While the Yosemite Valley is the most popular place to visit during a trip to Yosemite National Park, the Southern part of the park near Wawona should not be missed. A visit to the Southern part of Yosemite offers the park’s largest group of ancient giant sequoia trees, the best place to learn about the history of Yosemite, the historic Victorian-era Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel), and less crowded hiking and climbing opportunities. One of the great highlights to many visits to Yosemite National Park is a walk among the ancient giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove. If you are interested in spending some time in the south end of the park, then read on to discover our list of the top five things to do in the southern end of the Yosemite National Park.
If this is your first trip to Yosemite, you might start by reading our article on planning your trip to the Yosemite Valley.
Basic Information on Visiting the Southern Part of Yosemite National Park
How do I get here?
Driving: To reach the Southern end of Yosemite from outside the park, enter at the South Gate Entrance to Yosemite National Park located off Highway 41. It is approximately 4 ½ hours from Los Angeles, 3 ½ hours from San Francisco, 3 ½ hours from Sacramento, and 1 hour 15 minutes from Fresno. The most popular time to visit Yosemite is during the summer so expect potential traffic delays in the park during this time. Check Yosemite’s weekly traffic forecast, weather forecasts, weather-related road conditions, and road closures before your visit. Tire chains or cables may be required in fall, winter, and spring due to snowy or icy conditions.
Public Transportation: Check out Amtrak, Greyhound, and the YARTS bus service for public transportation options to Yosemite National Park. Also check out this webpage on public transportation option on getting to the park. If you get dropped off in the Yosemite Valley, you used to be able to take a shuttle to Wawona (seasonal, see below), but this has recently been discontinued at this time with the closing of the Mariposa Grove for restoration.
Already in Yosemite Valley? If you are already in the Yosemite Valley, it is about a 45 to 60 minute drive from the Yosemite Valley to Wawona. Just head towards and follow Wawona Road/Highway 41 South. You should probably allow 1 hour 30 minutes to get from the Yosemite Valley area to the Mariposa Grove. The driving time will depend on traffic and weather conditions. A drive from the Valley to Wawona affords a great opportunity to make quick stops to do the short hike to Bridalveil Fall and take in the picture-perfect Tunnel View along the way.
Unfortunately the seasonal free shuttle that makes a loop between Yosemite Valley and the Big Trees Lodge from Memorial Day to Labor Day has been discontinued. However, it will likely resume service once the restoration to the Mariposa Grove is completed in Spring 2017.
How much time should I spend in the south part of the park?
There is at least a full day’s worth of things to do here. More if you want to climb and do some of the longer hiking trails. However, if you are on a tight schedule you can do a quick 30-minute walk around the Pioneer Yosemite History Center, get a drive-by view of the Big Trees Lodge, and spend a couple of hours at the Mariposa Grove in a morning or afternoon.
Lodging options in the southern part of Yosemite?
Want to stay in this part of the park? There are several options, just be sure to book well in advance (months ahead if you plan to visit in the summer). There is of course the historic Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) (quick note: if setting GPS it is located in Fish Camp, CA not Wawona, CA), but there are others located both inside the park and outside the park near the South Entrance. Some places to check out include the Wawona Campground, Tenaya Lodge, and The Redwoods in Yosemite, which is a collection of privately owned vacation houses available for short-term rentals.
Where Can I Find More Information?
Check out the wonderful Yosemite National Park website managed by the National Park Service that is a great resource for planning your trip. Now, while the National Park Service runs and manages the park, a contractor runs essentially all the concessions, gift shops, lodging, etc. in the park. The current concessioner is Aramark and you can visit their Yosemite website here which provides details about lodging options and offered tours.
Top Five Things to Do in the Southern Part of Yosemite National Park
Stop by the Historic Big Trees Lodge
This Victorian-era hotel is a pretty sight along Wawona Road with its historic white wooden buildings, verandas overlooking sprawling green lawns, and fountain. The Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) has a history that goes back to Galen Clark and the oldest building on the property is the Clark Cottage built in 1876. This National Historic Landmark is worth at least a quick car stop to see the property although you can actually just slowly drive up and around the circular driveway for a quick peek. If you want to linger, you can take a seat on one of the public chairs on the large veranda of the main hotel building, slip inside for a meal in their dining room, or in the winter you might want to take a break in front of the lobby’s cozy fireplace.
During your visit, you might also want to stop at the Thomas Hill Studio that sits on the property to the left of the main hotel building. Originally built as a painting and sales studio for landscape painter Thomas Hill in the 1880’s, one room currently serves as a visitor center and gift shop and a second room contains exhibits and some interesting information related to the artist, his paintings, and his relationship with the park. This is also a good place to pick up maps, guides, and wilderness permits if needed.
Explore Yosemite by Horseback or Mule
Experience the beautiful southern end of the park from atop a horse or mule. Trace the hoof prints of the early pioneers to Yosemite by taking a two-hour ride along the original historic wagon road or opt for a longer half-day ride that includes pretty Chilnualna Falls. The Big Tress Lodge Stable offers guided horseback riding options that are great for beginner riders. The Big Trees Stable is open from Spring to Fall and reservations are recommended (call 209-375-6502). You can also find horseback riding options offered by Tenaya Lodge in nearby Fish Camp which include trail rides in the Sierra National Forest and the southern part of Yosemite National Park.
Learn about the History of Yosemite National Park
Go back to a time of horse-drawn wagons, covered bridges, and log cabins. A visit to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center explores Yosemite’s history and explains how Yosemite was the inspiration for national parks across the country. This outdoor open-air museum includes a collection of historic buildings from different eras in Yosemite’s history. While each building was constructed for different purposes in different locations in Yosemite, these buildings were moved to Wawona in the 1950’s and 1960’s for their preservation. During your walk you’ll get to see horse-drawn wagons, walk across a covered bridge, and a view a number of historical buildings such as cabins, a barn, a bakery, a cavalry office, and a ranger patrol cabin. Interpretive plaques are posted and you can pick up a brochure for a $0.50 donation at the entrance (or download it before you visit). There are also seasonal carriage rides available.
Visit the Mariposa Grove
One of our favorite experiences on our first visit to Yosemite was standing among the ancient giant trees of the Mariposa Grove. The Mariposa Grove is the largest of the three groves of mature giant sequoias within the park. Giant sequoia trees are amazing, they are the largest type of trees in the world by volume and can live to be 3,000 years old! The oldest giant sequoia is believed to have lived to be over 3,500 years old. I just couldn’t keep thinking about how a living tree could have been around from the time of Cleopatra and Caesar and still be alive today! Some of the many highlights are the Fallen Monarch, California Tunnel Tree, Grizzly Giant, and the Telescope Tree. During your walk, you can also make your way to the Mariposa Grove Museum, a replica of Galen Clark’s cabin, which offers information about the grove, giant sequoia displays, books, and maps (open May through September).
To get here, the Mariposa Grove is located only a few miles from the Yosemite South Entrance right off Wawona Road/Highway 41. You can take the 2-mile Mariposa Grove Road right to the grove, and the trails into the grove extend uphill from the trailhead at the far end of the parking area. During the summer, the parking lot is often full so you may want to park and ride the free Wawona Shuttle or come early or late to get parking. During the winter, the Mariposa Grove Road is often closed, but you can still access the grove by foot, snowshoe, or ski. Maps and brochures are available for a small fee ($0.50) at the trailhead and come in quite handy. Signs can be found throughout the grove giving you information for a self-guided tour. Dogs and bikes are not permitted in the grove. Guided 1-hour tram tours of the Mariposa Grove are also available from May to October.
NOTE: The Mariposa Grove is going to be undergoing extensive restoration and will likely be closed until Spring 2017.
Go Hiking, Climbing, or Golfing
Yosemite National Park is full of great hiking and climbing opportunities and the southern part of the park is no exception. While the hike through the Mariposa Grove is most people’s favorite hike in this area (and the most crowded), there are more off-the-beaten-path hikes to be found here such as this list of Wawona area hikes and I’d pick up a map at one of the visitor center’s before setting off. While the southern trails, climbs, and waterfalls may not be as blockbuster as some of those around the Valley, they are still quite scenic and come with many fewer people. For even greater solitude and a chance to be alone with some giant sequoias, check out these hikes right outside the southern end of the park: Nelder Grove and Lewis Creek. Compared to the hikes in the Yosemite Valley, you might actually get to experience what it feels like to be alone with some scenic wilderness. Before setting off, be sure to be prepared with a good trail map and provisions as there may not be many people on the trail and you are unlikely to have good cell phone service. Climbers looking for a new experience outside the Valley might consider the Wawona Dome. For those looking for less adventurous outdoor activities, you might play a round of golf at the Big Trees Lodge Golf Course (yes, there is a golf course in a National Park and it was also the country’s first organic golf course!).
There you have it, our guide to the top five things to do in South Yosemite. We hope this will be helpful in planning your trip to Yosemite National Park. You might also want to check out our posts on planning your first day in the Yosemite Valley and the famous Bracebridge Dinner at The Yosemite Majestic Hotel. Have questions or want to share some tips based on your experiences at Yosemite? We’d love to hear from you.