Grand Canyon Lodge History

around 20 young lodge employees in uniform are singing to guests sitting in 1930's tour buses that are parked in front of a rustic stone lodge.
Grand Canyon Lodge employees "singing away" visitors in tour buses. July 20, 1930.

NPS/George Grant

Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim of Grand Canyon is often the first prominent feature that visitors see, even before viewing the canyon. The highway ends at the lodge. The lodge’s sloped roof, huge ponderosa beams and massive limestone facade fit its 8000-foot / 2400 m setting, but where is the Grand Canyon?

To experience the full impact of the design of the lodge, take the historic route. Go through the front entrance. Walk across the carpeted lobby and descend a stairwell. Shining through great windows across the “Sun Room” is the much-anticipated first view of the Grand Canyon.

The architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, following the wishes of then-Director of the National Park Service, Steven Mather, designed a rustic national park lodge. Grand Canyon Lodge served as a symbol of the importance of the preservation of this natural wonder, while allowing for luxury and enjoyment. Yet, Underwood had incorporated something extra—a surprise view!

Underwood’s 1928 Grand Canyon Lodge, designed for then-concessionaire the Union Pacific Railroad, is not today’s lodge. Underwood’s design included a massive Spanish-style exterior with a high front topped by an observation tower. The original burned down in 1932 and a “new” 1937 lodge sits on its footprint.

The fire that destroyed the original lodge engulfed the structure within minutes. On the top floor over the auditorium slept the only inhabitants —the lodge manager, his wife, and the maids. All exited safely to stand watching helplessly in the early morning hours of September 1, 1932. The employees must have wondered if their jobs were burning up that night, but the nearby cabins, except two, escaped the blaze.

The Utah Parks Company, Union Pacific’s subsidiary, hastily erected a cafeteria and recreation hall. The lodge was rebuilt in 1936-37 to a modified design, that re-used much of the original stonework, but which was otherwise scaled back, lacking the original's second story and observation tower. Underwood increased the amount of stonework and modified the roofline in response to the original lodge's experience of heavy snowfallThe next summer buses brought more visitors, but Underwood’s secret surprise of having your first view of Grand Canyon from inside the lodge was lost until the summer of 1937 when Grand Canyon Lodge reopened. Utilizing the same floor plan, the builders erected a more sensible structure with sloped roofs, better able to shed the heavy snows. They also preserved Underwood’s surprise view.

For decades the college-aged employees would greet visitors arriving by bus and sing them through the entrance. These same employees would later entertain with a talent show after serving dinner, and end the evening with a dance complete with a college student orchestra. These entertainments no longer exist.

Constructed of native Kaibab limestone and timber, the lodge still exhibits Underwood’s genius. Another genius, the geologist Clarence E. Dutton, came to the North Rim in 1880 and described his experience in his masterpiece, A Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District. “The earth suddenly sinks at our feet to illimitable depths. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, the awful scene is before us.” Underwood must have read his book, or perhaps inspiration does strike twice.

The Grand Canyon Lodge resort complex consists of the Main Lodge building, 23 deluxe cabins, and 91 standard cabins, some of which were moved to the north rim campground in 1940.

For information on Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge visit the Grand Canyon National Park's Website.

Last updated: December 9, 2020