The postcard-pretty hamlet of Fish Camp is located just two miles from Yosemite National Park’s South Gate in Mariposa County, making it the closest town to any of Yosemite’s entrances. Surrounded by the Sierra National Forest, Fish Camp offers lodging and activity options, from historic railroad tours to Sierra sledding hills, with four-season recreational appeal.
Tucked away in a grove of mountain pines and seated just outside of Yosemite National Park, Fish Camp is a tiny mountain town that boasts dozens of activities nearby.
North of Oakhurst along State Highway 41, Mariposa and Madera counties play hopscotch as you approach Fish Camp, which is located in Mariposa County. The town, with elevation ranging from 4,900 to 5,300 feet, is nestled on the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada range. Big Creek burbles cold and clear through Fish Camp on its merry way to the Wild & Scenic Merced River, with many of the town’s vacation rentals set on this beautiful tributary.
Early on, the local Miwuk Nation used the area as a fishing and trading area (look for the rock grinding holes near the south end of the Big Creek Bridge). One theory is that Big Creek flowed strong enough to host salmon for a few months every year. Another was a large grove of California Black Oaks (“Teleli” to the Miwuk), providing an abundant supply of acorns, which were a dietary staple.
The construction of a highway into the southern entrance of Yosemite, today known as CA Highway 41, brought tourist traffic into the small logging community early in the 20th century and continues to today.
The second half of the 19th century introduced commercial ventures, including logging, apple orchards and nascent tourism-related activity. The rise of the town of Wawona and the road to Yosemite Valley spurred the development of a road through Fish Camp as well. The Madera Sugar Pine Logging Company worked the forest around Fish Camp, providing lumber for early construction in Yosemite and Central Valley cities. Sheepherders utilized local meadows created by the active local logging industry. Around this time, another of Fish Camp’s aliases came into view. “Happy Camp” was a forest clearing just south of present-day Fish Camp that developed into a “red lamp” district serving the loggers and mill workers of the Sugar Pine Mill.
Local logging was largely curtailed in 1893 with the designation of the Sierra Forest Reserve (now Sierra National Forest). Also in 1893, Fish Camp was briefly renamed when Summerdale Post Office opened. However, much of Summerdale burned in 1898 and when rebuilt was renamed as Fish Camp once again.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, placing Yosemite under the protection of the state of California. An Act of Congress designated Yosemite National Park in October 1890, making it the third national park in the United States, after Yellowstone (1872) and Sequoia (1890). Travel to Yosemite swelled, and Fish Camp was directly in the path of many new travelers – a status it enjoys to this day.
Today, Fish Camp is one of the recreational hubs of Mariposa County with a full realm of options in and around town as well as the perfect gateway to Yosemite National Park’s many attractions. Here are just a few highlights:
Whether you’re staying in Fish Camp, or passing through on the way to the park, the Fish Camp General Store is a historical and well-provisioned outpost for groceries, beer and wine, souvenirs, and good conversation.
Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoia is among the largest and oldest living things on earth. Located two miles from Fish Camp and tucked just inside Yosemite National Park’s South Gate, the Mariposa Grove is home to about 500 of these mature titans! The Grizzly Giant, the tallest and oldest tree in Yosemite National Park, is 209 feet tall and estimated to be 2,700 years old.
The Shadow of the Giants Interpretive Trail is a pleasant one-miler with a huge payoff: the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias. There are currently about 100 mature sequoias in the 1,540-acre grove including the massive, 246-ft. tall Bull Buck. The Nelder Grove is located south of Fish Camp on Highway 41 off Sky Ranch Road.
Wawona’s Golf Course presents a unique opportunity – Golfing in a National Park. (Note: The Golf Course is closed for the 2020 season)
Yosemite’s Wawona Golf Course was the first regulation course in the Sierra Nevada when it opened in 1918, and today is still one of the sweetest mountain courses around. Located right across the street from the Wawona Hotel, this course was designed by Walter Favarque to blend seamlessly into its spectacular surroundings. The nine-hole, par-35 national park loop measures 3,050 yards and includes two par-five holes.
While in Wawona, visit the Pioneer Yosemite History Center to see horse-drawn wagons, walk across a covered bridge, and visit historic buildings out of Yosemite’s past. The history center explains how Yosemite was the inspiration for national parks across America and throughout the world. Learn more in the free park service brochure.
Goat Meadow is a classic snow play and sledding hill, located just off Highway 41 in the Sierra National Forest between Fish Camp and Yosemite National Park. Tubing, sledding, and snowshoe trails are here. Toboggan up!
With its shady tree cover and fern grotto feel, the Lewis Creek Trail is located near Fish Camp and offers a two-for-one special when it comes to waterfalls. A few hundred feet from the turnout on Highway 41, the trail forks right (downstream) and drops .5 miles to Corlieu Falls. Going left (upstream) at the fork, the trail follows Lewis Creek to Red Rock Falls, a wider, more powerful cascade of 20 feet.
With the trailhead adjacent to Tenaya Lodge, the Tenaya Loop is a peaceful stroll through the seasonal wildflowers of the Sierra National Forest while being serenaded by the babbling of nearby Big Creek. Perfect for all ages and abilities, the hike is dog-friendly (on leash) and has some benches if you want to stop and smell the lupine.
Tenaya Lodge’s Open Top Tour Bus departs its trips into Yosemite from Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp.
Located in Fish Camp at Tenaya Lodge, Yosemite Tours offers guided excursions into the granite wonderland just up the road. See Yosemite National Park’s greatest hits – El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Tunnel View, Half Dome, et al – from a Mercedes Sprinter Van with all-glass ceiling and sides, creating unobstructed views of the park from every angle.
Walk amongst the giant in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
Last but definitely not least, Fish Camp is located at the doorstep to Yosemite’s South Gate and 1,200 square miles of outdoor recreation with some of the most majestic scenery in the world. Fish Camp also puts you within walking distance from the world-famous Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias where hundreds of the world’s tallest and oldest living trees stand guard.
Fish Camp’s proximity to Yosemite National Park makes it the ideal base camp for a Yosemite Mariposa vacation. True to its legacy of hospitality, Fish Camp today offers charming vacation rentals and hotels, including the White Chief Mountain Lodge and Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, one of the Sierra Nevada’s most fully-featured family resorts.
At the end of the day, Fish Camp is a charming, Swiss Army-knife kind of place surrounded by gorgeous forests, fields and streams. When you consider Fish Camp is also the closest town to any Yosemite National Park gate, its appeal only grows deeper. Somehow this hidden gem is under the radar, for now.
(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)
A visit to the California Mining and Mineral Museum is truly worth its weight in gold for its fascinating insights into the CA geology that has shaped so much of the state’s history. If nothing else, be sure to stop in to view the largest mass of crystalline gold – 13.8 pounds.
African American soldiers, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, played an important role in the early protection of National Parks like Yosemite.
The postcard-pretty hamlet of Fish Camp is located just two miles from Yosemite National Park’s South Gate in Mariposa County, making it the closest town to any of Yosemite’s entrances.