YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE

BLOG #24, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE
June 19, 2013

THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL

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Without question, the Queen of our national park lodges is the Ahwahnee. [The Niwok Indians called the valley “Ahwahnee” – place of the gaping mouth]. Of it, Keith S. Walklet declares, “It has been called the finest hotel in the national park system. Surrounded by three-thousand-foot granite cliffs and forests of immense pines in the heart of California’s Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahnee was built to attract visitors of wealth and means at a time when American society was developing a love affair with the automobile. This monumental hotel of stone, timber, concrete, and steel remains a remarkable achievement, a rare convergence of art and vision, combining the talents of public servants, architects, engineers, designers, and craftsmen.” (Walklet, front-flap of dustjacket).

* * *

Yosemite National Park was, for Stephen T. Mather, Founder of the National Park System, unquestionably, his favorite park. But it needed a hotel that could match the grandeur of the park. After all, automobile ownership had exploded across the nation: In 1915 alone, nearly a million new cars crowded roads meant for stagecoaches and wagons. As for Yosemite, the first all-weather highway (140) was opened in 1925. And car-loads of people poured in!

Both Mather and his able assistant, Horace Albright, envisioned a grand hotel for Yosemite on the scale of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, the Glacier National Park lodges, and Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. For architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had already proved his worth at Bryce and Zion, was chosen. But the consensus among the many project principals (architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, visionaries) was that while they desired the proposed hotel to be rustic, they envisioned an elegant country estate that would blend flawlessly with its breathtaking setting. Eventually, two organizations (Curry Camp Company and Yosemite Camp Company) merged, ending decades of wrangling. Mather now had a stellar team of Albright, Underwood, landscape engineer Daniel Hull, and San Francisco contractor James L. McLaughlin, individuals who bickered plenty, but saw through the massive building project that eventually cost $1,250,000 (a vast sum back then).

Originally, it was the plan to build it in the center of the valley, but wiser heads prevailed; it was concluded that it ought to be moved to a more secluded spot, backed up to the massive mountain walls of Royal Arches. A core block six stories high anchored it, and two wings set at angles enabled guests to feast their eyes on Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and Royal Arches. One year late, the grand hotel opened on July 14, 1927.

It has wowed the world ever since. Indeed, numbered among its guests are VIPs such as Presidents Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan; foreign leaders such as Winston Churchill, King Badouin of Belgium, the exiled Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who had the hotel all to themselves), and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; Hollywood greats such as Kim Novak, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charleton Heston, Boris Karloff, William Shatner, Shirley Temple Black, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, Leonard Nimoy; and Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball stayed here when filming The Long Long Trailer in the park – the list could go on and on.

ENTER THE WHEELERS AND EARPS

Although a fifth-generation Californian on both sides of my family, and a frequent visitor to the park down through the years, never before had I or my bride stayed at the Ahwahnee. Best I could do on a limited budget was to visit the hotel. Christmas in My Heart readers may remember that the Ahwahnee is part of the worldwide setting of my Christmas story, “Christmas Sabbatical.” It is also slated to play a key role romance-wise in my upcoming novelette-length Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Christmas in My Heart 22 (due out fall of 2013). But now, since staying in the hotel had been on my Bucket List for so long, I saved my shekels long enough to treat Connie to a two-night stay. Earps too, had long wanted to stay in this legendary Shangri-La of a lodge.

That last week of May 2011 represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for the tremendous snowfall of the winter of 2010-2011 was now paying huge dividends: the falls of Yosemite were at a 50-year-high in terms of the volume of water—and not coincidentally: sound! Crowds were already swarming in to see and hear the falls. Before the season was over, 5,000,000 people crowded the valley wall-to-wall.

As our car emerged from the Wawona Tunnel, there spread out before us was one of the grandest views on the planet. Bridalveil Fall was at full strength, but even before we arrived at the Ahwahnee we could hear the thunder of that wonder of the world, Yosemite Falls, hurtling over the canyon wall almost 2600 feet above the valley floor.

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Once checked in, we moved into our room on the second floor; after sprucing up, we gazed out the window at a sight that never ever could grow old. Once downstairs, we began to explore the hotel a bit. Then it was time for another treat: dinner in the largest room in the hotel, the world-famous Dining Room (6,630 square feet; 130 feet long, 51 feet wide, 34 feet high, with vaulted peeled log trusses, 24-foot-high windows, through which we could see and hear Yosemite Falls). The food and service five-star quality, and after a while a concert pianist playing Chopin on the grand piano. Not often, in this journey we call life, have I experienced a sensory overload–but this was one of those times. Mere words came hard, for no one wished to shatter the mood.

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Then, tired from the long day, we had little trouble falling asleep to the thunder of the falls.

Next morning, we all shutterbugged in the verdant grounds of the hotel. Then, an unforgettable breakfast in the great Dining Room, now transformed by the glory of morning light. Then to the Visitor Center to see the splendid film, “Spirit of Yosemite.” Afterwards, we donned coats or rain gear for our walk to the base of Lower Falls. The closer we got to it, the wetter we got; it became almost impossible to hear each other speak. We never were able to get to the base of the falls. And the people kept coming, young and old from all over the world. It is unlikely, in my lifetime, that I’ll ever experience the like again. Later, we took the shuttle to the Mist Trail, and trekked all the way up to the base or Vernal Falls, also boiling over at floodstage. Later in the afternoon, we were privileged to be given a personal VIP tour of the hotel by its genial General Manager; he took us through the lobby, gift store, beautiful Mural Room, the Great Hall (second-largest room in the hotel, flanked by two great fireplaces), kitchen (where we got to talk with the chef and his pastry gurus), even the outside foundation stone. We felt deeply honored by his willingness to spend all this time with us. After eating in the Bar Café, exhausted from the hikes, we quickly fell asleep.

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When the sun, birds, and falls woke us up next morning, it was to an almost unworldly radiance. Not one of us but longed to remain there. For a time, we relaxed and drank in the ambiance of the Great Hall, cups of steaming coffee in hand, and imagined all the events held in that room over three-quarters of a century; all the world-famous celebrities who had walked through those doors.

Then one last breakfast in the Dining Room. When we finally pried ourselves out of our chairs, walked toward the hallway, and turned back for one last look, we felt physical pain at the parting. How could any place else we ever saw or experienced build on such perfection?

Then it was time to leave.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 511

Next week, we complete the Great Circle.

SOURCES USED

Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Keith S. Walklet’s historical tour de force, The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel (Yosemite: DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, 2004).