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Step Back in Time at Yosemite’s Historic Ahwahnee Hotel

Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel has to be one of the swankiest hotels in all the national parks. And while queens, presidents, and celebrities have stayed there over the past century, park visitors in hiking boots are also fortunate to be able to experience this crown jewel for themselves. In 2010, while on our journey to visit all the national parks, we stayed at the Ahwahnee for one night; it was a thrill to step back in time in this historic gem.

Photo by Matt and Karen Smith

It’s hard to imagine a national park lodge placed in a more beautiful setting. Nestled into Yosemite Valley, its stone exterior blends seamlessly into the surrounding granite cliffs. Glacier Point and Half Dome tower above the hotel, while in the spring and summer, Yosemite Falls roars just a mile up the valley. Designed by the same architect who drew up the plans for Zion and Bryce Canyon Lodges, this National Historic Landmark is a magnificent example of National Park Service Rustic architecture.

The hotel opened in 1927 to accommodate the growing crowds of people who were beginning to flock to our country’s incredible public lands. Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel was its original name, but the developers changed it to the Ahwahnee Hotel before it opened because they wanted a name that evoked the Native American heritage of the valley. Despite having 123 rooms, the architect’s first plans were for a much larger complex. The dining hall, for instance, would have held 1,000 people. The scaled-down version has a capacity of 350, but it’s still spectacular with its 34-foot-high beamed ceilings that soar above the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Ahwahnee dining room/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith

We stopped by the dining room to take some photos, but we didn’t bother making reservations because this is the one place in the hotel where hiking clothes don’t cut it. The dinner dress code states that gentlemen should wear long pants and a shirt with a collar, and ladies are asked to wear a dress, skirt, or long pants with a blouse. The standard dress is more relaxed today than in the past; for decades, men were required to wear jackets at dinner. But never fear, the newly remodeled hotel bar is a more casual dining option, either inside or outside enjoying the view, while sipping cocktails like the El Capitini. Created by the bar staff to commemorate the first ascent of El Capitan, it comes with a keepsake carabiner. Or you can order something more classic, like the Yosemite Gimlet.

Great Lounge/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith

The year it opened, the hotel began a tradition of hosting lavish Christmas dinners in the dining hall that continues to this day. Called the Bracebridge Dinner, guests are encouraged to dress in formal attire while actors stage an Old-English, seven-course feast complete with plum pudding. Ansel Adams, no less, was the director and cast member the year the tradition began. Tickets to one of the seven dinner dates in December used to be so challenging to get that the hotel issued them through a lottery. That’s no longer the case. Looking at the ticket prices, they may have solved the over-demand problem by raising the rates. We would still like to do it once though; the setting is truly unique, and the event would be unforgettable.

Mural Room/Photo by Matt and Karen Smith

The Ahwahnee Hotel is a must-see site when you’re in the valley. Even if you don’t have reservations to stay at the hotel—they’re hard to get despite being pricey—you can spend time in the hotel’s spacious common areas and take in the Native American artwork and period furniture. Because it’s in a national park, the first floor is open to the public, regardless of whether or not you’re spending the night in the hotel.

One of our favorite public spaces is the Mural Room, with its rustic hammered copper fireplace, dark wood paneling, and a stunning mural depicting the park’s native flora and wildlife. We love relaxing on the sofas in the Great Lounge in front of one of the massive stone fireplaces flanking each end. Through the two-story, stained-glass windows, we can see the mottled silhouette of Half Dome. It’s the perfect place to take a break after a long hike and sort through our bucket list to decide where to go next.

To hear more about the Ahwahnee and our other favorite national park lodges, check out Episode 04 of the Dear Bob and Sue Podcast.

Header photo: By Matt and Karen Smith

Matt and Karen Smith are the authors of the Dear Bob and Sue series of books and the hosts of the Dear Bob and Sue podcast, where they share stories about their visits to all the national parks and other public lands.

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