Everywhere you look in Yosemite, you’ll find history. Its granite cliffs are 130 million years old. Its Giant Sequoias are roughly 3,000 years old. There are places that don the names of the great people that visited them like Taft Point, the John Muir Trail and the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Nestled in the heart of Yosemite Valley is a place much younger than its neighboring cliffs and trees, but with no shortage of history of its own. The Ahwahnee Hotel Yosemite is one of the area’s many gems. Today its known for its astounding amenities, amazing architecture and fabulous holiday festivities.
However, there is so much more to The Ahwahnee hotel than what meets the eye.
The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite was born from necessity. Stephen T. Mather, an American conservationist and the first director of the National Park Service was trying to find ways to increase support and funding for the young National Park Service.
Yosemite was Mather’s favorite park. His vision for Yosemite included upgrading the Park’s concession operations and accommodations. The solution was to build a first-class hotel that would be open year-round to attract individuals of wealth and influence to support the National Parks.
A first-class hotel in a first-class National Park needed a first-class architect, and Gilbert Stanley Underwood fit the bill. Harvard educated and with the design of the Union Pacific Railroad on his resume, Underwood was familiar with building in the Parks; he was the architect for the lodges in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
The Ahwahnee hotel’s facade is composed of granite and concrete stained to look like wood to help reduce the risk of fire. All of the materials were delivered into the park by trucks. (Photo by Kenny Karst)
Underwood’s design should sound familiar to anyone who has seen The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. It consisted of a main tower with three wings off of it. The north wing would house an entry lobby, the south wing would be the site of a Grand Lounge and the west wing would hold an enormous dining room. To help reduce the risk of fire, the building was made mostly of steel, granite and concrete that was stained to look like it was made from wood.
A hurdle that had to be cleared was where to get the building materials. Since the hotel was being built in a national park, nothing within the confines could be used in the construction since it is all protected under federal law. Thousands of tons of building materials, furnishings and equipment had to brought to the site by trucks over primitive dirt roads. An amazing task to be undertaken in 1926!
Designers chose to decorate the hotel in a Native American theme to honor the people that called Yosemite home for thousands of years before the likes of John Muir ever experienced it for himself. Ahwahnee, which means “land of the gaping mouth,” was the name the first residents gave to Yosemite Valley. These first people, in turn, called themselves the Ahwaneechee (the people of Ahwahnee).
The Ahwahnee dining room with its iconic trusses.
The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite opened for business on July 16, 1927, and it nearly immediately began being renovated. In 1928, a roof garden and dance hall were remodeled into private quarters. A few years later, it was discovered that The Ahwahnee dining room’s trusses were not strong enough to support the winter snowpack on the roof and could potentially not stand up to earthquake stress. They were re-enforced to better resemble the beautiful wood tresses The Ahwahnee hotel dining room is known for today – and of course, better protect the dining room itself!
In 1933, The El Dorado Diggins Dining Room was converted into the El Dorado Diggins Bar following the repeal of Prohibition. The bar was complete with a fake storefront and antiques to help capture the feel of the days of the Gold Rush. Today, the El Dorado Diggins Bar is now a luxurious suite in the hotel.
In 1943, The Ahwahnee took on an interesting guest, the United States Navy. The Navy took over the building and used it as a convalescent hospital for those wounded during World War II and briefly renamed it “The “U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital Yosemite National Park, California”. The Navy re-painted the hotel, turned chauffeur and maid rooms into guest rooms and enclosed the porte-cochere.
After the Navy moved out of The Ahwahnee in the 1950s, the hotel was modernized over the next three decades. Fire escapes, fire suppression systems, and alarm systems were all added. The Ahwahnee’s outdoor swimming pool was put into place during the time period as well.
The Ahwahnee’s automatic elevators (pictured) as well as the Grand Lounge and the hotel lobby were all used as inspirations for the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.
Another addition during the time was The Ahwahnee hotel’s automatic elevators, which were referenced in Stanley Kubrick’s thriller “The Shining”. The movie’s Overlook Hotel was based on many aspects of The Ahwahnee including its elevator doors. The Ahwahnee Hotel Yosemite was also featured in “The Caine Mutiny” and “Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day”.
The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite’s incredible architecture helped bring the National Park style of building to the forefront of architecture. The style which is known as National Park Service Rustic, or Parkitecture, was not originated with The Ahwahnee – it was practiced for nearly 50 years before The Ahwahnee was built. The grand lodge in Yosemite has to be considered one of the crown jewels of the style.
The Ahwahnee’s incredible history and beautiful architecture and decades of perfection made it as protected as the lands, trees, wildlife, and cliffs that surround it. In 1987, it was declared as a National Historic Landmark to be immortalized with such constructs as the USS Constitution, The Gateway Arch and the Hoover Dam.
When you stay at The Ahwahnee, you’re staying in some of the same rooms as icons of our time and past generations. U.S. Presidents, monarchs and pop-culture icons have all called The Ahwahnee their home away from home while visiting Yosemite.
Potentially, the most famous guest the hotel has ever hosted, Queen Elizabeth the II, rested her royal head on the fluffy pillows of The Ahwahnee during her tour of California in 1983. She also visited Tunnel View during her stay.
Former president Barack Obama poses with Park Rangers for a photo during his trip to Yosemite National Park. The Obama family stayed at The Ahwahnee during their visit.
Numerous presidents have stayed at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. The first was Dwight D. Eisenhower. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan would follow. The most recent president was Barack Obama, who also became the first president to fly on Marine One into Yosemite Valley.
From the entertainment industry, “I Love Lucy” stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz took their off-camera relationship to a re-treat in Yosemite and stayed at The Ahwahnee. Iconic creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney, stayed in the iconic hotel. Silent-film actor Charlie Chaplin called it home as well as Judy Garland who truly wasn’t in Kansas anymore when she checked in to the Ahwahnee.
Become part of this grand story when you visit The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. While you’re there, keep an eye out for even more stories. Look for the original Persian rugs hanging on the walls, the beautiful stenciling, stained glass and murals designed by Jeannette Dyer Spencer, and the toile pente (painted linen) mural in the Mural Room created by Robert Boardman Howard. Even better, The Ahwahnee offers an hour-long Historic Ahwahnee Hotel Tour that you can sign up for at the concierge desk.
If you’re planning to stay elsewhere in the park or Mariposa County, the Ahwahnee is definitely worth a trip and is open to visitors. Book a previously mentioned tour or just take a walk through the hotel and around the grounds and check out the Candy Shop, Gift Shop, have a meal in the Ahwahnee dining room or grab a drink in the Ahwahnee bar. For a special experience, pop into the Ahwahnee on a Sunday morning and enjoy its incredible brunch spread.
The Ahwahnee also offers packages for group events and meetings making it an incredible and eco-conscious place to host your next business retreat. Compliment your retreat or meeting with team-building activities like a guided climb with the Yosemite Mountaineering School. If you’re staying in the winter, a day skiing and snowboarding up at Badger Pass Ski Area can be a cool way to blow off steam.
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