First inhabited by Native American tribes, then later settled by pioneers, ranchers, and gold miners who came to the frontier seeking riches and a new way of life, the Sierra Nevada region abounds in historical sites. Inside Yosemite National Park alone, you can tour 19th-century cabins and historical lodges, a cemetery dating back to the earliest Western pioneers, and a recreation of a tribal village built by indigenous Ahwahneechee tribespeople.
The greatest concentration of historical sites in Yosemite National Park is at Wawona, near the park’s southern entrance station. There the Pioneer Yosemite History Center preserves a collection of historical buildings from the late 19th century and early 20th century. Wawona was once an important stop on a horse-drawn stagecoach route that delivered tourists into the Yosemite Valley.
Start your visit to the history center with a leisurely stroll across a covered wooden bridge, built in 1857 by Galen Clark. Clark would become the first official guardian of the Yosemite Grant declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. In this outdoor history center, you can freely wander around various historical structures that were moved here during the 1950s and ’60s. Buildings that are open for inspection include a blacksmith’s shop; cabins built by homesteaders, artists, and park rangers; the offices of the U.S. Cavalry; a former jail; the Wells Fargo stagecoach and telegraph office; and Degnan’s Bakery, which originally stood in Yosemite Valley.
Around Wawona, you’ll also find a small historical cemetery and the former studio of landscape painter Thomas Hill, now the park’s Wawona Information Center. Dating from 1879, the Victorian-style Wawona Hotel is a notable National Historic Landmark. In the nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a small museum stands on the site of a small cabin built by Galen Clark.
In the Yosemite Valley
In the Yosemite Valley, the national park preserves more historical buildings, some of which are still functioning as they were originally intended to, and are freely open to the public today.
Start your explorations at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, which has historical displays about the natural and cultural evolution of the national park. The adjacent theater often shows films of historical interest, for example, about the life and times of influential conservationist John Muir. Ask for a self-guided interpretive brochure before visiting the Yosemite Cemetery across the street, where Native Americans, early pioneers, and other historical figures are buried.
Also near the visitor center, the Yosemite Museum delves further into the region’s history, including that of Native Americans, especially the Miwok and Paiute peoples. Indigenous arts and crafts such as intricate basketry are displayed and sometimes demonstrated in person here.
Behind the museum, a short walking path leads around the reconstructed tribal village of the Ahwahneechee people, who were the last Native Americans to live in the valley before being pushed out in the mid-19th century. Their leader was Chief Tenaya, after whom Tenaya Lake in the Sierra Nevada high country off Tioga Road is named.
It’s worth a short detour to visit the Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the grandest lodges in the U.S. national park system. Built in 1927 at the direction of NPS Director Stephen P. Mather, the Ahwahnee is made of fire-resistant concrete made to resemble redwood. It was designed to bring celebrities and important political figures, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Charlie Chaplin, to visit the park. The interior design mixes Native American themes with Arts-and-Crafts and art-deco stylings. Take a peek inside the hotel’s Mural Room, with its famous landscape painting, then sit for a spell by the grand fireplace.
On the opposite side of Yosemite Valley, other notable historic buildings include the Yosemite Chapel, a rustic church dating from 1879, and the Tudor-style LeConte Memorial Lodge, another National Historic Landmark. Usually open from May to September, the lodge is both a public library and an educational events center, which has been operated by the Sierra Club since 1904.