by Annette Bignami

The Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the glories of California's Yosemite Valley and perhaps the best hotel in the National Park System, has defined luxury since it opened in 1927. The hotel's name was taken from awahni ("large, gaping mouth"); the Miwok Indian word for Yosemite Valley, and Native American designs inspired the decor.

Ahwahnee Hotel

photo credit: Annette Bignami


It's timbered beauty accommodates 123 guest rooms (99 in the main building and 24 cottage rooms) and 4 parlor rooms. These rooms offer incredible views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Cathedral Spires and other Yosemite scenery, and are considered top-of-the-line for a National Park. Rooms & cottages start at $240.00 during the off-season. Rooms are accented with original Native American designs, and Yosemite Miwok woven cooking baskets, linguistic symbols and decorative patterns have been used throughout the rooms and halls. The lobby has six great figures set is a mosaic, which add massive color to the floor area. The Great Lounge has elaborate stained glass windows, cathedral ceilings and the deeply carved wood panel complements the massive eight-foot wide fireplace. The enormous mantel and large Oriental rug and rich tapestries make it perhaps the most beautiful room in any National Park lodge.

Who enjoys such beauty? In 1983, Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came for a visit and stayed in one of the suites with the curved sunrooms that offer 270 degree views. The hotel has also hosted English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and many movie stars. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 2, 1987. Even if you don't stay there, you should consider a meal in the Ahwahnee Great Dining room, or afternoon tea served in the Great Lounge as classical piano or violin strains grace your ears. Tea includes assortments of traditional cakes and other delights. Dinner is served by candlelight and is rather formal in dress and service. Dishes run to trout and other upscale delights, and the taste is classic French with a California overlay of fresh fruits and local produce. Book the proper room with its own fireplace a five course room service dinner might be considered. Each course arrives separately, and discrete the waiter knocks before entering.

Many activities fill the year. There's a wine tasting weekend when top vineyards bring their best vintages for tasting, and cooking classes from top chefs fill some weeks. The exceptional Christmas dinner definitely highlights the year. Reservations must be made at least 12 to 14 months ahead and the Christmas dinners fill at least one year ahead! Some Californians have been trying to get on this list for years.

Immediately outside the Ahwahnee a network of hiking, and in the winter, cross-country trails wind along the meadows and groves John Muir found so remarkable when he followed the sheepherders into the valley. Free valley shuttle buses which make regular stops at the Ahwahnee get you to more remote spots, and tour buses to Glacier Point and Badger Pass Ski Area are also available for a fee during the summer. Don?t be too surprised to see mule deer and other wildlife roaming the grounds. The only real problem is getting there. Summer's tend to be mobbed, and winters fill the valley with skiers. So the best time to visit Yosemite is the fall or spring, and no visit to Yosemite is complete without a tour of the Ahwahnee, a meal in the Great Dining Hall or, best of all, an overnight stay before you wake to Yosemite's scenic pleasures. The memory, like most POSH experiences, will remain long after you've forgotten the price.