by Judy M. Zimmerman
Millions of people from around the world gaze upon Yosemite’s leaping waterfalls as
they marvel at the glacial-granite canyon carved out of California’s own backyard.
Awestruck, they wander through its mosaic of open meadows sprinkled with wildflowers
and oak woodlands. But nearly 75% of all visitors come from May to October.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Williamson
Recently, I celebrated memories of my own special visits to Yosemite over the years - at
least 30 on last count, each one unique. Always a new adventure awaited while: camping
in a cozy cabin or RV, biking the valley floor, or hiking to alpine lakes in the less-crowded
high country of Tuolumne Meadows.
This past November, following an Outdoor Writers conference in Sonora, a colleague
and I took the steep and winding Highway 120 through Groveland to be the first car in
line at Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance. It was perfect weather and there were
amazingly few visitors the entire day!
After soaking up the beauty of the valley floor, we headed straight for the rugged beauty
of the Ahwahnee Hotel with its striking granite fa ade and magnificent log-beamed
ceilings. Although there’s a persistent myth that only those staying at the expensive
hotel are welcome, most of the Ahwahnee ‘s grand public spaces and grounds are free
for for all to enjoy.
True, the Dining Room with its soaring windows serves breakfast and dinner (buffetstyle
during COVID) to hotel guests only, but the Ahwahnee Bar (with limited seating) is
a perfect place for anyone to unwind after an invigorating hike. From 2:00 p.m.- 9:00
p.m. it offers beverages, sandwiches and soup indoors or on the patio.
Since it opened in 1927, the Ahwahnee Hotel’s history is fascinating for so many
diverse reasons, beginning with the “merry olde England” pageantry of its annual
Bracebridge Christmas dinner. Prior to dinner, guests in formal attire would gather in
the Grand Lounge for champagne, music and caroling. Afterwards, they adjourned to
the opulent Dining Room, transformed into a 17th century English manor aglow with
candles, for a four-hour feast of food, song, and mirth.
Certainly, one of the most interesting episodes in the luxurious hotel’s long and storied
history happened during World War II. In stark contrast to the Bracebridge Christmas
festivities, the Navy leased the luxurious hotel and grounds to transform it into a
special rehabilitation hospital. The Grand Lounge became “Ward A” for mentally
traumatized sailors and marines. After moving the artwork and fine furnishings into
storage, four rows of cots were installed beneath the wrought-iron chandeliers flanked
by massive stone fireplaces on either end of the ward. Ten elegant floor-to-ceiling
windows ornamented at the top with stained glass panels provided gorgeous views of
Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point.
Fortunately, all the beautiful furnishings have been returned to the serene Grand
Lounge and it is now open year-round as a welcome retreat for everyone to rest and
relax after an exciting day outdoors, or just from the current stress of everyday life.
Plan Your Yosemite Visit for Current Conditions
Masks are required for everyone, regardless of location or vaccination status in all NPS
buildings, crowded outdoor spaces, and all enclosed forms of public transportation.