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There’s something about experiencing the beauty of U.S. national parks that immediately connects people. For example, when I spoke with Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, to find out more about the resort and U.S. national park concessions management company, we somehow found ourselves completely off track. Before either of us knew it, we were waxing poetic about California’s Death Valley National Park — its moonlike landscapes, panoramic vistas and phenomenally clear night skies.
Of course, it’s her job to promote the national parks that Xanterra operates in — including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Rocky Mountain, Zion and Glacier, in addition to Mount Rushmore National Memorial — but as a park enthusiast myself, I was an easy sell.
“It’s a wonderful experience whether you’re a family, on your own or a couple; it doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in or who you’re with — it’s just a spectacular experience to get outside into these natural wonders,” O’Rourke said.
Here, the 25-year veteran of the travel and tourism industry shares what’s new in national parks for 2018 and beyond, along with some insider advice for clients visiting what she calls “the crown jewels of the national park system.”
Can you tell me about some of the noteworthy enhancements in U.S. national parks where Xanterra has operations?One of the things I love about working for Xanterra is that we really restore and protect these assets, but we do it with a softer footprint.
For example, this past summer at Many Glacier Hotel in Montana’s Glacier National Park, the historic helical staircase — an amazing architectural feature that was taken out at some point — was restored, and people are coming from all over to see it. Now, it’s the main attraction of this full-on restoration that has happened at Many Glacier, where we’ve updated all the public spaces, food and beverage, retail and guestrooms. We were able to reduce water, energy and electrical demand; use local materials; and recycle everything we took out for reuse and repurposing. All restorations and updates were completed in August.
The Oasis at Death Valley — which used to be Furnace Creek Resort and incorporates The Inn at Death Valley, The Ranch at Death Valley and Furnace Creek Golf Course — is a natural oasis with a pool spring-fed from the ground. Our project here, slated to be completed by July 2018, is truly extensive. We’re taking The Inn, which was built in 1927, and returning it to its former footprint. All the rooms and bathrooms are being redone, along with all the food and beverage and public spaces. We’re adding the Gold Rush Room, which will be an elegant venue for events such as private dinners or board meetings. We’re also adding casitas near the pool area, as well as a spa and cabanas. Across the street from The Inn will be Mission Gardens, a new outdoor venue.
At The Ranch, all public spaces are being redone. We’ll have The Last Kind Words Saloon, a tribute to American Old West gambler Wyatt Earp, along with a restaurant, an ice cream shop and new retail. What used to be a parking lot will become a large public square, which will help mitigate heat in the summer and provide a lovely visitor space. Additionally, the golf course has been redesigned to reduce water usage.
What are Xanterra’s latest investments in Yellowstone?In Yellowstone, we completed the largest LEED new construction project in the park service and Xanterra’s history this year: Canyon Lodge & Cabins, as well as an employee dorm. We received platinum certification, which is the highest LEED certification.
Some of the stats around the project include that we diverted more than 90 percent of the construction waste from landfill; we reduced energy by 40 percent and water by 35 percent compared to conventional construction; and more than 30 percent of materials were sourced within a 500-mile radius of the project site. We also used Montana-sourced wood killed by mountain pine beetles — so we took wood that would otherwise have no role and used it for construction. Additionally, all new food and beverage was completed this year.
Do you have any tips, hidden gems or little-known facts to share with travelers to U.S. national parks?My first tip is to consider buying the annual national parks pass if you’re going to visit more than one park. It’s $80, and it’s valid at every national park.
My second tip is to consider visiting parks during shoulder seasons. It’s a great experience: It’s less crowded, and you’re more likely to get lodging inside the park.
In Grand Canyon, particularly in the summer, take the train. You’ll avoid traffic, and it’s a lot of fun. We have Steam Saturdays, and our steam engine runs on vegetable oil, so it smells like fries. There are also mule rides along the rim of the canyon, which is great for people who want to see amazing views but are afraid of doing steep hikes.
When visiting Yellowstone, remember: The animals are wild; they’re not pets. Don’t touch them. Another tip I have is to explore this park beyond the main sites. You’ll really miss out if you don’t take a short hike a few hundred yards off the road to see some of the other thermals beyond Old Faithful. There are also boat rides on the lake, where a park service guide provides information on the park, and you can see it from a different vantage point.
In Death Valley, swim in the spring-fed pool at The Oasis. And get up at dawn or go out at night and look up at the stars — it’s an international Dark Sky Park.
Why do you think now is the time for travelers to visit U.S. national parks?These parks are the crown jewels of our outdoor spaces. While I’m very proud and honored that we get to operate with the park service some of the most iconic parks, it’s good to remind people that there are 400-plus national park sites in the country — there are some beautiful outdoor spaces within reach.
- According to the National Park Service, its system includes 417 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
- These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House.