Mariposa & Yosemite

Quake fix won't shut Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park

YOSEMITE -- The Ahwahnee Hotel, where U.S. presidents and royalty have enjoyed the breathtaking granite sights, needs a $60 million fix for earthquake safety.

But contrary to earlier reports, the landmark hotel will not be closed for two years.

The earthquake work is part of a $137 million renovation that most likely will begin with fire safety improvements in the next year, said acting Superintendent Dave Uberuaga. The work would be spread over the next decade, he said.

Park officials said the earthquake risk at the park is quite low compared with the rest of the state.

If the hotel were to close for two years, as news reports suggested, Mariposa County would lose millions of dollars in hotel taxes. Many hotel employees probably would suffer an extended loss of income.

"There has been a lot of fear of closing down the Ahwahnee," Uberuaga said. "It's not a good business decision to close it for two years. We might have to close down a wing of the hotel at some point, but not the entire hotel."

The hotel, which opened in 1927, is known for extraordinary views of Half Dome and Glacier Point above Yosemite Valley.

The hotel's 123 guest rooms are popular among world travelers. The dining room serves 250,000 meals a year, because many people visit just to have lunch or dinner in the massive dining room.

It is considered among the most historic national park hotels, which include the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite, Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone and Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley.

A study submitted to the National Park Service in 2002 but released this month revealed the possibility of earthquake damage at the hotel, so officials planned a renovation. The cost was considered the biggest problem, and there was some hope that the project would qualify for the federal stimulus program. But it did not.

Funding must come from several sources, including the congressional appropriation process that involves being prioritized among all park service projects. That's one reason the renovation will be done in phases over many years.

The project would include upgrades for the utilities, the kitchen and the fire safety system, as well as making the 150,000-square-foot building conform to modern earthquake standards.

Yosemite has no known active faults, said geologist Greg Stock. The bigger danger might come from a rockfall triggered by an earthquake outside of Yosemite.

A fault system that runs along the eastern edge of the Sierra has the potential for large, powerful quakes. Experts cite the example of the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, which has been estimated at magnitude 7.6 or larger on the Richter scale. There was no such scale or seismograph in those days.

"There was a pretty big rockfall in 1872 behind where the chapel is today in Yosemite Valley," Stock said. The idea of posting a warning at the hotel has been suggested, but officials do not think it is necessary. Stock said many people traveling to the Ahwahnee are coming from areas with considerably higher quake risk.

"If you live in the Bay Area or Southern California," he said, "you're probably more at risk in your own home than you would be staying at the Ahwahnee."