The next owners of the "good place to stop" were New Englanders named Washburn, who called their place Big Tree Station. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and the widespread publication of early photographs of Yosemite Valley caused tourist travel to increase dramatically. By 1875 a road financed by the Washburns was completed between Mariposa, a mining town in the Sierra foothills, and Yosemite. Stagecoaches passed right by the front door of Big Tree Station, and in 1879 the two-story frame building encircled by covered porches was opened. The Mariposa Gazette called the Washburns' new establishment "the grandest hotel in the mountains of California."
The hotel was soon rechristened Wawona, an Indian word for big tree, and its first celebrity guest was Ulysses S. Grant. Grant arrived so covered with dust that the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "He looked as if he had been engaged in the most hotly contested battle of the wilderness." After Grant came John Ruskin, Lillie Langtry, Diamond Jim Brady, William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft and Bernard Baruch, all bound for the wonders of Yosemite.
It wasn't until 1910 or so that Wawona's own bucolic charms—as distinct from the grander attractions of the valley—began to draw notice. Perhaps it took all those years for the dust to settle. Whatever the reason, in 1911 J. Smeaton Chase wrote in his book Yosemite Trails that Wawona "is the most peaceful spot that I know of in America and comes near being the most idyllic spot I have ever seen anywhere."
It is possible to fall in love with Wawona at first sight, especially if one approaches from the south. Four thousand feet up in the Sierra Nevada, Route 41 rounds a bend and there, on the left, is a grassy meadow bordered by an old, meandering rail fence. On the right, a wide green lawn dotted with towering sugar pines slopes up toward a picture postcard of a 19th-century summer hotel—Wawona. The place sparkles with fresh white paint and brightly striped awnings. Straight-backed rocking chairs are on its long porches shaded from the afternoon sun by hop vines climbing from the railings. Steller's jays dart from tree to tree, scolding, and the cool air is redolent of pine. One can sit in a rocker and watch mule deer grazing on the lawn and hear the distant plock of a single tennis ball, an almost forgotten sound from a time when one tennis court was considered adequate for any self-respecting resort.
Wawona has one tennis court (all-weather), one golf course (nine holes), one swimming pool (heated), two telephones (coin-operated) and one TV set. Its rooms, in adjacent cottages, are small and old-fashioned, with iron bedsteads, chenille spreads, scatter rugs on bare wood floors and pull shades at the windows.
Wawona's chief charm is that its antiquity is organic and unselfconscious. A photograph taken of the hotel in 1890 and one taken yesterday are distinguishable by the vehicles parked at the door. The only show-biz hokum is a turn-of-the-century waitress uniform, designed for the hotel's centennial in 1979 and still worn by the girls who wait tables, and even that is understated. In fact, it becomes quite delightful once one has caught a glimpse of 1980 hiking boots underneath the long skirt and apron.
Most national parks suffer from an overabundance of tourists, but crowding is especially severe in Yosemite. Although the park consists of 1,189 square miles, the famed valley, home of such natural wonders as Bridalveil Falls and Half Dome, a 5,000-foot-high granite monolith, is only seven miles square. Crowded into that tiny area are four picnic areas, 10 campgrounds, two hotels, including the once-elegant Ahwahnee, a post office, a complex of stores, a restaurant, a clinic, stables, a chapel, two gas stations, a visitors' center, a nature center and park headquarters. A single road loops the valley floor, and traffic in the summer can be a nightmare.
In spite of the difficulties, every American should see Yosemite at least once before he dies. Fruited plains and shining seas are fine, but the Yosemite Valley is very nearly a religious experience. The key to appreciating it lies in locating "a good place to stop." Wawona, still peaceful after 101 years, is that place.
WAWONA HOTEL: Yosemite National Park, Calif. 95389
Telephone number: (209) 373-4171
Season: Mid-April to mid-October
Rates: $18-$31 a day, double occupancy, European plan