Our few days in Yosemite covered an array of activities, virtually all in the valley, which represents only about 1 per cent of the entire park.
After visiting the giant sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove, our next stop was Bridalveil Fall. This area is an important nesting site for black swifts and peregrine falcons. It’s also home to Mount Lyell salamanders. Of course, we didn’t see any of these. But we did have a lovely walk along the river created by the fall. Bridalveil is also slated for restoration, including new access paths, improved signage, upgrades to parking and restrooms, and improved viewing options.
From there, our next stop was the famous El Capitan, a prominent granite cliff that looms 3000 feet over Yosemite Valley. It is one of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world because of its diverse range of climbing routes in addition to its year-round accessibility. Jordan, our guide and driver, pointed out a cluster of climbers who had most likely spent the night on the wall of El Capitan. Not my idea of comfy accommodation.
Many in the group were keen to hike the Half Dome, which proved impossible. The hiking cables weren’t out because of poor weather conditions. So they had to settle on hiking to Vernal and Nevada Falls. My hip said it would rather spend time at the visitor’s centre and doing some less strenuous walks.
I decided to save my energy for the next day with hikes around Cook’s Meadow Loop and to Mirror Lake (coming soon).
How Yosemite came to be a park
There’s a small group of people we all should be thanking for getting the USA’s national park system going. Some were famous while others were doing their job or following their passions.
A few years after the first tourists first rode into Yosemite Valley, a group of concerned citizens lobbied to spare Yosemite, and especially the giant sequoias, from exploitation.
In response, California Senator John Conness introduced a bill to set aside the valley and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias for ‘public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable forever.’
That helped to kick things along and, in 1864 and in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln took time out to sign the Yosemite Grant into law. The concept of national parks was born.
In 1890, Congress set aside more than 1500 square miles of ‘reserved forest lands’, which soon became known as Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were added in 1906.
But creating a park was just the beginning. Someone had to look after it.
Galen Clark, who had explored Yosemite extensively, was appointed as the first guardian in 1866. He and his sub-guardian (I don’t know the name) worked tirelessly to protect, maintain and administer the grant, all on a combined annual salary of $500, which I learned was often not paid.
Revered as a host, guide and park protector, Clark was repeatedly appointed to this important position by different Boards of Commissioners. He was also a charter member of the Sierra Club.
Another figure was Frederick Law Olmsted. When the grant was sign in 1864, the governor of California appointed a volunteer board of directors to administer the park. Olmsted, a member of that board and a noted landscape architect, wrote a groundbreaking report setting out how the government should manage and protect the land for the benefit of the people. Considered too far ahead of its time, Olmsted’s report was quietly suppressed. Still today, his early guidelines serve as a model for national parks management and policy.
The Buffalo Soldiers played another important role. When Yosemite became a national park in 1890, there was no such thing as the National Park Service. Instead each summer from 1891 through 1913, the Presidio of San Francisco sent the US Cavalry to patrol three national parks—Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia.
In the summers of 1899, 1903 and 1904, more than 400 Buffalo soldiers (African–Americans serving in the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry) were the sole protectors of these parks. They constructed the road to the top of Mt Whitney in Sequoia National Park and the park system’s first museum (an arboretum) in Yosemite.
Two other important figures were John Muir, a passionate advocate for national parks, and President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, Muir convinced President Roosevelt to visit and camp with him in Yosemite. At that time, Muir pushed to have control of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove shifted from state to federal control. In 1906, President Roosevelt signed a bill that did exactly that.
Yosemite has a much more diverse history than I can cover here. If you’re interested, use the internet or books to find out more about the geology of the region, how the indigenous natives (the Ahwahneechee) were displaced, the wildlife and habitats, management issues today, the affects of climate change and so on.