Never forget why you are here. That reason spreads out before you from the rocky outcropping at Dewey Point along the south rim. Some 3,000 feet below lies the valley floor and, directly in your line of vision, monolithic El Capitan, its stark, imposing face a reminder of nature’s abundance and our relative insignificance.
Take it all in, a panoramic view that will take your breath away – and not just because you’ve ascended to more than 7,000 feet. Cathedral Spire juts from the landscape and, farther to the right, you can make out Bridal Falls. Off in the distance, peaks rise like so many stern-faced sentinels, gleaming in the sun as if chiseled by Rodin.
The view from this hike, which begins after about a 25-mile drive from the lesser-used south entrance of Yosemite National Park, enables you to capture the grandeur of the valley and its greatest hits without dealing with the summertime and autumn hordes that descend and alter one’s communal inclinations at this sacred site. The south entrance, too, is home to the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias and, while it’s true that buses disgorge tourists during peak hours, it is still possible to make a sunrise pilgrimage to the stately sequoias and not see a soul along the 5-mile path.
It’s transcendent, and all that. But get practical: Unless you’re a latter-day John Muir and just wander off to explore Yosemite with a crust of bread in your pocket and a long black coat as your pillow, you are going to have to find sleeping accommodations.
Long-bearded mountain men (and women) and hardy campers aside, we all want a little comfort in where we lay our heads at night, maybe a warm shower and hot breakfast either in the park or not too far from the Highway 41 entrance. Something that won’t break your back – or your bank account.
The über-thrifty could stay in Oakhurst, of course, 16 miles southwest. Get over yourselves, there’s nothing wrong with a Best Western or Comfort Inn. But the two so-called destination hotels (excuse me, lodges) on the south side that vie for tourist dollars – one owned by the National Park Service but run by the Delaware North Corp., and the other an entirely Delaware North operation – provide excellent accommodations but have vastly different vibes, price points and thread counts on the sheets.
One is 2.6 miles outside the park, the shiny and sedate Tenaya Lodge, a four-diamond designated “luxury resort” that has drawn raves from travel tastemakers such as Outside and Travel + Leisure magazines and has a fan base as ardent as Beliebers on social media sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor. The other is 4.1 miles inside the park, the historic and bustling Wawona Hotel, a way station for Yosemite visitors from even before the forest was declared a national park 150 years ago.
So, which to choose?
Well, you could side-step a decision and instead camp out, sans showers and $15 turkey burgers, at the Wawona Campground 5 miles from the park entrance. At $20 a night, the price can’t be beaten. Just remember to be quick with a mouse click and reserve a spot six months or so ahead of time, and remember, too, to bring all your own provisions.
When it comes to which lodge to pick, though, it’s all a matter of taste and preference and financial portfolio. Both Tenaya and Wawona surprisingly had the “vacancies” shingle out, even at the height of summer. Both are upscale, but Tenaya gives off airs of being upper crust and uptight when it comes to attitude and amenities, whereas the more rustic Wawona is upfront about its charms and inherent limitations as a designated “historical site.”
But enough dithering. How much is this going to set you back? Prepare, cha-ching, for the sticker shock.
• Tenaya: A single room with one king bed in the main building, the least expensive option: $416.25 a night, not including the $15 “resort fee” for the luxury of using the pools (outdoor and indoor), fitness center and game room.
• Wawona: A single room in the building just off the main lodge, the ones at which you do
have to share a bathroom: $251.38 a night, including use of the pool and tennis courts and a continental breakfast, though duffers will have to pay extra for the nine-hole course across the street.
Is that Oakhurst option starting to look better?
For all the posturing that a hotel is just a place to crash after a full day of fun, it can, in fact, color one’s whole vacation experience. So stop being so cost-conscious and travel with us as we settle in for a night at each locale and, because you can’t spend all your time holed up in a lodge (can you?), check out the sights and activities for those who forgo the valley and choose south Yosemite.
Steely-eyed with bow drawn back, the barest quiver of muscle in his flexed arm, Dylan Ciapka let the arrow fly. Not quite a bull’s eye, but close enough for effusive praise from his dad, Mark.
“Nicely done,” Mark said to Dylan and, turning to a visitor, added, “You don’t want to be a cottontail around him.”
Sitting under shaded seats in the archery range, one of the many on-site activities at this resort that once was a Marriott but now bears Delaware North’s indelible high-end stamp, the Ciapka family, from Monroe Township, N.J., was so impressed with Tenaya’s manicured, tree-studded grounds that they planned to just chill at the resort all day. There’d be plenty of time, Mark and wife Shari said, to “do” Yosemite the next day.
“That’s because of me,” Mark said. “After a four-hour drive from San Francisco, I just want to relax for a while.”
The family, with two active young sons, wanted some place with scads of activities and several pools but also linen-napkin restaurants and rooms that rival resorts you’d expect to find in Maui, not on the cusp of Yosemite.
“I don’t want to say we’re pleasantly surprised because we didn’t have any negative expectations, but it actually exceeded expectations,” Shari said. “This really isn’t rustic. It’s um … what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Refined,” Mark added. “It’s a refined wilderness experience. Disney Hotels, I consider the pinnacle of customer service. When we pulled up to a Disney hotel a few years ago, they greeted us by name. This sort of reminded us of that experience. We didn’t have to go looking for someone to help us. They came to us. It means a lot, especially after a four-hour drive.”
Indeed, the atmosphere at the lodge would make John Muir do a double-take. It is luxury, defined. Blue polo-shirted workers, many with earpieces and walkie-talkies, are omnipresent.
They scurry to help guests unload. They hover at beck and call at the main outdoor pools (yes, plural), which are lined with cushioned, midcentury modern chaise lounges and recliners, thick white towels rolled up and arranged in a pyramid next to the outdoor wet bar. They snap you in for the 60-foot climbing wall and hand you a towel and cup of water with a lemon slice at the 2,900-square-foot fitness center. They point you in the right direction toward the mountain bike trails and hang near the pinball machines in the game room.
They also scrupulously guard guests’ privacy. When a reporter had the temerity to chat up guests, such as the Ciapka clan, he was upbraided by a member of Tenaya’s ministry of propaganda. “Tenaya has a very strict policy of privacy,” scolded Jonathan Farrington, regional director of sales and marketing at Delaware North. Little matter, apparently, that the guests were eager to speak, because, “We have celebrities stay here and (media) can’t be bothering them.”
Oh, the anxiety of affluence! (Note: No celebrities were harmed in quote-gathering.)
All of this attention – yes, call it pampering – comes at a price. Not just the $400 rooms and even pricier cottages, but that mandatory $15 “resort fee” for use of the pool and fitness center and the “free” in-room Wi-Fi.
If you want to try archery or climb, that’s $10 extra. Mountain biking: $10 an hour. And if you want to get the “premium” Internet “speed” (5,112 kbps as opposed to the paltry 4,096 kbps), that’s $9.95. An evening trip to view the Perseids Meteor Shower, which includes a handsome canvas tote bag filled with popcorn, cookies and other treats, including a blanket and glow stick: $99. You can get an hourlong sports massage for $105 and even have the kindly masseuse, Raymond, diagnose your leg pain as sciatica. He didn’t charge a doctor’s co-pay, but the automatic 18 percent gratuity compensated him nicely. There’s even a day spa for kids ($25).
Not all guests go all-in, so to speak. The Martin family, of Sudbury, Mass., came to California and spent a week with the kids’ grandmother in Cambria, “which meant we didn’t have to pay for a hotel, so we could splurge here,” said mom Laurel, relaxing under a tree while husband Dan and son Davin climbed the rock wall.
“We’ve never done this (at a hotel), only at REI,” Dan said after rappelling down. “It was an added bonus, coming here.”
But the Martins made sure to make it to Yosemite. Teenage daughter Linnea, camera in hand, came nearly face-to-face with a deer at the Mariposa Grove the previous night and, just now, spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on a branch behind the climbing wall.
Stay around Tenaya long enough, and you risk forgetting all about Yosemite. But the Ciapkas and Martins did manage to break free and explore the trails and sites of the park, knowing that the luxuries at Tenaya would be waiting, as would the blue polo-shirted staff, upon their return.
High noon, but the gleaming white main Victorian lodge of the venerable Wawona Hotel, 4 miles inside Yosemite Park, cast cooling shadows on the sloping lawn below, where guests reclined in white Adirondack chairs.
Philipp and Francoise Omnes, of Chatenay, France, sat and plotted their next moves. They still were laughing over the miscommunication. They thought they could easily walk to the Mariposa Grove from the inn, but it turned out it was an easy walk to the shuttle buses that take visitors to the sequoias. Oh, well, at least the couple got in a brisk 2-hour walk.
“America is not the same proportion as France,” said Philipp, who came to California to visit friend Pierre Des Georges in Sacramento and decided to make a side trip to Yosemite. “In France, the country (is) not so large. But we will take the shuttle today to the big trees.”
What did not get lost in translation for the Omneses was the charm of the Wawona Inn, a National Historic Site that even predates Yosemite’s formation as a national park. The couple may not have been aware of the inn’s rich history – how it originally was gold miner Galen Clark’s homestead but soon turned into a stopover for travelers and, after being sold to road builders a few decades later, became the area’s first and most elegant hotel – but, being European, they felt comfortable staying at places showing their age but retaining rustic charm.
“It’s a very charming place,” Philipp said. “It looks like what we in France call a British Normandy style. For us, (the hotel) is not about the comfort. The site and atmosphere is great. We like that we are very near the giant trees.”
No less of personages as Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman were guests back in the day. The original buildings, save Clark’s cabin, were lost to fire in 1878 but rebuilt within a year. Over the years, the lodge and its even larger annex and cottages encircling the grounds have been home to the likes of the U.S. Army Cavalry as well as artist Thomas Hill, who repaired to the swimming “tank” (now a pool, but still tank-like) when not depicting Yosemite’s vistas on canvas.
Today, the hotel retains the rusticity with a few strategic upgrades. Frills are few, but that’s to be expected. Still, the front desk staff makes sure to alert guests at check-in that, “This is a National Historic Site, so we have no TVs, no phones, no AC.” In a charming throwback, there’s a single pay phone on the back veranda if you really must make a call, and the staff is happy to change dollar bills into quarters for you. You can, for the record, get spotty Wi-Fi, but only in the “Sun Room” and golf shop, both in the annex.
The Wi-Fi is free, by the way. As is use of the pool and the tennis courts. In fact, there are no hidden fees at Wawona. It even throws in a free continental breakfast, a nice perk considering that Delaware North’s meal prices at Wawona are comparable to its less-formal Tenaya restaurant, the Jackalope Bar and Grill (same $15 turkey burger that was about what you’d get at Carl’s Jr.).
At Wawona, the room windows tend to stick. Forget about recharging that laptop; there are no three-pronged outlets. The light fixtures are the retro push-button kind; most of the time, they work. The original radiator from 1918 graces the rooms in the annex, but a sign around it reads, “Although not in service, the antique radiator was left in recognition of the hotel’s status as a National Historic Landmark.” In summer and fall, there’s no need for heat. But an oscillating fan is provided. During the busy lunch hour in the dining room, lit by hanging lamps with sequoia-tree-patterned shades and sconces, no fewer than five oscillating fans were working. If you get a room with a shared bathroom, the hotels provides a robe for those trips to and from the shower.
But one does not expect pampering at Wawona. Guest Marjorie Shoemaker, of Hatfield, Pa., lingered on the veranda and admired the preservation of the place. Sure, the wooden roof shingles on the main building are sticking up like an unruly cowlick, the wooden floors on the veranda creak and moan like tortured ghosts, and the walls between rooms render no conversation private, but Marjorie and husband Dan were smitten.
“We’re used to traveling in Europe, where it’s not modern, so this is no problem,” she said. “It’s very nice and comfy. And it’s fairly reasonable. We looked into (Tenaya) yesterday. Oh, too bad I don’t have so much money I don’t know what to do with, so I could stay there.”
Wawona doesn’t put on airs. It does, however, feature Tom Bopp tinkling the ivories on a grand piano for early evening cocktails. He plays well into the night, and guests gather round to listen or chat. Some played board games, a family worked on a jigsaw puzzle (of El Capitan), a few folks even read books – not Kindles, either, actual pulp.
There is, of course, the back-to-nature (or RV) option. You cannot beat the price at the Wawona Camp, less than a mile north of the hotel. For $20 a night ($14 from October-April), you can pitch a tent or park your recreational vehicle. There are no showers but potable water is available, a few portable toilets and some flushing toilets, ample bear lockers and a nice creek running through.
Though it hugs Highway 41 and you can hear traffic whoosh by during the day, the campground was sold out six months in advance, during the brief window for registration.
“That leaves us money to do other types of things in the park,” said Jonathan Ybanez, whose family pitched a tent for a few nights and brought along a portable shower. “It’s nice here because it’s not as crowded as the valley.”
The three generations of the Cutts family, not accustomed to camping out, parked their rented RV and started a fire for dinner. They liked the casualness of camping. “There’s no standing on ceremony out here,” Dan said. “You get to wear what you wore yesterday, and nobody cares. You come to Yosemite to be in nature.”
The next morning, at 4:30, they were off to climb Half Dome. They did not forget why they’re here.