The Sierra Nevada region is filled with small museums that are well worth visiting during your Yosemite vacation. Some tell about the mining history of California's Gold Rush, while others look at the Western pioneer period in myths, movies, and reality. For top-notch museums, spend a few days in San Francisco, where art lovers, history hounds, and culture vultures all get their fill. The state capital of Sacramento also sustains some fascinating museums of arts and culture.
In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
About a half day's drive south of Yosemite, these neighboring national parks have a few museums worth stopping for, especially if you're interested in learning more about the Sierra Nevada region.
In Sequoia National Park, the Giant Forest Museum is a great place for families to explore the life cycle of giant sequoia trees growing right outside the museum's front door. The park visitor centers in Lodgepole Village, the Foothills area, and Grant Grove have more interpretive displays about the natural and cultural history of the Sierra Nevada, including Native American tribespeople, early Western pioneers and explorers, and the local logging industry.
Around the Eastern Sierra Nevada
On the east side of the Sierra Nevada range, many small towns along the scenic byway of U.S. Highway 395 have specialty museums that you might enjoy stopping to explore.
Closest to Yosemite National Park in the four-seasons resort town of Mammoth Lakes, the Mammoth Ski Museum is full of local skiing lore and vintage memorabilia and art.
Farther south in Bishop, the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Site preserves a collection of antique-filled buildings from the Owens Valley, including an 1883 train depot.
Continuing south to Independence, the Eastern California Museum boasts an impressive collection of Native American basketry and documentary historical photographs.
Outside town at Manzanar National Historic Site, the visitor center doubles as a museum that interprets the political issues surrounding this WWII-era Japanese American internment camp.
Farther south at the gateway to Mount Whitney, the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History takes a nostalgic look at the Hollywood Westerns filmed in the nearby Alabama Hills.
In Sacramento and the Gold Country
In the western Sierra Nevada foothills, heading north from Yosemite National Park, California's Gold Country is stuffed with tiny museums that preserve tales of the region's Wild West days. In Sonora, the Tuolumne County Museum inhabits an 1865 jail, now filled with historical photographs and an impressive collection of pioneer firearms. In Murphys, the Old Timers Museum also preserves artifacts from the mid-19th-century Gold Rush era, and offers historical walking tours.
Farther north in San Andreas, the Calaveras County Historical Society runs two historical museums, one inside a renovated dairy barn.
Many state parks located along Highway 49 through the Gold Country also have small historical museums of mining and agricultural history. But the big guns, when it comes to museums, are all in Sacramento, the state capital.
There you'll find the California State Railroad Museum, the California State Indian Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, and the all-encompassing California Museum. Also in the capitol district, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park and Old Sacramento State Historic Park let you peer back into the Golden State's peppery past.
In the San Francisco Bay Area
The San Francisco Bay Area has more museums than you could ever visit during just a short vacation. But if you'll be passing through this way, here are a few highlights that you shouldn't miss.
Start in Golden Gate Park, where the eco-friendly California Academy of Sciences examines the natural world with its impressive aquarium, planetarium, mock rain forest, and a natural history museum. Also inside the park, the de Young Museum exhibits diverse art from around the globe, from African carved masks and ancient Aztec murals to contemporary American crafts.
Near the waterfront at the picturesque Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium is an award-winning science and art museum designed for kids of all ages. Downtown, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) puts on cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions. In Civic Center, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has a breathtaking collection spanning 6,000 years and the entire Asiatic region, from Persia to the Himalayas.
Quirkier small museums around the city of San Francisco include the Cartoon Art Museum in SOMA and North Beach's storefront Beat Museum, dedicated to the mid-20th-century literary movement that included Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.