The story of the celebrated Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley is particularly noteworthy because of its status in US National Park history, but also because its very existence is a tribute to one man who had an ambitious dream for America. He wanted to build a National Park System that would be the envy of the world, and the Ahwahnee Hotel helped him do it – here is how.
The first director of the US National Park Service
A wealthy Stephen T. Mather agreed to lead the Park Service in 1915, at a time when there were just 16 national parks and the public was indifferent to the concept. Today there are 58 magnificent parks, and through the years, much of the success of the National Park program was due to the careful planning and inspiration of Mr. Mather.
All are welcome
Mather envisioned the national parks to be places of beauty and relaxation and accessible to all. In Yosemite, he directed the creation of three distinct levels of comfort to cater to the full spectrum of national park visitors.
The highest level of accommodation would be a first-class hotel that provided all the amenities necessary to attract and satisfy the wealthy and influential. A second level of accommodation would provide year round tents with a central area for services such as a restaurant and toilet facilities. He also set aside space for frugal visitors who preferred to camp with their own tents and camping equipment. Today, the national park system pretty much follows Mather’s plan.
How Mather grew the park system
Mather thought that if he built a truly great hotel in his favorite national park in Yosemite Valley it would be of interest to rich and powerful people. They would come to enjoy the many amenities, and in return provide support for his plan to grow the National Park System and the public trust wilderness in the United States.
Concurrent with Stephen Mather’s appointment, the automobile was revolutionizing tourism and travel all across the nation. By 1926, an all-weather highway opened Yosemite Valley to year round access. Because of both, Mather’s plan succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
History of the Ahwahnee site
Millions of years of glacier grinding smoothed the lofty granite walls of Yosemite Valley into the breathtaking majestic monuments we know today.
Thirty thousand years ago, there was a great lake on the location of the Ahwahnee Hotel. The water left a fertile plain that was subsequently inhabited by Native Americans.
The Miwoks lived in Yosemite for thousands of years before it was discovered by the white man in the mid-19th century.
Reminders of the first people
The Ahwahneechee tribe lived on the land where the Ahwahnee Hotel stands today. Their diet included a staple porridge made from acorns. Hotel visitors can explore the large granite formations and the pockets made in the rock by the Indian workers who ground the acorns into meal.The rock formations are easy to find and are situated immediately adjacent to the hotel parking lot. Any hotel employee will be happy to show you the location.
After the white man discovered Yosemite, it was not long before the word got out about the marvelous wilderness with its 3,000-foot granite walls and cascading waterfalls.
In the 1850s, the first tourists entered Yosemite on horseback. A small town, Kennyville was quickly established to provide visitors with livery services and minimum creature comforts during their stay in the valley.
With the advent of the automobile in the early twentieth century, Kennyville’s usefulness declined rapidly and the land seemed a perfect candidate for repurposing. Mather wanted the beautiful site with abundant trees and views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point for his hotel. He got his wish.
The building begins
In 1925, the Yosemite and Curry Company (YP&CC) was commissioned by the Park Service to build the great Yosemite hotel. Gilbert S. Underwood was chosen as architect. His task was to be one of his greatest career challenges and accomplishments.
A fireproof hotel
Fire is always of great concern in the wilderness, and many park hotels have fallen victim to natural woodland fires. Mather wanted a fireproof hotel. To that end, the Ahwahnee is a true masterpiece of design genius.
The Ahwahnee Hotel structure looks to be made of rock and timber, but in reality the primitive looking exterior siding, balconies, and beams that appear to be timber are actually constructed from cement castings superbly stained to match the surrounding redwoods and pines. We have visited the Ahwahnee Hotel many times over the years, but until we did the research for this article, we had no idea the exterior walls were made of cement.
Building the Ahwahnee Hotel was a monumental undertaking
It was the largest such task for the burgeoning young American trucking industry of the 1920s. Trucks ran on dusty roads day and night, seven days a week for over a year to bring materials to the Ahwahnee worksite.
All building materials for the six-story hotel were imported from outside the park. That meant hauling nearly 700 tons of steel I beams along with 5,000 tons of building stones, and 30,000 feet of lumber and logs with early model trucks along bumpy dirt roads. Add to that the many tons of hotel furnishings, and the kitchen and maintenance equipment necessary to run a luxury hotel. It was a huge undertaking for more than 250 drivers, workers, and artisans to create the timeless lodging masterpiece that we now so revere.
Stephen T. Mather did himself, and America proud.
The hotel had its grand opening on July 14, 1927.
If you go
There are several entrances to Yosemite Park and you can choose your route from the park website.
As you drive through the park watch for signs to the Ahwahnee Hotel. A natural stone gatehouse at the entrance to the hotel gives the visitor an exhilarating sense of arrival. The leafy tree-lined drive beyond the gateway increases the anticipation, and the Sequoia lined parking area provides a warm welcome to all visitors.
You are privileged to be about to enter one of the grandest park rustic hotels in the world.
We will write more about the grand Ahwahnee Hotel in the very near future. If you liked this story, don’t miss the sequel. We will explore the Ahwahnee’s remarkable interior, and the role that Ansel Adams and the Navy played in the hotel’s history.
We want to thank Lisa Cesaro, of the DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, and Tami von Isakovics of Ellipses Public Relations for assisting us with information about the Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Valley.
If you would like to read more details about the Ahwahnee Hotel there are two short and excellent books on the subject. The Ahwahnee – Yosemite’s Grand Hotel, by Keith Walklet and The Ahwahnee – Yosemite’s Classic Hotel, by Shirley Sargent. Both books are available on Amazon.com.
Wayne Bayliff and his wife Judy are photojournalists who travel the world looking for exceptional vacation getaways. They photograph and write about romantic, luxury, unique, historic, and exclusive resorts, lodgings, eateries, cruises, and airlines. Their subjects are sometimes unusual, but always fun!
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