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Following the hilly, curvy road that snakes through Yosemite National Park in the east of cental California, every turn elicits another “wow” moment. It's not easy to decide which view best demonstrates the appeal of this nearly 1,187-square-mile sprread: Dramatic overlooks, soaring mountains, rushing waterfalls or other breathtaking examples of Mother Nature's magnificent handiwork.
Equally challenging is choosing among a number of nearby places that themselves would be worth a visit, and which greatly enhance a trip to the area. From ancient fossils to Native American culture to gold mining, something-for-everyone variety adds to the appeal. A sampling of these sites is grouped together in Madera County, located just outside the southern entrance into the park.
Keeping Alive Yosemite's Past
A good place to begin exploration is the Pioneer Yosemite History Center (top), comprised of various structures that played important roles in the park's past, and which later were moved to this location. A centerpiece of the collection is a covered bridge that was erected in 1857, over which all Yosemite-bound traffic used to cross; original markings etched into some timbers by the bridge’s builders still are visible. Nearby is the Wells Fargo office, which operated as a stagecoach terminal and telegraph agency, as well as a blacksmith forge.
Sloths, Camels, and Mammoths Once Roamed Madera County
A much older chapter of the past goes back nearly 800,000 years, when elephant-like mammoths, giant sloths, and camels were among animals that lived in the area. After they died, rivers washed many of their bones to a low-lying spot where they have been uncovered and are on display at the Fossil Discovery Center (above).
It's located next to the landfill which is the site of the paleontology dig. The collection is significant because it's one of a few known places remaining from that time period, and also for the large number of species which are represented.
Reminders of more recent human history also abound. They include evidence of peoples who inhabited this area nearly 4,000 years ago. Their heritage is recalled and celebrated at the Sierra Mono Museum with displays of beautiful basketry, intricate bead craft, ceremonial items and other exhibits. Additional vestiges of Native American culture include a historic round house which is still in use, as well as an annual pow wow that is open to visitors.
There Was Gold in them thar Hills of Madera County
Those indigenous people later were joined by lumberjacks, ranchers and other settlers. Then the discovery of gold in 1848 set off an influx of people seeking instant riches into the territory. By the time the Gold Rush ended seven years later, California had become a state, the Native American population had been largely decimated, towns were established, and farmers and ranchers arrived to feed the new residents.
Among reminders of those days are the villages of Fine Gold and Coarsegold, which got their names from the type of precious metal found nearby. Information about mining is among stories related at the Coarsegold Historic Museum (above), located at a site that served as a horse-drawn freight wagon station, and the original mud-and-rock adobe building from that time still is in use.
Other pages of the past are turned at the Fresno Flats Historic Village, which captures the flavor of the 19th-century life of settlers. Structures include two homes containing period furnishings, a matched pair of compact one-room schoolhouses, and a log cabin that originally was part of a lodge offering accommodations to stagecoach passengers.
A Mix of Other Attractions Awaits in Madera County
These and other examples of pioneer history would be reason enough to visit this destination. Throw in some of the most magnificent natural settings anywhere and it’s no wonder that Yosemite National Park and its surrounding area are included on many a bucket list.
There’s also an added bonus for those seeking an inviting place to enjoy a bit of R&R. Despite its name, Bass Lake is a good place to catch a wide variety of freshwater fish. Because it’s less than 20 miles from Yosemite’s southern gate, it offers a convenient location with a choice of water-related activities.
That man-made body of water has been named one of the “West’s Best Lakes” by Sunset magazine. No wonder it’s a year-round vacation destination for California residents and others.
The lake and resorts along its shoreline have been attracting visitors since the 1920s. They come to fish, boat, look for bald eagles and swim in water that can reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.
A couple of towns close to Yosemite’s southern entrance, each with about 3,000 inhabitants, make up in charm what they lack in size. North Fork is home to the Sierra Mono Museum and serves as headquarters for a branch of that tribe.
The other, Oakhurst, has two primary claims to fame. Despite its small size, it’s Yosemite National Park’s largest gateway community. In addition, the village is located at a terminus of Scenic Route 49, also known as the Gold Rush Trail. This road’s history dates back to early mining days, and it's peppered with historic towns that retain their mid-19th century charm.
For information about exploring Yosemite's southern gateway communities in Madera County, California, log on to YosemiteThisYear.com.