Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel and the Inn at Death Valley date to 1927. But beyond that, their stories are as different as a pine tree and a palm.
The Ahwahnee has 97 rooms and 24 cottages, all designed in a stately yet rustic style by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who also designed Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.
The hotel, shaped like a Y, features two big rooms on its ground floor: the Great Room, where visitors sink into couches and armchairs near oversize fireplaces, and the dining room, where rustic chandeliers hang above seating for 300.
Although the hotel is owned by the National Park Service, it is operated by Philadelphia-based Aramark, a concession giant that runs dozens of attractions.
Yosemite is said to be one of the most valuable concessions in the park system, with more than 4 million visitors a year. But the concessionaire's role comes with red tape.
Each year, park concessionaires must submit rates to the NPS for approval, and any changes to historic sites receive close government over sight.
In its review of Aramark in 2018, the National Park Service rated the concessionaire's overall Yosemite operation (including the Ahwahnee) as "marginal," with a score of 69 out of 100.
In September 2018, inspectors from the American Automobile Association reported that the Ahwahnee had slipped. That month, AAA dropped its rating of the Ahwahnee from four diamonds - which it had held since 1991 - to three. In results released in February, AAA again gave three.
Aramark spokeswoman Lisa Cesaro said that AAA diamond rankings tend to reward newer properties and that "due to the historic nature of the hotel, there are key areas that we cannot change."
THE INN AT DEATH VALLEY
While the Ahwahnee was rising in Yosemite Valley, the sellers of Borax laundry soap (made from Death Valley minerals) were putting up a hotel at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. It was modest, just 12 rooms on a hillside near natural springs.
One early ad said Death Valley had "all the advantages of hell without the inconveniences." Apparently, the ads worked. Attendance kept growing, and national park status followed in 1994.
Nowadays, plenty is different, including hotel management and the inn's name, which in 2017 was changed from the Inn at Furnace Creek to the Inn at Death Valley.
The inn is run by Xanterra, an Aramark rival that manages luxury operations such as Colorado's Broadmoor Resort, Georgia's Sea Island and Windstar Cruises.
Unlike the Ahwahnee and most national park hotels, the Inn at Death Valley and the land beneath it are owned by Xanterra. And the Inn at Death Valley is not on the National Register of Historic Places.
That means Xanterra doesn't need government approval for price increases, renovations or other matters that are the subject of negotiation in most national parks and historic sites. It's "private property surrounded by Death Valley National Park," said park spokeswoman Abigail Wines.
That may also help explain Xanterra's readiness to invest an estimated $100 million in Death Valley since 2017. Between May 2017 and February 2018, the company undertook a major renovation at the inn that rearranged its rooms and grounds, added 22 high-end casitas to 66 existing rooms and turned the seasonal inn into a year-round operation.
AAA gives the Inn at Death Valley a four-diamond rating, meaning it's in the top 6% of all properties inspected.
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