Giant trees, a pioneer town, and truly spectacular vistas make up the main reasons to hit the sights in Yosemite’s Wawona basin. Both Wawona and the nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias share approximately the same elevation (5,000 feet) and the same weather: warm, mild days and cooler nights. Summer temperatures typically reach the mid-80s or low 90s during the day and drop into the 50s at night. Both areas receive a few feet of snow in winter, which often closes the road to Mariposa Grove. Highway 41 stays open year-round, but you must carry chains in your vehicle at all times in winter.
Sights in Wawona Basin
Big Trees Lodge (Formerly Wawona Hotel)
The historic Victorian-style Big Trees Lodge (formerly Wawona Hotel, 8308 Wawona Rd., 801/559-4884) makes a lovely sight alongside Highway 41 just south of Wawona. Have a seat inside the hotel dining room for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or just drop by for a look at the old photographs in the lobby area. A gift shop, bookstore, and visitors center are located across from the hotel.
Pioneer Yosemite History Center
The Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona brings Yosemite’s history to life. This collection of historic buildings, many of which were relocated from other places in the park, are from different periods of Yosemite’s history—a U.S. Cavalry office, the bakery the Degnan family used to bake bread in the Valley, a Wells Fargo station that served stagecoach passengers, a jail, and a few homesteads. Live demonstrations are often held at the blacksmith shop and other buildings (check the Yosemite newspaper for dates and times).
Horse-drawn carriage rides (10 minutes, $5 adults, $4 children 3-12) are offered daily. You can walk around the buildings’ exteriors on your own (an interpretive brochure is available); in the summer months, docents sometimes dress in period costumes and lead visitors on free tours inside the buildings.
To reach the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, cross Forest Drive and walk through a covered bridge across the South Fork of the Merced River. The bridge was built in 1857 by the Washburn brothers, who established a tourist facility in what later became Wawona. Although the elaborate bridge served a practical purpose—the covered deck and truss portion protected the bridge from winter weather—it may have been built more to satisfy the Washburns’ longing for the familiar sights of their East Coast family home. The Washburn brothers owned the Wawona Hotel (now the Big Trees Lodge) and most of the land in this area until 1932, when the National Park Service purchased it.
Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
The Mariposa Grove is the largest grove of sequoias in the park. It contains more than 500 mature trees, each more than 10 feet in diameter, spread out over 250 acres. The grove is divided into two areas—upper and lower. Most casual visitors stroll through the lower grove to see the most famous “named” trees, like the Grizzly Giant. Adventurous hikers will want to wander around both the upper and lower groves (six miles round-trip with a 1,200-foot elevation gain), a trek that requires a good amount of climbing. Most of them say that every footstep was worth the effort required.
To get to Mariposa Grove, take one of the free shuttle buses (daily Memorial Day-Labor Day) from the park’s South entrance or from Wawona. In winter and early spring, visitors can park near the South entrance station and snowshoe or walk two miles into the grove.
Many visitors choose to visit only some of the more “famous” trees by walking a shorter loop (about 0.5 mile) that passes the Fallen Monarch, the Grizzly Giant, and the California Tunnel Tree. A series of interpretive signs on the trail to the Grizzly Giant provide an informative, self-guided tour.
The Fallen Monarch, which fell more than 300 years ago, was made famous by an 1899 photograph of the U.S. Cavalry and their horses standing on top of it. A short walk east from the parking lot is the Grizzly Giant, the largest tree in this grove at 210 feet tall and 31 feet across at its base. It is the most photographed sequoia in Yosemite. Its massive, gnarled branches appear to be sculpted by some unseen hand. One particularly impressive branch measures almost seven feet in diameter—larger than the trunks of most trees.
Slightly north, the California Tunnel Tree was tunneled in 1895 so that stagecoaches could drive through. In the early 1900s it was used as a “substitute” for the more famous Wawona Tunnel Tree, located in the upper portion of the Mariposa Grove, which was frequently inaccessible due to winter storms. Today you can walk through the California Tunnel Tree. The Wawona Tunnel Tree collapsed in 1969 at the ripe age of 2,200 years. Most likely it died prematurely; the 26-foot-long, 10-foot-high tunnel carved into its base weakened its ability to withstand that year’s heavy winter snowfall.
The upper grove has the interesting Mariposa Grove Museum (10am-4pm daily in summer only), housed in a log cabin, with exhibits on the history of this region and mankind’s long fascination with the giant sequoia. The museum sits on the spot where Galen Clark, the first official guardian of Yosemite, once had his home. Nearby is an unusual sequoia known as the Telescope Tree, whose hollowed-out trunk creates a telescoping effect if you stand inside it and look upward. It’s a two-mile hike from the shuttle stop to the museum.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon.