setting summer sun twinkled off the lake, we waited to eat in the heart of a National Park.
Dinner at a National Park Lodge is an interesting experiment and I approached this evening hesitant, but excited. What I’m looking for is a food that is a celebration of local and seasonal fair. It doesn’t have to be hip and modern. Ultimately you’re still eating in a dining room with a great fireplace in a lodge made of grand old growth timber, but the food trends of the last decade have changed the demands of guests and the menu prices allow you to expect more than just burgers and fries.
Yet most of the lodges and visitor facilities in National Parks are run by large hospitality corporations.
I can see why a Federal agency like the Department of Interior awards those concessionary contracts to “companies they can trust”. But so often this “trust” comes at the cost of dullness and predictability.
How could a foodservice and catering corporation known to cater conference centers and ballparks offer the kind of experience I’m looking for when visiting a historic lodge?
I was about to find out.
We were seated in a pretty small but beautiful sunlit dining room, waited on by a friendly waitress made us feel comfortable and welcome.
Drinks ranged from Italian Sodas with fun and creative flavors, my kids picked orange and raspberry, to local beers and wines. Their focus on Olympic Peninsula wineries was extremely impressive, listing several wines, by the bottle and glass, from within a 50 mile radius.
The Food items on the menu tried, and succeeded in aiming to appease to traveller looking for the classics: Fish and Chips – my daughter loved the crispy batter on the pieces of fish. A great burger with brioche bun – my son loved it, and of course steak. The dining options at Lake Crescent Lodge also embraced and celebrated the region by offering several great seafood dishes. The artichoke and smoked salmon appetizer felt obvious, but tasted delicious and wasn’t overly rich. In my aim to try several dishes, I chose two appetizers as dinner. The mussels in a white wine broth with leeks were exactly as delicious as you’d want them to be. The oysters had just a light batter and tasted fresh and briny. My wife’s halibut with fingerling potatoes and sugar-snap peas had an tasting sauce but sadly, the fish was slightly overcooked. This probably was the result of the kitchen trying to juggle eight meals for a table and was the only downside of this meal.
Somehow this special arrangement, where an international food service chain caters a historic lodge in a National Park far from an urban hub, seemed to work. At Lake Crescent Lodge it seems to work to perfection.
No one wanted to leave, and we all wished that we didn’t have to drive back to our campsite. Silently on the shore, we all had the same thought, hoping that we could stay the night at the lake, watching the sunset and dreaming of climbing the nearby peaks.
Well, the longing for peaks was probably just my dream.