THE ARCH ROCK STOP
Elevation: 1,953 feet
WHAT TO DO IN MARIPOSA
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Bond or people-watch with Yosemite travelers from around the world. This is the liveliest town close to the park.
Stop in at the California State Mining & Mineral Museum to see the world-famous Fricot Nugget – one of the largest hunks of Sierra gold found during the Gold Rush.
Take a side trip on Highway 49 to see another Old West town in Coulterville and the marker for John Fremont’s fort. If you’re a big Fremont fan, you might also count the Mariposa streets named for members of his extended family.
The River Route to Yosemite
Mariposa is the gateway for what many would argue is the prettiest all-weather route into Yosemite. (Tioga Pass to the eastern boundary is more dramatic, but only open from late spring into fall.) It’s a little over 30 miles from Mariposa to the park’s Arch Rock entrance, and the drive follows alongside the Merced River all the way to Yosemite Valley. For those who’ve come from the direction of the Bay Area, this approach is the reward for navigating Merced the city’s confusing sprawl.
Enroute to the park, it passes the Ferguson Rockslide that buried a section of Highway 140 in 2006. This part of the heavily trafficked Yosemite route known as the All Year Highway was entirely closed off for more than three months as a result, sealing off hotels and businesses that are some of the closest outside the park and forcing brutal commutes for locals, including kids who needed to get to school. The slide area is still covered in talus today, with a stoplight managing alternating one-way traffic on the bypass. Work to clear the debris didn’t begin until 2015.
A few tiny towns also dot the way and are home to several Yosemite employees. Touching on a bit of horrific history, El Portal likely sounds familiar to many. It made headlines around the world as the scene of 1999’s Yosemite murders. Killer Cary Stayner already had experience in the media glare before he was tried and sentenced to death. He is the brother of Steven Stayner, a young boy who was kidnapped and managed to escape years later. His story became the popular 1989 television miniseries I Know My First Name is Steven.
Why There’s So Much Butterfly Stuff
Mariposa was named by explorer Gabriel Moraga, whose expedition came into central California in 1806 to scout sites for potential missions. He chose the Spanish term for “butterfly” after seeing swarms of the pretty winged things in the area.
The Fremont Connection
Explorer John C. Fremont followed and was an early Mariposa landowner. He acquired more than 40,000 acres in an 1846 deal he initially thought to be worthless, but instead made him rich. Fremont didn’t arrange the deal himself because California was still a Mexican territory at the time. That being the case, he sent Thomas Larkin, who served as the United States Consul to Alta California to make a negotiate with Mexican governor Juan Bautista Alvarez. But the deal Larkin made had unexpected consequences.
Fremont had wanted to ranch, so he was seeking fertile land in San Jose. Instead, Larkin had somehow secured him acreage in the isolated Sierra foothills. It wasn’t particularly farm-friendly, and it was also in the heart of Indian territory. But then gold was discovered in Coloma, and the particular nature of Fremont’s real estate transaction proved lucrative beyond his imagination. The deal had been a “floating agricultural land grant” and didn’t have specific boundaries. Instead, the owner could choose them within the much larger area defined in the grant.
Fremont used that to his advantage. Because he’d been trying to straighten out Larkin’s mistake, he hadn’t yet established his boundaries. When he did, he secured himself a huge swath of the Mother Lode. Once California became a state, there were many disputes about the validity of Fremont’s claim, but he ultimately prevailed and was recognized as the owner of several Mariposa mines. One of them was California’s first stamp mill to crush ore, where Fremont and Kit Carson discovered the abundant Mariposa Vein. (Fremont didn’t work in the mines himself. Instead, he got into politics, becoming a California senator and the first Republican candidate for president.)
Today, Fremont’s legacy as a Mariposa mogul is still evident. Many of the streets are named after his family. Charles was Fremont’s middle name, Jessie was his wife, Jones was the last name of his brother-in-law and Bullion was a nickname for his father-in-law.
The Fricot: A Mother of a Nugget and Modern-Day Bandits
Some who come to the foothills buy one of the pans sold in hardware and souvenir stores and test their luck, but a more sure-fire way to see gold is to visit the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa. It’s got multiple specimens, including the spectacular Fricot Nugget. Weighing nearly 14 pounds, it’s the largest crystallized gold mass from the Gold Rush that’s still intact. It wasn’t uncommon for 49ers to find one so large, but they were typically melted down.
The museum’s riches drew pickaxe-wielding thieves in 2012. They made off with gold samples and artifacts worth $2 million during the brazen day-time robbery and would have had more if it hadn’t been for the Fricot’s heft. Though the group tried to make it part of their haul, it was too heavy.
A Big Courthouse for What Was Once a Huge County
For a small town, Mariposa has a giant and grand-looking courthouse. The stately white building even has a clock tower. Built in 1854, it’s also the oldest courthouse west of the Rockies that’s still in use. Mariposa County actually predates California’s statehood and used to be enormous, covering a fifth of the state. Since then, 11 counties have been carved from what used to be Mariposa.
Shirley Sargent’s Place in Town
One of Yosemite’s most highly regarded historians typed many of her books using one finger. Even though a neurological disorder confined Shirley Sargent to a wheelchair in her early teens, she wrote almost two dozen titles about Yosemite.
She was well-qualified, having lived much of her life in the park. When her father got work as a surveyor during the construction of Tioga Road, her family first settled at the project’s camp near Tuolumne Meadows. (She wrote about it in her book Enchanted Childhoods.) They later bought a house in Mariposa, but Shirley would go on to live on her own closer to Yosemite Valley. Her house in Foresta was called Flying Spur. The A-Rock fire destroyed it and most of her records in 1999 and also claimed her cat Purr, but she rebuilt and continued to live as independently as possible, even driving her own car. Still, she went back to the family home in Mariposa off and on and spent the last years of her life there before she passed away in 2004 at the age of 77.
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