It was the railroad that first opened the American West. Along with a steady stream of travelers came the need for railway hotels and restaurants, beginning with the chain of Harvey Houses built around the American Southwest starting in the 1870s. At the turn of the 20th century, national parks caught on to the same idea, building grand lodges to accommodate ever bigger crowds of tourists.
It was Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, who decided that what Yosemite needed was a first-class hotel to attract wealthy, politically powerful, and celebrity clientele to the park. The architect chosen for the job, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, also designed the national park lodges at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park and also at Zion, Bryce Canyon NP and the Grand Canyon’s north rim for the Union Pacific Railroad.
Building the Ahwahnee Hotel was an ever greater challenge, though ultimately a triumph. Due to Yosemite’s remote location, all of the building materials had to be brought in by truck, including 5000 tons of stone, 30,000 feet of timber and 1000 tons of steel. The steel was used to reinforce the hotel’s fire-proof concrete structure, which was stained to look like California redwood. All told, it cost $1.25 million dollars to build.
Completed in 1927, this National Historic Landmark incorporates art-deco, Native American and Arts & Crafts design motifs, from its stone fireplaces and wall tapestries to its stained-glass windows and hand-stenciled ceiling beams. Some of The Ahwahnee’s star-studded guests over the decades have included Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Queen Elizabeth II, Gertrude Stein, Will Rogers and Walt Disney.
Even if you don’t stay at The Ahwahnee, the public is welcome to wander the hotel’s grand lobby, peruse the artisan gift shop, have cocktails in the bar, or reserve a table in The Ahwahnee’s grand dining room.