When my wife and I carried our bags down the red carpet into the plush lobby, I could still hardly believe it. In all the years we had visited Yosemite, we had never stayed at the lavish hotel that houses royalty, presidents and the well-to-do. I figured we never would, yet there we were.
“Welcome to the Ahwahnee,” a smiling registration clerk greeted us.
Camp 4, home to climbing royalty, the perpetually broke and the little-to-do, was our usual abode. I figured it always would be. But after many years of writing about Yosemite experiences led to an invitation to visit the historic hotel, Karen and I jumped at the chance. Our enjoyable visit showed us a fascinating contrast between the two communities just a few miles distant yet worlds apart.
At the Ahwahnee, guests reserve their rooms months in advance. At Camp 4, which has no reservations, campers line up hours before dawn outside the registration booth.
The Ahwahnee has six floors of rooms and suites like ours start at $600. Camp 4 crams six campers into each site and charges them $6 apiece.
At Camp 4, each site has a small fire ring. The Ahwahnee's grand lounge has a giant fireplace nearly as big as Camp 4 sites.
Guests at the Ahwahnee sleep on comfortable feather beds. Campers at Camp 4 get by with sleeping bags and air mattresses (and sometimes bouldering pads).
Each morning at the Ahwahnee, the staff delivers complimentary newspapers to the doorsteps and guests enjoy gourmet espresso. Every morning at Camp 4, a ranger checks the tents' registration tags to make sure everyone paid and campers drink instant coffee.
Ahwahnee rooms have private bathrooms with hot water and showers. Camp 4 has a community bathroom with cold water and no showers, which is too bad because most campers could really use one.
The Ahwahnee has Steinway pianos, ornate chandeliers and a pricy bar. Camp 4 sites have guitars, headlamps and bear lockers full of cheap booze. Revelry at both venues lasts late into the night.
In the Ahwahnee dining room, guests enjoy world-class meals for a pretty penny and a dress code requires collared shirts for men. At Camp 4 picnic tables, neighbors enjoy world-class company while cooking their own meals for pennies and no one owns collared shirts.
Ahwahnee guest rooms boast views of Half Dome, the Royal Arches and Glacier Point. Camp 4 folks get to look at climbers attempting Midnight Lightning, a world-class bouldering challenge.
Ahwahnee guests drive expensive, shiny cars. Camp 4 campers drive cheap used vans and pick-ups full of expensive, shiny climbing gear.
Ahwahnee types, mostly 30 and older, have discretionary income. Camp 4 folks, mostly twenty-somethings, have discretionary leisure time.
But for all the differences between them, people from the two destinations have more in common than we expected. Members of both groups are friendly and outgoing. Both crowds come from varied, interesting backgrounds. And while Ahwahnee types often fly in from distant states or countries and Camp 4 folks more likely just rappeled down from El Capitan, they all love Yosemite.
Our fun foray into high society taught us something about how the other half lives, and I think Ahwahnee guests would also learn something from spending a little time at Camp 4.
— Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures,” a new guide to 50 hikes, climbs and treks. His writing can be found at www.mattjohanson.com.