There are few things more breathtaking than that first glimpse of the Yosemite Valley and the sheer majesty of El Capitan. But glorious as that is, it’s a mere subset of the national park’s 1,162 square miles, which hold acres of trails and rugged wilderness — and a Victorian blast to the past in Wawona.
On this particular damp, gray day, we had ventured to the southern end of Yosemite to explore, not sure what to expect from a map dot marked Pioneer Yosemite History Center, but curious to see the historic Wawona hotel — which is known these days as the Big Trees Lodge. We strolled the veranda of the grand Victorian hotel, with its period-perfect rooms and Adirondack chairs perched on rolling lawns. And then we crossed the sweeping driveway and descended the stone stairs leading to a covered bridge straight out of the mid-19th century.
That covered bridge is one of the oldest structures in Yosemite. Built in 1857, the bridge was the stopping point for stagecoaches heading to Yosemite Valley. Travelers spent the night at the lodge and had their horses and stages seen to at the old grey barn before embarking on what was typically an eight-hour journey by 4-up stage — a four-horse carriage — to the valley.
These days, it’s a mere one-hour drive on paved roads in a significantly cushier vehicle. But crossing the bridge on foot, one can almost hear the rumble of wooden wheels and the nickering of horses across the span of time. Emerge on the other side, and it’s as if time has stopped altogether.
A cluster of log cabins and historic buildings awaits. The tableau may look like a village, but it’s a window to the past, dotted by buildings moved here from different parts of the park to represent different places and times.
So when you peer in the dusty glass of the artist’s cabin, built by painter Christian Jorgensen near Sentinel Bridge in the 1850s and moved here a century later, it’s not only Jorgensen’s digs. The cabin represents the Instagrammers of the Gold Rush era, the early artists who popularized and publicized Yosemite through their paintings and sketches.
Nearby, you’ll spot the Big Meadow cabin of miner and guide George Anderson, the first 19th century climber to reach the Half Dome summit. There’s a Well Fargo office, a powderhouse, a small, very claustrophobic jail and a U.S. Army Cavalry office, the headquarters for …
OK, who knew that Buffalo Soldiers were among the park’s first rangers?
Turns out Yosemite was a national park long before there was a National Park Service, let alone legions of park rangers. Instead, the U.S. Army sent soldiers — including 500 Buffalo Soldiers — to Yosemite and Sequoia parks from the San Francisco Presidio to protect the trails and parklands each summer. It was a coveted beat, too, as beautiful then as it is now.
Actually, we spent most of our visit to this pioneer history center in a state of “who knew?” wonder. Who knew there were once blacksmith shops throughout the park? Seems each 4-up stage needed an astonishing 16 horses to make the journey from Wawona to Yosemite Valley. The trip required four changes of horses and blacksmith stops for any necessary repairs to horseshoes or carriage. (And we will never whine about oil changes or snow chains again.)
And who knew that Degnan’s Deli, Cafe and Pizza Loft, the trio of cafes near the Yosemite Valley visitors center, is named for a plucky, young Irish woman? In 1884, the Degnan family was living at one end of a Yosemite Valley barn, when Bridget began selling loaves of her homemade bread, baked in Dutch ovens set in the embers of the fireplace, to help support her growing family. The bread proved so popular, the Degnans expanded, acquired a larger oven, then an even bigger one, and eventually opening not only a bakery, but a cafe — in the new home that husband John built for his family of 10 near the Yosemite Chapel.
You’ll find that 19th century bakery building here in Wawona now, surrounded by the past. Any trace of yeasty fragrance or freshly baked bread will rely on your imagination, so let your dreams wander. Peek in the windows and read the stories on placards placed neatly nearby.
The 21st century may lie just across the covered bridge, but it can wait.