Parks of the West

Tours and more in eight of the West's top National Parks
PLUS: Detailed contact info

By: Christopher Batin

Perhaps because some of the best ones are often right in our own backyard, there can be a tendency for travel agents in the West to overlook our National Parks. This is a mistake, however, because these parks can provide memorable trips for clients, as well as a great source of commission for agents.

Along those lines, we’ve compiled the following select list of tours and lodging options at eight top western parks. We hope they will inspire you to look again at our National Parks when working with clients, or offer fresh ideas for those of you that already specialize in the parks.

As always, we’d like to hear about some of your favorite companies and tours that we might have overlooked.



At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep, tourists don’t view the Grand Canyon, they live in awe of it for the moment and carry the memories for a lifetime.

Visitors delight in a mule trip to the canyon floor, paddling the Colorado River rapids or watching ravens frolic and roll on thermals thousands of feet above the canyon floor. The vast majority of the 1.2-million-acre park is inaccessible due to cliffs and inhospitable desert, yet endurance hikers embrace the rim-to-river descent and climb of more than 10,000 feet.

The Grand Canyon Field Institute works closely with the National Park Service to provide multi-day learning events in wilderness studies, photography, geology and more. Their “Learning & Lodging” program provides two nights’ accommodations, meals and two exciting days with a GCFI instructor for a single price.

Ninety percent of the Grand Canyon’s annual 4 million visitors visit the South Rim. The remainder cherish the North Rim, known for having the least crowds and some of the canyon’s best scenery and mountain bike trails. Canyon Rim Adventures will guide bikers on narrow trails coursing through dense pine forests only to suddenly arrive at a panoramic view of the canyon.

Grand Canyon Expedition Company offers eight- and 14-day expeditions rafting the entire length of the Grand Canyon, viewing it from what many claim is the best vantage point of all, the Colorado River. When people comment they’ve seen the Grand Canyon, offer them this tour.

Helicopter tours offer the best way to tour the canyon in a short amount of time. The Eastern Canyon and the Dragon Corridor are a few of the must-see highlights. From Las Vegas, Grand Canyon Explorer offers helicopter tours directly to Grand Canyon, with a wide selection of customized canyon tours away from the crowds.

American Orient Express provides travelers with an elegant, full-service tour of the Grand Canyon and the other great parks of the West. Guests live, dine and play aboard 16 vintage carriages created during the 1940s and ’50s. The collection of cars was purchased from museums, private collections and railroad yards throughout the country, and then restored in 1989 at a cost of $14 million. Each departure carries approximately 100 passengers who are attended to by a highly trained, professional staff and crew. Beginning in Albuquerque and ending in Salt Lake City, the seven-day tour ranges $3,700-$6,190 per person.



Big Bend National Park is a place of history and discovery that offers a lifetime of touring opportunities. Big Bend is one of the largest and least visited of America’s national parks. Over 801,000 acres offer surprises from old graves and dinosaur bones to unique geological formations and ghost towns.

The area is famous for its wildflower blooms, and Michael Davidson, executive director of Visit Big Bend said: “Due to prolific rains during 2004, and continued showers in the first months of 2005, the Big Bend wildflower bloom will be spectacular this year.”

Big Bend River Tours offer guided rafting and float trips down 250 miles of the Rio Grande River. These one- to multi-day adventures offer exceptional river bottomland tranquility and beauty. For the most fun and adventure, back-road tours use passenger Jeeps with canopies. Guides do not merely drive, but also explain the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area. Half- or full-day trips are available.

Catering to the elite traveler, Lajitas is a mixed-use luxury development nestled near Big Bend National Park. The resort currently features 92 luxury accommodations; the only international golf course in the world The Ambush at Lajitas with a novel 19th hole in Mexico; three restaurants; the Lajitas Hunt Club; a spa; and an equestrian center.



It isn’t by accident that Ansel Adams chose to memorialize Yosemite in his world-famous black-and-white photographs. This glacially carved, 1,189-square-mile park offers an abundance of super-sized attractions, including El Capitan the largest monolith of exposed granite on earth. The park’s wispy waterfalls invoke awe, Mariposa’s gargantuan sequoias inspire and the wildflower-studded Tuolumne Meadows charm. Furthermore, the park just celebrated a milestone, with the completion of a 10-year, $13.5 million restoration of the Yosemite Falls area.

Yosemite traffic is nightmarish in summer, yet most tourists find what they seek by escaping the main roads. May and June are the best months to view the waterfalls discharging at full force from spring snowmelt. Backcountry travelers might consider a midsummer trip, when streams are low.

The High Sierra Camps offer a leisurely hiking adventure with hikers covering roughly six to eight miles between camps. Guests who choose to hike the entire circuit at their own pace see some mind-boggling scenery and enjoy good fishing. Advance reservations and lottery permits required.

Tenaya Lodge offers fine and casual dining for the vacationer to the executive. The lodge is a prime choice for corporate meetings with 8,000 square feet of function space, nine conference rooms, a 500-person grand ballroom and business center. A full-service spa, fitness center, dry saunas, steam rooms and 60-foot indoor and outdoor pools with an underwater sound system. Jamboree cookouts, rock climbing and concerts are popular activities. For kids 4-11, an “edu-tainment” program covers outdoor skills, movies and arts and crafts.


Wyoming, Montana, Idaho

To early explorers, it was “the place where hell bubbles up.” Petrified trees, mud pits, fumaroles and hot springs are like gargoyles that stand as sentinels to the park’s inner beauty of meadows and mountain, grasslands and wildlife. This 3,472-square-mile park is a wildlife sanctuary where bison, moose, mountain lions, bears and elk roam freely. Of its 300 geysers, few are photographed more than Old Faithful. It is home to over 290 waterfalls and one of the world’s largest petrified forests.

Yellowstone Safari Company offers wildlife viewing for grizzly bears and wolves. Photo safaris are led by knowledgeable professional wildlife biologists. Few sights can beat watching a pack of wolf pups at play, or a grizzly bear sow watching her cub slide down a snowy embankment time and time again.

Yellowstone Llamas offers a one- to five-day pack trip to explore the highlights of Yellowstone, away from the crowds. The llamas carry food, tent and gear, while hikers enjoy unhindered exploration on foot. Guests each handle a llama, which are extremely friendly, easy to control and sure-footed.

Austin-Lehman Adventures features a Yellowstone itinerary that strives to get away from the crowds.

“Ninety-five percent of the park is considered off-road backcountry. This leaves a lot of territory open for discovery,” said Dan Austin, a founder of the company.

ALA says its guides use a little-known trail that weaves past meadows of grazing bison, passing several thermal hot springs and lakes and ends at the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Located 10 miles from the park border, Paradise Rest Guest Ranch offers an alternative to local motels, with remote log cabins, horseback riding, cookouts and fly-fishing on private ranch waters. Don’t miss out on the evening barbecues and entertainment.



The Grand Teton National Park is a rocky bosom where sportsmen are nourished by the range’s endless opportunity for adventure. Massive 13,770-foot Grand Teton attracts backcountry skiers and climbers from around the world.

This is a good place to view wildlife normally seen in zoos. Elk, bison, moose, pronghorn, black bears and mule deer viewing and photography opportunities abound. Birders delight in the 300 species of birds found here.

The Teton Range offers some of the best and most accessible big-mountain skiing in North America. Exum Mountain Guides offer skiers and snowboarders daily descents that drop over a vertical mile down couloirs, steep faces and amphitheater bowls. Their five-day Teton course teaches skiers and snowboarders how to handle big-mountain descents.

Grand Teton Lodge Company is an authorized park service concessionaire that offers a variety of hikes, tours and accommodations. One of their many highlights includes scenic breakfast and dinner cruises on Jackson Lake.

Jenny Lake Boating offers lake cruises under the Cathedral Group of the Grand Tetons. Friendly and knowledgeable staff use new boats equipped with four-stroke, non-smoking, environmentally friendly engines. They also offer canoe and kayak rentals.

Triangle X Ranch is a working, full-service dude ranch where moose are apt to be seen in nearby meadows. The ranch offers an alternative to the hectic pace of park accommodations. Activities include square dancing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and their famous nightly cookouts. Owned and operated by the same family for an incredible 78 years.


Big Island, Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the gateway to witness the grand marriage of lava, ocean and jungle that remains, if you’ll excuse the pun, a hot destination.

When my wife and I visited, we thought we had died and gone to that “other place” below. Hot lava scoured a flaming rivulet of fire down a far mountainside. No more than 20 feet from us, blackened lava floes pulsed an eerie, orange glow. Lava poured into the Pacific as the sunset sliced through bellows of steam, a spectacular finale to one of nature’s grandest spectacles.

Jack’s Tours offers a hassle-free, kick-back-and-relax opportunity to see the best of the volcanoes on a 10-hour, all-inclusive tour that hits the park visitor center.

Hawaiian Walkway Vacations offer hikes in forested backcountry to where tourists delight in taking a dip in remote pools or standing beneath wispy veils of cascading waterfalls.

Kids love the mule-riding adventures offered by Hawaii Forest and Trail. These comical, sure-footed animals transport riders through rainforests and across creeks, with rest breaks atop cliffs to enjoy the panoramic ocean views.

After planning your client’s earth tours, ask these operators about an escape to the stars at the observatory atop 13,677-foot Mauna Kea. I highly recommend taking in the sunset and observatory tour. Descend to 9,000 feet for stargazing into the heart of the Milky Way that only the clear skies of Hawaii can provide.

Carson’s Volcano Cottage offers private cabins nestled in a jungle setting complete with a forested hot tub surrounded by lush gardens. This is ideal for honeymooners or nature lovers seeking tranquility and solitude. Their Kapoho Beach House is located on a scenic stretch of remote ocean shoreline.



Zion National Park is a showcase for the world’s greatest geological architecture. Sandstone arches tower over rock sculptures chiseled one grain at a time by wind and rain, while sunsets fill winding slot canyons and gorges with a rainbow of brilliant colors.

ATV Wilderness Tours offers guided tours of Hurricane Sands and Elephant Butte. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, also known as ATV Central, offers 3,700 acres of fun, with 2,000 acres of wind-blown coral sand dunes that reach heights of several hundred feet. Hundreds of miles of trails are open year-round.

Zion Tubing offers a soft-adventure for kids and adults of all ages, in its two-hour float-trip down the Virgin River.

Zion is one of the most bike-friendly parks in the U.S. Springdale Cycle Tours offers guided trips and bike rentals. Zipping along the ridge tops of the Pa’rus Trail is so thrilling, other forms of travel pale in comparison.

Tauck World Discovery offers The Canyonlands, one of their most popular tours that visit the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks. The eight-day, seven-night trip begins in Phoenix. Price starts at $1,960, double occupancy.

Trafalgar Tours visits Zion as part of its Scenic Parks Explorer package along with several of the major parks in the West. The 14-day tour begins and ends in Las Vegas, and costs $2,099 per person, land only.

Zion Ponderosa Ranch is located atop a 6,500-foot plateau overlooking the park. This one-stop resort offers cozy, log-cabin lodging. On ranch property, guests indulge in rappelling, ATV tours, wagon rides, swimming, hiking and horseback rides. Camp Ponderosa for Kids allows youngsters to learn basic outdoor skills, freeing up parents to explore Zion on their own.



Mount Rainier draws 2 million people a year to view a 14,411-foot volcano that is encased in over 35 square miles of snow and ice. This is no ordinary volcano, but rather, mountain escape at its finest. Some prefer to simply drive the main road through the park’s old-growth rain forests to the summit, while others prefer to tackle a few of the 300 miles of trails to subalpine meadows filled with wildflowers. Established in 1899, this 235,625-acre park is 97 percent wilderness.

Grayline Bus Tours of Seattle offers a 10-hour, $54 guided tour from the Sheraton Hotel in Seattle to the park.

Rainier Mountaineering trains climbers with a variety of programs, custom climbs and instruction. The one-day climbing school or the Nisqually Glacier hike both offer exciting and valuable hands-on mountaineering experience. No experience necessary, but clients should be in good physical condition.

Mount Rainier Guest Services operates two hotels within the park. The National Park Inn at Longmire is open year-round and offers 25 rooms, a gift shop, full-service restaurant and lounge with a stone fireplace. Two rooms are handicapped accessible. The Paradise Inn offers 126 rooms, a full-service restaurant, lounge, gift shop and snack bar.


Big Bend National Park

Big Bend River Tours


Big Bend Info

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon Field Institute

Canyon Rim Adventures

Grand Canyon Expedition Company
800-544 2691

Grand Canyon Explorer

American Orient Express

Grand Teton National Park

Exum Mountain Guides

Grand Teton Lodge Company

Jenny Lake Boating

Triangle X Ranch

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Jack’s Tours

Hawaiian Walkways

Hawaii Forest & Trail

Carson’s Volcano Cottage

Mount Rainier National Park

Grayline of Seattle

Rainier Mountaineering

Mount Rainier Guest Services

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Safari Company

Yellowstone Llamas

Austin-Lehman Adventures

Paradise Rest Ranch

Yosemite National Park

High Sierra Camps

Tenaya Lodge

Zion National Park

ATV Wilderness Tours

Zion Ponderosa Ranch

Zion Tubing

Springdale Cycle Tours

Tauck World Discovery

Trafalgar Tours