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Big Oak Flat (No. 406 California Historical Landmark)

Historic Site or District
Old Priest Road to Yosemite remains steep and winding – Carl Russell, One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947)

California Historical Landmarks Program

Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:

1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region

2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California

3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.

California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.

In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.

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In the earliest days of the Gold Rush, this area of the Sierra in southwestern Tuolumne County was named Savage Diggins for James Savage. Groveland, Deer Flat and Second Garrotte are all considered part of Big Oak Flat. Groveland was the first Garrotte. The reported story is that residents of the town changed the name to overcome the stigma of hanging a thief.

Savage settled here with his five Native American wives and servants to mine and established one of his many trading posts. The most prominent feature of the town was an oak tree with an 11 foot diameter that later became the town’s permanent namesake. Miners undermined the tree’s root system searching for gold and eventually the tree was cut down in 1869. The remains of the tree burned in 1890.

Big Oak Flat and its numerous mines and surrounding communities were rich with mine deposits. The reported yield of Big Oak Flat was $28 million during the boom years. Mining continued in the area until World War I.

The Priest Hotel, the namesake for the “old” Priest Road, was located about a mile from Big Oak Flat before being destroyed by fire. The old road winds steep and narrow through the country on its way to Yosemite Valley. The old road was the main route into Yosemite during the 1850s and 1860s and still one of the most picturesque in the area. It presents travelers with a rare opportunity to revere the panoramic views of seven counties at the peak. The “new” Priest Road is State Highway 120 through Groveland.

The historical marker is located on State Hwy 120 (P.M. 30.2), Big Oak Flat. Big Oak Flat is part of the Mark Twain Bret Harte Trail.

Please visit Tioga Pass/Big Flat Road National Scenic Byway for more information.

Tuolumne County

A treasure of natural wonders and lively gold rush history, Tuolumne County offers visitors vivid scenery. A portion of Yosemite National Park lies within the county, along with giant redwood groves and impressive geological features. Both Bret Harte and Mark Twain wrote stories set in this area during the Gold Rush.

Time Period Represented


Nearby Places