National Park Gateway Towns

For every Yellowstone there is a West Yellowstone, a “Gateway Town” of tourist services and diversions that is the commercial opposite of the natural splendor preserved within the boundaries of an adjacent national park.

This 1960s postcard captured West Yellowstone, Montana, at the dusk rush of new visitors coming in hungry and tired from the road, and established visitors returning hungry and tired from a day in the park.

Tourists are attracted to national parks and commercial activity is attracted to the tourists. A “Strangers Path” of tourist services and diversions lie at the core of every gateway town; low density and sprawling if created by the automobile, high density and pedestrian-oriented if resulting from the railroad. This postcard view from just inside the national park’s Envelope of Sacred Space looks past the gateway sign into the concentrated commercialism of West Yellowstone.

Although most tourists drive to West Yellowstone, they experience it on foot, walking from motel to restaurant to curio shop to bar. The compactness of this gateway town reveals its railroad roots, sparked by the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Oregon Short Line in 1908. Yellow motor coaches arrived at the Union Pacific Station to meet each train, transporting tourists to grand hotels also built by the railroads inside the park like the Mammoth Hotel, Canyon Lodge and Old Faithful Inn.

Gardiner, Montana, was the Yellowstone gateway town established on the park’s northern border by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1903. Teddy Roosevelt arrived that same year to lay the cornerstone for the gateway arch that still pierce’s the park’s Envelope of Sacred Space emblazoned with the National Park Service purpose, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

Grand Canyon Village, perched on the South Rim, is a national park gateway town built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1901. That was seven years before Grand Canyon became a national monument and 18 years before it became a national park, which explains why this gateway town is deep within the park’s Envelope of Sacred Space and why the entire town is preserved as Historic. The Santa Fe completed its El Tovar Hotel in 1905 choosing a style that mixed a Swiss chalet with a Norwegian villa to evoke the European hotels to which its wealthy clientele were already familiar. The postcard view is from the top of Mary Jane Coulter’s Hopi House, completed the same year as a gift shop and Indian cultural center operated by the Santa Fe’s Fred Harvey House subsidiary.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the doorstep to Great Smoky National Park is the undisputed queen of the eastern national park gateway towns. Before the park, however, it was a country village at the dead end of a mountain road too small to ever have attracted a railroad. In preparation for Great Smoky National Park’s 1934 opening, the Newfound Gap Road was built over the mountains from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina, turning both villages into gateway towns. Since this 1953 postcard was published, Gatlinburg’s auto-oriented strangers path of tourist services and diversions has sprawled north through Pigeon Forge towards Sevierville.

Carlsbad Caverns is 30 miles from the nearest town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, opening an intervening opportunity where the park road turns off the main highway to El Paso, US 62-180. />It was here that Charlie White staked his claim in 1927, buying up all the land at the entrance to what had become Carlsbad Caverns National Monument four years before. Carlsbad Caverns became a national park in 1930, and White’s City sprawled over the intersection with tourist services and diversions all owned by one man.

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