Mariposa Grove is closed until June 15, 2018 for restoration work. During the restoration, most grove parking will be moved to a new location at the main entrance station, 2 miles from the grove, and a new trail will connect the parking lot to the grove. The gift shop in the lower grove and a few of the trails and roads in the upper grove will be removed. When the grove reopens, visitors will either have to walk 4 miles round-trip or take a shuttle to the lower grove. Also, the tram tours have been discontinued, so the only way to reach the upper grove will be to walk.
During the closure, the Outer Loop Trail and the Wawona Trail will remain open, so it's still possible to reach the outskirts of the upper grove by a 12-mile round-trip hike from Wawona.
Mariposa Grove is one of Yosemite's main attractions. Although it's not a big grove, it still has plenty of immense trees and it's exceptionally scenic. Its convenient location right next to Yosemite's busiest entrance, a one-hour drive from Yosemite Valley, makes it not only the most-visited sequoia grove, but also one of the most popular sights in Yosemite, with over a million visitors per year — more than all of Sequoia National Park.
The grove is located on the gently-sloping south side of a low hill. Most of the sequoias are concentrated in two areas — the lower grove, a narrow strip of sequoias that extends uphill from the parking lot, and a larger upper grove, centered around the museum. Of the two, the upper grove is by far the more scenic, but it's also harder to reach. You can either hike up to it, making a 4-mile round trip with a considerable amount of climbing, or pay the rather exhorbitant fee of $26.50 to take a one-hour tram ride. The hike is surprisingly difficult due to the altitude. The nice thing about this system, though, is that the upper grove really isn't crowded. There's a constant stream of people on the worn-out three-quarter-mile trail up to the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree, but few visitors continue past that point. In the late afternoon, which is my favorite time to visit, the upper grove is practically deserted except when a tram makes its 10-minute stop at the museum.
The grove was heavily developed in the park's early years, particularly by New Deal programs in the 1930s. At one time the lower grove had a campground, ranger station, and barn, while the upper grove had the Galen Clark Cabin and the Big Trees Lodge, which included a dining building and tent cabins, as well as parking lots and additional roads. While Mariposa Grove is still one of the more developed sequoia groves, with a paved loop road, a replica of an historic cabin, and a dense trail network, due to continuing restoration efforts it now has a mostly natural appearance. The loop road, for example, is only used once every half-hour when a tram grinds its way up, and the upper grove isn't crowded.
Beginning in 2014, the grove will be further restored with the removal of the parking lot, gift shop, and tram service. Visitors will park near the main entrance station and either take a free shuttle (summers only) or walk to the lower grove. For off-peak visitors these measures will unfortunately make it harder and, I think, less enjoyable to get to the grove, and it appears that visitors who can't walk there won't be able to visit the upper grove at all.
Start in the Mariposa Grove parking lot. On summer weekends when the small parking lot fills up, you'll have to park 5 miles away at Wawona and take a free shuttle. The main problem with the shuttle is that it stops running at 6 pm, making it difficult to catch the grove at its most best, in the late-afternoon sunlight.
The parking lot is actually the most impressive part of the lower grove, with quite a few sequoias. From the parking lot, a wide, well-worn trail with wooden fences on either side leads a mile uphill to the Grizzly Giant. There are some big sequoias near the beginning of the trail, and they make a fine sight, but as the trail climbs they become widely scattered, giving way to a dense young pine forest with just an occasional sequoia. The sequoias tend to have dark trunks. There's one notable grouping that stands out, the Bachelor and Three Graces, a popular photographic subject.
The Grizzly Giant is a truly impressive mammoth tree. Long straight sections of trail both above and below the tree allow you to clearly see the entire tree. With its massive trunk and many enormous branches, the Grizzly Giant looks a lot like the General Grant and Sherman trees, the largest in the world.
Just past the Grizzly Giant is the California Tunnel Tree, a big sequoia with a walk-through hole cut through its base. Oddly, there are always more people at the tunnel tree than the Grizzly Giant — everyone wants to have their picture taken standing in the tunnel.
Most people turn around at this point. The trail gets a lot quieter and less touristy; you can start hiking in earnest. The wooden railing ends and the crowds diminish.
There are several trails to the Upper Grove. None of them are especially interesting and they all seem to get about the same amount of traffic, so I usually just take the shortest one. This trail just has a single, big sequoia; otherwise it passes through pine forest that's been heavily damaged by a recent fire. The many dead pine trees have been cut down, I suppose so they don't fall and hit someone.
Eventually the dense pine forest gives way to the upper grove. The upper grove is exceptionally scenic, mainly because it's very open, an attribute that may not be natural; 3,000 understory trees were cut down in 1933 to improve the appearance of the grove. Even taking that into account, though, the grove still has a lot of exceptionally big sequoias, and they're fine-looking examples: stout, perfectly cylindrical, and with an attractive smooth, light-colored, reddish bark. When it's overcast they appear to glow against the background of dark foliage.
The focal point of the grove is the Mariposa Grove Museum. The inside of the museum is a bit of a let-down; it's tiny and the really isn't much to see. In front of the cabin is an attractive little meadow with immense sequoias growing in and around it. A few trails radiate out from the cabin and they're all pretty nice; I usually like the one that goes uphill to the Fallen Tunnel Tree, not because of the tree but because of the scenery along the way.
The open-air trams come and go. The drivers drop off groups of tourists to wander around the upper grove for 10 minutes before yelling out "All aboard!" in a voice that echoes throughout the grove and then departing to leave the grove in peace. Even with the trams, though, the upper grove is remarkably quiet.
Wawona Point seems to be a popular destination. At one point visitors could drive up here, and there's still a parking lot at the top. Now the area just looks kind of decrepit. While it does offer a sweeping view over the pine-carpeted Wawona valley, it's not really worth the 1-mile walk, and personally, I'd rather spend the time walking around the Upper Grove.
© 2012, 2015 David Baselt