For conservationist John Muir, the Yosemite Valley itself was an outdoor museum of natural history, showing off the handiwork of ancient glaciers and earthquakes. Today, if you want to learn about both the natural and the cultural forces that have made the park what it is, stop by the following modest museums and educational visitor centers during your Yosemite vacation.
Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
In the heart of Yosemite Valley, this visitor center should be your first stop. Its museum-quality exhibits were updated in 2007, so even if you've visited the park before, consider taking another look inside the visitor center during your next trip. Here exhibits tell the story of the park's geological evolution and its indigenous Native American tribespeople, pioneers, naturalists, scientists, artists, and even modern rock climbers. A rotating schedule of free films are shown in the Yosemite Theatre next door. The visitor center is open daily year-round.
A short walk from the valley visitor center, the Yosemite Museum is a must-see stop, especially for history buffs or anyone interested in the arts. Exhibits here delve further into the Native American history of the park and the Yosemite region, specifically concerning the indigenous Miwok and Paiute tribes. The museum is best known for its displays of Native American basketry and needlework. Native American artists are sometimes on hand to demonstrate their craft. An adjacent art gallery hosts rotating displays of historical landscape paintings, photography, and more. The museum is open daily year-round; exhibition schedules vary.
The Nature Center at Happy Isles
Incredibly kid-friendly, this small nature center is hidden in the eastern part of the valley near the Happy Isles alongside the Merced River. Families can walk or cycle here along a paved recreational path, or park their car in a nearby lot. Volunteers are on hand to help children interact with the center's displays about park wildlife and ecology, including its varied natural environments ranging from riparian wetlands to giant sequoia forests and alpine lakes and meadows. Interpretive trails await more exploration outside. This nature center is usually open between May and September. It's a short walk from the nearest valley shuttle bus stop.
Mariposa Grove Museum
Standing serenely in the middle of the park's most famous grove of giant sequoia trees, this small museum is also well worth a look. Inside you'll find modest exhibits on the natural history and ecology of giant sequoias, which are the largest living trees on earth. The museum itself stands on the site where Galen Clark, the first guardian of the Yosemite Grant, built a small cabin in the mid-19th century. The current cabin dates from the 1930s, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum is usually open from May until September. The only ways to get to the museum are either via a four-mile round-trip hike or on a narrated one-hour tram tour of the grove run by the park's concessionaire (a surcharge applies).
LeConte and Parsons Memorial Lodges
Although they are not museums, the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley and the Parsons Memorial Lodge in the Tuolumne Meadows highlands area are both educational places to spend a little time during your Yosemite vacation.
Operated by the Sierra Club, the Tudor-style LeConte Memorial Lodge was the valley's original visitor center, constructed in the early 1900s. Today, it has exhibits on the park's natural history. The lodge is usually open from May to September. Evening programs on interesting topics in natural history, conservation, and outdoor recreation are typically scheduled at 8 p.m. nightly.
In the park's Sierra Nevada high country, the Parsons Memorial Lodge is a short walk from Tioga Road in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park. It's near the site where conservationist John Muir and publisher Robert Underwood Johnson first conceived of the idea of campaigning to establish Yosemite National Park. Inside the lodge you'll find exhibits on the park's natural and cultural history. The lodge is usually open from late June through early September, when it hosts a wide variety of free public programs, such as lectures, slide shows, video screenings, poetry readings, and musical performances, most often held on weekends and during the Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival in mid-August.