The small community of Wawona inside Yosemite National Park centers on the meeting point of several scenic rivers and creeks. Sometimes rushing, sometimes softly murmuring, these watercourses provide delightful springtime rapids and summertime Wawona swimming holes. If you’ve spent much time at all in Wawona, you’ll certainly have fond memories of time spent enjoying Wawona’s unique access to these pristine mountain waters.
The South Fork of the Merced River, like the main fork of the river that flows through Yosemite Valley, is a designated Wild and Scenic River. Above and below Wawona, the South Fork of the Merced River flows through steep river-cut canyons, making it hard to get to, but in Wawona, the river opens up and provides dozens of places to enjoy the clear cold waters.
Enjoy these refreshing riverside locations for a summertime swim, cool your feet after a long hike, or just enjoy the relaxing sounds of flowing water from the bank while reading a book or enjoying a picnic.
Safety Note: In the winter and early spring mountain rivers are fed by snowmelt from higher peaks. This makes the rivers fast, icy cold, and potentially dangerous. During these seasons, it’s best to enjoy the river from the bank!
Pioneer History Center
It’s easy to find a place to enjoy the river in Wawona. One convenient (and obvious) location is just off Highway 41 at the Pioneer History Center.
The historic covered bridge at the Pioneer History Center also provides excellent access to both banks of the river, and you’ll often find people here enjoying a picnic or simply relaxing along the water’s edge. It’s easy to combine your water enjoyment with a quick stroll among the historic buildings in the Wawona Pioneer History Center.
Wawona’s swinging bridge, unlike the one in Yosemite Valley, still swings calmly over the South Fork of the Merced River. Both up and downstream of the bridge, the river has carved graceful curves into the granite shores and created dozens of places to enjoy the river.
You can find this popular Wawona swimming spot by turning north on Chilnualna Falls Road and following the paved road to the end (about 2 miles in). Then continue on the dirt road (a few hundred feet past the Chilnualna Creek bridge) that leads to the trailhead for Swinging Bridge. The trail is generally flat and about a mile or so long.
Another way to get to the Wawona Swinging Bridge by turning north on Forest Drive in Wawona next to the Wawona Store. Continue past the Pioneer History Center and park in a small dirt parking lot at the end of the road. It’s less than a mile along the wide and flat trail to the swinging bridge, although you can stop to enjoy the river before you get to the bridge too.
Explore on Your Own
The South Fork of the Merced River isn’t the only game in town either when it comes to refreshing rivers. Chilnualna Falls Road – the one you take to get to the check-in for The Redwoods In Yosemite – also provides access to other creeks that flow into the Merced. A little exploration will lead you to more secluded Wawona swimming and wading spots up the Chilnualna Falls trail.
You can even follow the South Fork as it continues past the town of Wawona on its way to join the main fork of the Merced River.