The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park opened in 1927 as people were beginning to flock to our country’s incredible public lands and wanted accommodations that matched the splendor of those natural places. 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, the Yosemite Falls roar just a mile up the valley. Designed by the same architect who drew up the plans for Zion Lodge and Bryce Canyon Lodge, this National Historic Landmark is a magnificent example of National Park Service Rustic architecture. It’s a beautiful hotel and one of our favorite national park lodges.
Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel was its original name, but the developers changed it to Ahwahnee Hotel before it opened because they wanted a name that evoked the Native American heritage of the valley.
Back in 2010, we stayed at the Ahwahnee for one night; that’s all we could afford. The room was four times more expensive than our usual Hampton Inn rate. Just the same, it was a thrill to spend the night in this national park gem. 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 that the developer built has a capacity of 350. We didn’t eat in the main dining room the night we stayed there primarily due to the dinner dress code; hiking pants and t-shirts don’t cut it. Instead we opted for the hotel bar for drinks and dinner, which was more to our liking anyway. In 2018, we revisited the hotel and saw that the bar had been remodeled and is now more upscale than before, but still looked comfortable and casual.
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 a cast of 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 difficult to get that the hotel issued them through a lottery. That’s no longer the case. Looking at the ticket prices, I’m guessing they solved the over-demand problem by raising the rates. We would still like to do it once though; the setting is truly unique, and I’m sure the event would be unforgettable.
Another only-in-Yosemite event used to occur very close to the Ahwahnee: the nightly fire fall. For nearly a century, it was a tradition to build a fire each night at the edge of Glacier Point, 3,000 feet above the Ahwahnee, and at precisely 9:00 pm, shove the glowing coals off the cliff so spectators below could see the cascade of embers flow to the valley floor. Fire falls began in 1872, long before the Ahwahnee was even a concept, and they continued long after the hotel opened.
As you can imagine, pushing a bonfire off a 3,000-foot cliff in the middle of a national park was not something that everyone approved of. The practice started and stopped several times over the years when finally, the National Park Service ended it for good in 1968 on the basis that it wasn’t a natural event. The park service also struggled with managing the crowds that would come to watch the spectacle and minimizing the wear and tear that came with those hordes trampling the meadow each night.
The Yosemite Majestic Hotel is a must-see site if you’re ever 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 hang out in the common areas in the hotel. Because the hotel is in a national park, the first floor is open to the public regardless of whether you’re staying there or not. We love sitting in the Great Lounge; through the two-story, stained-glass windows we can see the mottled silhouette of Half Dome while relaxing on the over-stuffed sofas. It’s a perfect place to take a break after a long hike and sort through the wish bucket to decide where to go next.