Staying in style replaced roughing it for the rich and famous

July 16, 1927

On this day the grand Ahwahnee Hotel opened in California’s Yosemite Valley, ushering in the era of  luxury lodgings in some of America’s most scenic wilderness. 

 There were, in fact, already places to stay in the nation’s parks.  A number of modest hotels in Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon and Zion, as well as Yosemite already existed.

The Canyon was the first hotel in Yellowstone

Yellowstone’s Canyon Hotel, designed by Robert Reemer, was built in 1910 and 1911, and considered a posh resort on a large scale in its day.  The completion of the Ahwahnee, however, set a new standard for exclusivity.

The Ahwahnee was the Park Service’s  first luxury hotel

Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, it is considered perhaps the best example of “parkitecture,” a distinctive style of rustic grandeur, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. 

Underwood (right) went on to design eight National Park hotels, and nine buildings for Union Pacific. The company’s flagship depot in Omaha, Nebraska, birthplace of the transcontinental railroad, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.  In addition, six of Underwood’s buildings for the National Park Service are presently on the National Register of Historic Places.

Omaha’s landmark Union Pacific train depot

The Ahwahnee took 5,000 tons of granite and some 30,000 feet of logs at a cost of more than $1.2 million, as much as $25 million now, if it were even possible to build it today. Eleven months to complete, it underwent a number of design changes in midstream. 

Interiors originally conceived as “Mayan Revival” emerged instead as a fusion of Art Deco, Native American and Arts and Crafts with a pinch of Middle Eastern.   It also underwent a name change from the pedestrian Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel to the more romantic Ahwahnee,  the indigenous Miwok’s word for “valley.”

The Curry’s, center, pictured in their camp in 1899

The concept of tourist lodging at Yosemite originated with a pair of Indiana school teachers, David and Jennie Curry.  The couple successfully offset the cost of their vacations by operating camp tours, attracting mainly fellow teachers.  In 1899, the couple arrived with a wagon, a cook and seven tents and managed to register 292 guests.  

An old Army barracks was converted into “Yosemite Lodge” in 1915 by the D. J. Desmond Commissary Company, at the urging of Stephen Mather.   Mather,(left) a wealthy industrialist and conservationist, became the first head of the National Park Service that year by way of the Boone and Crockett Club, a conservation society founded by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

The Ahwahnee’s unprecedented level of elegance was  no accident.  It was a well planned Mather strategy to attract the rich, famous and politically influential, hopefully creating well placed fans to support his fledgling park service.  Socialite and member of Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor, (right) had reportedly refused to visit Yosemite because of “terrible conditions” she reportedly found there.

Mather’s strategy proved to be successful.  Over the years, the Ahwahnee played host to numbers of heads of state including Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, JFK, Ronald Reagan, the Shaw of Iran, Hailie Selassie and Queen Elizabeth II, in addition to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and dozens of  celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Lucille Ball.  

President Obama was the most recent presidential guest

Barack Obama was the most recent sitting president to be a guest at the Ahwahnee when he and First Lady Michelle Obama were on hand in 2016 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park.

Like the rest of America, the Ahwahnee “went to war” in 1943, serving as a convalescent hospital under the auspices of the United States Navy and  became a little more egalitarian in the process.  No longer requiring guests  to “dress for dinner,” it provided a number of spaces open to the public, as well, without sacrificing its upscale panache. 

The hotel was renamed the Majestic Yosemite in 2016 as a result of a legal dispute between the National Park Service and a hospitality company.  The name change hasn’t seemed to dilute its elan or damage its popularity.  According to the hotel’s website at this writing, availability is limited to just five days this month, in spite of room fees running into four figures. 

But what would a grand hotel be without a ghost story?  The sixth floor Curry Room is rumored to still be playing host to the late Jeannie “Mother” Curry who died in 1948 at the age of 86.  

The Ahwahnee’s lounge appeared in the 1980 “The Shining”

To add to the spectral atmospherics, several scenes of  “The Shining,” arguably the scariest movie in the Western World, were shot at the Ahwahnee.  “Redrum!”

Yosemite National Park’s more than 700,000 acres in four California counties, is home to some of the most spectacular wilderness in the nation.  Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, the park welcomes nearly four and a half million visitors a year, the fifth most popular park. 

While July and August attracts nearly a third of them, there are park activites in all four seasons from hiking, camping and winter sports.  Lodging options include everything from the luxurous Majestic Yosemite to the Half Dome tent cabins, operating since 1899.  Ten campgrounds are available of RVs and trailers and three are horse camps.

The park’s Museum Complex houses the visitor information center, theatre and displays in the history and origins of Yosemite.  Visit the  Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias, the Hetchy Hetch Valley and Yosemite Falls, as well.  

Park entrances are open 24 hours a day and entrance fees are $35 for noncommercial vehicles, $30 for motorcycles and no per-person fees, $20 for pedestrians, bicycles and noncommercial vehicles with more than 15 passengers. For more information go to,  call  209) 372-0200 plus 3 then 5, between 9 and 5 daily or write Yosemite National Park, CA 95389.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.