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Home Travel OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley The Old West Is Still Very Much Alive

Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel

The Old West Is Still Very Much Alive

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The year was 1979, and one hundred years earlier the Wawona Hotel had opened for business near California's Yosemite Valley. Back in those days, the place was known as Big Tree Station and accounts vary about just what buildings were where, but most historians agree that 1879 marked the year when the hotel began functioning on a regular basis.

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Good thing it did, because in 1879 former President Ulysses S. Grant made the arduous journey up the steep wagon road from Madera. The trip took almost half a day. When Grant finally arrived at the hotel, the locally famous Mariposa Brass Band played "Hail to the Chief" as the local citizenry gave him a rousing welcome.

But such was the condition of the trail that according to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle, Grant was covered in so much road dust that he looked as if he had come from a battlefield. Sometime in 1882, the name Big Tree Station was changed to Wawona after an Indian word meaning, what else? - Big Tree.

So in 1979, we came to celebrate with others the centenary of what is one of the most historic hotels in the West. It was a memorable weekend, spent dancing in a lantern-lit barn and talking with folks who had lived some of the history.

One of our fondest memories is of the wagon driver who spoke to us of harrowing trips on the roads up the mountain both to Yosemite and Wawona. He told of driving hitches up and down grades so steep that drag logs were placed under the wheels to prevent runaways.

Then he mentioned some of the famous guests who made the tough trip up the mountain.

Everyone from President Theodore Roosevelt and Lily Langtry to Diamond Jim Brady, along just plain folk, who were remembered in stories both factual and fanciful. And there were the stories of hardship and triumph, of tough winters and bad weather, of glorious springs and beautiful sunsets when the Sierras are bathed in a splendid glow seldom seen anywhere else on Earth.

Because the 19th Century was full of eccentricities, it's not surprising that Wawona had its share as well. Old photographs show proud tourists posed next to weathered wooden wagons at the entrance to the Wawona Tunnel Tree. The story goes that a giant Sequoia tree blocked the path of a road being built. So of course (following the logic of the time) they tunneled through the tree, creating a tourist attraction for visitors.

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Today, Wawona proudly wears its history, and although the buildings are descendant from the past, the service and amenities are grounded in our modern version of luxury; gone are the Victorian washstands, and all the plumbing is indoors!

But the splendid scenery that Grant enjoyed is still there. The deer come out to graze on the lawn in the twilight much as they have since the beginning, and listening to the piano play in the lobby after dinner evokes memories of earlier times. Guests still sit on the wide verandas and watch the world slide by.

As shadows gather over the mountains in the evening, it's easy to imagine a horse-drawn wagon pulling up the sweeping drive, and dust-covered guests being ushered into their rooms. A comfortable evening by the fire is just moments away. Not much has changed at the Wawona Hotel. The Old West is still very much alive in the New.

Wawona Hotel Background:

Located in Yosemite National Park, Wawona Hotel is operated by DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite and remains one of the most respected mountain resorts. For more information on Wawona Hotel, lodging packages or to make hotel reservations, call (801) 559-4884 or visit online at
www.yosemitepark.com . For information on Yosemite National Park, visit the Web site at http://www.nps.gov/yose/

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