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).

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH RIM

BLOG #7, SERIES 3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #9

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH RIM

 

February 15, 2012

Early in the morning, snow began to slash at our North Rim cabin windows; as the wind picked up, the snow increased proportionally.  After packing, Bob and I hauled our luggage out to the snow-covered Town Car.  Then, we regretfully bade our adieus to our already beloved cabins on the rim, the rockers on the porch already filling with May snow.  Inside the lodge, once again we breakfasted near one of the great windows, and watched the snow descend into the abyss.  All too soon, it was time to leave, but none of us wanted to.  The atmosphere in the lodge was totally different from the day before for the unexpected snow had generated a sense of adventure among hotel guests that had not been there before.  In this sense of family-closed-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world, there were no strangers: everyone talked with each other as though they were old friends.

But feeling a sense of urgency, we headed out.  We were apprehensive because the Lincoln was anything but a snow car.  Our hearts were in our throats when the snow deepened as the road climbed over 9,000 feet (one of the key reasons the North rim has such a short tourist season).  The Lincoln began to slip, and there were no snowplows.  But finally we crested and headed down, and eventually out of the snow.

This was Zane Grey country.  In 1907 and 1908 Grey had faced storms much worse than this as he and legendary plainsman Buffalo Jones and Mormon pioneer Jim Emmet lassoed mountain lions in the Buckskin Forest of this Kaibab Plateau we were traveling through.  At Jacob Lake, we turned east on Highway 89a.  When we’d descended to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, we walked along the river.  For here was Emmet’s home a few miles down river.  Though we didn’t revisit it this time, we couldn’t help but think of that tenderfoot Zane Grey eying the then undammed Colorado River thundering down this same gorge; it was maintained that if anyone fell in trying to get across by cable (no bridges then), no one would ever see them again—not in flood season!  Born here were Grey’s Last of the Plainsmen, Heritage of the Desert, and Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.

We then turned south on Highway 89, and right after crossing the Painted Desert, at Cameron, we turned west on Highway 64.  As we began our ascent to the South Rim, would you believe it?—once again, the snow began to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was late afternoon before we arrived at El Tovar Hotel, a favorite stopping place for our family down through the years.

* * * * *

We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for saving the Grand Canyon for posterity.  In 1903, after visiting the canyon himself, he declared it to be “a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world” (Barnes, 102).  He followed that up by establishing the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1906, by executive order, then enlarging the Forest Reserve into a National Forest.

Santa Fe Railroad officials, seeing the canyon as a golden opportunity to dramatically increase southwest tourism, determined to create a great lodge on the South Rim.  Their chosen architect: Charles Whittlesey, who was trained in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan.  His goal was to “meld the elegance of a European villa with the infomality of a hunting lodge” (Barnes, 105).  This grand hotel officially opened on January 14, 1905.  According to Barnes, “Steam heat, electric lights and indoor plumbing all made it the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America.  Huge Douglas-firs were shipped by rail from Oregon, pushing the cost to $250,000, a grand sum, especially when compared to Old Faithful Inn, built for $140,000.  One-hundred guest rooms accommodated visitors who found comfort in ‘a quiet dignity, an unassuming luxury, and an appreciation of outing needs at El Tovar’” (Barnes, 105).  Though western in style, it has also been considered Transylvanian, resembling a hunting lodge for the Romanian royal family.

Here the legendary Harvey Girls waited tables.  And here too, in January of 1906, only one year after it opened its doors, Zane Grey and his bride Dolly arrived here by train on their honeymoon.  But storm clouds obscured the canyon, so it wasn’t until evening that the clouds parted and they stared into such a sunset as they’d never even imagined.  The die was cast: This canyon would become the very heart of Grey’s 89 novels—where the Old West began.

OUR MEMORIES

As we walked into the Rendezvous Room, and passed the chairs flanking the crackling fire in the fireplace, we vowed to commandeer those chairs if the occupants ever surrendered them.  In the center of the building is the registration lobby, or Rotunda, where all paths intersect.  Here we checked in, as we had a number of times before, then moved into our rooms. We hoped to be able to show Bob and Lucy Earp “The Zane Grey Room,” where Dolly and Grey had stayed, but it was booked solid during our two-day stay, so weren’t able to.  Our Zane Grey’s West Society donated the Zane Grey memorabilia and books that make it such a special room.  XANTERRA owns and operates the hotel today.

Later, we ate dinner in the renowned eighty -nine-foot long dining room, furnished with Arts and Crafts style furniture, and anchored by two huge chimneys, each flanked by large picture windows.  The service and food were, as expected, impeccable, as befits one of the grandest hotels in the Great Circle.  Here, Connie and I shared an incident from our past with the Earps: Many years ago, when our daughter Michelle was just a tiny golden-haired angel, we’d eaten in this very same dining room.  Michelle, who’d never even envisioned such a grand place, was entranced.  The waiter assigned to our table treated Michelle as though she were a princess, hovering around her, filling her glass from high up each time she drank a sip from it, refilling the bread basket whenever she took a roll out of it, and grandly displaying the little broom that he’d use to whisk away every stray breadcrumb she dropped on the spotless white tablecloth.  To this day, that evening is etched in her memory as one of the most magical experiences in all her growing-up years.

Next day, the weather having cleared, we walked along the canyon rim, taking photos, along with visitors from all over the world.  We soon discovered that El Tovar, like Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, is so loved to death by hordes of tourists that hotel guests are hard-pressed to find unoccupied seats in the lobby or dining facilities.  So what else should one expect from the focal center of well over four-million tourists every year?  But we really experienced the invasion when we entered the Grand Canyon Village building that houses the IMAX theatre that shows the Grand Canyon film.  Men, women, and children from all walks of life and from countries around the world (many from Asia and Europe) flooded in, in such numbers that we could barely move!  Felt like we were each straitjacketed.  What a contrast from the North Rim.  We couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in the summer when school is out!

But even so, each person standing by the parapet, staring into the vast reaches of the great canyon, seems to be in a world of their own,  no matter how many eddy around them.  The first sight of the canyon is invariably the same: no advance hype can possibly fully prepare you for the real thing!  And late evening, when the crowds ebb inside El Tovar, leaving you with just the hotel guests, you can once again imagine seeing Zane and Dolly, sitting next to you by the fireplace, a pensive look in their eyes, a hundred and six years ago.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR:WWW West, Inc., 2002).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #7

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

 

February 8, 2012

“How long does it take to see the Grand Canyon?’

“From a moment to a lifetime.”

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  277 miles long, 10 miles wide, one mile deep.  It has been known for well over a century as the greatest scenic wonder in the world.  One of its earliest visitors, John Muir, was so awe-struck by it that he wrote of it,

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.

John Wesley Powell, in 1869, pronounced it

The most sublime spectacle on earth.

Yet, even though it was generally acknowledged as such a global treasure, those who tried to save it for posterity faced fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, settlers, and others who were determined to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do with it.  It should have been the nation’s second national park; indeed bills were introduced to that effect in 1882, 1883, and 1886—all failed.  In 1893 President Harrison did what he could, inadequate though it was: he used his administrative power to designate it as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.  Twenty-six long years later, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1908, used his newly passed Antiquities Act to elevate it to national monument status.  Not until 1919 was it finally made a national park.  But even then, full federal protection was anything but a given: grazing was still permitted; as a result cattle herds roamed freely on both rims, the park was honeycombed with still active mining claims, and newly elected Arizona senator, Ralph Henry Cameron continued to act as though he—not the American people—owned the canyon.

Today, however, the Grand Canyon is loved to death by almost 5,000,000 tourists a year, over 4,000,000 of them congesting the South Rim, helping to make it one of the most photographed places on earth.

The Grand Canyon is really three distinctly different parks: The overcrowded South Rim, the forested North Rim’s Kaibab Plateau; and the Colorado River and its Phantom Ranch.

THE NORTH RIM’S GRAND CANYON LODGE

           

The Grand Canyon Lodge (the only lodging facility on the North Rim, is open only five months a year (mid-May to mid-October), and not always then, for snow can keep it closed later in the spring, and close it earlier in the fall.  Only one-tenth (400,000 plus) of the millions that mob the South Rim make it here, for though it is only a ten-mile glide across to the South Rim, it’s 215 miles by nearest road.  So it is actually closer to Zion National Park than to its own park headquarters.  To hike across is a daunting 23 miles.  Given that the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, hikers descend almost 6,000 feet on the famed Bright Angel Trail  from the North Rim and ascend almost 5,000 feet to the South Rim.  Climate-wise, hikers experience the equivalent of going from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Mexico and back up.  In Bruce Aiken’s words: “The Canyon is a nude of the earth.  It shows the layers, the bones beneath the skin—what’s beneath the vegetation that covers the rest of the world” (Jaffe, 116).

Matthew Jaffe, in his splendid paean to the North Canyon, maintains that you don’t really know the Grand Canyon until you explore the uncrowded North Rim.  It is truly a different world.  Serene.  Quiet.  The travelers who make it here are the connoisseurs of the world travel, and are almost afraid to speak out, or write about its glories, for fear the rest of the world will discover it and wreck their Shangri-la..

As for the lodge itself, as always, Christine Barnes is the ultimate authority for its story.  The Utah Parks Company (UPC) and National Park Service (NPS) were so pleased with architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Bryce and Zion lodges that they contracted with him to create a great lodge on the North Rim, as soon as he completed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.  The result, according to Barnes, is that “Grand Canyon Lodge is architecturally and geographically linked to Bryce and Zion Park lodges, but its elegance and panache seem to have sprung from the same inspiration that created the hotel in Yosemite.  While the Ahwahnee’s success had been the elegant incorporation of the hotel with the towering walls of granite, on the North Rim the architect would look down for his inspiration” (Barnes, 137).

Underwood magically created a lodge that prevented visitors arriving from the north from any view of the Canyon until they’d first encountered a huge front of stone that was crowned by a watchtower.  As guests walked into the lodge, they’d initially see only timber and stone-work, but then they’d see the light which would draw them to the stairway, into the sunroom and into the lobby—then “BOOM! There’s the Grand Canyon” (Barnes, 137).  Outdoor terraces and stairways cascaded down from the lodge.

Flanking the lodge on both sides were one hundred Standard Cabins and twenty Deluxe Cabins; in 1931, less expensive Housekeeping Cabins were constructed near the campground away from the rim.  Since the site didn’t have water, they had to pipe it up from Roaring Springs, 3,400 feet below the rim.  On June 1, 1928, the lodge and cabins opened with accommodations for 250 guests.  Tourists were bussed in from the railroad terminal in Cedar City, Utah.

But then, on September 1, 1932, disaster!  Fire broke out in the lodge in the middle of the night.  Employees and workers battled the blaze for but a short time when the water pressure gave out, dooming the lodge and two Deluxe Cabins.  All that remained were stone walls, foundations, terraces, stairways, and fireplaces.  Horace Albright, NPS director, was devastated at the loss.  Two years later, the UPC began rebuilding the lodge on the same footprint, but Underwood was not involved.  The first floor plan remained as before, and the lodge we know today is still a wonderful place, but Christine Barnes laments, “But the marvelous sense of the building in perfect harmony with the rim was partially lost.  From the canyon wall the original lodge still rises, but the asymmetrical stairstep quality of the walls and rooflines with their rich texture are mostly gone.  Instead, the design was simplified and capped with a traditional green gable roof” (Barnes, 141).  The eighteen surviving Deluxe Cabins and the reconstructed lodge reopened on June 1, 1937.  They’re still there.

OUR OWN JOURNEY

We awoke at 6:30, and ate breakfast at Zion Lodge at 8:00; then drove out of Zion National Park via Carmel Junction, and headed south across the Arizona border onto the Kaibab Plateau.  I’ve always felt the Kaibab ought to have been part of Utah rather than Arizona, for it seems a world away from the rest of Arizona.  Alas, the Warm Fire of 2006 burned over 58,000 acres of the once lush forest.  But how grateful we were to discover that the fire had spared the rim area and the lodge.  Also grateful that we’d reserved our Deluxe Cabin over a year before.  And imagine how we felt when we discovered that the lodge had only been open one day!  Whenever we were tempted to complain about anything, we asked ourselves if we’d been able to do any better when everything had been snowed in for seven long months!  Actually, there were very few glitches, even so.  Just as was true with Bryce, the North Rim concessions were run by FOREVER Resorts.  And true to their word, they’d saved us Deluxe Cabins to die for, right on the rim next to the lodge; and sitting in rockers on our porch, we could look down, down, and down the almost 6,000 foot-drop to the Colorado River.

But before our rooms were cleaned, we first had to experience once again Underwood’s staggering surprise.  I submit that in all of America’s wondrous national park lodges, there are only two that literally take your breath away: walking up the stairs of Jackson lake Lodge, and suddenly, on the other side of the wall of glass are Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons soaring above Jackson Lake; and, second, stepping down into the Sun Room or into the Dining Room of Grand Canyon Lodge and suddenly, one of the most stunning views the world has to offer: the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado!  Guests are too awestruck to say much: they just stand there by the great windows–transfixed as time seems to stand still.

At 4:00 p.m., we brought our luggage in from the car and unpacked for two whole days.  Glory be!  In the evening, as the sun began to die in the West, we gazed out from our table near a window, and were too overwhelmed to say much.  Not until the shadows closed in.  Afterwards, we returned to that eighty-three-year-old cabin, mercifully spared from burning down with the lodge, even though it was the closest self-standing structure on that side.  Eighty-three years of blizzards, rainstorms, and fierce winds.  We lit the fire in the fireplace, crawled in bed, and listened to the wind and cabin walls complain!

          

Next morning, outside our window—that view!  A view so stupendous it will remain limned in memory as long as we live. Same next door in Bob and Lucy Earp’s cabin.  Bob had been up with camera since before sunrise.  The day passed all too quickly, beginning with breakfast in that iconic dining room; sharing the experience were tourists from all over the world, as cosmopolitan a group as you’d ever get into one room.  Europeans confessed that they’d never seen anything to compare with it! Later, Connie and Lucy washed and dried our laundry in the campground washateria.  Then Bob and I went shutterbugging down the rim to Point Imperial and Point Roosevelt, managing to get thirty miles lost in the process.  Afterwards, thanked Sonya Michaels, the lodge manager, for all she and her staff had done to make our stay so special—everyone so eager to please.  In midafternoon, we listened to a riveting lecture on condors.

After dinner, we played Phase Ten, and I, for once, beat Robert.  That night the wind really blew!  But snuggled together in the Cabin of our Dreams, we felt it would be hard to conceptualize a greater experience than this.  We fell asleep wondering if it would really snow the next day as some had predicted.

SOURCES

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

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Jaffe, Matthew, “The Secret Canyon” (Sunset Magazine, May 2007).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).