By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: Yosemite’s Wawona is the story of the great National Park’s historic hotel and the nearby giant sequoia trees that attracted people to visit the region and support public preservation of the land. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
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 (now called the Big Trees Lodge), where all stages stopped.
In the summer, every other week after July 4, the hotel offers a living history program. Called the Barn Dance, it occurs on the grounds at the Pioneer History Center. Among its attractions, Wawona has a stand of the giant inland sequoias. These Big Trees are cousins of the coast redwoods.
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 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 way to Wawona from Yosemite’s Valley Floor, make a detour to the viewpoint on the road up Glacier Point. Here you’ll see the entire valley from an elevated perspective. This turnoff, just before the Wawona Tunnel, presents one of the most famous vistas in the park. It even rivals the view from Glacier Point.
From this elevated position you enjoy a sweeping panorama of all the major landforms in the valley. 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.
Then proceed on to Wawona.
The Big Trees
The 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 in Wawona. Wawona means “big tree” in the original Native American language. The cluster of trees here is known as the Mariposa Grove.
The giant sequoias are the inland species of redwoods, the most massive living entities on the earth. Visiting them is worth a half-day trip to Wawona. To clarify, the largest 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 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 Wawona, 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. See them on foot or by park service tram.
Wawona Area History
The Wawona area is rich in history. Venerable Big Trees Lodge offers weekend barbecues every Saturday in summer. The nearby Pioneer Yosemite History Center describes the life of early homesteaders in 10 restored buildings.
Painted white, the Big Trees Lodge is a grand wooden structure. It includes some historic buildings, such as the 1876 Clark Cottage. In the lobby you’ll find historic photos of the Thomas Hill studio, which is nearby. You’ll also see a photo of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt at the Grizzly Giant Tree in the Wawona grove.
One special pleasure of the Big Trees Lodge 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 is particularly pleasing in summer when costumed re-enactors portray early life in Yosemite.
Each building represents a different aspect of Yosemite history. The Covered Bridge and Gray Barn recalls that Wawona was the largest stage stop in Yosemite. In short, all Yosemite-bound traffic had to cross the bridge, which was built in 1857 by Galen Clark.
Wawona is in the southern part of the 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 Big Trees Lodge and its lobby, filled with historic photos. In addition, see 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 20-minute drive south of the Lodge. To adequately protect the trees, you must now venture in on foot or take a park service tram. The setting is impressive. Some of these arboreal giants are more than 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 lodge closes from January 1 until mid-March. Moreover, the Big Trees are only accessible only on snowshoes. Moreover, the Pioneer Yosemite History Center features re-enactors only in summer.
The venerable Big Trees Lodge is the place to stay. Details: 209/375-6556 for front desk, 888/413-8869 for reservations; https://www.travelyosemite.com/.
The Big Trees Lodge dining room, the only restaurant in Wawona, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try the pot roast.
For Further Information
For Yosemite National Park information: 209/372-0200; https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm.
For Big Trees Lodge reservations: 888/413-8869; https://www.travelyosemite.com/.