A village of tiny homes for rent at St. Mary Lodge & resort opens this summer

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Glacier National Park has big mountains, high passes, long lakes, and deep valleys. It also has grand historic lodges — mostly grand. Starting in July, visitors to the eastern edge of the park, where the Going-to-the-Sun Road meets U.S. Highway 89, can lay their heads to rest in accommodations best described as “tiny.”

Glacier Park Inc., which operates seven hotels and inns with 615 guest rooms in Montana and Alberta, Canada, this summer is introducing “the next little thing,” the Tiny Home Village at St. Mary Resort. The community, as GPI representatives often refer to the neighborhood, opens to the public with 10 homes. At 240 square feet, they’re billed as “small but mighty.”

Before GPI purchased the St. Mary property in 2011, the previous owner had operated large guest teepees and bathhouses on the stretch of land overlooking Divide Creek. With the teepees gone, GPI managers wanted to build out the teepee pad sites in a new way.

“We’ve all seen these TV shows on tiny homes on HGTV,” marketing and public relations manager Rebecca Baker said. “We were looking for something cool and trendy (to do with the existing infrastructure). We offer a lot at St. Mary, and we wanted to offer a unique lodging experience. We in the marketing department fueled that inspiration and really pushed for the tiny home idea.”

Though humans have, of course, always occupied small structures, modern living in “tiny” residences has grown into a movement embraced by environmentalists, free spirits, and minimalists. Purposeful design sets the tiny home apart. Every object has its place; every square inch is optimized for storage and aesthetic. Adherents tell of happier living, swearing by the freedom of thoughtful unburdening and simplifying. Their movement has gone mainstream, with HGTV currently airing seven shows about tiny living, pre-fab houses available for purchase and swift delivery, and easy-to-follow blueprints that thousands buy online.

“Our initial idea was that the tiny homes would be rented by people also interested in living in tiny homes,” Baker said in April. “But I think it’s really speaking to everyone … We’ve had no pushback on the concept of tiny homes. We recently opened up for booking, and they’re flying off the shelves, so to speak. Nobody is asking, ‘Is that what I want? What does that mean?’”

The common denominator, she continued, is a sense of adventure, something that already fuels most visitors to the national park.

“The person who owns a tiny home wants to get out and experience nature,” she said. “That kind of person will be our guest as well.”

Though there are many historic lodging options near the park, like the famous Swiss-style Many Glacier Hotel and, north of the border, Waterton Lakes National Park’s Prince of Wales Hotel, most travelers don’t visit national parks for the hotel rooms. And some prefer modest digs that don’t detract from the sights.

“People don’t tend to spend a lot of time in their rooms. They take advantage of the location,” said Ken Huff, of Solus Architecture, who designed the tiny homes. “You don’t have to do much — just give them a place to sit down and drink their coffee in the morning.”

“I don’t know if there’s a better view in the park,” he added. “We tried not to do too much with it.”

Where many tiny houses are over-designed, saturated with enough architectural and decorative flair for a far larger dwelling, the homes at St. Mary trend toward streamlined and unassuming.

And, even though log cabins were perhaps the original Montana tiny home, the structures at St. Mary resort also won’t fall in step with “parkitecture,” the rustic chalet style developed by park officials to harmonize buildings with their natural surroundings.

“To me, the park is log or timber or rock,” said Keith Smith, GPI’s director of engineering. “(The tiny homes are) going to have a much more contemporary, modern look.”

The other buildings on the St. Mary property are “fairly conventional,” Smith continued, and “the tiny homes, in essence, are along the same lines.”

Some inspiration did come from existing tiny home-style accommodations at other resorts, like at the Mt. Hood Village in Oregon, an RV park and campground with five tiny homes. Each has its own name and character, from the “wild and free” Zoe, to the Scarlett with “farmhouse charm.” At Glacier, each tiny home will be decorated in its own vivid color scheme.

“We do want to give each its own personality, through the design and color — an eclectic experience,” Baker said. “One of the biggest trends you’ll see is the use of bold color, even though it’s a very small space. We’re trying to pull from natural palettes, like the rustic red that you see in Glacier and around the park.”

Inside, Baker said she hopes to incorporate “Montana-made” items, as well as works of art by Blackfeet artists.

Unlike many private tiny homes, the St. Mary accommodations don’t have clever storage spaces squeezed into every possible nook and cranny.

“We did end up having to eliminate a lot of cool ideas because of the functionality,” Huff said. “We scaled back some of the neat things you’d do in your personal home.”

For one, a maid can’t easily ascend a ladder to make a loft bed every day, or dust countless cubbies and hidden compartments. And if there are too many storage solutions, or if they’re too clever, visitors staying for a short while might not be able to make good use of them.

Still, Smith said, “we’re doing our best to be creative with utilization of space — everything is efficient.”

Each tiny home will sleep up to four, with a regular queen bed, which has storage underneath instead of a box spring, and a trundle. They’re outfitted with a vaulted ceiling, closet, two-burner stove, coffee maker, microwave, portable sink, stackable chairs, foldable dining table, and bathhouse outbuilding.

“Because the bathrooms are detached, it has that camp feel, like you’re staying in a cabin,” Baker said. “Even though they are luxurious and private, it has the camp feel without as much commitment for someone to purchase as an RV, and it’s sturdier than a tent.”

On site, there will also be an around-the-fire campground atmosphere with many shared spaces — as Baker said, an “emphasis on the community.”

“Something with the tiny home movement that we saw is that key community component, a very strong sense of community and gathering, even if it’s with total strangers,” she said.

There will be a place for occupants to gather together outside, crack open a cold one, play games, trade stories, and make new connections. They can share a sense of awe. Looking out at the foot of Saint Mary Lake and up at the granite and limestone behemoths of Glacier Park, it’ll be easy for guests to feel amazed — and small. They’ll witness that grand sense of perspective experienced by so many visitors to magnificent natural areas. And when they tuck in for the night, they’ll be able to carry that awareness of something greater with them into their tiny dwelling.