While we hope to be back to Yosemite National Park for a longer stay later this year (as is our tradition), our recent road trip provided the perfect excuse to drive by way of Yosemite and, for the first time, stay as guests at the historic Wawona Hotel.
The Wawona Hotel is located near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park on Highway 41, and is a bit removed from the better known attractions in Yosemite Valley. The 40-minute very winding drive from the hotel to the valley does not make it a good base for exploring the valley over a few-day stay—especially if you’ll have kids tiring of the car.
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However, if you’d prefer to stay in a less congested area within the park, or would simply like to experience this lovely parcel of Yosemite History, staying at the Wawona is definitely a unique Yosemite experience. It’s a powerful feeling to climb the steps to the beautifully decorated hotel lobby knowing that American Idols such as Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and others have checked in at the same desk.
Summertime Events and Activities
While you’re there, you’ll want to visit the Pioneer History Center to learn more about the area and hike the Meadow Loop or Swinging Bridge Loop right from the hotel grounds. Equestrians (and wannabes) can stroll over to the Wawona Stables and take a 2-hour ride or a half-day guided ride to Chilnualna Falls (kids must be 7 years and at least 44” tall). Also, be sure to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, just 4 miles south of the hotel. You can drive or take the free shuttle from the Wawona Hotel to the grove (a good option during peak times when the lot may be full).
On Saturday nights during summer months, the hotel lawn is abuzz with guests partaking of the old-fashioned outdoor barbecue buffet and awaiting their turns to take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Some Saturday nights, there may even be a barn dance to attend. That said, there are a few things you might prepare yourself and your family for before stepping back in time at the Wawona.
Any stay at the Wawona Hotel necessitates a visit to its grand dining room—not only because it’s a lovely feature of the hotel property, but because it’s also the only restaurant option for several miles. What’s more, it’s where your decadent breakfast buffet is served (included with all rooms, I was assured), with eggs every style, pastries, meats, fruits, pancakes, and all the fresh-squeezed orange juice you can drink.
Dinners are a cloth napkin, multi-course affair, so bring a respectable shirt and some alternative to your hiking boots. Also be prepared to wait a full 30 minutes for your table on busy nights, so in other words don’t show up late with tired and hungry kids. It is worth the wait for the perfect medium-rare flat-iron steak, however, and there is great live music in the lobby while you wait on velveteen seats. If your kids aren’t charmed by the ambiance of the waiting area, take turns watching them run free on the lawn outside. There is a children’s menu. And crayons. And if you come with a picky eater just ask for a side of fruit salad (though not on the menu, they’ll accommodate).
Rooms and Amenities
The rooms at the Wawona Hotel, though authentically furnished and true to detail but for the energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs, come with a few drawbacks for typical family travelers with young children.
- For one, the rooms are small. With the understanding that we would be sleeping 4 in beds, there was one double bed (and I mean “double,” not queen), a matching single bed, and a rollaway parked at the foot of the single bed in front of our door. When unfolded, the rollaway effectively blocked the exits of two people from their beds, which wasn’t actually a problem for us since there wasn’t a fire that night. The baby nearly slept in the closet, though it was too full to consider.
- Out of 104 rooms, 50 have their own bathrooms. If you feel it is worth the upgrade to have your own water loo for your brood, understand that you’ll likely be able to listen to your neighbors recounting their days’ activities as you sit on the toilet—from the gap beneath the connecting (but locked) door beside you. If you have a baby, or a volume-challenged toddler, or an issue with stage fright, you might actually be more comfortable in a less expensive room without a private bath and using shared facilities.
- While one does not go to Yosemite to watch television or listen to the radio, the absence of a telephone in the room was a big downer when I needed to contact the front desk—after putting on my pajamas—in a separate building.
More Words to the Wise
The grounds, while spacious and lovely for strolling between the eight whitewashed wooden buildings and one of the Sierra’s first “swimming tanks,” are set back away from the parking. A good thing really, except when you have a great deal of items to unload from your car, including all the things you might expect for a family road trip with 3 children under 6 years. Though we had no need for an ice chest or three car seats in our room, these are not items to be left in the car when overnighting in Yosemite’s famed bear country. It may be well worth asking for a porter to assist you (before your husband insists he can make due on his own with the help of the jogging stroller).
The Bottom Line
Still, there’s a certain giddiness that comes from planting oneself in an Adirondack chair on the veranda outside your hotel room and staring off into the trees of Yosemite National Park. As with most lodgings in the park, you can’t help but feel privileged just to be there, and darn lucky to have gotten the reservation in the first place. The Wawona, much like one of its illustrious guests named above, seems to meet you with a firm handshake and greet you on its own terms. If you’re ready for the full experience, and now understand what that will be, I say go to it. And get the flat-iron steak.
Would I stay there again? As a matter of fact, when my kids are old enough to do the trail rides and better appreciate the menu options, I would like to stay at the Wawona Hotel again. When I do, I’d like to bring along a grandma and book two rooms as a “suite” (an option to mention when booking one room with and one without a private bath). At least that way I’ll be able to join the conversation on the other side of the bathroom door.