By Lee Foster
Author’s Note: This article “Yosemite’s Wawona: A Historic Hotel and the Big Trees” is a chapter in my new travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Yosemite is also covered in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
Wawona, located in the southern part of Yosemite National Park, is a special world unto itself. Historically, it was the first stop on the stage coach route into the park. Today you can still stay at the original Wawona Hotel, where all stages stopped.
The stage road was operational by 1874. The first cars entered in 1914. However, much earlier, in 1864, the big trees at Wawona in the Mariposa Grove prompted Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Grant, which turned over to the state of California management of the area around the massive trees. Wawona has an impressive stand of these giant inland sequoias. These big trees are cousins of the coast redwoods. Timing was important in 1864 because the 1862 Homestead Act allowed any individual to claim 160 acres for a small payment and proof of living on the land. It was felt that the big trees should be under public control.
Each summer, in weeks after July 4, the Wawona Hotel offers a living history program to recount these earlier days. Called the Barn Dance, the program occurs near the hotel on the grounds at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center.
Wawona was one of John Muir’s favorite places. He was born in Scotland and educated in botany at the University of Wisconsin. Subsequently, Muir ended up in the California Sierra, which became his spiritual home. Most importantly, his books My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite make fitting literary companions for a trip.
The Historic Glacial Story
On the road between Wawona and Yosemite’s valley floor, pause at Tunnel View to take in the epic landscape. Here you’ll see the entire valley and its celebrated landforms from an elevated perspective. This turnoff, just before the Wawona Tunnel, presents the most famous vista in the park. The scene rivals the view from the top at Glacier Point.
From this elevated position you enjoy a sweeping panorama. For example, you see here how the glacial forces scoured out the upper part of the valley. Sheets of granite were peeled off like layers of an onion. Moreover, the rocky debris was eventually deposited in a moraine at the western end.
Three successive waves of glaciers slid across the granite face of Yosemite. They polished Half Dome and El Capitan to their present smoothness. Moreover, the most recent glacier retreated only 10,000 years ago.
Chances are your trip will include Wawona or the valley floor. The sequence will depend on your direction of travel.
The Big Trees
The sometimes-capitalized Big Trees (Sequoiadendron giganteums) can be seen at three groves in Yosemite. However, the most prominent grove lies 35 miles south of the valley along Highway 41 near Wawona. Wawona means “big tree” in the original Native American language. The cluster of trees here is known as the Mariposa Grove, south of Wawona near the park entrance.
The giant sequoias are the inland species of redwoods. They are the most massive living entities on the earth. Visiting them is worth a half-day trip to Wawona. To clarify, the largest single example of the inland redwood, called the General Sherman Tree, is farther south along the mountains in Sequoia National Park.
At the Wawona area cluster of trees, the Grizzly Giant is the oldest tree. Grizzly Giant clocks in at 2,800 years old. Further, it has a height of 209 feet and base diameter of 30.7 feet. Nearby, the Massachusetts Tree, broken into chunks, shows the wood of the sequoia.
There were two tunnel trees in the Mariposa Grove, but one fell over in 1968-1969 winter storms. The 232-foot California Tree remains upright. However, the Wawona Tunnel Tree fell. Subsequently, to protect the roots of the tree, cars can no longer drive through the tunnel. You see them on foot after being driven into the grove on a park service tram.
Mariposa Grove Traveler Experience Changed
The entire experience of the Mariposa Grove for a visitor has now changed. Everyone, except the disabled, rides in via a park service tram. Then you walk around to see the big trees. This helps protect the ground around the roots of the big trees from compaction. A national park service experience of nature, beyond your car, is another goal.
Wawona Area History
The Wawona area is rich in history. Venerable Wawona Hotel offers weekend barbecues every Saturday in summer. The nearby Pioneer Yosemite History Center describes the life of early homesteaders in 10 restored buildings.
The Wawona Hotel is a grand wooden structure, painted white. Nearby is the first historic building in the area, the 1876 Galen Clark Cottage. In the lobby of the Wawona Hotel you’ll find historic photos of the Thomas Hill studio, another adjacent small structure. Be sure to stop in the Thomas Hill studio to see historic displays and talk to rangers about visiting the area. Photographers and painters did a great deal to create public awareness and hunger for saving the beauty of the western half of America.
The classic photo to watch out for shows John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in their 1903 campout at the Grizzly Giant Tree in the Wawona grove. Muir helped inspire Roosevelt to achieve a landmark 228 set asides for National Park, National Monument, and National Preserve declaration during his administration.
One special pleasure of the Wawona Hotel is entertainer Tom Bopp, who has made a career out of sharing early Yosemite lore. Listen to his songs during his evening show in the parlor of the hotel.
The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, a cluster of historic buildings a short walk away, is particularly pleasing in summer when costumed re-enactors portray early life in Yosemite. However, even in winter, the haunting set of buildings allows your imagination to fill in the vitality of life here in the 19th century.
Aspects of Yosemite History
Each building represents a different aspect of Yosemite history. A Covered Bridge and the Gray Barn recall that Wawona was the prominent stage stop in Yosemite. An Artist Cabin describes how visual records of Yosemite excited public energy for preservation and public ownership. In short, all Yosemite-bound traffic had to cross the bridge. In 1857 local resident Galen Clark built the first bridge. The massive wood beams of the current bridge are noteworthy in their size.
Wawona is in the southern part of Yosemite Park. Follow the park road south from the valley floor to Wawona if you are already in the park. Alternatively, enter from the south via Highway 41, which meets Highway 49 outside the park.
Be Sure to See
Visit the historic Wawona Hotel and its lobby, filled with historic photos. In addition, see the Thomas Hills studio and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. Linger around the historic structures, learning the story of early Yosemite.
Then enjoy the Big Trees, the giant sequoias at Wawona, in the Mariposa Grove, a short drive south of the Wawona Hotel. As mentioned, to adequately protect the trees, you now venture in on foot or take a park service tram. The setting is impressive. Some of these arboreal giants are close to 300 feet high and around 3,000 years old.
Best Time of Year
Summer would definitely be the best time to visit Wawona. In winter the Wawona Hotel closes. Moreover, the Big Trees are only accessible in winter on snowshoes. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center features re-enactors only in summer.
The venerable Wawona Hotel is a place to stay in the park. Details: 209-375-6556 for front desk, 888-413-8869 for reservations; https://www.travelyosemite.com/. Expense, seasonal availability, type of room, and limited number of rooms may all figure into a traveler’s plans to stay inside or outside the park.
Outside the park, Oakhurst in Madera County offers extensive lodging and dining options. One lodging is Yosemite Southgate, 40644 Highway 41 in Oakhurst, 559-683-3555, www.yosemitesouthgate.com.
The Wawona Hotel dining room, the only restaurant in Wawona, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try the pot roast.
In Oakhurst, one good choice is Rev’s Farm House, 49271 Golden Oak Loop, 559-658-FARM, www.revscalifornia.com. This might be the place to enjoy a ribeye steak or a burger with all the trimmings.
For Further Information
For Yosemite National Park information: 209-372-0200; https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm.
For Wawona Hotel reservations: 888-413-8869; https://www.travelyosemite.com/.
For info on Oakhurst and Madera County south of the Yosemite entrance, visit www.yosemitethisyear.com.