Yosemite’s Curry Village: Good Times with the Bear Necessities

Our Curry Village tent cabin

I was carrying my bag into Yosemite’s Curry Village, about to check into a canvas-sided, one-room shack that’s a hybrid of a tent and a cabin, when suddenly I came within an inch of stepping in one of the biggest piles of poop I’ve ever seen.

I know dog doo, cat scat, cow pies, horse manure, deer droppings, feral pig dung and, of course, human feces, and I knew this cake-sized coiled turd was none of the above. Barely disguised with dust, and resting a mere 10 feet or so from our door, it looked frightfully fresh, thick, dark, and flecked with something nutty and grainy — a hapless hiker’s granola bar, perhaps?

“A bear did that!” I said out loud to no one in particular. Then I found Morgan to show him, and we in turn showed it to a man we had just met in the neighboring tent cabin.

“I’m not surprised,” the man said. “You should see the patch job on my cabin,” and he held up his hand and mimed a menacing scratching motion while describing a large ursine claw mark still visible underneath a patch on his unit’s flimsy excuse for a wall.

“Well,” I said to Morgan, “We’re not in The Ahwahnee anymore.”

Once upon a time, when we were newlyweds and my in-laws occasionally traveled with us and very generously picked up the tab, I discovered Yosemite while staying with them at the national park’s historic and top-rated Ahwahnee Hotel. We would gather for drinks in the Great Lounge (every public room at The Ahwahnee is so special that each has its Own Name), and we’d marvel at the stone fireplaces that are tall enough to stand in, at the Native American designs stenciled on the beams, and at the floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase the valley’s 3000-foot-high granite cliffs, which are streaked black with lichens and white with waterfalls.

Morgan took this shot of The Ahwahnee in 2004, the last time we stayed there.

I fell in love with Yosemite Valley then, and also with The Ahwahnee. Built in 1927, it remains one of my favorite hotels in the world — a magnificent example of understated luxury that fits in beautifully with the natural environment.

There’s only one problem with The Ahwahnee: a standard room, which is quite cramped for a family of four, goes for $443 a night. The nicer rooms range from $500 – $1000+.

When Morgan and I decided to spend almost a full week in Yosemite without our kids (who were at a wonderful sleep-away camp), there was no question that The Ahwahnee was beyond our budget, and we didn’t really want to stay there anyway. We planned to spend entire days running and hiking, so a fancy room would feel like a waste and the dinnertime dress code a burden. We wanted to stay somewhere cheap and rustic, but not do full-fledged camping, since we also wanted a hot shower and a safe place to secure our things during the day while out on the trail.

Thankfully, less than a mile away on the east end of the valley, lies Curry Village, a sprawling, dusty collection of some 500 barracks-style canvas cabins. We had never spent time in Curry Village in spite of visiting Yosemite Valley numerous times over the past two decades. I wrongly assumed it didn’t have much to offer beyond low-cost lodging that looked, during the crowded peak season, like a happier version of a refugee camp.

A typical row of Curry Village tent cabins.

Did I end up liking it? As my dad always used to say rhetorically to indicate the obvious affirmative, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”

We rented an unheated, 8’x10′ cabin for four nights. Our cabin could sleep three, but others accommodate up to five (extra guests are $10 each). And what did we get for the summertime rate of $109 per night?

Inside our tent cabin.

Two cots — one double, one single — with sheets and Army Surplus-style wool blankets, a couple of well-worn towels, a metal shelf equipped with a safe, a single bare compact florescent bulb hanging from the ceiling, one chair, a padlock on the squeaky door, and a bear-proof storage locker outside. That’s it — no plumbing except in the communal bathrooms and dining area, and no outlets except in the public lounge. But it was comfortable, cozy, and we found the communal areas to be a great place to hang out each day after we finished long runs and hikes to three of Yosemite’s summits. (For a guide to recommended runs/hikes in the area, see my running blog.)

A cafeteria, taqueria, pizza and burger place, store, lounge and amphitheater are clustered in the village core, housed in buildings little changed since they were built in the early 1900s. In August, the village is packed with a diverse mix of people dominated by college-age backpackers from around the world and families with kids who zoom around on bikes or splash in the public pool. The mix makes Curry Village feel like a cross between a youth hostel and a family camp. It somehow manages to maintain a laid-back vibe in spite of peak-season crowding that makes finding a free table on the dining patio as challenging as climbing the cables to the summit of Half Dome.

Hanging around the Curry Village lounge.

No matter, you can eat in your lap while sitting in a rocker on the veranda of the shingled lounge, which is decorated with black-and-white photos depicting the village’s early days when the founders, David and Jenny Curry, managed it.

The Currys were part of the first wave of tourists to explore Yosemite in the 1890s, drawn to the extreme beauty of the wilderness that was depicted in articles by John Muir. But the couple balked at the $100 stage fare and couldn’t afford $4 per night for a hotel, so they established Camp Curry in 1899 to provide affordable lodging for Yosemite visitors. It was no-frills but high in spirits, with a dance hall, lounge and pool. It remains that way today. Park guides stage energetic shows for wide-eyed kids on the amphitheater stage, re-enacting Teddy Roosevelt or, more bizarrely, a slow-moving glacier, while across the way at the dining area, beer flows into pitchers and ice cream is scooped into cups all afternoon long. Squirrels run underfoot while placid deer munch on bushes along the walkways, almost as tame as lazy dogs.

Comparing The Ahwahnee to Curry Village is like comparing apples to oranges, or a giant sequoia to a lowly oak, but if I had the choice to stay at one or the other regardless of cost, I might actually pick Curry Village. Unlike a resort that encourages visitors to lie around and be pampered, the tent cabins — noisy and chilly enough to feel like a real campground — prompted us to wake up early, get outside and hit the trail. The communal areas bring strangers together for conversation. And the deer, squirrels and bear poop (which was never removed during our time there) remind us that we’re really in the woods, barely insulated from nature, and isn’t that the reason to go to Yosemite?

If you go: Make reservations at least six months in advance, and pack these not-so-obvious things:

  • a padlock to secure belongings in the bear-proof storage locker
  • earplugs to block the sound of other residents talking, laughing and snoring at night
  • rubber flip-flops to wear in the public showers
  • towels to supplement the small ones provided
  • sleeping bags for extra warmth at night
  • groceries and a cooler, to be kept in the bear-proof locker. Groceries from the village store are quite expensive, so it’s better to stock up on snacks and drinks ahead of time, and buy ice from the store to cool drinks. No cooking is allowed — not even camp stoves to heat water — but you can get free hot water from the village coffee bar, which is useful for making instant oatmeal for breakfast. Dining options are relatively affordable in Curry Village and pricier at around Yosemite Village.

Hit the trail for views like this of Sentinel Rock (on the left) and El Capitan (on the right) cleaved by Yosemite Valley.

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