After 82 Years, It's Time For A Substantial Upgrading of The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park officials say it's time to embark on a substantial rehabilitation of The Ahwahnee Hotel. Jess Stryker photo.

When The Ahwahnee Hotel opened in 1927, it was the most opulent, and accommodating, hotel in the National Park System, a role it continues today. Built with an eye for the upper classes, the affluent who wouldn't think about laying down on the ground, let alone a cot, the grand hotel at Yosemite National Park soon developed a guest list that, down through the decades, has accommodated royalty, presidents, and Hollywood's A-listers.

Christine Barnes so very well captured the thinking that went into the planning of The Ahwahnee in her book, Great Lodges of the National Parks.

Two decades after the construction of Old Faithful Inn (in Yellowstone National Park) had set the tone for environmentally compatible architecture in the national parks, an unlikely group came together in Yosemite National Park. Architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, and visionaries began pooling their ideas and arguing over their differences. The center of debate was the construction of a grand hotel in Yosemite Valley. Not meant to embody the wilds of the West as Old Faithful Inn did in Yellowstone, the plan was to construct an elegant country estate that would blend flawlessly with its remarkable setting and offer comfortable accommodations to those used to the finer things in life. The idea struck some as elitism in a public park.

Well, 82 years have brought a lot of guests to The Ahwahnee, and the hotel tucked beneath Royal Arches in the Yosemite Valley has endured quite a few seasons. Though not weary by any stretch of the imagination, the hotel nevertheless needs to be brought up to the latest building codes, its electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems all need to be overhauled, and, as Yosemite officials put it, there's a "need to provide a higher level of visitor services." (No mention as to whether rates, which quickly rocket into the range of hundreds of dollars per night, will be examined). There's also the issue of whether the hotel could withstand an earthquake.

With all that in mind, the Park Service is opening a scoping period to collect public thoughts on how The Ahwahnee should be rehabbed. The comment period runs from August 13 through September 26. Written scoping comments should be postmarked no later than September 26, 2009. As the Park Service puts it, "(T)he purpose of this effort is to develop a comprehensive plan for phased, long-term rehabilitation of the Ahwahnee National Landmark hotel and associated guest cottages, employee dormitory and landscaped grounds. The plan will help guide efforts to restore, preserve, and protect the historic integrity of fabric and finishes at the hotel, improve energy efficient operations, and enhance the visitor experience through improved operational efficiency, increased accessibility, and rehabilitation of historic resources."

A public open house is scheduled for August 26 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the Valley Visitor Center Auditorium in Yosemite Valley. Park admission fees will be waived for those attending the open house. An additional scoping meeting, to be conducted within the park, will be announced shortly.

Data collection for the planning process has gotten under way, and is being conducted through the collection of soils, structural, and construction materials from various areas at the Ahwahnee.

You can submit written comments at public scoping meetings, by mail, fax, and through the Planning, Environment, and the National Park Service's Public Comment commenting system. Comments may be submitted by the following means:

Mail: Superintendent

Attn: The Ahwahnee Comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan EA

P.O. Box 577

Yosemite, CA 95389

Fax: 209-379-1294

Online: www.nps.gov/yose/planning

Traveler trivia: When architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed The Ahwahnee, he found good use for concrete. While he used weathered granite for the exterior walls, he turned to concrete in place of timbers and planks. By pouring concrete into wood-lined forms and then staining it so it would appear to be redwood in both texture and color he created “shadowood,” a technique that he later turned to when designing the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.