A news item about Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel changing its name — hopefully just temporarily — to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel caught my eye this weekend. I added Yosemite and the Ahwahnee Hotel to my non-existant Bucket List last fall after our first-ever, awesome visit there.
I should preface this by saying that I’m not a bucket list person. I have never, ever had any interest in parachuting from a plane or bungee-jumping from a bridge. As an editor I climbed the Great Wall in China and shopped at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I’m not good at crowds, so New Years in Times Square or the Indy 500 hold no appeal for me. In truth, I have been blessed with family, friends, and work that I love. I didn’t want to get “greedy” with a list of additional experiences, though I have no problem with those who do.
Yosemite, however, was a destination that had slipped through our fingers. When my children were in grade school and my husband frequently traveled to Silicon Valley, we made plans for a family trip to Yosemite. Unfortunately, just a few weeks before we were due to leave, a family emergency forced us to cancel. Then, as so often happens, life just got in the way. Jobs changed, football and volleyball camps and the annual trip to the beach crowded the calendar. You know the drill. My husband and I traveled to Napa & Sonoma a number of times without getting to the park.
Yet, Yosemite was still there.
One of the joys of retirement, of course, is a remarkably flexible schedule. And I had two free air tickets — a retirement gift from my former employer — just burning a hole in my pocket. Finally, we were able to pair the Napa/Sonoma wine country (a favorite of ours) with a visit to Yosemite, including two nights at the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel there.
What can I say, this was so worth the wait.
Yosemite is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Half Dome, El Capitan, Tunnel View and the like would be stunning under any circumstances, but under clear blue September skies they may have been even more so. For me, however, Yosemite is more than just the natural wonders. It also embodies an historic American commitment to preserving natural wonders and their ecological system. We were there in the fall, when the rivers and falls were all virtually dry, particularly in light of California’s continuing drought. But if we had visited in the spring, and I hope we do sometime, the landscape would have featured rushing rivers and powerful waterfalls driven by winter snow melt. Nature’s cycle is that powerful.
A bit of history: the park dates to 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill protecting the area and creating what was known as the Yosemite Grant. This was the first time public land was protected in this manner and paved the way for Yellowstone, the first national park, created in 1872. A few years later, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were ceded to California as a state park. Yosemite National Park was established in 1890.
I was especially struck by the fact that tourists discovered the area in the middle of the 19th century and a settlement was established to serve them. James Mason Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres were among the first to tour the area in 1855. Their articles and artwork drove additional tourists to the area. The Wawona Hotel was built in 1879 to serve visitors to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Imagine traveling to the Sierras by horseback and/or stagecoach!
On our first day there, my husband and I took an open-air tram tour of the park with a ranger. The tram was really more of a flat-bed truck fitted out with benches and side rails. It clearly needs to be powerful enough to traverse the mountain roads while still affording the sightseers ample views. The guide was terrific, explaining the park’s geology and history in terms that all participants, including a number of children, could appreciate. The tour made several stops at notable park locations, but we actually back-tracked ourselves to some of them to take more pictures and simply enjoy the views on our own.
Back to the Ahwahnee, or Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
The hotel opened in 1927 to attract money and interest in the park. It’s both rustic and elegant, designed for a grander time and perhaps now a little frayed around the edges, but all the lovelier for it. I spent the better part of a morning reading in the Great Lounge, where the towering ceiling is lined with beams still sporting their original stencil decoration. The lounge itself is outfitted with dozens of deep sofas and chairs arranged for groups large and small.
The dining room is equally stunning, a huge room that should seem cavernous but is actually cozy at dinner with chandelier- and candle-light. It’s equally lovely at lunch. The service is low-key but impeccable. How could you get tired of a place like this? I kept thinking of the people who have dined here.
Can you see why, after the first day at Yosemite, my husband and I said this is a bucket-list place? Actually, we tried to text that to friends, but it’s tricky in Yosemite because cell service is really limited. Personally, I think this is just one more reason to love it. Guests can’t walk around glued to their phones because there is no service.
So, there you have it, my single-item bucket list, chosen after the fact. There is so much more to Yosemite, that what I just described: the incredible drive to get there, the Sequoias, and the sheer power of nature evident in the continung evolution of the landscape for starters.
What else would come close to add to the list? What would you add to your list?