Criterion Classification I

current image of Ahwahnee

photo above courtesy Chris Dunstan, below Eric Polk; Gnu License.

overhead view from glacier point

The Ahwahnee Hotel Yosemite NP 1927
Classification I
Yosemite Valley
Theme: National Park Rustic or "Parkitecture" unique blend of Craftsman and Art Deco with American Indian motif.
Hotel Structure: Assymetrical 3-story hotel with 6-story central tower; granite and concrete faux-wood exterior on a steel skeleton, 150,000 square feet. Slate roof. Concrete foundation.
Original Architect: Gilbert Stanley Underwood
Interior Design: Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Upham Pope
Construction: The Yosemite Park and Curry Company, Donald B. Tresidder, President
Original Contractor: James L. McLaughlin
Landscape Architect: Olmstead Brothers
Bungalow Structures: Five rectangular duplex 1-story bungalows wood frame on concrete foundations with redwood siding, weatherboard walls, gabled roof, stone terrace entryway. Two fiveplex and one fourplex 1-story bungalows same but with concrete superstructure.
Original Bungalow Architect: Eldridge T. Spencer

Known Timeline:
Underwood hired, July 1925
Plans approved by Stephen Mather, March 1926
Preliminary construction begins, 1926
Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony, August 1, 1926
Ackerman and Pope commence interior work, December 1926
Ahwahnee Hotel opens, July 14, 1927
Official public opening, July 16, 1927
6th floor roof garden and dance hall converted to Tresidder family apartment, 1928
Bungalows added to complex, 1928
Olmstead landscaping designs implemented, 1930
Stone gateway added (Olmstead design), 1930
Entry road originally paved, 1931
Improvements to load-bearing trusses, 1931-32
"El Dorado Diggins" bar opens on mezzanine, 1933
US Navy takes over facility, 1943
Great Lounge converted to convalescent dormitory, 1943
Original porte-cochere enclosed, 1943
Postwar renovation, $400,000 cost, 1946
Reopened to public, December 1946
Enclosed porte-corchere developed as "Indian Room," 1950
Management quiets Judy Garland and Lucille Ball at the piano, 1953
Fire escapes added, circa 1955
Outdoor swimming pool added, 1963
Elevator operators replaced by automatic elevators, 1963
Death of Mary Curry Tresidder, 1970
Tresidder Apartment converted to rooms and suites, 1971
Tresidder Suite remodeled, 1980
National Historic Landmark, 1987
Ornamental Garden (Olmstead "fish pond") repaired, 2008
Updating and minor reconstruction scheduled, 2010
Current Occupancy: 92 hotel rooms, 7 hotel suites, 24 bungalow rooms.


Of the four National Park lodges that have earned NPLAS Criterion Classification, the Ahwahnee is the newest in terms of original construction. Its six story central block would tower over most lodges, yet in the setting of Yosemite Valley it is stately rather than overstated. It is also the most "versatile" of the big four, offering a range of room styles, suites and cottages, and a variety of recreational activities. But not all at the Ahwahnee is what it seems...

solarium at the Ahwahnee

above, the solarium shortly after opening. The stonework remains unchanged.

The Unlikely Spawn of Camp Curry

The Ahwahnee owes its existence to Stephen Mather. Like much of the modern National Park Service, it came about because Mather had a clear vision of how he thought things should be, and he used a combination of willpower, persuasion, and his personal fortune to make it happen. Until Mather's involvement, lodging in Yosemite Valley was a hodge-podge of campgrounds, shoddy 19th Century hotels, and the quirky sprawl of Camp Curry. Mather wanted to clean up the mess, and forced a merger between the two biggest concessionaires, The Yosemite Park Co. and The Curry Co.

dining wing of the ahwahnee, with half dome as a backdrop

View of the dining hall wing, framed by the unmistakable visage of Half Dome.

With the dawn of the 1920s a lot of things were happening "behind the scenes" in Camp Curry. Founder David Curry had been lobbying for expansion prior to his death in 1917, and made numerous enemies at the Department of the Interior during the process. With son Foster Curry continuing his father's sometimes bombastic approach to managing the family fiefdom, the cries for expansion continued. Meanwhile the Curry's attractive and reserved daughter Mary had just graduated from Yale, and married a charismatic med student named Donald B. Tresidder in 1920.

Camp Curry was not the type of development Mather had in mind, but it was wildly successful and a popular, affordable destination for the average American. He ultimately brokered a deal with the Curry family, allowing not the substantial expansion but rather a grand hotel concession, which was to be The Ahwahnee. Foster Curry would continue as camp master, but the management of the overall company would fall to Mary, who presented a more appropriate image to Washington. As Mary was far too shy to tackle that role, her husband would be the first president of the company. Donald Tresidder eventually became president of Stanford University as well, and performed both tasks until his death in 1948. Mary did take on the role as president of The Yosemite Park and Curry Company at that time, and remained so for the rest of her life. The Tresidders lived in the penthouse apartment at The Ahwahnee, which is where Mary died in 1970. The apartment was then converted to a series of rooms (Mather, Spencer, Underwood, and The Mary Curry Tresidder) that can be combined a variety of ways to create suites or one large suite. It was in just such an arrangement that Queen Elizabeth was a guest in 1980.

Original Construction

Viewed from the meadow, The Ahwahnee almost appears to have risen from the ground. It fits the setting so naturally, as if it collected raw materials from the valley floor as it surfaced. The weathered granite and But again, not all at the hotel is what it seems.

Because the resources within a national park are protected by law, the materials to build The Ahwahnee had to come from outside Yosemite. This may not sound unusual today, but consider that in 1926, roads for motor vehicles were still a relatively new phenomenon. For that matter, so were the vehicles. Hauling the materials for the Ahwahnee was the biggest test for the infant trucking industry thus far, and it was done over the grueling Yosemite access roads. The roads were nothing short of ghastly; the truckers of the 1920s would consider today's narrow twisting ribbons of pavement as luxury highways by comparison.

Cost overruns were rampant, mostly due to transport issues. Load after load of steel, stone, concrete materials, and interior timbers all made the treacherous journey. The "redwood" exterior siding was poured on site. That's not a typo. The exterior, which appears to be pine timbers with redwood panels, is actually tinted concrete that was poured into molds replicated from wood. The effect is so realistic that you just might need to touch the sides in order to be convinced. Many visitors are simply unaware, and assume they are staying in a wooden structure.

The illusions really begin upon arrival. The entry gates and roadway are impressive, and create the sensation that you are leaving the rest of Yosemite Valley and its crowded trappings behind. That's only partially true, because the Ahwahnee is a regular stop on the valley bus line, and you needn't be a registered guest to avail yourself of the public areas.

ahwahnee patio

A rare quiet moment on the patio. Photo courtesy the National Park Service.

The main entrance to the building is through a porte-cochere on the north side. As entranceways go, it is hardly what you would consider stunning. In fact, the first impression is often disappointment, as it looks nothing like the photos most arriving guests have seen. Again, all is not what it seems...just prior to opening in 1927, employees noticed that the grand entryway on the east side of the structure smelled terribly of truck fumes. This was due to the proximity of the service and delivery area of the hotel. Not only was the entry area smelly, it was noisy, and vehicular access looked as if it might conflict with the delivery trucks. With the gala opening looming in just ten days, it was determined that a temporary change to the guest entry route would be significantly less of a logistical nightmare than revamping the service and supply area.

A port-cochere and temporary walkway to the lobby were hastily built, just in time for the opening. This route was used until World War II, then re-routed slightly for the 1946 re-opening. This "temporary" north entry is still in use today; what was originally designed as the entry has been closed off from the exterior and now serves as the lobby and patio bar.

The most striking thing about the lobby is arguably the tile underfoot. It appears to be a carefully crafted native American creation, but it is actually a carefully molded industrial American creation...the tiles are rubber. Up to this point, from the porte-cochere, through the walkway and up to the front desk, the first time guest continues to be underwhelmed.

Move beyond the lobby area, to either the Great Lounge or the dining room, and the grandeur of the Ahwahnee unfolds immediately. The Great Lounge with its 24 foot ceilings is bookended by enormous fireplaces. The decor -- all with an odd blend of American Indian, craftsman, and art deco -- creates an impression of outdoorsy luxury. It's exactly what Mather wanted, brought to reality by the efforts of master interior designers Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Upham Pope.

The Great Lounge has a couple of "hidden" gems for guests to lose themselves in; the writing room, solarium, and mezzanine level all feed the imagination. Taken as a whole, the Lounge is overwhelming. Guests looking for a quiet evening with a book need to search out an obscure corner somewhere, or run the risk of being overwhelmed by the room. During sunlight hours, the effect of the stained glass top pieces can be hypnotic. The room reveals itself in many ways through the day, and it is worth taking time to admire these subtle changes.

Just a few moments in the Great Lounge are enough to convince even the most jaded guest that The Ahwahnee is a special place. Afterward they return to the elevator lobby and general lobby, and the details begin to reveal themselves...hand-hammered lanterns, Indian motif in places you hadn't noticed before. In every glance, every direction, an artistic feast awaits the eyes. Even the lobby restrooms are cause for admiration.

The dining room is another of the public areas that must be seen to fully appreciate its grandeur. The ceiling ridgeline soars 34 feet above the floor, and features massive trusses -- which we're told are sugar-pine from outside the park. But look closely at the tree trunks that stand nobly to support the trusses. These too are molded concrete, stained and painted to replicate real logs. The wrought iron craftsman style chanedliers are simply stunning.

The knock on dining at the Ahwahnee is that the food doesn't quite equal the room. How could it? In all honesty the food and service are excellent -- it's important to remember that the overall experience is what counts. Turn that credit card loose, and you'll have the meal of a lifetime.

The Experience

A California Lodge

The interesting thing about the Ahwahnee is that, other than the suites, the best rooms aren't in the hotel. The Ahwahnee bungalows were built a couple years after the hotel to handle an overflow of guests. While some of the rooms in the main structure have a cramped or dated feel, the bungalow rooms are thoroughly updated, roomy, and just all-around exquisite.

ahwahnee bungalow

Typical bungalow at the Ahwahnee; this is one of the duplexes. Photo courtesy the National Park Service.

It's important to remember that the lower-cost rooms in the main building are reflective of 1920's luxury, not 2020 luxury. Showers might be cramped, pipes rattle, and elbow room can be a little lacking. With these rooms alone, the Ahwahnee wouldn't be "Criterion" Category I level in the NPLAS Classification system. That is not to say they are not worth staying in; it is the most affordable way to do the Ahwahnee. And if you're staying at this hotel solely for the room, you're missing the point.

Let's be clear that while some of the rooms are indeed smaller and the hotel is old, the maintenance is excellent and the cleanliness and overall quality of linens, furnishing and beddings are all excellent.

Back to the Bungalows.

It is odd to book a room at one of the top four National Park lodges in existence, then intentionally leave the lodge for the lodging! The idea takes some getting used is important to remember that from the hotel employees point of view, the bungalows are thought of as just another wing. There are no added "privileges" to staying in the main building; except of course in the event of inclement weather. All in all, the bungalows add another dimension to the Ahwahnee experience that is thoroughly delightful.

In a perfect world, the lodge afficianado will enjoy a stay in the main hotel, and return again to stay in the bungalows.

Time spent on the Ahwahnee grounds is in sharp contrast to lodging elsewhere in the valley. Dotted with tennis courts and bridle paths, time slows at the Ahwahnee. The feeling is one of quiet luxury and respite; often a difficult thing to find in the clamor of Curry Village or the high-volume motel pace of The Lodge.

The only knock on the Ahwahnee is that the location in the heart of Yosemite Valley tends to limit time spent within the hotel. With such a spectacle of nature outside, it is hard to stay inside. So while the best time to visit Yosemite may be in spring, the best time to visit The Ahwahnee is in late fall, weekday, with rain threatening. Otherwise, the visual experience can be too overwhelming. The hotel may not look that way when you arrive at the porte-cochere, but remember...not all at The Ahwahnee is what it seems.


Criterion Classification I

The Ahwahnee Hotel exemplifies the ultimate standard for a National Park Lodge. It is visually compelling, historically significant, architecturally unique and an integral part of the Yosemite Valley experience. The decor and artistic appointments alone are not to be missed. For these reasons, the Ahwahnee Hotel is classified in the highest tier -- Criterion Classification I -- by the National Park Lodge Architecture Preservation Society.

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exterior of the solarium

A dramatic exterior view facing the solarium

Artistic, or Overwhelming?

The shared experience of the park lodge lobby or great room -- be it friendly conversation, a lively table game, or curled up with a book -- is a bit different in the Ahwahnee. Among the grand lodges, it is most like the cavernous interior of the Old Faithful Inn: Almost too big to be comfortable for the usual activies. The furnishings, artwork, even the window treatments are beyond the normal scope of human experience. While even the most wide-eyed guest can crash comfortably in the Crater Lake Lodge or El Tovar, first time visitors to The Ahwahnee are usually too overwhelmed to simply sit and relax. NPS photo

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