Explore History & Culture

Yosemite is the wild, wild West. From its earliest Native American inhabitants, to the mid-19th-century California Gold Rush, and the later arrival of ranchers, loggers, and hoteliers, the land surrounding Yosemite National Park is amazingly rich in historical sites.

You can spend some time exploring the Yosemite Valley, then head down to Wawona, where some of the park’s oldest structures have been preserved. Farther afield, the foothills of Sequoia National Park protect Native American archaeological sites, while to the north lies California’s fascinating Gold Country.

Paiute indian woman sitting on a small wooden crate grinding acorns on a matate stone in Yosemite, ca.1900.

Paiute Indian woman sitting on a small wooden crate grinding acorns on a matate stone in Yosemite, ca.1900.

Native Americans in the Yosemite Valley

The Sierra Nevada mountains were originally inhabited by Native American tribes, who moved seasonally between villages in the foothills and higher-elevation summer camps in the valleys and highland meadows of Yosemite, where hunting and gathering took place. Some of the footpaths these indigenous peoples established, including trading routes across the Sierra Nevada, can still be hiked today.

In the Yosemite Valley, drop by the park visitor center and the Yosemite Museum to learn more about the culture and traditions of park’s indigenous peoples, including Miwok and Paiute tribespeople. Native American artwork on display includes intricate basketry and needlework. Out behind the museum is a reconstructed tribal village that commemorates the Ahwahneechee people, a band of Native Americans lead by Chief Tenaya who lived in Yosemite Valley until 1851. Some Native Americans and other famous people in Yosemite’s history lie buried across the street in the Yosemite Cemetery, which is certainly worth a quick look for history buffs.

Wawona Covered Bridge

Wawona Covered Bridge

Yosemite Pioneer History Center

About an hour’s drive south of the valley, the Wawona area of Yosemite National Park gathers together a well-preserved collection of buildings from different eras of the park’s history. Pick up a free, self-guided tour brochure near the entrance. Start your visit by strolling across the covered bridge dating from 1857 that was once part of the stagecoach route that delivered early tourists to Yosemite Valley. Other rustic cabins belonging to miners, homesteaders, artists, and early park rangers are open for inspection here, as is the bakery, jail, and Wells Fargo company office.

Old Church in Bodie, California

Old Church in Bodie, California

Mining Ghost Towns

Late-19th-century mining companies were the first to build a wagon road across Tioga Pass in Yosemite’s high country. Not many of these high Sierra mining efforts ended up being very lucrative. (Timber logging of giant sequoias farther south in what is today Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and the Giant Sequoia National Monument similarly failed to turn a profit.) Nevertheless, some of the ghost towns that pioneer miners built still stand.

Near Tioga Pass, it’s a short detour along a side road to Bennettsville, a silver mining ghost town dating from the 1880s. Unbelievably, some of these weathered mining shacks have survived over 120 years of harsh winters. Farther east, north of the small town of Lee Vining on the shores of Mono Lake, Bodie State Historic Park is one of California’s most atmospheric ghost towns. Between the 1860s and 1880s, an estimated $100 million dollars’ worth of gold and silver is said to have been extracted from these hills, until catastrophic fires ended most mining of the activity. Today, families can enjoy wandering around the ruins of Bodie, which are preserved in a photogenic state of “arrested decay,” according to state park rangers.

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