19th century covered bridge leads visitors to
Wawona's Pioneer Yosemite History Center.
are few things more breathtaking than that first glimpse
of the Yosemite Valley and the sheer majesty of El
Capitan. But glorious as that is, it’s a mere subset of
the national park’s 1,162 square miles, which hold acres
of trails and rugged wilderness — and a Victorian blast
to the past in Wawona.
this particular damp, gray day, we had ventured to the
southern end of Yosemite to explore, not sure what to
expect from a map dot marked Pioneer Yosemite History
Center, but curious to see the historic Wawona hotel —
which is known these days as the Big Trees Lodge. We
strolled the veranda of the grand Victorian hotel, with
its period-perfect rooms and Adirondack chairs perched on
rolling lawns. And then we crossed the sweeping driveway
and descended the stone stairs leading to a covered bridge
straight out of the mid-19th century.
covered bridge is one of the oldest structures in
Yosemite. Built in 1857, the bridge was the stopping point
for stagecoaches heading to Yosemite Valley. Travelers
spent the night at the lodge and had their horses and
stages seen to at the old grey barn before embarking on
what was typically an eight-hour journey by 4-up stage —
a four-horse carriage — to the valley.
days, it’s a mere one-hour drive on paved roads in a
significantly cushier vehicle. But crossing the bridge on
foot, one can almost hear the rumble of wooden wheels and
the nickering of horses across the span of time. Emerge on
the other side, and it’s as if time has stopped
cluster of log cabins and historic buildings awaits. The
tableau may look like a village, but it’s a window to
the past, dotted by buildings moved here from different
parts of the park to represent different places and times.
when you peer in the dusty glass of the artist’s cabin,
built by painter Christian Jorgensen near Sentinel Bridge
in the 1850s and moved here a century later, it’s not
only Jorgensen’s digs. The cabin represents the
Instagrammers of the Gold Rush era, the early artists who
popularized and publicized Yosemite through their
paintings and sketches.
you’ll spot the Big Meadow cabin of miner and guide
George Anderson, the first 19th century climber to reach
the Half Dome summit. There’s a Well Fargo office, a
powderhouse, a small, very claustrophobic jail and a U.S.
Army Cavalry office, the headquarters for …
who knew that Buffalo Soldiers were among the park’s
out Yosemite was a national park long before there was a
National Park Service, let alone legions of park rangers.
Instead, the U.S. Army sent soldiers — including 500
Buffalo Soldiers — to Yosemite and Sequoia parks from
the San Francisco Presidio to protect the trails and
parklands each summer. It was a coveted beat, too, as
beautiful then as it is now.
we spent most of our visit to this pioneer history center
in a state of "who knew?" wonder. Who knew there
were once blacksmith shops throughout the park? Seems each
4-up stage needed an astonishing 16 horses to make the
journey from Wawona to Yosemite Valley. The trip required
four changes of horses and blacksmith stops for any
necessary repairs to horseshoes or carriage. (And we will
never whine about oil changes or snow chains again.)
who knew that Degnan’s Deli, Cafe and Pizza Loft, the
trio of cafes near the Yosemite Valley visitors center, is
named for a plucky, young Irish woman? In 1884, the Degnan
family was living at one end of a Yosemite Valley barn,
when Bridget began selling loaves of her homemade bread,
baked in Dutch ovens set in the embers of the fireplace,
to help support her growing family. The bread proved so
popular, the Degnans expanded, acquired a larger oven,
then an even bigger one, and eventually opening not only a
bakery, but a cafe — in the new home that husband John
built for his family of 10 near the Yosemite Chapel.
find that 19th century bakery building here in Wawona now,
surrounded by the past. Any trace of yeasty fragrance or
freshly baked bread will rely on your imagination, so let
your dreams wander. Peek in the windows and read the
stories on placards placed neatly nearby.
21st century may lie just across the covered bridge, but
it can wait.
seven-day permit for this national park is $30 per car, or
$60 for an annual pass. Winter weather and road conditions
can change quickly. Check for road alerts and weather
updates at the National Park Service website.
Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona is open
year-round, and there’s plenty for history buffs to
enjoy at any time. Stage rides and pioneer demonstrations
are offered during the summer.
history center is on Forest Drive at Wawona Road. If you
are driving from Fish Camp, it’s the first right after
the Big Trees Lodge (8308 Wawona Road). There’s a
parking lot, restrooms and the Wawona General Store, which
stocks drinks and snacks. Find more information, check
road conditions and download a copy of the history center
brochure at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/waw.htm.
Victorian Big Trees Lodge and restaurant are open from
March 31 to Nov. 26. The historic rooms are decorated with
period detail, right down to the absence of TVs and
telephones. En suite rooms start at $197, rooms with
shared bathhouse facilities start at $134. Find details at