By Jim Cunningham & Flip Hassett
While traveling from Merced to Yosemite National Park on Highway 140, and enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way, one can make a stop after a leisurely 40-minute drive and find yourself in a charming, preserved Gold Rush town called Mariposa (which is Spanish for Butterfly).
Though Mariposa was known as part of the beginnings of the largest land boom in California with the Gold Rush in the 1840s, today it also offers three very distinct museums that help to tell the tale from those early years through present day events.
The town of Mariposa, first settled in 1949, is one of the southernmost of the Gold Rush towns. The streets follow the original street grid laid out by John C. Freemont in 1850. Several disastrous early fires convinced settlers to rebuild with stone, brick, and adobe. Consequently, many of today’s existing structures in the historic downtown area of Mariposa were built by the 1850s, with most of the remaining ones completed by 1900. Because they have always been in use, the old buildings haven’t had to be restored or recreated. A highlight is certainly visiting the following:
Identified as one of the best small museums in America, west of the Mississippi by the Smithsonian Institute. You have a chance to really to understand the Yosemite Valley, Native American, and early Mariposa County history. I really enjoyed being able to see all of the equipment and paraphernalia that the Gold Rush miners used in finding gold – there was a lot of exhibits to view.
You can visit the Daulton Room, where you will discover gold from how it was formed in the Sierra Nevada, to how it was mined during the California Gold Rush.
The Yosemite Valley Railroad Exhibit contains a diorama depicting the Yosemite Valley Railroad at El Portal station and the logging incline near El Portal. There is a lot of material and history that helped shape the Yosemite area all the way down to the Merced Falls and Snelling area – fun to see the relationships to the San Joaquin Valley.
A typical one-room Miner’s Cabin is on display alongside the more comfortable furnishings of the West’s most famous explore, John C. Fremont. View the oldest continually operated courthouse in the west (est. 1854), and many other exhibits that represents the life and times of the California Gold Rush period. We found this to be one of the most interesting exhibits – those miners really lived a sparse life!
Another room was dedicated to the ancestral home of the Southern Sierra Miwuk. The Miwuk Exhibit was one of our favorite displays and contained a large collection of baskets, artifacts, and images that represent local indigenous heritage and culture. There were several baskets that were huge and intricate and must have taken a really long time to make – great display and definitely shows the ingenuity and artisanship of these people.
Outside the facility you will see mining equipment that was used for hard-rock and placer mining along with a 5-Stamp Mill that is one of the few stamp mills in California that is still operational… demonstrations are available but we didn’t have the time to see when there would be a demonstration – so, we need to go back!
Their world class vault houses a large number of historical documents, genealogical records, photographs, and more. All venues are available for group tours and school field trips. Reservations are required – Contact the museum staff for details. Open seven days a week, year around – admission is $5.00 but children 12 and under are free as well as First Responders and Active Military with I.D.
Research is available on appointment Visit online about their rotating exhibits and upcoming events at www.mariposamuseum.com and is located at 5119 Jessie Street. (209) 966-2924. Besides, an additional benefit is that it is across the street from “Happy Burger”!
The California State Mining and Mineral Museum, located at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, is dedicated to teaching the visiting public about the importance of mining and minerals to California’s history, environment, economy, and future. The collection began in 1880; since then, visitors and researchers have been dazzled by the many exceptional specimens of California’s gemstones and minerals – such as gold, silver, copper, and platinum – in the museum. The remarkable items on display include original mining artifacts and historical documents, precious mineral and gem specimens from all over the world. One of our favorite displays were minerals that glowed in the dark after a black light was shined on them. Some of the other favorite exhibits were the large quartz dog spars that were displayed throughout the building and there were even several “outer space” rocks (meteorites) that were on exhibit. All in all, this was one of Flip’s favorite museums – remined him of when he collected rocks as a teenager (a long time ago!)
In 1880 State Legislators established the California State Mining Bureau. A vital service offered by the new agency was classifying and identifying minerals found anywhere in California. Before long, the new bureau was inundated with specimens submitted for identification from all over the world.
The State’s initial collection – 1327 specimens donated by the California State Geological Society – was first displayed in the State Mining Bureau’s San Francisco offices. Ore specimens and donations were constantly added. Between 1880 and 1983, the collection moved five times. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero housed the collection until 1983 when building renovations forced yet another move.
The Mariposa County Board of Supervisors requested that the specimens be moved to the town of Mariposa in July 1983, the entire collection was packed and moved to a temporary location in the old Mariposa County Jail. The more valuable specimens were stored in a bank vault in Mariposa. The collection was finally moved to its new home at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds in 1986, and the former Mining Council Building became the main exhibit area.
The museum collection has grown tenfold since its beginning and holds over 13,000 specimens, with about 350 rotating on display at one time.
We were allowed to take a few photos of the legendary Fricot Nugget (weighing 13.8 pounds) and some of the other exhibits for this article. This large piece of gold is housed here in a vault and is the largest remaining intact mass of crystalline gold dating back to the California Gold Rush. This rare specimen was discovered in a mud pocket deep in the Grit Mine, near the American River’s middle fork, by William Russell Davis in August of 1864. Now if only I can find something like that. We can see how Gold Fever can be contagious!
Free children’s activities are available and includes the Junior Ranger Program are available for kids from seven to twelve – There’s a Scavenger Hunt through the displays and there are three Rangers who are great and willing to explain and tour the facility with groups – just give them a call to set up a reservation.
The museum shop sells jewelry, mineral art and specimens, and books on rocks, minerals, mining, gold prospecting, and California history. For current information, you can contact www.parks.ca.gov or http://camineralmuseum.org and you can call (209) 742-7625.
The newest addition to the museum lineup in Mariposa came about from the recognition, in the early 1990s, of the need to preserve Yosemite’s rich climbing history. Over the next three decades, as supportive partnerships were developed, the ever-expanding archival holdings were displayed in Yosemite National Park and across California. In May 2021, the Yosemite Climbing Association opened the doors of the Yosemite Climbing Museum and Gallery to the public in Mariposa. A year later, a small partner exhibit opened in the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.
The Yosemite Climbing Museum is the largest archival collection of Yosemite climbing artifacts and memorabilia, spanning from 1875 to present day. Since we are avid photographers we were very impressed with the spectacular gallery of climbing photography and historical exhibits. The museum provides a window into the lives of modern climbing’s pioneers and the development of the gear that made their accomplishments possible.
Exhibits include the beginning of George Anderson’s first ascent of Half Dome in 1875 and highlights the progression of climbing techniques and the development of equipment over the next century. All the exhibits are paired with an extensive collection of climbing photography, with images by Ansel Adams, Glenn Denny and many others.
The gift shop offers a variety of climbing related items including books, guides, stickers, water bottles, t-shirts and more. There is also a growing inventory of climbing gear. Private and group tours are available with a reservation – contact (209) 742-1000 or visit www.yosemiteclimbing.org/tours
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM and is located at
5180 CA-140, Mariposa, CA. 95338
Whatever your time frame – visiting this Gold Rush town is an enjoyable day trip and exploring the three museums with yourself or your family is well worth the time and we highly recommend it! Plenty of good restaurants for breakfast, lunch or dinner.