Big Oak Flat and Groveland have always been closely linked to the wonders of nature around it, especially Yosemite. Soon after the first sighting of Yosemite Valley by non-natives in 1851, news of the region's wonders spread, bringing the first sight-seers. President Lincoln signed a law in 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, making Yosemite Valley the first lands in the nation set aside for “public use, resort, and recreation.”
By 1874 a primitive toll road was completed from Priest Station, enabling visitors to reach Yosemite Valley. By the late 1800s, travelers could take a train to Chinese Camp, then board a stage for a 60 mile trip to the Valley. On the way they passed through Big Oak Flat and Groveland, and then a series of toll stations along the route - Priest, Smith, Hamilton, Colfax and Crocker - and other wayside stops. These stations offered an overnight stay, a meal and fresh horses. Accommodations could be as simple as tents with campfire meals to well-developed resorts with comfortable beds, fine meals, and outdoor recreation. Development of some of these places, and transportation to and from them, was often by Groveland area residents.
Tourism entrepreneurs promoted attractions along the way such as the Hangman's Tree, and Rainbow Pool to lure people to travel the Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite rather than a competing road to the park.
By early 1900s motorcars were replacing actual horse power. This necessitated better roads. One improvement was the construction of the less-steep new Priest Grade to reach Big Oak Flat and Groveland. Tourist traffic increased steadily through the years making Highway 120, the old Big Oak Flat Road, the leading access road to Yosemite. Providing for these travelers' needs helps keeps the Groveland area vital.
Priest Station 1922
(Photo courtesy California State Parks)