Wandering the West | ParkRecord.com

Wandering the West

by Larry Warren, Record columnist

One of the joys of travel for me is discovering historic hotels, sitting in their grand lobbies, and staying overnight, partaking of a nightcap in the hotel bar.

When I’m in a hurry, I grab a Best Western or Holiday Inn. They’re clean and everything works. But on vacations, I scour the Internet for something funky, something filled with history, charm, and a good story or two. I like to think I’m an explorer, discovering places to stay most people don’t know about.

But Teddy Roosevelt seems to have beaten me to every one of them. Teddy, one of my favorite presidents, wasn’t seeking out the old, charming and historic back then. He was after the newest and grandest. TR loved the West and loved to travel.

Once, while president, he took off three weeks to hunt bear in Colorado. He made the new (1893) Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs his luxury base camp in 1905. After a long day that produced no bear, legend has it the hotel staff sewed up a little stuffed bear for him as a consolation prize. His daughter Alice named it "Teddy" and one of the most popular toys in history was born. Before he left, TR gave a speech from the balcony.

Today, Hotel Colorado is restored to much of its charm. It was built as a European-type spa, with spacious hot-springs pools and a fountain that shot water 185 feet into the air. The fountain is gone, but Hotel Colorado is worth a stay for its history and its hot-springs pools.

Farther south, the grand hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon was another destination for Teddy, who got the ball rolling to set the canyon aside as a national monument, and later as an expanded park. The El Tovar is still elegant with its dark-wood lobby and picture-window dining room with the million-dollar view. El Tovar opened in 1905. TR was there in 1906, when the paint was barely dry.

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Denver’s most elegant historic hotel, the Brown Palace, in the heart of downtown, will knock your socks off. If you can visualize the old Hotel Utah downtown with its two-story atrium lobby roofed in stained glass, picture a similar scene, only with an atrium seven or eight stories high, domed with stained glass. The atrium, with the generous use of polished onyx everywhere, is spectacular, and a great place to sit and people-watch or leisurely read the paper. In World War Two, members of the Tenth Mountain Division rappelled down from the top atrium balcony. And yes, Teddy stayed here too, along with every American president since then.

You can stay in the Roosevelt Suite, the Reagan Suite, the Beatles Suite or the Eisenhower Suite. The suite prices have a comma in them, however, and one carries some permanent damage. Ike was chipping golf balls in his room and dented the fireplace mantle. The dent remains.

I would have thought an island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca would have been a Roosevelt-free zone. But when I checked into the Hotel de Haro on San Juan Island many years ago, they had the hotel register on display signed by TR. It’s in a great little sunny corner of Northwest Washington where a perfect day on the water or hiking ends with cocktails at the bar overlooking the marina and a Pacific sunset. Teddy liked the place enough to spend entire summers there.

So if that’s not obscure enough, how about the middle of nowhere in North Dakota, at Medora’s Rough Rider Hotel? Long before he was president, Roosevelt tried his hand at ranching in North Dakota. Medora is now the gateway to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, which encompasses much of his ranch land. It’s a great place for road bikes, history, and long prairie vistas. And the biggest hotel around remains the Rough Rider. Teddy stayed there before getting his own cabin built (which is on display in the park) and gave a speech from the balcony there too.

Last, and least, I found a funky little hot-springs resort in Idaho Falls, Colo., a few years back. When we checked into the Indian Springs Hotel and Spa, we figured it hadn’t been cleaned, remodeled, or had the mattresses changed since TR checked out a century earlier. Still, it was a piece of history and we liked our stay. But I’ve never read such savage reviews as those posted now on Trip Advisor’s website.

"Customer service is officially dead here," writes one. Another adds, "I would not let my dog sleep here." "Terrible the place is filthy" writes another. But the last one might really scare you off: "Rooms reminded us of Communist torture chambers we saw in Hungary." Ouch!

Teddy slept in some pretty great hotels of the West. Let’s hope Indian Springs was in its better days back when it hosted a great president.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.