When white settlers arrived in Yosemite Valley they encountered a tribe of Native Americans called the Ahwahnee. The Ahwahnee were peaceful people and did what they were used to doing for hundreds of years. In the 1850s, the new settlers decided that they did not want to share land with the natives.
Growing up only an hour from one of the national treasures, one might think Fresno natives frequently visit the park but I have only been to Yosemite National Park a handful of times. I made a trip there with my mom and daughter and stayed at The Ahwahnee. The hotel has drawn celebrities, politicians and spirits of its past since its construction in 1927. Prior to the Ahwahnee’s conception, lodging in Yosemite National Park was barren and rustic. The Ahwahnee lured the upper class to the park, beginning the trend of luxurious accommodations in Yosemite. Just weeks after it opened, Herbert Hoover stayed at the hotel. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill have stayed at the hotel over the years as well as numerous celebrities.
The hotel is smack dab in the center of the Yosemite Valley, with a perfect view of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. Yosemite National Park is one of the biggest international destinations in the country, and the Ahwahnee Hotel, was specifically designed to highlight its natural surroundings. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the consulting architect for the Union Pacific Railroad, used recycled materials and stained concrete to look like redwood, which also made the Ahwahnee fire resistant, and a modern achievement for that time.
As we walked down the red carpet behind the luggage rack, the history of the hotel began to speak to me. The carpeted ruby path up to the Ahwahnee Hotel’s entrance gave off a sense of place and time. Our luggage matched each of our own places in time, mine: black with sugar skulls, grandma: leopard print design with matching makeup bag, and my daughter’s Mickey Mouse surfing. As the three of us wheeled our luggage under log-beamed ceilings, the path carried us along the stone hearths. The cutouts in the walls with displays of artifacts added to the surroundings. The deep colors of Native American artwork immortally placed us in the time and space we were entering. A blend of designs: Art Deco, Native American and Middle Eastern touches. Every corner of the hotel was adorned with stenciling, woodwork, and native patterns. The public meeting spaces featured giant stone fireplaces with large hand-stenciled beams, elegant tapestries, and stained glass.
People gathered quietly to read to themselves in distant corners of the hotel. Some were couples that read to themselves nearby each other and others were alone reading quietly. We quietly walked by them and then my daughter screamed out:
“Sweet shop!” she yelled, staring, not to be diverted from her new purpose.
“Not now,” I said sternly leading her in the other direction.
“I still can’t get reception,” my mom piped in, following us.
The hotel’s dining room was what really demanded my attention. I looked down the hall and could see it calling to me from a far.
“Let’s look over here.”
The line was long at the front desk, and I didn’t want to buy my daughter candy in the sweet shop, so I led my family down the hall to the door at the very end of the hotel. We stopped at the door and peeked in the room. The vaulted ceilings were surrounded by large glass windows. The rustic wood beamed above held gothic chandeliers. At first glance, I felt the room’s largeness and power. The presence in the room was still, stubborn and arrogant. Demanding. After all, the Awahnee Hotel helped inspire the look and interior design of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining (one of my favorite movies). One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is a slow motion close up of the red elevator doors that flood the hallways with large amounts blood. The red doors mimicked the doors on the hotel. Even the tribal design on the dark wood panel placed above the doors is the same. The haunted Stanley Hotel in Colorado inspired Kubrick to write The Shining but the decorative Native American touches and the overall feel of the Awahnee can be seen throughout the movie. The hotel is cemented in the past; it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark.
The dining room had native touches and gave the impression of power and greatness. The dark room seemed masculine. The chandeliers were dangling high from thick gothic chains and the lights glittered dimly to light the room in a hazy glow. As we peeked in, I pictured the empty room full of people and imagine grand balls once held there. In my head I could see images above of spirits dancing to the classical music that played in the background. The lights sparkled, as their iridescent bodies twirled above.
Outside, the hotel’s lights contrasted off the cobble stone walls that bear witness to the natural wonders of the world. Certain landmarks in Yosemite are haunted by its past. This land, this place of great natural beauty and splendor was tainted far before the grand hotel opened in the 1920’s. This land holds secrets from the previous land dwellers. The dark secrets are settled deep in the land, deep beneath the soil, but the curse boils and bubbles close to the surface.
When white settlers arrived in Yosemite Valley they decided to steal the land and everything on it, and relocate the Ahwahnee people to a reservation far off in Fresno, California. The normally peaceful Ahwahnee, led by a Chief Tenaya, did not go peacefully.
I picked the easy trail closest to the hotel for us to hike so my daughter would go peacefully. California was in the middle of a drought for the second year in a row so the valley floor had no snow. We hiked with ease along the cracked dirt path lined with dry red and brown leafed trees. We laughed and listened to the silence. The winds picked up and became suddenly unpredictable so we didn’t hike farther into the forest. I thought I heard something, a strange noise from some kind of animal.
“Shhh. Listen,” I said.
“What is it, Mommy?”
We both have Native American blood, her more than I. Her father is part Cherokee and I am either an eighth or sixteenth Blackfoot, depending on what family member I talk to (although I was told by my aunt that we are from the same tribe as Pocahontas, which is another tribe completely). Regardless, this might partially explain why we are both in tune with nature and our surroundings. As we walked slowly down the path, I spotted a deer in the near distance and we quietly admired her beauty.
“Look over there,” I said, suspended by the nearness of the wild animal.
“She is pretty. Don’t scare her. Be quiet,” I said. The deer stood still with her head bowed down, eating the grass and berries below. We stood there silently and just watched her. My daughter then made a sudden move and she ran.
“You scared her,” I said.
“I wanted to get closer,” she said.
“You have to respect nature.”
We heard another noise. It sounded like a whimpering puppy, lost in woods.
“Do you hear that?” my daughter asked with her eyes as wide open as possible.
“We should go back. It’s probably just some hiker’s dog,” I said but what I really heard was someone or something pacing with bare feet close by us.
Startled by the sound, we hiked faster. After the hike, we decided to drive to the nearby museum and Indian Village. The village has replica structures around a paved path with information along the way about the people that used to call Yosemite their home. We first crept alongside bark-covered homes that were once used by the Miwok. The homes were constructed with a lodge pole pine framework complete with buffalo hide covers. The mighty lodge pole pine was used to their advantage. The pine poles were lashed together with grapevines to construct a makeshift home. The natives used only what they needed, and lived their life in balance and harmony with nature.
The room had a balance of rustic history and elegance to it, decorated comfortably while also highlighting natural surroundings with Native American influences. Those influences speak to guests in voices that inhabit Yosemite’s past, a past I didn’t want to be reminded of, one with the unspeakable pain of displacement. I heard it whisper in the corners of the hallway and I tried to tune it out but it was beyond my power.
Some say the 6th floor is haunted by the ghost of Mary Curry Tressider, one of the hotel’s former developers who had been elected president of Yosemite Park after her husband and former park president died. I read about Mary in the “about the author” section of her book Trees of Yosemite. She lived in a suite in the hotel for many years and she died on that floor in 1970. She had such a strong connection to the hotel that people have said her ghost still roams throughout the floor. She became stuck in time, and can’t leave. Sightings of her ghost have been reported by staff and guests on that floor, especially where her room was located. The entity has been said to be a prankster. She is not a demon out to harm guests or frighten the life out of them but instead she has been known for tucking in visitors at night, folding clothes, and misplacing items around rooms. The ghost might be trying to make a connection and call out to guests.
“Hello,” I called out to my mom and daughter.
“We’re over here,” they said in unison. I looked down the hall to the left and saw them in front of the door next to the rocking chair.
As I walked down the hall, I felt a sense of urgency. I could sense the presence of disembodied footsteps, so I walked faster. The footsteps drew nearer and I felt like I was being followed and needed to hurry to the end of the hall. I got my large metal key out of my pocket, inserted it into the door and turned it while I pushed the door open with my arm. Inside the room the beds sat close together, Indian blankets were thrown on top. Silhouettes of trees looked at us through the windows, welcoming us to the room. The decorations blended with the natural setting. The décor throughout the hotel was shrouded by its past with patters of restless mediations, and stark designs.
It was wine, cheese and hot chocolate hour on another floor, so my daughter and I headed down the long hallway to the stairs, while my mom rested in the room. The elevator’s red doors repelled me, as did the old, slow and rustic designed so the stairs seemed to be a better means of transportation. Down the halls and throughout the hotel there were wooden chairs and benches that blended with the Native touches. Some were made out of branches and other features were a little more modern. One piece of furniture in particular was infamous to the staff. A certain rocking chair on the third floor moved back and forth by itself. The third floor was where John F. Kennedy stayed and requested a rocking chair in his room when he visited in 1962. Kennedy had back pain and spent a lot of time rocking in it. The chair was removed from the room when he left, but after his death, the rocking chair had been seen moving throughout the halls of the hotel’s third floor. The third floor of the hotel also served as a naval convalescent hospital during World War II. Personally, I think if the soldiers died in the hospital then that seems like more of a likely reason for it to be haunted. But who knows, maybe its Kennedy’s ghost in the rocking chair?
We walked in the hotel’s happy hour reception and everything was picked over so we headed down to the lobby to the hotel’s gift shop. The focus was on local artisans, so I bought a local red blend wine with a pretty Yosemite label on it, a locally made huckleberry chocolate bar and a glass bottle of Pepsi. A sweet shop and a bar were also in the lobby but we just got the best of both in one stop. Outside a heated outdoor swimming pool called to us but in the raw, freezing 30 degree temperature, the icy air killed the lure of the steam.
“Mommy, can I go swimming?”
“No. The water’s too cold. You’ll get sick.”
“I won’t get sick. The man said the water’s heated.”
“No is no,” I said with a double meaning, more motherly advice I have to give her when she is older. The woes that are reserved for that story are incapable of alleviation, so it is better removed from the conversation…for now.
“It’s not fair! I want to go swimming.”
“Life’s not fair sometimes.”
We walked back to the room, well, I walked as my daughter stomped, pouting she didn’t get her way with her mouth half puckered. Disembodied footsteps followed us, I looked back and she was no longer stomping.
“What was that noise?” I asked. There was a shudder in my pulse as I asked, trying not to shiver.
“Mommy I’m scared.”
“Stop. Our room is down the hall,” I looked back and grabbed her hand and walked faster. I turned my head to look back three more times until we got to the door. I unlocked it and pushed it open.
“Let me in. I don’t like this hallway. It’s pooky,” my daughter said. She still said some words in a funny cute childish way and I didn’t want to correct her.
To our surprise, grandma was in the rocking chair in the room reading. There are no televisions or cell phone reception at the hotel. The grave old voices hid in the walls. They conversed quietly amongst themselves and grew near and far depending on our location.
“I need to call dad and there is no reception here. I feel like I am in no-man’s-land,” my mom said, recollecting the motives that governed her when she was bored or homesick.
The water cascaded 617 feel down a sheer granite cliff to what looked like an endless abyss into no-man’s-land. The Ahwahnee tribe had a different perception of Bridalveil Fall than visitors today. The tribe believed the waterfall was haunted by an evil spirit called Po-ho-no. The spirit lured unsuspecting victims to their deaths. At times Po-ho-no used hypnotic rainbows in the mist to draw people closer, while other times the dark spirit would use curiosity against mankind, and appeared as an apparition to beckon people closer. Once the victims were close enough, a strong gust of wind carried them over the fall, like a besieging army, they could not escape. There have been a handful of recorded deaths of people getting blown over the fall and others who slipped and fell over. Campers have reported hearing strange disembodied noises coming from the direction of the fall at night.
Some believe that spirits of the fallen hikers roamed the park. The Miwoks thought a dark force stalks the men and women who come to admire the water’s beauty. The evil wind: Po-ho-no lured hikers near the edge of cliffs before pushing them off. The wind gusts over the top of the falls with no conscious repugnance, luring people to the edge, and once they were too close, there was no escaping.
The following day we took a drive around the park to look at the natural wonders. An hour elapsed before my eyes, then two.
“What a beautiful waterfall,” I said when we drove past it the next day sightseeing.
“Eerie, but beautiful,” I said again after looking at it longer, plunging into the darkness.
“Look at the rainbow going through it,” my mom said.
“Pretty,” my daughter said.
The blue and white cascading water contrasted with the blurry green clusters of trees. Almost all of Yosemite is wilderness and home to a number of conifers: lodgepole, ponderosa, incense cedar, and the giant sequoia. The lodgepole pine forest sprawls over 150,000 acres in the park, more than any other vegetation. Despite its durability in the cold, the large lodgepole pines can be found bleached of their color and stripped of their bark, in what are known as “ghost forests.” Although temporary, some of these trees stand in contrast, surrounded by healthy neighbors, for over 60 years. During the 1950’s, around 46,000 acres of lodgepole in Yosemite were defoliated and transformed into a ghost forest.
We made our journey there a couple months after three men had died in the park. I’d heard about the deaths briefly on the local news. With no information on cause of death provided in any of the three cases, their deaths still remain a mystery. James Michael Millet, Jr., 39, went on a solo hike to Yosemite Falls in August of 2015 and was found dead in the area of North Dome.
Timothy Nolan, 36, went backpacking from Happy Isles to Toulumne and back, and was found dead the following month in the backcountry. Matthew Baldwin, 24, also went on a day hike from Tamarack Flat to El Cap. His corpse was found in El Cap Gully. The mysteries that surrounded their deaths were as strange as the many infractions that preceded them.
There was something about the massive fierceness of the water falling from the cliff that made my stomach churn in trepidation when I looked at it. I turned away. Terror of the people sat down before me, in my mind and in my peripheral vision the dark cabalistic images looked real as we drove past Bridalveil Fall.
“Hand me my camera. I might as well take a picture since we’re stopped here,” I said.
“Roll down the window. I’m going to take a picture too,” my mom said in a nasally, unusually low voice as she handed me my camera. (Her voice is usually high pitched like Minnie Mouse.)
“Look over there,” I said as I pointed out the driver’s window to the field of green meadows where a deer stood. The granite rocks pointed high into the sky and the trees took vertical presence in the landscape. Forests and nearby lakes hid the wildlife. Natural processes operated in the natural environment. The park was subjected to less human alteration than other parts of the country.
“I want to see a pack of wolves,” my daughter said. “They are my spirit animal.” Ever since she was a small child she has been fascinated by wolves. I don’t discourage her interests.
“That would be super cool if we saw a pack of wolves but we don’t have wolves in California,” I said.
“We don’t have wolves in California?” they both said simultaneously. In the backseat the two of them glared out the window.
The traffic in Yosemite was congested as usual; an incessant echoing started to fill my ears of car horns and people. Every time I have been there, visitors from around the world jam pack the trails and hotels with their cameras, chatter and cars. I took a couple of pictures of the surrounding area. I especially like to photograph places that repel me and give me the creeps because I want to catch orbs on film. Orbs are blobs in pictures, plasma and energies of light that can appear as puffs of smoke or balls of light that some believe are ghastly spirits. I scanned through my pictures while we were stuck in a traffic jam but I did not notice anything out of the ordinary.
Traffic cleared and we made our way to the outdoor ice skating rink. Among the trees the small rink sat close to Mariposa Grove. The large trees made shadows on the ice. The expatiated shadows cut the rink in half. Nearby, a circular pit of fire was packed with travelers who were warming their cold appendages. The living embers of the fire glowed in the distance.
“Are you ready?” I asked my daughter in excitement.
“Yes!” she screamed back in joy.
Round and round we went against the wind, our blades cut into the ice. I told my daughter to take baby steps and hold on to the rail. The wind blew us back as we stood still and we hung on to the metal bar. The wind died down a little and we skated forward on the slippery ice. We both skated around the rink, holding hands.
“Walk like a duck,” I said as I skated in front of her to show her how to skate.
“I don’t want to let go of the side,” she said.
“You won’t learn unless you try,” I said. She let go and immediately grabbed onto me, almost pulling me down.
The cold was growing sharper as each minute passed. We skated three times around the rink. The gravity of the danger of falling steadied my nerves. I then requested a tool for children, a walker with tennis balls on the bottom. This contraption made it easier to skate, but they only made small ones for children, not uncoordinated adults who were prone to falling.
Many have fallen to their death attempting to climb the granite walls. The park has a disturbing number of accidental deaths. The unanswered questions, accidental death, verses suicide, still lingers in many unsolved cases. Many visitors seemed to vanish into thin air, and their bodies have never been found. One of the most widely known disappearances was of 14-year-old Stacy Ann Arras in July of 1981. Arras was on a camping trip with her father and six others at the Sunrise Sierra Camp. She left the camp to take pictures of a lake and never returned. She could not be located anywhere in the park but her camera lens was found. Yosemite Park Superintendent Robert Binnewies said at the time, “She just seems to have disappeared.”
More recently, and similarly perplexing, was an unsolved missing person case, in June 2005. Michael Allen Ficery, 51, was an experienced hiker and backpacker who visited the north side of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park for a hike. He was last seen walking north on Pacific Crest Trail towards TilTill Mountain.
When we think of ghosts, we think of old tales of ghosts from hundreds of years ago, with tattered clothes from a different era. The haunting stories in the park are usually stories of ghosts from a different era, but they can be from the recently deceased, the spirits who have just died there who are not ready to transition over to the other side. Modern ghosts take noiseless footsteps and they preach spectral evidence quietly, of a curse that has long haunted the land. The voices heard in the dark by strangers may be those of the recently deceased, warning others of the park.
There are far more incidents of rock climbing/hiking accidents in Tenaya Canyon than other places in the park. So many have gone missing in Tenaya Canyon it has been branded with the nickname “The Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite.” Unnerving events occur at Tenaya Canyon, the stunningly gorgeous yet treacherous spot has been shrouded in myth since the first man or woman set foot in the area. The water filled in various pools and the waterfalls cascaded dramatically to its final destination. Earth’s liquid fell to great lengths into another deep granite mountain, Cloud’s Rest. It was aesthetically situated right next to the Half Dome, where more than 20 deaths have occurred. Far more accidents on the trail leading up to Half Dome have occurred, more than 60 accidental deaths. This specific location is said to be cursed.
Chief Tenaya defied the order to get out. In response to his defiance, the white settlers sent in a contingent of armed men led by a Captain John Boling to forcibly remove the tribe with brute force. Instead of fleeing the land, the Ahwahnee stood their ground and fought. During the horrific battle, Chief Tenaya’s son was one of the many in his tribe murdered in cold blood. The sight of his dead son sent him into a rage. In his rage of the evils the new settlers inflicted made his heart cry out. He cried out to his elders for help because he wanted them to experience a bitter retribution. The energy he omitted was so powerful that he invoked a curse on the land. The curse was so powerful that it would last until the end of time for all those who trespassed against him. Elizabeth Godfrey tells the account of the chief’s curse in Yosemite Indians:
Kill me, sir captain! Yes kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill all my race if you had the power. You have made me sorrowful, my life dark; you killed the child of my heart, why not kill the father? You may kill me sir captain, but you shall not live in peace, I will follow in your footsteps, I will not leave my home but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the wind; where-so-ever you go I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold.
The chief cursed Tenaya Canyon in order to get back at those who stole it. The land is stuck in time, unable to repair the damage that has been done, it sits there and rots. The land held witness to the wrongdoing so now it is cursed forever and reminds visitors of the darkness hanging over the area. The leer of the dead lingers there with significance for all eternity.
Some say the entire Yosemite Valley is cursed by freak accidents, as well as numerous unexplained occurrences, strange sightings of monsters, UFOs, unrecognizable noises and shadowy apparitions. Even the experienced mountaineer John Muir was not immune to the curse, when he fell in a near-fatal accident while exploring the canyon in 1873, which he later describes in his 1918 book Steep Trails:
“I could not remember what made me fall, or where I had fallen from …”
One of the most famous ghosts of the park is of a boy who is said to lurk around Grouse Lake. The Travel Channel’s piece by Joe Sills “Ghost Stories of America’s National Parks” said the ghost was first officially reported in 1857 by Galen Clark. Clark would later become Yosemite’s first park ranger but before he was the ranger he had a strange experience one day when hiking near a lake. He claimed while he walked along the shores of the small lake he had heard a cry coming from the water, which sounded out of this world, like a lost dog. Bewildered by what he just heard, the ranger visited a neighboring tribe for guidance.
“What kind of animal did I hear yesterday?” he asked the Native Americans who lived closest to the lake. He tried to repeat the sound of the animal and stated it sounded like a wolf or lost dog.
“Do you have a dog?” he asked before anyone could answer the first question.
“What could have made that noise?” he asked with dread in his voice.
They replied that it was not a dog: “A long time ago an Indian boy had been drowned in the lake, and every time anyone passed there he cried. No one dared go into the lake, for the boy would catch them by the legs and pull them down and they would drown.”
The boy was not ready to die and does not take kindly to visitors. The lake became his vessel that he uses to channel energy to scare the living with phantasmal reverberations he conjures from the water.
“Beware. He will attack anyone who sets foot in the water,” tribe members told Clark.
“He cursed it and claimed it for his own selfish purposes.” He is trapped between life and death and can’t move on to the afterlife. He was stuck in time playing pranks. He was the monster in stories. Although he looked like us at one time, the boy transformed into something inhuman and against nature. A long time ago he might have been the same, but he had stepped over to the dark side.
Day two my daughter and I set out to hike to Mirror Lake (and my mom decided to stay at the hotel). It was a short hike and the reflection of Half Dome on the pristine lake was rumored to be worth the walk. Much to our surprise, when we got there the water had been emptied by Mother Nature. The dry particles were sunken below the surface; memories of Mirror Lake hidden on the surface of the landscape. The eerie granite surroundings hovered over us high in the vast distance and watched our every move. I felt like we were trespassing. I imagined Native American apparitions on horseback, the shadows were lined up on the granite cliff above us on Half Dome, watching over all. I chanted to myself in my head: I respect the land. I would have fought back too if I had the chance. What men did to you was wrong. I shake my head, as if to pluck my own spirit back into reality.
Kimberly Horg earned her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Humboldt State University and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at California State University, Fresno. Kimberly has had hundreds of articles published throughout the country. She also has experience in editing, graphic art as well as photography and has had dozens of photos published in magazines and newspapers. Kimberly wrote and self published two children’s books while pursuing her master’s degree. Most recently, she has been awarded a Diversity Fellowship to the 2020 Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference. To read more examples of her work, visit www.kimberlyhorg.com.
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