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Yosemite’s Ahwahnee versus the Inn at Death Valley: Which is worth the splurge?

Inn at Death Valley versus Ahwahnee Hotel
Inn at Death Valley versus Ahwahnee Hotel.
(Steve Wilson / For The Times)

Californians tend to hold these truths as self-evident: Half Dome is made of granite. Yosemite Falls is made of plummeting water. And the Ahwahnee, grande dame of Yosemite National Park since 1927, is the most luxurious and beloved national park lodging we have in the state.

But is it? And is it worth $376 a night?

In the last two years, the Ahwahnee has regained its name after a trademark dispute but lost its four-diamond Automobile Club rating. It has also had an intestinal virus among guests and become a point of friction between the National Park Service and its concessionaire, Aramark Corp.

Meanwhile in Death Valley National Park, another luxurious lodge, also built in 1927, has changed names and received an expensive renovation and expansion. It used to be called the Inn at Furnace Creek. It’s now called the Inn at Death Valley.

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Both of these lodges are splurges, the place you go for a birthday, honeymoon, anniversary or the optioning of a screenplay.

This got me wondering about splurge-worthiness. As someone who has been a professional hotel guest for most of the last 25 years, where would I prefer to sleep?

In February, I spent a day and a night at each hotel as an unannounced, paying guest, watching, listening, eating, drinking and making requests — many requests — of the front desks. It was slow season in Yosemite, busy season in Death Valley.

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Here’s what happened:

Room booking

Death Valley
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

In Yosemite, I rented a king-bed room at the Ahwahnee for $386 a night, plus $50.69 in taxes. Rates usually start at $376 a night, with several suites from $900 to $1,100 a night. I paid $10 above the minimum to get a corner room with a view of redwoods.

In Death Valley, I rented a king-bed room at the inn for the lowest available rate — $499 a night, plus a resort fee of $28 and $59.88 in taxes. You can find a room at the inn for as little as $350, but that would be in the middle of summer. Even booking far in advance, the best winter rate you can find is about $424. For the inn’s most expensive units — the 22 recently added free-standing casitas — winter rates start at about $550 a night.

Advantage: The Ahwahnee

Dining room reservation

Inn at Death Valley
Inn at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

The Ahwahnee reservationist came up empty when I called three days ahead. Nothing available on my night. I tried again through opentable.com. Nothing. So I made a booking elsewhere. A day later, I tried a different Ahwahnee phone number and got a cheerful callback. A table at 6 p.m.? Sure! So I canceled the alternative booking.

In Death Valley, a machine answered my call and was no help. I called back five minutes later, a hostess answered and booked me for 7:30 p.m. on the night I needed.

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Advantage: Death Valley

Checking in

Yosemite
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

On arrival day, I called the Ahwahnee at 7 a.m. to ask for an early check-in. They said they would try, no promises. When I arrived at 2 p.m. — two hours early — they had a room for me. They assigned me a second-floor room at the end of the hall with windows on two walls.

On arrival day in Death Valley, I called the inn at 7 a.m. to ask for an early check-in. Sure, they said. I arrived about 90 minutes ahead of the 4 p.m. check-in time, and they pointed me toward a third-floor room.

Advantage: A tie

Guest rooms

Inn at Death Valley
Inn at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

My Ahwahnee room greeted me with earth tones, a love seat, a chair and botanical prints. No desk. The bathroom was small, but it featured a yellow rubber duck wearing a ranger hat. Nice touch. The room key was an actual key, brass and stamped Do Not Duplicate. It didn’t say Ahwahnee, perhaps because people would take it as a souvenir. Still, a missed opportunity to do something creative.

I took 100 steps in white socks, and the soles remained clean. There were lots of outlets in the bedroom: six standard outlets, plus three USB ports. “Limited Wi-Fi” proved workable. The thermostat looked old and was difficult to read and operate.

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The room’s phone still had the hotel’s abandoned Majestic name on it — a notable goof. One door had flaking white paint. Outside my room, someone had tracked and crunched dead leaves on the hall carpet. They were still there six hours later.

My room at the Inn at Death Valley offered more earth tones and a Mission Revival feel. There was a marble-top desk and a lamp with a bright red base. The key was a card with a colorful image of the park. Medium-sized bathroom. Smallish bedroom.

The soles of my white socks were still clean after 100 steps. The electrical outlets in my bedroom: seven conventional, four USB. Workable Wi-Fi. There were difficult-to-understand light switches at the door. The thermostat was easy to understand and operate. It looked new. Here too, the room phone had the hotel’s old name on it.

Advantage: The Inn at Death Valley in a close call.

Public spaces

Ahwahnee Hotel
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

The Ahwahnee’s ground floor was a wonder, protected by historic preservation measures. But it was also worn. The first piece of furniture I saw, a love seat in the lobby, had a big stain, not fresh. The Great Room ceiling was impressive but marred by white patches — water damage repair waiting to be touched up, a worker told me. A big gift shop. A pleasant bar with food on the menu — a good alternative to the dining room.

At 2 p.m. daily, an Aramark employee, not a ranger, gives a talk on hotel history in front of the fireplace. The speaker I heard, Marty Anderson, did a great job and charmed his audience with the tale of how his parents had met while working at the hotel and how, years later, his mother had waited on Queen Elizabeth.

In Death Valley, the inn’s indoor public spaces were much smaller, but graceful, with arched doorways, exposed beams, tile floors and Western art. A pleasant lounge with a fireplace was next to the dining room.

The gift shop has been banished to the Ranch, its sister resort, a short drive away. The former store now is a stately room called the library, with, curiously, virtually no books on the West. Also no coffee table books. Outdoors, the pool was long, wide and spring-fed, always 87 degrees.

The inn’s oasis was tremendous — immaculate palms swayed over pools that reflected them like shimmering mirages. However, it was a bit of a journey from the lobby to the pool, oasis or parking lot, which was too small.

Advantage: A tie: the Ahwahnee wins indoors; the Inn at Death Valley wins outdoors.

Boating, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing and whale watching are among the activities of this popular Orange County town halfway between L.A. and San Diego.

Dinner

My big Ahwahnee dinner was a 7.5. First, Italian sausage and quinoa soup, followed by salmon with spinach and potatoes. Cost: $35 for the entrée. Dinner main dishes $30-$58.50. The dining room’s log rafters soared high above, 12 chandeliers dangled and a pianist played “The Girl From Ipanema.” Even at 7:30 p.m., the dining room looked less than half full. I’m sure it’s jammed in summer, but why was this reservation such a chore?

In Death Valley, my big inn dinner was an 8.5. Jambalaya pasta with Indonesian shrimp and Italian sausage, $40. Zesty flavor, large helping. Dinner main courses $28-$71. The dining room was busy but quiet, with a flickering fireplace and people murmuring in various languages.

Advantage: Death Valley

Toothpaste test

Death Valley
Inn at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

At 8:05 p.m., five minutes after the Ahwahnee gift shop closed, I asked the desk for toothpaste. The clerk was ready: “The sweet shop has toothpaste,” she said. So it did, and it was open until 10 p.m. I paid $1.50 for a .85-ounce tube of Crest (and $3.99 for an impulse-purchase dessert: honey-glazed orange dipped in chocolate).

The Inn at Death Valley had no store on site (it’s in the Ranch complex). But when I asked an employee about a toothbrush, he reached into a drawer and pulled out a couple of toothbrushes with tiny toothpaste tubes. Take two, he said, they’re small. No charge.

Advantage: Death Valley

Towel test

Inn at Death Valley
Inn at Death Valley, Death Valley National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

At 8:35 p.m., I called the Ahwahnee desk to request a towel. Five rings, then an attendant answered and pledged quick delivery. It never arrived.

In Death Valley, I called the inn desk at 8:54 p.m. The first call went to a recording that sounded like a dead end. On my second try, an attendant picked up. What kind of towel? Bath towel. It arrived at 8:58 p.m.

Advantage: Death Valley

Checking out

Ahwahnee Hotel
Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

In Yosemite, I requested a late checkout. “The latest I can give you is 12:30 p.m.” instead of noon, the Ahwahnee clerk said.

In Death Valley, I requested a late checkout. Yes, said the inn clerk, I could have the room until noon instead of 11.

Advantage: A tie

The bottom line?

Just as Yosemite and Death Valley are different landscapes, their grand hotels are different animals. But the Ahwahnee seems to be dozing while the Inn at Death Valley is waking up.


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