Dinnertime at one of the U.S. National Parks evokes images of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on portable grills, families noshing from paper plates while gathered at a picnic table and kids roasting marshmallows over a campfire as day turns into night.
But what about a juicy hand-cut fillet mignon with roasted jalapeño chimichurri? Or a huckleberry elk burger with organic goat cheese? Or a five-course dinner in a 1930s-era log cabin?
You might have roughed it all day, but you can certainly find fine dining at several of the country’s national parks.
Death Valley National Park, Eastern California and Nevada
Nestled in the middle of the vast Death Valley National Park, the recently-renovated inn, The Oasis, touts itself as “in the middle of nowhere you’d rather be.” The inn’s culinary offerings transport guests from the desolate surroundings into a culinary paradise that features many flavors of the region, such as dates, cactus and various citrus fruits. Three meals a day are served either in the Southwestern-hued banquettes and tables of the dining room or in wicker dining sets on the veranda, where guests can enjoy the never-ending panorama of the Panamint Mountains and the surrounding saltpans.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Another destination in a desert setting, Grand Canyon National Park contains numerous places to dine, but perhaps the most elegant is El Tovar in the historic El Tovar Hotel. The dining room’s atmosphere is one of history and quiet elegance, with native stone, pine décor and murals depicting scenes of the region’s Native American tribes.
The menu offers both traditional dishes such as French onion soup and Weiner schnitzel, as well as others that riff on the flavors of the Southwest, like polenta corncakes with prickly pear–pistachio butter and local beef and pork red chili tamales with adobo crema. Several celebrities have been known to visit this restaurant, including Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney. Reservations for dinner are not required but are highly recommended.
Acadia National Park, Maine
The crown jewel of the North Atlantic coast, Acadia National Park sprawls across Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula, a network of trails, carriage roads and small towns oozing with New England charm. The largest town, Bar Harbor, offers several restaurants, from the high-end to the grab-and-go.
Located on the Park Loop Road in Seal Harbor, overlooking Jordon Pond and about a 20-minute drive from Thunder Hole, the only restaurant inside the park itself is the AAA Diamond Rated Jordan Pond House. Their all-day menu showcases the best of what Downeast Maine has to offer, from the obligatory boiled lobster and Maine-style lobster roll to desserts featuring locally grown blueberries.
What brings diners back to Jordan Pond House time and again are the light and airy, yet decadently rich, popovers served with butter and locally made strawberry jam. The restaurant has been serving these delights since the late 1890s when Thomas and Nellie McIntyre opened up shop. The recently renovated lawn, overlooking Jordan Pond, is a relaxing and scenic spot to carry on – or create – a summer tradition.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Jenny Lake Lodge, just north of its namesake lake, is a AAA Four Diamond resort that takes guests back to simpler times, or at least to the romantic vision of them.
The dining room, located in a log cabin built in the 1930s, serves a five-course prix fixe meal in a rustically elegant dining room. The rotating menu includes mouthwatering dishes such as elk tenderloin, rack of lamb and buffalo rib-eye with pickled blackberries and a juniper demi-glace. The chef and his team select the freshest ingredients to include in each night’s offerings from the Jackson Farmers Market and local purveyors. Reservations are highly recommended for breakfast and lunch and are required for dinner.
Glacier National Park, Montana
The more than one million acres of wilderness that make up Montana’s Glacier National Park might be several hours from a major city, but visitors to two of the park’s restaurants wouldn’t know it.
At the Ptarmigan Dining Room, housed in the Many Glacier Hotel on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, diners can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner against the backdrop of the park’s numerous peaks. The dinner menu features local ingredients, from the smoked trout to the bison chili to cheeses produced nearby. Even the drink menu is pure mountain West, with huckleberry margaritas, a Manhattan made with locally-distilled bourbon and bitters, and a wide selection of Montana-brewed craft beers and ciders.
About two hours southwest of the Many Glacier Hotel, the Lake McDonald Lodge hosts a fine restaurant of its own: Russell’s Fireside Dining. Like the Ptarmigan Dining Room, Russell’s Fireside Dining espouses the importance of sustainability and sourcing its ingredients as locally as possible. Diners enjoy meals in the rough-hewn log walls that reflect the lodge’s past as a hunting getaway.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The Pollock Dining Room is perched at the highest elevation (3,680 feet) on the renowned Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Part of the Skyland Resort, this popular destination is open seasonally from late March until late November.
With a strong focus on farm-to-fork ingredients, the Pollock offers many local specialties such as locally-sourced hamburgers, a charcuterie plate with meats and cheeses produced in the region and blackberry pancakes covered with fresh berries, blackberry-infused syrup and lavender vanilla whipped cream. And the signature blackberry ice cream pie, with a graham cracker crust, meringue and blackberry compote can’t be missed (no worries – visitors can burn this off on one of the park’s many hiking trails!) The wine list features a private label made for the resort, and a taproom next door pours several regional brews.
Tour America’s national parks with AAA Member Choice Vacations.