Just inside Yosemite’s south gate and a short ride from Tenaya Lodge, Wawona is a great place for “time-travelers” to connect with Yosemite history as well as outdoor recreation.
Discover Yosemite's Pioneer History
It was here in 1857 that Galen Clark had founded Clark's Station to offer lodging to travelers on their way to Yosemite Valley. The previous year, the 42-year-old Clark had been told that, because of the condition of his lungs, he could die "at any hour." He spent the next 54 years in Yosemite, dying just short of his 96th birthday. Clark was one of the people most responsible for the creation of the original park. He was the first guardian of Yosemite, worked hard to protect the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, befriended John Muir, and founded what would later become the town of Wawona.
Covered Bridge in the Wawona Pioneer History Center
Wawona is now home to the Big Trees Lodge, the Hill Studio, the Wawona Golf Course and the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, among other attractions.
The Pioneer History Center includes several historic buildings from the pioneer days, among them one of the region’s only remaining covered bridges. Galen Clark first bridged the river in 1868, but the bridge was not covered until Henry Washburn bought out Clark and covered the bridge to match the bridges of his native Vermont. In addition, you will find here the old jail, the Wells Fargo office and other buildings from the pioneer days. In the summer, the National Park Service offers wagon rides in a replica wagon on a donation basis and has a working blacksmith and other living history.
Hiking in the Wawona Area
Wawona also offers some great hiking from flat to steep, short to long. You can hike from Wawona to the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Valley or the High Sierra. Most people, however, hike one of three trails in and around Wawona.
Wawona Meadow Loop
The Wawona Meadow Loop is just over three miles and is one of the very few dog-friendly trails inside the national park. It's relatively flat and makes for a nice run as well for those who are so inclined. There are several places you can start, but the easiest is to turn up Chowchilla Mountain Road directly across from the entrance to the Big Trees Lodge. Drive across the golf course and park under the trees. The trail includes a number of interpretative signs talking about the history and ecology of the area.
There is also a short hike of less than a mile that takes you to Swinging Bridge, a suspension footbridge in Wawona that crosses the South Fork of the Merced River upstream from the famed covered bridge. You can start this either from the end of Chilnualna Falls Road or the end of Forest Drive in Wawona. Regardless of which trailhead you start from, the walk to Swinging Bridge is short and flat and the spot is serene and relaxing.
Chilnualna Falls Trail
Picturesque cascade at the start of the Chilnualna Falls Trail
The Chilnualna Falls Trail is one of the premier hikes in Yosemite. To get to the trailhead, pass through the town of Wawona heading toward Yosemite Valley. Cross the bridge, take a right on Chilnualna Falls Road and look for well-signed trailhead parking in about two miles.
From the car, head up the road a bit until you spot the trail and, in 4.2 miles (6.8km), you arrive at the top of Chilnualna Falls, a set of three falls at the top of the ridge above Wawona. The trail is continuously uphill, but less steep than the trails up out of Yosemite Valley.
You begin by passing close to a picturesque lower cascade only about a quarter mile up the trail. This is an impressive cascade in spring runoff and a pleasant and relaxing place to splash in the water in late summer.
From there the trail leaves the creek for a time, wandering through the oak and mixed conifer forests. In the right season, the trail is lined for over a mile with Mountain Misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa). Despite the rather unfortunate name, Mountain Misery is in the Rose family and sports attractive white flowers. When in high season, the blooms of Mountain Misery create flower display of literally millions of flowers along the Chilnualna Falls Trail.
You will continue up through several switchbacks with glimpses of the lower cascade of Chilnualna Falls proper as well as views of Wawona Dome, the large rock face above Wawona. Finally, you emerge rather abruptly at the top of the first fall. The fall itself is hard to see, since you're on top, but you can watch the cascade pour over the edge. You can also continue walking to see the middle and upper cascades. In spring, these falls will be raging. In late summer, you can easily cross the creek and relax on the rocks for lunch.
Relaxing at the top of the lower cascade of Chilnualna Falls at low water.