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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the California Sierra Nevada

By Mark Grossi

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California Sierra Nevada > Yosemite > Wawona Road

Click here for a new window with a large version of this map.Wawona Road

[Fig. 36] People drive up Highway 41 through Fresno and Madera counties to enter through the South Entrance, which is the logical way to go if they want to see the Mariposa Grove, the Wawona area, and Glacier Point on the way to Yosemite Valley. Highway 41 becomes the Wawona Road when it enters Yosemite.

At the gate, visitors can turn right to see the Mariposa Grove or left for Wawona, the Glacier Point, the valley, and other parts of the park. Historians believe the Wawona Road is the approximate route taken by the Mariposa Battalion in 1851 when they were hunting for Miwok encampments in Yosemite Valley. The first official Wawona Road was constructed in the 1870s and rebuilt in the 1930s.

For those who want to see the view made famous on countless postcards, the Wawona Road through the South Entrance is the place to enter Yosemite. It is called Tunnel View, 1.6 miles from the valley floor. Motorists emerge from the Wawona Tunnel and see the grand vista of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. Most people simply pull into the huge parking areas, climb out of the car or bus, and start snapping photographs.

The tunnel is almost 1 mile long, blasted and drilled through solid granite at a cost of almost $1 million in the 1930s. It took almost two years to complete. The idea was to provide a dramatic view without destroying the mountainside.

The small community of Wawona is the first landmark along the Wawona Road. Visitors first camped there during the Civil War. Today, Wawona is known for its golf course, hotel, and frequent visiting mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). People have fed them for so many years that they boldly approach the area, searching for tidbits. Some of these deer weigh more than 200 pounds and have sharp antlers that can accidentally harm or kill people who get too close. Don't feed them, the National Park Service advises.

The drive along Wawona Road will introduce visitors to so-called "old-growth" forests in California. Old growth refers to a forested area with trees that are more than 40 inches in circumference. These trees are often hundreds of years old, but size, not age, is more important in the old-growth classification. An old-growth tree is often quite important to the ecosystem even after it dies. Many will remain a source of shelter and nutrition to animals and insects for centuries.

The road also passes a vast fire-scarred area several miles beyond Wawona. A lightning strike in dry summer of 1990—which was the third consecutive dry summer during a six-year California drought—started the fire. It burned more than 8,000 acres. Yosemite West, a private in-holding community along the Wawona Road many miles north of Wawona, survived the fire.

Beyond Yosemite West, the road passes the small rest area called Chinquapin, which is at the base of the Glacier Point Road. Badger Pass Ski Area is along the Glacier Point Road, which winds up to an overlook to view the valley, Vernal and Nevada falls, and the high Sierra for dozens of miles in all directions. A gift shop and food service building have been added, and an amphitheater has been carved into a place near the 7,214-foot-high overlook.

In winter, the Glacier Point Road makes an excellent cross-country skiing adventure. The snow-capped view across the high Sierra is breathtaking and usually quite peaceful compared to summer months.

Mariposa Grove

[Fig. 36] There are more than 500 mature giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantum) in the Mariposa Grove, making it one of the larger groupings of the big trees among the 75 groves in the Sierra. People can stroll for hours admiring the 2,000-year-old specimens still standing and the ones that have toppled on the 250 acres.

A short, well-marked hike from Wawona Road and the parking area brings most visitors to trees that give them a good idea what the rest of the area looks like. Usually, the area near the road and parking area is crowded. For those who want to get away a bit, a longer hike will take them deeper into this moist, forested area of giants. And for those who don't want to walk at all, there are tram tours available.

It's important to understand that giant sequoias are generally part of the white fir (Abies concolor) forest, which occurs between 4,000 and 7,000 feet in the Sierra. The white fir forest is the richest in variety among the different elevations on the Sierra's western slope. Its growing season can be a month longer than the forest above 7,500 feet. And with 40 to 60 inches of precipitation annually, it is considerably wetter than the foothill belt below it.

The shrub layer, just above the ground cover, is golden chinquapin (Chyrsolepis sempervirens), scouler's willow (Salix scoulariana), and ground rose (Rosa spithamia). The canopy, aside from giant sequoia, includes Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), as well as sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) in Yosemite.

When the white fir forest is dominated by the giant sequoia, as it is at Mariposa Grove, it is not as densely forested as the name "grove" would imply. Instead, it can be quite open. The big trees and the other trees around them can create so much shade that the ground cover vegetation is almost nonexistent in some places. Where the sunshine is sufficient to support life, look for the hooker's fairy bell (Disporum hookeri), bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), and bedstraw (Galium sparsifolium).

One of the more famous trees in the grove was the Wawona Tunnel Tree, a 234-foot-tall giant that fell in 1969. It was the tree with a tunnel about 8 feet wide, 9 feet high, and 26 feet long. The Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company paid about $75 in the early 1880s to have the tunnel cut into a fire scar. Though it had a hole big enough to drive wagons and, later, cars through it, the Wawona Tunnel Tree was actually still alive and growing when heavy snow in its upper branches toppled it. The National Park Service does not allow similar cuts to be made now.

Another distinctive tree in the grove is the Clothespin Tree. Repeated fires in the area over the last millennium have burned out the center support of the tree. The hole is about 15 feet across at the bottom of the tree and rises to about 40 feet high.

The giants' thick bark and ability to grow despite losing part of their base allow them to survive fires. In fact, seedlings actually need the minerals created in the soil when fires burn vegetation around them. The National Park Service now controls the growth of vegetation with "managed" or "prescribed" burns in the area. The vegetation removal reduces chances of a large, hot fire that would leap to the canopies of the big trees and destroy them.

One of the older trees is Grizzly Giant, estimated to be 2,700 years old. It looks its age, having suffered through at least six lightning strikes in a single 1940s storm. Its crown is flattened. At one point in the 1860s, photographs show it leaning as it does today.

The grove was probably first seen by European settlers during the gold rush of 1849. No record has been kept on the first sighting. The first official report of the grove is recorded in 1851. Congress decided to protect the grove in 1864. Further protection laws were introduced in 1916. About 1.5 million people visit the trees each year.

Mariposa Grove Trail System

[Fig. 36(1)] In the 250-acre grove, a trail winds past the many named giants. The parking area generally is filled by the afternoons and traffic is heavy. Hiking back into the forest is a good way to get away from the crowds, because many visitors simply want to sample the views and leave.

There is interpretive information at the trailhead. Signs give directions and more information along the trails. The trails will lead to both an upper and a lower section of the grove. Trail maps are available at the trailhead.

Wawona

[Fig. 36] It can be difficult to understand Wawona. The name is believed to be Native American, meaning big trees. But nobody is quite sure of that. It is also a scenic place where wildlife and views of ridgelines can be as wonderful as anything in the park. People do come here for nature, but they also come to Wawona for the golf course, the Victorian-era architecture of the Wawona Hotel, the gas station, and the grocery store.

There is also a popular Pioneer History Center in Wawona. The National Park Service has collected and placed some historic structures at the center. The buildings include an old jail and furnished cabins. In summer, the National Park Service presents informative programs.

The golf course, which was built in 1917, is in the lower part of Wawona Meadow. Before Wawona was added to Yosemite in 1932, the area was used to grow hay. Animals such as hogs and sheep often grazed here. At one point, the meadow was used as an airport.

Wawona Hotel, built in the 1870s, is on the east side of Wawona Road, across from the golf course. John and Edward Washburn built the hotel. They intended to have visitors rest overnight at Wawona on their way to Yosemite Valley in stagecoaches.

Chilnualna Fall Trail

[Fig. 36(2)] There are not a lot of good hiking trails in the Wawona area compared to many other parts of Yosemite. But the Chilnualna Fall Trail rates as one of better, less-traveled trails that visitors will find in the Wawona area. It is popular in spring when the high country destinations are often still under a blanket of snow. The trail offers panoramics of the South Fork Merced River canyon, Chilnualna Creek drainage, Wawona Dome, and, of course, the fall.

Look for mountain misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa), an evergreen that grows well in the dry soils on the southern end of the park. Why was it named mountain misery? The plant oozes a kind of black, sticky gum that will get all over a hiker's clothing. Avoid the misery by walking around the plants. Or just stick to the trail.

The trail runs through an interesting cross-section of Yosemite—between 4,000 and 6,400 feet—where vegetation changes as elevation increases. Hikers will pass the black oak and incense cedar on their way to stands of ponderosa pine that grow just beyond several cascades in the Chilnualna Creek.

Hikers may see a seed-eating bird called the dark-eyed junco (Junco oreganus). This bird competes with lodgepole chipmunks (Eutamias speciosus) for seeds from the incense cedars along the trail. The junco's summertime competition includes a seasonal visitor called the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), which nests in April and departs the Sierra as the nights grow colder in late September.

Later in the season along this trail, the snowmelt begins to dwindle. Small, warm pools form at the bottom of slick granite slides, which provide a delightful playground where hikers can cool off. It is a welcome break in late August or early September.

Flower fanatics will find a colorful array waiting along the way and at the fall. The western azaleas (Rhododendron occidentalis) are particularly abundant. Also look for the Sierra shooting star (Dodecatheon subalpinum), which tend to collect in shady, moist niches around the fall.

Glacier Point

[Fig. 36] The main reason to visit Glacier Point is the view. It is perched at 7,214 feet, which is about 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley. Situated on the south rim of the granite walls around the valley, the view includes landmarks such as El Capitan and Half Dome. Those who have a map and a basic understanding of the geography can easily find Mount Hoffmann, Mount Conness, and Mount Clark. Visitors can drive to Glacier Point, park, and walk several hundred feet to see the views.

Visitors can see 619-foot Nevada Fall from Glacier Point.No one needs a map to see Vernal and Nevada falls bounding down the Merced River Canyon out of Little Yosemite Valley to the east. Glaciers created the stair-step appearance during the past 2 million years. There may be no better place in Yosemite—or anywhere in the world—to easily see the effects of glaciation.

John Muir believed the Merced River glacier was actually five different glaciers that met at Yosemite Valley and welded together to widen Yosemite Valley. He called them the Yosemite Creek, Hoffmann, Tenaya, South Lyell, and Illilouette glaciers. They combined to reach several thousand feet in depth, carving and slicing the uneven granite faces at Vernal and Nevada falls where the Merced cascades into Yosemite Valley. Glacial erosion was also responsible for Yosemite Falls, another sight visible from Glacier Point.

During the earliest glaciation, ice rose more than 600 feet above Glacier Point. A geologic exhibit at Glacier Point describes it.

The area also has a colorful recent history. Several decades ago, people created a spectacle every night in summer by pushing a burning mound of tree bark, usually red fir (Abies magnifica), over the lip of Glacier Point. To the people in the valley, the flaming embers became known as the fire fall. The National Park Service banned the practice in 1968.

A nineteenth century hotel, the Mountain House, once occupied Glacier Point. It was replaced earlier this century with a newer version, but it burned to the ground in 1969. Now, there are no overnight accommodations at Glacier Point, though the gift and snack shop and open-air amphitheater have been rebuilt recently.

The Glacier Point Road, the only paved road to the lookout, winds through a red fir and lodgepole pine (Pinus murrayana) forest. Badger Pass Ski Area and many trailheads can be accessed from the road.

Sentinel Dome Trail

[Fig. 36(3)] If Glacier Point is the best drive-up view in Yosemite, Sentinel Dome could be the best walk-up view. The view is a lot like Glacier Point, except the crowd is a lot smaller.

Sentinel Dome is photographed almost as much as Half Dome. The dome is known for a photograph of a grotesquely bent Jeffrey pine growing in a crack along the granite. The crown of the stunted tree was actually horizontal at the top of the windblown dome. It succumbed to the harsh environment in 1970, but photographs of this sideways pine tree are still quite popular.

The trail up the back of the dome fades away in the granite, but it is pretty obvious and easy to navigate the final 100 yards or so to the top of the dome. Besides Yosemite Valley, people can see the Clark Range, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and Tenaya Canyon.

Taft Point

[Fig. 36] If a 2,500-foot sheer vertical drop is an interesting sight to you, linger and look while you're on this trail. However, a lot of people may discover they suffer mild forms of vertigo when they hike past the areas known as The Fissures, slender openings along Profile Cliff. The valley is actually visible through the openings, which were created as freezing and thawing cracked the granite.

At Taft Point, hikers will find a railing. Yosemite Falls and the Three Brothers formation are among the views at this point. The view of El Capitan is one of the best available in Yosemite.

On the way to Taft Point, look for the deep blue blossoms of the tall larkspur (Delphinium glaucum). The forest includes white fir and Jeffrey pine. Lodgepole pine stands are farther along the trail toward Taft Point.

Hikers may see the red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) picking at lodgepole pine cones in search of seed. They are generally high in lodgepoles, using their powerful mandibles on scales of the cones to get the seeds.

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