The Ahwahnee, Waterfalls and the Spirit of Ansel Adams
By Ray Pearson
Inspired vision has always been nurtured by the grandeur of Yosemite. Original inhabitants held many of the vistas sacred. In the 1920s, Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service, saw the need to attract people of means and influence to the park to show first hand the need for upgraded infrastructure to one of the jewels of the national park system. Following the opening of the All Year Highway (now California Route 140) on the west side of the park, Mather ordered the construction of a first-class hotel, also to be open year round, and cater to society’s growing love affair with the automobile. (Note: during my stay in the valley in early May 2010, the east entrance was closed, with five to nine feet of snow blocking the highway. Tioga Pass and the east entrance will be clear near the end of the month.) The hotel was to be called The Ahwanhee, the name the first residents of the area gave to what is now Yosemite Valley. Translated, it means “Land of the gaping mouth.” Stanley Underwood was selected as the architect, construction began in 1926 and opening day was July 16, 1927.
Today, the Ahwanhee is considered by many to be the finest hotel in the national park system. Its architectural style is known as “park rustic” and is in keeping with the style of other grand hotels in other national parks. Hallmarks of the design include massive amounts of granite, steel and concrete, with surprisingly little wood, to reduce vulnerability to fire. The scale is grand, with an interior décor “that would be that of a quiet, luxurious country home.” Mosaics, room-banding stencils, and medallions, most of Native American derivation, and all in warm earth tones, adorn nearly every space.
Celebrating my birthday in Yosemite has become a most anticipated tradition. The waterfalls defy proper description; not just the well-known ones like Vernal, Nevada, Yosemite and Bridalveil, but the myriad, unexpected ones everywhere. On an overcast day it’s like the mighty monoliths are weeping.
My springtime journeys to Yosemite Valley started long ago, lugging a large format camera and rock steady Tiltall tripod in search of my “inner Ansel”. Over the years, the Graphic View, 4x5 black and white sheet film, cable releases and colored filters have given way to double digit megapixel digital cameras, but the Tiltall remains my trusty assistant. I always have the axiom, learned many years ago at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photography, in mind: the difference between an amateur and professional photographer is a tripod.
Over the years, my accommodations have gone decidedly uptown. Tent camping has given way to staying at The Ahwahnee, and meals have gone from coming out of nested aluminum pots cooked over a campfire to choosing entrees raised in organic, sustainable environments, often preceded by a single malt Scotch. The thing I look forward to most during my stay is spending time in the dining room. It is simply spectacular, at nearly half a football field in length with seven immense windows. At full capacity, the room seats over 300 guests under a 34-foot high ceiling of exposed beams. During dinner, music is provided by a pianist at the Steinway grand. This year, before my request for selections from Les Miserables were played, guests heard a symphonic rendition of the Star Wars theme – Luke Skywalker, meet Jean Valjean! There are two Steinways at the hotel. The other is a Model “D”, at which Judy Garland, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz held an impromptu concert in the Great Lounge in 1947.
Yosemite began its grip on me in the mid-1960s during a road trip “out west” from New York to experience America’s national parks. Of particular interest was the Yosemite Fire Fall. Each summer night at 9:00 PM, from Glacier Point, high above Camp Curry a great fire of red fir bark would be bulldozed over the edge of the cliff, appearing as a waterfall ablaze with sparks, fire and smoke. The spectacle was a tradition in the park for almost 90 years, and ended in 1968 for environmental concerns. I will always remember the thrill of seeing in reality the image on an old picture post card my family had received from a traveling relative many years before.
This spring’s Yosemite stay now at a close, I retraced the route through El Portal and Mariposa, and headed for home in Southern California. As I decended in elevation, another symbol of spring came brilliantly into view – displays of California poppies, the State Flower.
My need for a Yosemite fix has been met. It will be another year until I experience the flora and fauna of my favorite national park again. Unless ... there is always the spectacular Christmas Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwanhee. But that’s another dream, and possibly another story.