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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- The view is timeless. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, getting a glimpse of the Grand Canyon required a lot of travel time -- and a hardy derriere.
A train would get visitors into northern Arizona, but they had to be willing to bump along in a stagecoach through forests and over scraggy plateau lands for 20 hours to get to the canyon's edge. And the tent camp accommodations were as rustic as the ride.
That changed with the addition of a rail line to the Grand Canyon's South Rim, and in 1905, the opening of a Swiss Chalet-style lodge on the canyon's edge. El Tovar Lodge, just 30 yards from the canyon, offered formal parlors, fine dining and phones in every room.
A century later, El Tovar, a four-story chocolate-colored building, still offers some of Grand Canyon National Park's most sought-after accommodations. It reopened in April after a $4.8 million renovation designed to upgrade the rooms while keeping the historic feel of the lobby and public areas.
Return to original grandeur
"This is a huge, huge renovation. It's a huge upgrade," said Bruce Brossman, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the concessionaire that runs El Tovar and other visitor services in the park.
But the changes, which include new windows, a new roof and redecorated rooms, were confined to the portions of the building not considered historic.
"The lobby looks identical to the way it did in 1905," Brossman said.
The animal heads, which include buffalo and moose even though there are no moose around the canyon, have lined the dark lobby longer than anyone can remember. They were refurbished by a taxidermist during the renovation.
Over the years, the rooms have been renovated repeatedly. El Tovar had 95 rooms and one bathroom per wing -- a total of seven -- when it opened. It had running water, electricity and phones in every room, then a real luxury.
But over the years, bathrooms were added to every room, bringing the total number of guest rooms down to 78, including 12 suites.
The rooms and bathrooms seem small by today's hotel standards, but when the Fred Harvey Co. built the lodge, visitors were looking for other amenities, said Jan Balsom, chief of cultural resources for the park.
Visitors spent more time in the lobby, dining room, parlors and music areas, she said.
"The rooms were not where people spent their time," Balsom said.
The Harvey Co., which built a business bringing luxury and sophistication to the rough-and-tumble West, opened El Tovar with separate women's and men's parlors, a men's grotto, a billiards room and a rooftop garden, where flowers were grown for the guest rooms.
The Hopi House, a building meant to look like an American Indian structure, was erected next door to El Tovar to sell Indian crafts. It opened just weeks before El Tovar.
Because the journey to the canyon took so long, even by rail, people often stayed for weeks at El Tovar, not just overnight, Balsom said.
Today, getting a room for weeks would be difficult. Xanterra takes reservations up to 23 months in advance. Guests who are flexible can get a room six to eight months in advance, but multinight stays and specific days are tougher, Brossman said.
Over the years, a raft of celebrities and U.S. presidents have stayed at the lodge, as far back as Theodore Roosevelt and as recent as Bill Clinton.
The most appealing thing about the lodge, however, has remained its bird's-eye view of one of the world's natural wonders. Some of the suite balconies overlook the canyon's cliffs.