This article was first published on Parks & Points in December 2021. Read the full article on Parks & Points. This article was also published in three San Francisco Bay area newspapers – the East Bay Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and Marin Independent Journal.
Yosemite National Park is the size of Rhode Island and pre-pandemic almost 5 million people flocked annually until measures were enacted for timed pre-booking to gain access to the park. Yosemite sparked the idea of national parks and became the world’s first nationally protected park 150 years ago thanks to President Lincoln signing the Yosemite Land Grant.
While often visitors drive directly to the Park to get into nature, the former gold mining town of Mariposa, just outside the Park, is worth exploring. Population 1,800, this gateway town feels like an old Western movie set due to its pioneer past. Founded in 1849, the southernmost in the Gold Rush chain of towns, you won’t find a stoplight here. About an hour drive from the entrance to Yosemite National Park, the cute town has all the conveniences plus affordable lodging.
Don’t miss Mariposa
Visitors can feel the Old West by strolling historic main street filled with shops, bakeries, tasting rooms, art galleries, and an old jailhouse, or by touring the 1854 courthouse, the oldest courthouse still in operation west of the Rockies. It was named Las Mariposas for the large number of beautiful butterflies in the area.
Stop in town at the Mariposa Museum and History Center filled with fascinating mining artifacts, a one-room miner’s cabin, and an operational stamp mill. Admire unique items like gold from 1934 mines, Victorian hair art, a coffee grinder from 1893, and maps of Mariposa from 1859 where lots sold from $200- $500, just ten years after the Gold Rush. Founded in 1957 and named one of the best small museums in America by the Smithsonian Institute, exhibits showcase Native American, Spanish Settlement, California Gold Rush, Yosemite and Mariposa County History.
The new Yosemite Climbing Museum, created by local climbing legends, materialized thanks to Ken Yager amassing a lifetime of climbing gear including equipment used to install the cables at Half Dome. This 3-gallery space provides a forum of curated historical climbing artifacts as well as photography, publications, and memorabilia. Ken and Mike Corbett happily share death defying tales of their climbs high up in Yosemite’s famous cliffs since the 1970s as well as unbelievable stories of traversing 46 miles to a 1976 plane crash stuffed with weed or “Crash Bud” in Lower Merced Pass Lake later known as Dope Lake.
Just outside of town is California’s official collection of gemstones and minerals that began in 1880. The impressive California State Mining and Mineral Museum showcases gold, silver, platinum, minerals that glow in the dark, outer space rocks, and the “Fricot Nugget,” a rare 13.8-pound piece of crystalline gold found in the American river in 1864. Fantasize about the Wild West through their original mining artifacts, historical documents, and displays helping visitors understand the history of panning for gold and the process of extracting it. Admire over 13,000 gems found in California and all over the world. The initial collection donated by the California State Geological Society was once housed in the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
Fuel up before hiking, grab sandwiches to-go at June Bug Café or breakfast at the Pony Expresso coffeehouse. For post-hike bliss, consider Little Shop of Ramen for a comfort bowl of toasted rye noodles freshly made served three ways in a triple stock soup broth. Pair with sake from Hollister, CA or local wine like Icons of Yosemite in the adjacent bar Local Grape, both in Mariposa’s oldest building. Surprisingly, Yosemite Mariposa has their own wines and vineyards nearby in the Sierra Foothills.
Other restaurants to consider in town are 1850 Restaurant & Brewery, Pizza Factory, Charles Street Dinner House, and Costa Livos for olive oil tasting.
Step into nature
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