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Yosemite Valley Chapel

The magnificent chapels of the U.S. national parks

posted August 26, 2019
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Millions of visitors flock to America’s national parks every year, intent on embracing and being awed by nature’s wonders. But few who come realize that hidden among America’s mountains, deserts, canyons and forests are a collection of beautiful and historical churches waiting to be discovered. While some seek out these places of spiritual contemplation, most do not, which is a shame. These chapels at U.S. National Park Service sites, all architectural gems, are set amid spectacular scenery and are definitely worth a visit.
Yosemite Valley Chapel
Photo by CC Wikimedia Commons/Reweaver33: bit.ly/2zJYf0n

Yosemite Valley Chapel

Yosemite National Park (California)

Yosemite Valley Chapel is one of the oldest structures standing in Yosemite National Park and among the oldest churches located in any of America’s national parks. Commissioned in 1878 by the state of California, the chapel was constructed the next year and relocated from its original site in the Lower Village to the Old Village in 1901. It has been there ever since, serving the park as an interdenominational facility, and it is one of the most popular places for weddings in the entire national park system.

Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Charles Geddes, the small, wood-frame structure has the magnificent backdrop of El Capitan, the immense stone cliff that is Yosemite’s signature feature. The charming church, painted red and framed in yellow beams, is crowned with a high-peaked steeple and surrounded by evergreens; it looks as though it might have been lifted straight out of the Bavarian Alps. Yosemite Valley Chapel is located a short walk from Yosemite Village and the Yosemite Lodge.


Shrine of Ages
Photo by Grand Canyon National Park

The Shrine of the Ages and the Chapel of El Cristo Rey

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

The Shrine of the Ages and the Chapel of El Cristo Rey are located at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The shrine is just west of the park headquarters, while the chapel is less than a half-mile south of the world famous El Tovar hotel and the canyon rim. These two very distinctive buildings are historical pieces of Grand Canyon Village and are must-visits, both for the spiritually inclined and for photographers.

As early as the 1910s there had been a push to build a chapel near Grand Canyon Village. This vision was not realized until the 1950s, and the structure, now known as the Shrine of the Ages, was not completed until 1970. The resulting stone and glass building—simultaneously modern and naturalistic—serenely blends into its surroundings. Next door is the Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery, where many people associated with the park have been buried over the years.

The Chapel of El Cristo Rey is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. At the elegant, well-maintained adobe structure, a stately old bell tower flanks the main entrance. The sanctuary is reminiscent of the mission chapels that can be found up and down the California coast. Although the chapel is an active Catholic church, people of all faiths are welcome to visit.


Chapel of the Transfiguration
Photo by Grand Teton-NPS/Tobiason

The Chapel of the Transfiguration

Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

The Chapel of the Transfiguration is one of the few national park churches that opened prior to the establishment of its park. Originally constructed to serve the workers and visitors of the increasingly popular dude ranches that sprang up in the area at the turn of the century, the church opened in 1925 and was incorporated into the Grand Teton National Park when the park was established four years later.

The chapel is the epitome of the perfect frontier church. A log-cabin-style structure, this rustic building blends a quaint charm with sweeping views of the Grand Teton Mountains, and it has become a mandatory stop for almost all visitors to the park. The Chapel of the Transfiguration is a part of the Episcopal Church, which still owns and runs it from the parish in nearby Jackson. As a national park site it is open to visitors of all faiths.


Mammoth Chapel
Photo by nps.gov/yell

Mammoth Chapel

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

​​​Mammoth Chapel has one of the oldest and most colorful histories of any religious site in the national park system. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century, when the Mammoth Springs area of Yellowstone was home to the military outpost known as Fort Yellowstone. Church services were irregular until the chapel opened in 1913, more than four decades after the park was established—meaning that Mammoth Chapel is the only church in U.S. history to be constructed with public funds.

Mammoth is one of the most architecturally unique and beautiful places in the entire park system. Built from the same local materials that were used to construct other buildings in the park, its elaborate stonework and vaulted wooden roof make it look like a cross between a traditional church and a minipark lodge. The chapel is in the Fort Yellowstone complex, which is near the North Entrance on the Wyoming side.


Churches of Cades Cove
Photo by CC Wikimedia Commons/Steven C. Price: bit.ly/2zJ8O3E

Churches of Cades Cove

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee)

Cades Cove is a town that time forgot. When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created in 1934, isolated Cades Cove found itself caught just inside the park’s western border. Instead of being abandoned and torn down, the town was preserved as a historical district. This included three beautiful old churches that date from the 19th and very early 20th centuries. These institutions, the Primitive Baptist Church, the Missionary Baptist Church and the Methodist Church, are in good condition and remain semiactive.

The Cades Cove Baptist community was founded in 1827 but split into two churches in 1841. The Primitive Baptist Church moved into the current building in 1887, while the Missionary Baptist Church dates back to 1915. The Cades Cove Methodist community also dates back to the 1840s, and the current church was completed in 1902. The three churches are spread out throughout Cades Cove, one of the most visited places in the park, but are all within walking distance of the visitor center.


Chapel on the Rock
Photo by CC Flickr/Patrick McKay: bit.ly/2iDS3ng

The Chapel on the Rock

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
(Honorable Mention)

The Chapel on the Rock is a magnificent Catholic church that deserves a mention despite the fact that it stands less than a quarter of a mile outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Located in Camp St. Malo, a retreat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Denver, the Chapel of the Rock stands against the magnificent backdrop of the Colorado Rockies. It was visited by Pope John Paul II during his United States tour in 1993.

Top photo: Yosemite Valley Chapel
Photo by CC Wikimedia Commons/Rennett Stowe: bit.ly/2liIJG