“From the margin of these glorious forests the first general view of the Valley used to be gained – a revelation in landscape affairs that enriches one’s life forever.” – John Muir

Yosemite Valley at sunset from “Tunnel View” overlook. I swear to you that this is really a picture, taken by John, even though it looks like it cannot possibly be real. It really is this beautiful.

Yosemite Valley at sunset from “Tunnel View” overlook. I swear to you that this is really a picture, taken by John, even though it looks like it cannot possibly be real. It really is this beautiful.

During the gold rush of 1849 miners invaded the acorn orchards and game lands of the native tribes living in the Sierra Nevada. In retaliation, the tribes began a war with the miners and the United States responded by gathering them up into reservations. One tribe, the Yosemite, lived in a deep valley and felt protected by the fortified posit. They continued their raids on the miners even as their neighboring tribes were captured and relocated. In pursuit of a few members of the Yosemite tribe thought to have stolen some mules, a few U.S. soldiers came upon the view shown in the picture above. This is how Yosemite Valley was discovered by Euro-Americans. It was later named for the tribe who called it home.

At the Visitor Center we watched a film on the early history of Yosemite Valley becoming a National Park. The film was created by Ken Burns, a documentary film maker who produced a series for PBS called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”.  The Visitor Center film was amazing, it even moved us to tears. I look forward to watching the full series on the parks. But for now, back to what we learned about how national parks came to be.

Based on descriptions and artist depictions of the spectacular beauty of Yosemite Valley and the unparalleled sequoia trees, the leadership of the country came to the conclusion that these unique landscapes should be protected from private ownership and preserved for public enjoyment. Even without ever having seen the land with their own eyes, congress passed an act that President Lincoln signed, to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees. At the time, it was not the place for the national government to manage a park, so the act of congress that protected the land granted it to the State of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation”. This act launched the idea of a publicly owned nature reserve for everyone, not just the elite. As John Muir says, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” Setting aside wilderness for all the public is truly America’s best idea.

Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove was granted to the State of California in 1864. A few years later, in 1872, the national government also sought to preserve the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, which have more natural geysers than anywhere in the world. The proposed Yellowstone park was located in the Wyoming Territory, with no state government to grant the land to. Thus, congress created Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world.

John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted (half of the pair who designed Central and Prospect Parks) lobbied congress to create a national park reserve surrounding Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. In 1890 congress did just that, and 15 years later the State of California returned the valley and the grove to the national government to add to the national park, as the state did not have the resources to manage it. Another important leader in preserving this land was Galen Clark, who was appointed by the State as the first “Guardian Of Yosemite”.

Photographers flock to this view point to capture the stunning beauty. The large cliff on the left is El Capitan, Half Dome is in the distance and Bridal Veil Falls is off to the right.

Photographers flock to this view point to capture the stunning beauty. The large cliff on the left is El Capitan, Half Dome is in the distance and Bridal Veil Falls is off to the right.

A relief map of the valley sits near the view point. With proper alignment, you can see the model view in the foreground of the actual view (please disregard the camera between the real and model Half Domes).

A relief map of the valley sits near the view point. With proper alignment, you can see the model view in the foreground of the actual view (please disregard the camera between the real and model Half Domes).

Entering the Valley, the first sight is the Bridal Veil Falls. Muir describes the falls, “…as it sways and sings in the wind, clad in gauzy, sun-sifted spray, half falling, half floating, it seems infinitely gentle and fine; but the hymns it sings tell the solemn fateful power hidden beneath its soft clothing.”

Bridal Veil Falls at sunset.

Bridal Veil Falls at sunset.

Across the valley floor from Bridal Veil falls rises the largest granite monolith in the world, El Capitan. This sheer granite cliff inspires the imagination of rock climbers around the world. In fact, Yosemite was such an important part of the history of rock climbing that a plaque recognizing its role in advancing the sport is located in climbers’ favored campground, Camp 4.

 Van under El Capitan.

Van under El Capitan.

Perhaps the most famous feature of the valley is Half Dome. Hiking to the top of Half Dome with the assistance of cables bolted into the granite is so popular that would-be hikers need to apply to a lottery for permits to hike the trail. Permits are limited to 300 people per day.

 Portrait of John's Brompton with Half Dome forming the backdrop.

Portrait of John’s Brompton with Half Dome forming the backdrop.

Despite the low snowfall over winter, the waterfalls in the valley were flowing in their full glory, including the grand Yosemite Falls. Since we were not staying in the valley, we sadly missed the opportunity to see a “moonbow”, where the light of the full moon is diffracted into a rainbow by the fine mist of falling water.

Yosemite Falls through the trees; the tallest waterfall in the US and the fifth tallest in the world.

Yosemite Falls through the trees; the tallest waterfall in the US and the fifth tallest in the world.

Van and bicycles in front of Yosemite Falls.

Van and bicycles in front of Yosemite Falls.

Mirror Lake sits at the base of half dome, a remnant of an ancient glacial lake that became famous due to its smooth surface and clear reflections.

The surface of this lake reflects Half Dome and the surrounding trees on its surface.

The surface of this Mirror Lake reflects Half Dome and the surrounding trees on its surface.

Standing under Yosemite Falls with a crowd of people holding up their iPhones, I realized that the current manifestation of the park is a perversion of the natural wonder that inspired John Muir to fight for the protection of the land as a National Park, because the wilderness context has been spoiled by development. The most beautiful places, set aside for protection, have turned into resorts. Both Yosemite and Grand Canyon (I imagine also Yellowstone among others) have been developed to the point that the man-made structures distract from the experience of the natural beauty which the parks were built to protect. In order to make the parks accessible to everyone, and to provide inspiration for different types of people, areas have been paved over to create roads and parking lots, museums have been erected and land leased out to private companies to build and manage hotels. The situation is a Catch-22. While the development spoils the wilderness, it also opens up the sights for the masses, without whose support the protection of the surrounding wilderness area would be lost.

As soon as we saw the so called “Tunnel Viewpoint”, where the first picture of the post was taken, I understood why Yosemite is such a famous and sought-after park to visit. It is phenomenally beautiful. We were extremely lucky in managing a last-minute visit…most visitors book their trip months in advance, and the sites fill up within minutes of when reservations are opened. I highly recommend visiting this spectacular and historic national park, but you might want to plan a little more than we did!

Selfie at Tunnel Viewpoint.

Selfie at Tunnel Viewpoint.

April 9-14, 2014

2 Thoughts on “Yosemite Part 2: America’s Best Idea

  1. frank on June 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm said:

    That Catch-22 is one of the things that Ken Burns explores in the documentary. Definitely worth the time to watch it.

  2. Louisa Treskon on June 11, 2014 at 6:14 pm said:

    Reading your account of Yosemite’s beauty sent shivers down my spine. I’m so glad that you were able to visit this amazing place Can’t wait to talk to you about it in person!

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