In the southern portion of Yosemite National Park, you’ll find the world-famous Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. One can make the argument that this grove -- combined with the famous Yosemite Valley -- is the reason that the National Park System began. In 1864, years before President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Park System, the Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley were named the first federally protected lands in the United States by President Abraham Lincoln.
The Mariposa Grove is home to more than 500 giant sequoia trees. The most famous of these trees -- the drive-through tree -- is no longer standing, unfortunately. Spend some time near the Mariposa Grove and you’ll hear people reminisce about the times they drove through the tree years ago.
The area has changed significantly since then; in fact, the road that used to access the drive-through tree is no longer in existence. The National Park Service began renovating the Mariposa Grove in 2015, and the area was closed for more than three years. Gone are the parking lots near the grove and the hard-surface roads that were encroaching on the roots of the famous trees. Instead, a brand-new visitor center was built miles away, with a shuttle service that takes guests up the mountain to the Mariposa Grove.
Here are nine things to know about visiting the new and improved Mariposa Grove.
1. The Wawona Hotel Is The Best Place To Stay
I cannot emphasize this one enough. Yosemite is famous for its central valley, and for good reason. Rock cliffs like El Capitan and Half Dome hover over the valley like soldiers keeping watch. The central valley is known for its lodges as well, including the Ahwahnee Hotel and Camp Curry, places visitors have stayed for decades.
But tucked away 25 miles to the south is the historic village of Wawona, California, and the incredible Wawona Hotel. If you’ve heard of it before, or if you’ve stayed there in the past, it hasn’t changed much, and that’s a good thing. It’s a massive lodge that was built in the 1800s with six individual buildings. Some rooms have bathrooms, while some have a common bathroom down the hall -- it’s exactly like a lodge in the area would have been in 1915.
When my wife and I visited the Mariposa Grove, this is where we stayed. We chose a room with a bathroom in one of the five buildings separated from the main lodge. It was like traveling back in time -- there was no television or phone in the room, just a window cracked open a bit to let in the fresh mountain air.
We ate our meals at the lodge restaurant and then lounged on the massive porch with waiter service in the evening. Even now, recalling sitting on those wicker chairs and watching the sunset brings me great joy.
2. The Parking Process Has Changed
If you’ve visited the Mariposa Grove in the past (before 2015), please note that the entire arrival/departure experience has changed. Right next to the Wawona Road entrance to Yosemite (the southern entrance off of Highway 41) is now a massive parking area and shuttle center. Park in the parking lot (there are more than 300 spaces, but in the summer they may fill up by mid-afternoon) and then wait for one of the free shuttles up to the grove.
In the spring, the shuttles run every 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the summer, they run every 10 minutes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There’s a constant stream of shuttles going up and down the mountain, so you don’t have to worry about waiting long. For information about shuttle times, check the website before you go.
3. Drinking Water Is Only Available At The Shuttle Areas
Once you are within the Mariposa Grove, there are no drinking fountains along the trails. So if it’s going to be a warm day, remember to grab some water at the shuttle pickup/dropoff areas (or bring some with you).
The experience of walking through the Mariposa Grove is not like walking through a public park with benches and drinking fountains everywhere. The area, especially after the removal of roads during the 2015 renovation, is completely natural. So plan ahead for drinking water, especially if you’re going to hike the full loop.
4. The Big Trees Trail Is The Easiest But Also The Busiest
The main attractions of the Mariposa Grove are the named trees. If you’ve been there before, you’ll remember the names: Faithful Couple, Clothespin Tree, and more. While there are 500 giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, only the largest are given names. Each of the trails passes by some of these named trees.
The easiest trail is the first loop: the Big Trees Trail. The main attraction of the Big Trees Trail is the Fallen Monarch. While it might seem silly to take a loop trail to access a dead tree, it’s truly a spectacular site. The size of the tree is hard to take in, and so are the roots sticking out of the end.
This trail is the busiest because all trails return to the Big Trees Trail to access the shuttle center. But it is also the easiest, flattest trail. So if you’re just looking for a simple, accessible loop to see some of the massive trees, this should be your choice.
5. Pets Are Not Allowed
Please note that pets are not allowed at the Mariposa Grove. The main reason is the shuttle-only access. If you bring your pet to the parking lot at the bottom, your pet will not be allowed onto the shuttle bus. And the only parking at the top is the handicap parking area, so you won’t be able to drive your pet to the top to skip the shuttle bus. So, when visiting the Mariposa Grove, be sure to leave your pet at home.
6. Handicap Parking Is Available Near The Grizzly Giant
The main attraction in the park is the Grizzly Giant, one of the 10 oldest trees in the United States. If you have a handicap sticker on your car, you will be allowed to access the handicap parking area at the top and walk the accessible, non-sloping path from the parking lot to the Grizzly Giant.
Cars with visible handicap placards will be allowed to take the shuttle bus road up to the top. Once there, follow the signs beyond the shuttle dropoff loop to the handicap parking lot. From that parking lot, it’s a short walk (less than an eighth of a mile) to the Grizzly Giant.
7. The Road Is Closed From The End Of November Through Mid-March
The Mariposa Grove is technically open year-round, but in the winter, it’s really only open to winter adventurers on snowshoes or cross-country skis. The road closes once the snowfall is too much (generally late November) and doesn’t open again until mid-March. The park is still open, and those who like to snowshoe can have the grove to themselves, but to get there you’ll have to hike up from the parking lot. And if you’ve ever driven that road from the bottom to the top, you’ll know that the hike would be an extreme climb. So between Thanksgiving and Saint Patrick’s Day, just know that there’s no way to access the grove besides snowshoes or skis.
8. The Grizzly Giant Loop Trail Offers Views Of The Most Famous Trees
As I said above, the Grizzly Giant is one of the grove’s main attractions. This tree has been studied for decades and is reported to be between 1,900 and 2,400 years old. One estimate put the age of the tree at 2,700 years, which would mean it dates back to around 600 B.C.!
Because of the Grizzly Giant, the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail is the best trail in the park. If this were Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Mariposa Grove Trail would be too hard, the Big Trees Trail would be too soft, and the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail would be just right. It’s a 2-mile trail with a total elevation gain of 300 feet, so it’s not a flat trail, but the climbs are very gradual. My wife and I completed the full Mariposa Grove Trail (a climb of more than 1,200 feet), and the portions that trail shares with the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail were the most gradual climbs (with plenty of places to rest).
The loop will take you from the shuttle dropoff up to the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree (a tree you can walk through) and then back down to the shuttle center.
9. The Hike To The Top Is Strenuous, But Worth It
If you’re feeling really adventurous (like we were), you can hike all the way to Wawona Point. This is a 7-mile loop trail from the shuttle center all the way to the top of the mountain. It’s a strenuous climb (more than 1,200 feet), and it’s long, so I’d recommend bringing plenty of water and taking several breaks.
The climb, however, is worth it. The views from Wawona Point are absolutely incredible. As a bonus, the trail snakes through the Mariposa Grove past nearly every named tree in the park. You will see them all, followed by an overlook at the top. Then you’ll have a relaxing climb back down, since the second half of the trail is 100 percent downhill.
In short, Mariposa Grove has it all: a short trail to see a few trees (still spectacular), a medium-length trail to see the most famous trees, and a long trail to see all of the trees. Take your pick, and enjoy your day in the mountains with these amazing, hard-to-believe trees.