Miwok Indians named it “Pallahchun,” meaning “a good place to stay.” Settlers later named it after the Miwok name for “big tree,” wawō’na. Though, to many, it is Yosemite National Park’s “best-kept secret.”
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With its historical hotel, golf course, history center, artist studio and nearby attractions, Wawona is where people who live in Yosemite Valley go to get away, relax and recreate.
The community of 160 residents (mostly park workers) sits astride the South Fork of the Merced River near the southwest corner of the national park. The area was settled by Galen Clark, Yosemite’s first protector in 1855, four years after Yosemite Valley was first entered by militia who were chasing a supposed Native American raiding party.
The nearby Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, preserved by President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago this June, made Wawona a likely place to stop for sightseers to the park. John and Edward Washburn bought property from Clark and built the Wawona Hotel in 1876. It was expanded and rebuilt until 1916. Today, the Wawona Hotel’s 104 guest rooms and six cottages and structures, remain much as they looked during during the Victorian era. In 1987, it was designated as a National Historical Landmark.
Rooms are furnished with period furniture and vintage fixtures. It has no telephones or televisions in guest rooms, which makes it a popular choice for those who want to get away, without being out of the way. Also, the hotel has a swimming pool, tennis courts and nine-hole, 3,050-yard, par-35 golf course.
The Wawona Golf Course was designed by Walter G. Favarque in 1918 and was one of the first regulation courses in the Sierra when it opened. Favarque designed it to blend into the national park’s forest surroundings. Golfers describe it as having beautifully fairways and rough, though slow greens, due to how it must be tended considering the number of deer that reside on and around the course, which winds through forest of incense cedar, bigleaf maple and ponderosa pine. At $25.50 for nine holes on a weekend and $21.50 midweek, playing Wawona is one of the best deals at a resort short course in California.
Art and culture have been part of Yosemite National Park since its earliest days. Thomas Hill’s Studio, located beside the Wawona Hotel is where the famous landscape painter worked and met with clients and visitors from 1884 to 1908. Today it houses a small museum of his work, as well as Yosemite’s southern visitor center.
The Wawona Hotel has become famous for its historical performer, Tom Bopp, who plays piano and sings period music from Yosemite’s bygone eras. Bopp has, like so many other living Yosemite institutions (including Lee Stetson who portrays John Muir in Yosemite Valley and countless other artists, photographers, rock climbers, naturalists and characters) come to represent and interpret the cultural and social heartbeat and history of the national park. His performances occur Tuesday through Satruday evenings at the Wawona Hotel.
A favorite evening in Yosemite is to enjoy a drink on one of the Wawona Hotel’s broad verandas, while listening to Bopp perform, then dine in the hotel’s nostalgic Victorian dining room. Chef McFann presents traditional dishes appropriate to the hotel’s style, including pot roast, fresh trout and flat iron steak. On Saturday evenings in summer, the hotel hosts a Western barbecue.
Nostalgia, after all, is the glue that makes Wawona so wonderful. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center there has brought together a nostalgic collection of historic structures that were preserved and moved from locations throughout the national park. Ranger quarters, an artist’s cabin, a former jail and powder house, a settler’s cabin, a bakery and blacksmith shop, a covered bridge, barn and historical wagons can be visited. Thursday through Sunday free blacksmithing demonstrations show how hardware was made before big box hardware stores existed, and 10-minute horse-drawn stage rides ($5 adult/$4 child) take passengers back to when the only way to get to Yosemite was over dusty roads in open, horse-drawn coaches.
The Big Trees are, needless to say, the biggest attractions in the Wawona area. There are some 500 mature giant sequoias growing in the Mariposa Grove, south of Wawona. Two of them are among the largest in the world. Considered to be the largest living plants on Earth, giant sequoia overwhelm the imagination with their dimensions.
The lowest branch on the grove’s largest sequoia, the Grizzly Giant, is six feet in diameter. It has a circumference of 92 feet, meaning that it would take over 18 men to hold hands while standing around the tree. The trees are so big that visitors can walk through tunnels carved through some of the trees’ bases, though the famous Wawona Drive-Through Tree fell during a storm in 1969.
Free shuttle buses transport Wawona area guests to the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, where narrated tram tours of the Giant Sequoia can be taken, or trails can be hiked up into the trees. Popular hikes at Wawona include the six-mile Mariposa Grove trail to the Big Trees, the Alder Creek trail and trail to Chilnualna Falls.
Chilnualna Falls is series of cascades and waterfalls over which the South Fork of the Merced River twists and drops across a granite slope into a picture-perfect swimming hole. The trail to Chilnualna Falls starts at a private development within the national park, called the Redwoods (where reasonably priced vacation homes can be rented) and skirts the Merced River, passing holes with rainbow and brown trout so wary that the local joke is that “the fish are so smart, they were educated at Stanford.” These are all native, not stocked fish, so the national park requires artificial flies or lures, no bait, barbless hooks and catch-and-release for rainbows.
The Miwok people had it right. Wawona is a good place to stay. For more about Wawona, visit yosemitepark.com, nps.gov/yose or redwoodsinyosemite.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.