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Historical "Glamping": Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel

Paul Rubio

   Think of the Roaring Twenties, and most likely the idea of flappers, jazz music, and speakeasies come to mind. But how about Yosemite National Park?

The Ahwahnee Hotel - luxury tourism - glamping - Yosemite National Park - DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite - photo by Kenny Karst   In the post World War I economic boom, the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, cleverly masterminded a novel incarnation of “luxury tourism” to garner interest and financial support for the park service. By creating the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite as the be-all-and-end-all of circa 1920s “glamping,” he was determined to transform nature into a year-round haute amenity for the rich and famous. His plan worked.

   The Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed, Y-shaped lodge was constructed from 5,000 tons of granite and 30,000 feet of timber in close proximity to the park’s most majestic waterfalls, look out points and iconic domes. News of the Ahwahnee’s opening in 1927 quickly spread, and the lengthy horse and buggy pilgrimage became a rite of passage for the national elite, who thrived on the hotel’s lavish dining, Big Band entertainment, and exclusive bragging rights, admiring nature behind the expansive glass windows, dressed to the nines in period appropriate ostentation. Even Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo came to see what all the fuss was about. Soon the likes of Walt Disney, Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II followed.

Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park - The Ahwahnee Hotel - photo cred: DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite   Flash forward eighty-five years later, and it seems that nothing and everything has changed at the Ahwahnee hotel. While today’s luxury traveler need not stroll the hallways in cloche hats or Al Capone inspired suits, the décor and interior design still reflects the original intentions of design team, Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Pope. The duo played off a vision that combined the region’s Native American heritage with the rising Art Deco movement of the twenties, adorned with their beloved objects of affection - Persian rugs, tapestries and accessories. A post millennium restoration of the Ahwahnee underscores the hotel’s original grandeur, complete with period furnishings and ornaments, freshly nipped and tucked. Likewise, the hotel’s exterior maintains its rustic and warm façade, unobtrusively rising from the Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee Hotel's Great Lounge - phot cred: DNC Parks & Resorts at YosemiteEarth and blending into its natural surroundings of the world’s tallest waterfalls and Mother Nature’s most impressive granite domes. Enjoying a quiet “If These Walls Could Talk” moment in the Great Lounge (right), it’s both inspiring and enthralling to see how the hotel has managed to keep history in style.

   While Ahwahnee’s panache reveals a time bygone, the hotel has completely evolved to accommodate the wants and needs of the contemporary luxury traveler. Nowadays, the hotel is connected to Yosemite Valley, an eight-mile stretch of fabulous tourist-friendly infrastructure, including restaurants and a general store. Rooms boast modern creature comforts and technologies, and a daily roster of activities allows nature enthusiasts to take full advantage of the National Park in any season. El Capitan in Yosemite National Park - The Ahwahnee Hotel - photo cred: DNC Parks & Resorts at YosemitePhotography classes, a variety of ranger strolls, and guided sightseeing tours are just the beginning. For more independent families and travelers, prolific hiking trails commence directly outside of the hotel, clearly mapped out on the park’s maps. Within minutes, some of nature’s most renowned sites, like North America’s highest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, sit in the palm of your hand (and in the background of your photos). Hike further, jump on the complimentary park shuttle service, or take your rental car and reach the 3000 foot granite monolith, El Capitan, or drive up to Glacier Point for a mind-blowing panorama of the iconic Half Dome, whose granite crest peaks nearly 5000 feet above the valley floor.  The options are endless…. as is the sheer beauty.

   Come nightfall, kids love hot cocoa around the lobby fireplace, especially during “storytelling” hour. For the grown-ups, dinner in the candle-lit Ahwahnee Dining Room captures the living history and elegance of the Roaring Twenties.  The restaurant’s formal dress code matches the stateliness of the original oversized trestles, candelabra chandeliers, fine china, and alternating columns of granite pillars and floor-to-ceiling windows. Beyond these windows, a vista of natural history, mighty and powerful, envelops the hotel, no different than it did when the hotel opened in July 1927…. nor the millions of years before. www.yosemitepark.com/ahwahnee

Half Dome and Yosemite Valley - Yosemite National Park - great granite walls - photo cred: Paul Rubio

 The Ahwahnee Hotel - Yosemite National Park - DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

 

 

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