Cover By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the days before modern road trips and family vacations by road, if you wanted to take the family to see the Grand Canyon, you had to get there by foot, horse, stagecoach, or starting in the late 1890s, by train. And even then there wasn’t much in the way of affordable accommodations when you finally did arrive.

There were the meager rooms or tents offered by William Bass at Pasture Wash, some 25 miles westward of Bright Angel Trail. Pete Berry’s comfortable hotel rooms and tent cabins were a little closer 15 miles east of the Bright Angel Trail at Grandview, and three miles past Grandview you could find tents being rented by John Hance. Later, an entrepreneur by the name of James Thurber would buy Hance’s business and upgrade the property and its tents. Still, visitors found that these pioneer camps were a bit too far away from where they wanted to be at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Around this time, rumors were rampant that a railroad would soon be coming to the South Rim – rumors that would prove inevitably true. With the trains bringing visitors closer to the South Rim, all of those in the business of overnight accommodations located far away would soon be out of business. However, James Thurber had an idea.

James Thurber’s Bright Angel Hotel and Camps

Along with his overnight tent rental business, James Thurber owned a stagecoach business. Seeing an opportunity to get a leg up on his competition, Thurber decided to extend his stagecoach line in 1896 from Grandview to the head of the Bright Angel Trail along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim some 18 miles west. He would also build a simple wood structure there he called the Bright Angel Hotel to accommodate his passengers.

Bright Angel’s Coffee Shop c. early 20th century. Public Domain.

The Bright Angel Hotel was a success. Thurber brought his guests up on his stagecoaches to hike the Bright Angel Trail, and soon after, the hotel began receiving so many guests that Thurber purchased a small cabin to meet their demand. Thurber would extend his camp further by erecting a number of tents throughout the property, christening it “Bright Angel Hotel and the Bright Angel Camps”.

(Incidentally, the cabin Thurber purchased once belonged to Buckey O’Neill who left it behind when he went off to join Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Captain O’Neill would subsequently be killed in action in 1898 on San Juan Hill, Cuba.)

Thurber would sell the Bright Angel Hotel and the Bright Angel Camps in 1901. However, neither Thurber nor the new owner, Martin Buggeln, ever laid claim to the property. As a result, when the Grand Canyon Railway – a branch of the bigger Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway – finally did come to the area, they simply included the property as part of their own 20-acre parcel of land.

Eventually, Buggeln and the railroad would agree to work together to bring tourists to the South Rim and the Bright Angel. In 1905, the railway would buy out Buggeln, and upgrade the property which included replacing the camp’s tents with furnished and heated tent cabins to attract more middle-class visitors.

Mary Colter’s Bright Angel Lodge

For the next few decades, the Bright Angel Hotel did a great job of serving its middle-class guests and the hotel was soon even putting its nearby competitors out of business.

Things would only get better from there when, in the early 1930s, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway would commission renowned architect Mary Jane Colter to design the Bright Angel Lodge in order to provide reasonably priced lodging for all visitors to the canyon’s south rim. 

Colter’s layout of the lodge was not unlike the layout of most tourist cabins and motor lodges of the time with a main, much larger lodge surrounded by individual cabins in the shape of a U.  

Postcard from early 20th century when trains and stagecoaches were replaced by the automobile. Public Domain.

Inspired by the lodge’s natural surroundings, she designed the exterior of the lodge to be made of local hand-adzed logs and natural limestone with a low-pitched roof that extends over the main entry, creating a gable porch that is supported by posts made of peeled logs. Its shed-roof gives the building the effect of having layers.

Colter took the idea of hand-adzed logs and natural limestone inside the main lodge as well. For example, the stone fireplace known as the “Geologic Fireplace” in The Bright Angel Lodge’s “History Room” features stones placed in the same way the rocks are layered from river to rim on the Bright Angel Trail.

Along with individual cabins for guests to stay in, she also incorporated already existing structures in her designs including Rough Rider Buckey O’Neill’s cabin and the Red Horse Station, James Thurber’s former stagecoach stop and post office.

When it was all said and done, Mary Colter’s Bright Angel Lodge was opened to the public on July 22, 1935. Today the lodge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bright Angel Today

Of course, in the years since it first opened there have been several additions and upgrades to the Bright Angel Lodge.  From the outside, however, it still holds the same rustic charm it did when it first opened back in 1935.

One of the cabins at Bright Angel Lodge.
Image: National Park Service/Public Domain

These days at the lodge you’ll find accommodations ranging from 37 lodge rooms to 50 rustic cabins.  The comfortable and cozy lodge rooms feature refrigerators and Keurig coffee makers, but no TV (and some even have shared bathrooms). However, along with a refrigerators and coffee makers, the cabins, on the other hand, include satellite TV and private baths. All rooms come with telephone and there is no smoking in any of the rooms. Also note that there are no air conditioners in any of the rooms or cabins as well.

For a special treat, spend a night at one of Bright Angel’s original buildings like the Buckey O’Neill Cabin – a cozy suite with view of the Grand Canyon right out your front door. There’s also the rehabilitated and restored two-room Red Horse Cabin featuring a sitting area and one bedroom. Once a post office that was set for demolition until being saved by architect Mary Jane Colter as part of her original plan for Bright Angel, it’s recently been updated to the modern standards of comfort without losing its historical integrity.

More Than Just Lodging

Along with accommodations, you’ll also find plenty of food options, too, from the Arizona Steakhouse to an old-fashioned ice-cream Soda Fountain to the family-friendly Fred Harvey Burger restaurant – named one of the Bright Angel’s first concessionaires, Fred Harvey, “the founding father of the American service industry.”

If you’re thinking about visiting the Grand Canyon on your next road trip, think about spending a night on the South Rim at the Bright Angel Lodge. For more information visit their reservation website.

Because both the Buckey O’Neill Cabin and Red Horse Cabin cannot be reserved online, you have to make reservations by calling their toll-free number at 888-29-PARKS (297-2757) everyday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain Time.

Free National Park Entrance Days

By the way, whether you plan on spending the night at the Bright Angel Lodge or just day tripping to a local national park, for five days each year you can visit any national park that usually charges an entrance fee for free! Here are the dates for 2022:

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(Of course, this free day does extend to spending the night at Bright Angel Lodge.)

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