Who doesn’t love a majestic National Park lodge? Splendid craftsmanship on a grand scale surrounded by the wonders of nature. In my mind, There’s really no better way to explore a national park.

Some of these lodges are full of just as many stories and secrets as the park that surrounds them.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Yosemite’s Ahwahnee hotel, and its service in World War II.

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David and Jennie Curry were Indiana schoolteachers who traveled extensively in their summers off. In 1899, they arrived in California to see the beauties of Yosemite National Park. The couple had previously given camping tours to other teachers at Yellowstone and decided they would do the same in the Yosemite Valley to offset some of their vacation costs.

The Currys brought with them a cook, seven tents, and their three children. Despite the two-week, round trip travel period from the nearest town, the camp registered 292 guests its first year. Camp Curry, as it became known, was a hit.

The Currys were adept at promotion and revived an old tradition started by James McCauley on the Fourth of July 1872. At sunset, piles of burning logs were pushed off Glacier Point, creating what was known as the Fire Fall. David Curry died in 1917 and left the management of The Curry Company to his widow Jennie.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service’s first director Stephen Mather had his eyes set on a grand hotel experience in the Yosemite Valley.
In 1915, he convinced a man named D.J. Desmond to convert old army barracks into the modest Yosemite Lodge. Desmond also began a hotel at Glacier Point the following year, when the newly formed National Park Service began a concerted effort to attract visitors to the parks. But Mather was still thinking of his grand hotel.

He made an attempt with another concessionaire to build near Yosemite Falls, but the project was underfunded, and the Sentinel, as it was named, was looked down on by socialites as primitive.

In 1925, unhappy with the declining concessions situation within the parks, Mather decided to grant a monopoly to single entities to run the hotel and food services in each park. The Curry Company and The Yosemite Park Company (which ran Yosemite Lodge), were merged to create one larger company to operate the hospitality in Yosemite National Park. As part of this reorganization, the newly formed Yosemite Park and Curry Company were charged with building a new luxury hotel.

Yosemite Park & Curry Company went on to build much of the park’s service structure. The new accommodation was originally dubbed the “Yosemite All-Year-Round Hotel,” but it was changed just prior to opening to reflect the site’s native name—Ahwannee.

The Ahwahnee did not attract many guests immediately. The Yosemite Park and Curry Company began lobbying the National Park Service for self-contained recreational facilities at the hotel: a dance pavilion, golf course, swimming pool, tennis and croquet courts, a “Kiddie Kamp,” and “the building of bridle paths and footpaths.” By 1930, the golf course and tennis/croquet courts had been added.

In spite of these additions, The Ahwahnee continued to struggle. The Great Depression significantly reduced visitation to Yosemite, and the Ahwannee was hit especially hard. Tourism gradually began to improve after 1939, but the outbreak of WWII in 1941 proved to be disastrous for many of the park concessionaire’s operations. Fuel rationing sent automobile traffic and visitation spiraling downward once again. The Wawona Hotel was closed, and the Glacier Point Hotel severely curtailed its services. The Ahwahnee, which had been barely profitable even in the best of times, was finding it difficult to keep its doors open.

In a strange twist of fate, it would be the War, that saved The Ahwahnee from its financial struggles thanks to the Department of the Navy offering a long-term arrangement to rent the entire facility. Even before Pearl Harbor, the Navy had anticipated a drastic need for increased medical facilities. The Ahwahnee was one of several sites the Navy surveyed in the summer of 1941 and by 1943, the Navy had leased The Ahwahnee with the first staff arriving at the end of May to begin refitting. With guest still being lodged at the hotel, the transition was not an easy one, but by June 25, 1943, the “U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital Yosemite National Park, California” was commissioned. Eleven days later, the first patients arrived.

Initially intended as a a neuro-psychiatric rehabilitation center for patients suffering from “shell-shock,” The Navy believed patients would respond well to the peaceful and isolated setting, the Ahwahnee however, soon proved to be the complete opposite.

The towering cliffs caused many to become claustrophobic. Isolation and lack of social interactions and entertainment often left them overwhelmed with the very memories the Navy hoped to erase. Within a few months, hospital administrators decided to phase out psychiatric treatment at and convert the Ahwahnee into a general physical rehab facility. It was a new direction, but the same problems persisted. As one early staff member recalled, “If the patients weren’t nuts when they got to Yosemite, the boredom there soon sent them over the edge.”

In August 1943, A change in Navy leadership saw a dramatic change in the hospital’s rehabilitation strategies. Under commander, Captain Reynolds Hayden, a seasoned veteran with years of experience managing military medical units, the Navy began aggressively expanding the hospital’s recreational and rehabilitation resources.

Simultaneously, the National Park Service and a number of local and regional civic organizations began improving the plight of the staff and patients stationed at Yosemite. By successfully scrounging, begging, borrowing, and politicking, Hayden’s staff expanded hospital facilities to include a library, a six-lane bowling alley, an extensive crafts department, a pool hall, daily excursions to Badger Pass during the winter, a re-opening of the Camp Curry toboggan run, on-site publication of the hospital’s own newspaper, a Ship’s Service store (complete with soda fountain), a Welfare Fund, machine and wood shops, and transportation facilities. An adjustment of Navy regulations also allowed patients and staff to take leave outside the park.

Hayden also made hospital improvements, included tripling the hospital’s physiotherapy facilities and equipment, significantly improving available housing for families of patients and staff, forming a staff/patient dance band at the hospital, organizing regular guest appearances by orchestras and USO entertainers, acquiring a projector and screen to show Hollywood movies on a regular basis, constructing new concrete tennis and basketball courts, and, last but not least, building the only authorized pub in any Naval hospital around the world.

This newly renamed “Special” Hospital had dramatically changed from what the first patients experienced a year and a half earlier. Treatment priorities shifted from simply warehousing and physically fixing up patients to a more holistic approach of healing them body and soul. Administrators realized treatment needed to include mainstreaming patients back into a non-military social environment, rather than isolating them from it.

Because it was impossible to move the hospital to a more community social setting, Captain Hayden focused on creating a community at Yosemite. By providing housing, recreational facilities and activities, along with outlying community support, Hayden fostered an environment where social interactions could bloom and camaraderie could grow.

The Yosemite Special Hospital experiment proved to be a watershed event in the development of U.S. military medical rehabilitation techniques.

The hospital was decommissioned in 1945, and shortly after the Ahwahnee began accepting travelers again. Yosemite Park and Curry Company operated the hotel until 1993 when the property was then sold to Delaware North.

What started out as a simple campsite begun by two Indiana schoolteachers ended up as the sole concessionaire for the park for over six decades. Over the years, the Ahwahnee has played host to Presidents Obama, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Reagan, Walt Disney, the Shah of Iran, and Queen Elizabeth II, who rented the entire hotel for herself. But of all its guests, the military staff and patients who called the Ahwahnee home from 1943-1945 remain some of its most lasting and more influential visitors.

The Ahwahnee sports influences from many styles, including Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern, and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Its towering ceilings, massive stone fireplaces, intricately hand-stenciled beams, and hand-made stained glass windows harken back bygone eras and cultural traditions—all masterfully combined under one roof.

With ceilings over 30 feet high and massive windows that take in the surrounding views, the dining room evokes a feeling of grandness and opulence. It’s the setting for some of the world’s most famous food and wine events: The Yuletide Dinner at Yosemite, The Grand Grape Celebration, and A Taste of Yosemite.

At nearly 80 feet long and over 50 feet wide, and with 24-foot-high ceilings, the hotel’s lounge is as spacious as it is inviting. Grand windows, stained glass details, and an immense natural-stone fireplace invite guests to settle in for an afternoon of relaxation.

The hotel rooms have been recently rehabbed, and go for about $550 a night. And they book up fast.