A Brief History of the Ahwahnee Hotel

Yosemite National Park, California

Upper Yosemite Falls    
View of upper Yosemite Falls from the meadow where the Ahwahnee Hotel would be built.

A Brief History of the Ahwahnee Hotel

For lots of photos of the hotel, take the Virtual Tour

The Idea for a World Class Hotel:

In the early 1900´s the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, decided that Yosemite needed a first class hotel. While Mather no doubt enjoyed the finer things in life, and was a part of the income and status group that would frequent first class hotels, his motives weren´t entirely aimed at building the kind of hotel he and his friends would enjoy. As head of the fledgling Park Service, and a master politician he understood that the wealthy and powerful held the keys to obtaining the priority and funding that his new department would need to further it´s goals of both protecting the parks and making them accessible to the public. This was critical, as the parks were attractive to a number of business interests who would rather exploit them than preserve them. Getting the rich and powerful to visit the parks and see first hand the beauty and value they represent was key to obtaining the support of these powerful people for the new Park Service. To get those people to the park, he needed a first class hotel for them to stay in. So Mather began to push for the construction of a first class hotel in Yosemite, one of the crown jewel parks.

Famous Ahwahnee Guests:

The Design:

The Ahwahnee Hotel was designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who was well known for the impressive hotels he had designed for Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. His original design was for a seven story hotel with a central tower and 3 wings. The design was for a concrete and steel building with granite accents, which would make it resistant to fire, which destroyed so many of the great hotels of that day.


With a design completed and approved bids were solicited for the construction and James McLaughlin was chosen to build the hotel at a cost of $525,000.00. The cornerstone was laid on August 1, 1925 and work started in earnest, 7 days a week in an attempt to have the hotel open in 4 months ( a ridiculously short time to construct a hotel of this size and complexity.) All materials for the hotel came from outside the park, since the park resources are protected by law. As is also usual for protects of this size and scope the design and plans changed as the construction proceeded. This is the norm for what is known in the industry as “fast track” construction. Essentially design and construction proceed simultaneously. It is a notoriously expensive method of construction, but time is money, and often the time is worth more than the cost over-runs. The cost of the hotel almost doubled during construction, and construction itself ran 7 months behind schedule. The grand opening was July 16, 1927, and in spite of the many problems during construction it was a magnificent hotel when finished.

Decorating and Furniture:

Dr. Arthur Pope, and his wife Dr. Phyllis Ackerman, who were experts on Persian rugs and tapestries, selected the hotel´s furnishings. As a result the original hotel was furnished with Persian rugs and tapestries. Fragments of the original rugs are now framed and hang on the walls (it looks better than it sounds.) Some of the original tapestries still hang on the walls. The interior décor is Native American with a bit of art-deco thrown in. Again, it works better than it sounds. A mural above the fireplace in the Elevator Lobby and the stained glass windows in the Great Lounge are the work of artist Jeannette Dyer Spencer. A large mural by Robert Boardman Howard fills the top half of the entire length of one wall of the Mural Room. All of these items are pictured on the Virtual Tour page of this website.

Upper Yosemite Falls    
Original table in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee Hotel.

The Years go by:

Over the years the hotel has seen many famous and important guests. It has also seen use as a hospital during World War II when it was used by the US Navy. After the war the hotel was returned to civilian use and once again it was a resort location for the rich and famous. Because it has always been a first class hotel it has been updated over the years. This has resulted in a lot of remodeling, and very little of the original furnishings remain. However, in recent years the hotel remodeling has been directed at creating a historic feel, while using modern materials and methods. So the rooms have new fixtures and furnishings, but they are historic replicas, or at the least, in keeping with 1920-30´s era design. Some of the furnishings in the Great Lounge are original, and some of the original rugs from the floors are cleverly reused as wall hangings. Remodeling is a constant undertaking in a heavily used hotel such as the Ahwahnee, so expect that changes to room furnishings will occur every 5 to 10 years. If you are looking for a total historic experience, where rooms and furnishings are original, try the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite, or The Oregon Caves Chateau (see our virtual tour and review) in Southern Oregon.

The Ahwahnee Today:

Today, the Ahwahnee is still a 4-star rated, luxury hotel. While it costs an arm and a leg to stay there, it is no longer exclusive to the degree that doorman turn away the “unwashed masses”. Any park visitor is free to roam the hotel as long as they behave themselves appropriately. Most of the overnight guests are ordinary middle-class folks like my wife and I, who scrimp and save to stay there as a special treat, to get royal treatment, and feel like “millionaires for a day”! So save up your money, and spend a couple of nights living it up. It will be worth it!

See the articles and books listed in the references below for much more detailed information on the history of the Ahwahnee.

The Ahwahnee Hotel
The Ahwahnee Hotel in 2006, viewed from the meadow.

More about the Ahwahnee Hotel on this website:


Bibliography and References:

There are many great websites and books with information on the Ahwahnee Hotel. An Internet search will yield hours of reading material. Much of the information here came from the hotel and park staff and other visitors. In addition, the following sources were used:


Historic Hotels & Lodges

All text and images by Jess Stryker, unless noted. Copyright © Jess Stryker, 2006-2009. All rights reserved.