Yosemite National Park Closing Historic Ahwahnee Hotel amid Earthquake Repairs

by Jon D. B.
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The iconic Ahwahnee Hotel is viewed after sunset on December 12, 2021, in Yosemite National Park, California. Even though it's still technically autumn, the transition to a more winter-like pattern of rain and snow has placed a hold on California's exceptional and extreme drought. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

This coming January, Yosemite National Park will close the storied Ahwahnee Hotel for two months to accommodate their structural overhaul.

Beginning January 2, 2023, the Ahwahnee’s historic doors will close to visitors through March 2. The goal? “This much-needed work will ensure the Ahwahnee is seismically safe for present and future generations of Yosemite visitors,” says park superintendent Cicely Muldoon.

“The Ahwahnee is a crown jewel of national park lodges,” Muldoon adds, citing the construction project will cost $31.6 million. All that money will go towards renovating and repairing the historic structure, which has stood since 1927, so that it may better withstand earthquakes.

In the last century, the late Queen Elizabeth once stayed in these hallowed halls. As have U.S. Presidents (including John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama) and heads of state from around the globe. Celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Brad Pitt have dropped considerable amounts to lodge within, too. And it is a truly stunning stay.

The Yosemite gem isn’t only architectually beautiful itself, but also offers visitors fantastic views of Yosemite Falls, surrounding Half Dome, Glacier Point, and the thick indigenous forest in-between. This, combined with being a lucrative staple for the national park for almost 100 years, makes it unsurprising Yosemite is willing to spend millions in order to preserve it for at least another 100.

Such big spending doesn’t come out of the kindness of Yosemite National Park official’s hearts, however. The Ahwahnee Hotel has not complied with modern seismic safety codes for decades now. Yosemite is playing catch-up, in essence. It’s either that, or close these hallowed halls.

‘Because of localized structural failures, there is the potential for loss of human lives’

Concerns over the structure’s seismic stature aren’t only grave, but decades old at this point. In 2002, the National Park Service (NPS) paid San Francisco-based URS Consulting to perform a thorough analysis of the historic hotel’s structural integrity in the event of an earthquake.

The result, Mercury News recalls, was a 250-page report detailing that hotel walls would buckle, plaster ceilings would collapse, and the wet, sandy soil of its foundation could liquify. This may sound like a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the sort of seismic event that could cause this is possible in Yosemite National Park every 50 years or so. In 1980, a 6.2 quake near Mammoth Lakes violently shook the park, causing rock slides onto Yosemite roads and injuring two hikers.

“Because of localized structural failures, there is the potential for loss of human lives,” NPS’ report concluded of similar events happening now. The most recent took place in 2019, but was less severe.

The iconic Ahwahnee Hotel and Half Dome are viewed after sunset on December 12, 2021, in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

As a result, NPS and URS recommended the following:

  • Building up to 75 new concrete walls, each 1 foot thick to provide bracing
  • Rebuilding the roof and five huge stone columns in the dining room
  • Reinforcing log trusses in the ceilings with steel tie rods
  • A seismic retrofit of the hotel’s foundation
    • which requires injecting concrete to form 620 columns extending 40 feet down

Yosemite’s delay in these repairs isn’t for a lack of trying, though. In the decades since this report, park officials would request federal funding multiple times. But the government hasn’t fronted enough to make proper repairs and retrofitting. Until now.

Yosemite National Park to tackle ‘Most Pressing Things’ in Ahwahnee Hotel Update

On Tuesday, Yosemite Spokesperson Scott Gediman said the January-March 2023 work won’t complete all needed seismic repairs. “This is not everything we will be doing,” he added. “But it is the most pressing things.”

To complete the rest, the park will need to secure additional funding. Again.

Currently, funding comes from the Great American Outdoors Act, the recent presidential bill providing an astounding $9.5 billion for much-needed maintenance at national parks. The Trump administration secured this bill in 2020; a rare feat combining Democratic and Republican majorities in Congress.

When the two month closure and renovations are complete, which will include work on chimneys, fireplaces, walls, veneers, bracing, iconic plate glass windows, a kitchen renovation, and more, visitors won’t be able to tell the difference, Gediman says. This is due to strict California historic codes that will ensure the structure stays true to its roots.

If you’re looking to stay in Ahwahnee yourself, you’ll have to wait until after the closure. The historic lodge books up fast, and isn’t cheap, either. At $518 per night, the hotel is one of the most expensive lodging options in any U.S. National Park.

But visiting while in Yosemite National Park is always free, and well worth the stop. For more on the park’s history, see our Top 10 Things to Know About Yosemite National Park next.

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