The Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite
Story by: Robert N. Jenkins

Photos by: Ed Stone

Built to attract wealthy visitors to Yosemite, The Ahwahnee Hotel lavishes guests  with elegance and eye-popping panoramas. 

The Ahwahnee Hotel was opened in 1927 to provide weathly visitors a place to stay in Yosemite

The view from Ahwahnee Hotel of one of the many waterfalls in Yosemite

This is what it's like to be wealthy; the hotel architect wanted you to know. Wealthy, and with a 2,425-foot-tall waterfall in the back yard.

More than most hotels, The Ahwahnee gets help from its location to draw guests. The hotel sits next to a granite cliff, with a view of the thundering beauty of Yosemite Falls.

But The Ahwahnee (ah-WAH-nee, it means gaping mouth in the local Indian dialect) was a long time coming: more than 70 years after the first hardy tourists marveled at the natural beauty of Yosemite Valley.

Breathtaking scenery as you enter the Yosemite Valley

As early as 1855, visitors were coming here by carriage and horseback to gaze at the numerous waterfalls and the granite walls rising 3,000 feet behind Pacific dogwood, black oak and ponderosa pine.

But the park's distant location in the Sierra Nevada meant there was no day-tripping, so those tourists slept in tents, rudimentary guest houses and then, large hotels.

Sharing bathrooms down the hall held little charm for the nouveau riche tourists, whose influence National Park Service Director Stephen T. Mather needed to get increased funding for the dozens of parks under his control.

But Yosemite, all 1,169 square miles of it - larger than Rhode Island - was Mather's favorite. And for Yosemite, he wanted a first-class hotel that was as much a part of the destination as the waterfalls, sequoias and wildlife.

Like a mansion

In July 1925, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was hired to create that lodging. He designed a six-story building in the shape of a Y, each wing providing a different panorama.

Approach to the Yosemite Falls

To look as if the structure had risen from the very ground around it, most of the exterior is covered by 5,000 tons of granite stones, arranged with the weathered side facing out and larger stones on the bottom.

To blend with the trees and granite cliffs, concrete was poured into frames made from rough-hewn timber, to give these exterior slabs a wood grain. The slabs were then stained the rust color typical of redwood timber.

Because The Ahwahnee would cater to the rich, the lobby was to resemble the foyer of a mansion. Thus, to register for one of the 99 rooms or 24 bungalows, guests went to a different wing of the building. That's no longer the case.

The hotel boasts Turkish and Afghan rugs on its glistening wood floors and chandeliers in the German Gothic style

The motif was supposed to be American Indian, but this was a time when rich Americans were importing fabulous decorative pieces to prove their sophistication. So while the interior decorators hired artists to re-create or imitate tribal accents, they also imported furnishings from 20 nations. The hotel boasts Turkish and Afghan rugs on its glistening wood floors and chandeliers in the German Gothic style.

Opened on July 14, 1927, The Ahwahnee was an immediate success.

Steinway, stained glass, stencils

Carrying out the mansion theme are the Shawnee’s two prime public spaces, the Great Lounge and the Dining Room.

Visitors stroll through the Great Lounge, which measures 77 feet long by 51 feet wide. They nestle in huge, floral-print chairs, perhaps listening to the Steinway grand piano, signed by the master.

The Lounge has massive fireplaces at each end and 10 floor-to-ceiling windows - and that ceiling is 24 feet above the floor.

Tom Bopp has been playing the piano at Yosemite for over 25 years

Indeed, sitting in the Great Lounge can be humbling. You expect to see a tuxedoed butler, white- gloved hands carrying a tray with a crystal decanter and glasses for the lord of the manor and his real guests.

But even the humble overnight hotel customer can marvel at the stained-glass works that top the Lounge's windows. Jeannette Dyer Spencer, who based them - and nearly 100 original stencils she created throughout the hotel - on American Indian designs, created them. Looking for these artworks is part of the charm of The Ahwahnee.

The hotel enjoys a high occupancy rate, but every week hundreds of people drive into the park for  a memorable meal in the Ahwahnee's Dining Room, itself a showpiece:

  • A massive 6,500 square feet - nearly half a football field long - it has a 34-foot-high ceiling. The vaulting above the 335 seats is formed by logs.

  • The 24-foot-tall windows showcase the great outdoors, the perfect setting for menus that reflect the upscale ambience of The Ahwahnee. Sitting down to the linen and stemware here is, again, like being the guest of the richest family in town.  

The beautiful and impressive Ahwahnee Dining Room

These two huge main rooms are designed to hold large numbers. Guests can find intimacy elsewhere in the handsomely appointed solarium and "mural room." These spaces have a relax-here feel.

More comfortable still is the bar, appropriate for enjoying Gershwin, Porter or more recent standards, played by pianist Tom Bopp. He's part of the Yosemite legend himself: He has been playing piano here or in the park's Victorian-era Wawona hotel for about two-dozen years.

Just outside the bar and the lobby is a patio, perfect for a coffee or a cocktail.

Paths around the hotel are for strolling away, to get a better look at the hotel or at the natural glory to which The Ahwahnee seems well-suited.

For More Information:
The Ahwahnee Hotel
P.O. Box 578
Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Reservations: 559-253-5636

Footnote: For golfing opportunites at Yosemite National Park and nearby area,click here.