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.
Glimpsing a photograph of California’s iconic Yosemite Valley, it is easy to understand why millions of people from around the world make the pilgrimage to its breathtaking landscapes every year. Yosemite is home to some of the largest waterfalls in North America, one of the biggest exposed-granite monoliths on Earth, and a wide range of beautiful scenes indicative of the varied elevations and ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Whether you stand in a scenic meadow, look up the heights of a mighty sequoia, or look down from the edge of a sheer granite monolith, there is no shortage of reasons why Yosemite provided an impetus for the birth of America’s National Park System.
Inspired by its vast geological wonders, influential American historical figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir devoted themselves to protecting Yosemite for future generations. In the 19th century, most of the United States was still an undisturbed “Eden” in the eyes of the young nation’s citizens. Yosemite Valley, with its awe-inspiring walls, lush meadows, and abundant forest groves, was one of the most prized areas of this newly threatened Eden. The controversial battle to conserve Yosemite through government oversight set the precedent for the National Park System we know and love today.
Yosemite’s Dramatic History
The history of Yosemite is a dramatic, dualistic microcosm that includes the violent expulsion of Native Americans, and the subsequent fight to halt the destructive practices of private commercial interests. Evidence of the presence of Native Americans in and around Yosemite Valley dates back thousands of years before non-indigenous settlers arrived. A tribe of Paiute Native Americans, the Ahwahnechee, once lived amid the immense granite monoliths of the epic valley they called Ahwahnee, meaning “large mouth.” When the California Gold Rush suddenly brought tens of thousands of European Americans to the Sierras in the mid 1800s, life was forever changed for indigenous people. Violent conflict was one predictable result of the newly arrived settlers claiming land and resources in their pursuit of striking it rich.
Gold provided the motivation for explorers to brave the largely undisturbed and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. As a result of growing conflict with the Ahwahnechee, a group of armed settlers known as the Mariposa Battalion pursued the tribe into the valley in 1851, burning their villages and forcing them out. Mariposa Battalion member Dr. Lafayette Bunnell ironically named the valley “Yosemite” in honor of the expelled tribe, without knowing it was a name—created for the Ahwahnechee by surrounding Miwok tribes—that meant “Those who kill.” Despite the dark and morally questionable circumstances of this conflict in Yosemite Valley, Bunnell had these beautiful words to say about the landscape:
“As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation began to fill my whole being and I found my eyes in tears with emotion. I said with some enthusiasm, ‘I have here seen the power and the glory of a Supreme Being, the majesty of His handiwork is in that testimony of the rocks.’”
Word of Yosemite’s unrivaled beauty quickly spread across the continent. Magazines printed the illustrations of early visiting artist Thomas Ayres, who depicted and described soaring waterfalls that captivated the American imagination. Settlers and commercial interests set up shop in the area, seeing its lucrative appeal. Romantic-era artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole painted scenes from Yosemite Valley that seemed to capture the presence of the Divine in their almost otherworldly depictions of the new and exciting landscape. Meanwhile, the transcontinental railroad and the proponents of Manifest Destiny brought ever-increasing numbers of European Americans westward to experience the wonders of the frontier. Despite controversy over Native American displacement, this exalted “new world” was for them an untouched Eden that offered the possibility of communion with the Divine. All of this fervor was a growing threat for Yosemite, alarming naturalists who sought to protect this sacred place.
Preserving Yosemite’s Glory
Roughly 1.5 decades after Westerners entered Yosemite Valley, it became clear that great efforts would be necessary to protect it. Overgrazing, logging, and poaching were growing threats to the area and its wildlife. In 1864, Sen. John Conness introduced a park bill to cede Yosemite Valley to California. The Yosemite Grant passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864. Nonetheless, this legislation was weak, and didn’t provide authority to evict homesteaders or stop private interests from harming the valley.
In 1890, famed naturalist and writer John Muir was one of the central lobbyists who succeeded in convincing Congress to set aside hundreds of square miles for Yosemite National Park. To Muir’s chagrin, the focal point of the park, Yosemite Valley, was still under California’s control. Muir, a cherished American figure, was like a religious sage of nature, creating the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the sanctuary of Yosemite. He knew that the area was still under continual threat of being commercially exploited. This changed when he personally helped persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the American Antiquities Act of 1906 that brought all of Yosemite under federal protection.
Many historians feel it was Roosevelt’s 1903 trip to Yosemite, where he spent time with Muir, that fueled his efforts to ensure the protection of the area. Muir’s passionate prose about the Sierras touched the hearts of many Americans; he knew Yosemite better than anyone, having tirelessly and joyfully explored much of the park’s lands—even his theory that glaciers carved out the u-shaped granite valley during the last ice age was later proven correct, though it was ridiculed by geologists at the time. When Roosevelt visited the man who was so intimately acquainted with Yosemite, they explored the valley, hiked to Glacier Point (7,000 feet up), and camped in the snow after a snowstorm. Roosevelt wrote about the occasion, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
Conservation of Nature is the fundamental problem. … Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.
—President Theodore Roosevelt
Yosemite has received plenty of attention in its relatively short time as an American National Park. Fast forward a century to the late 1900s, and despite federal oversight, there were 1,300 buildings in Yosemite Valley, and 17 acres of the valley floor were covered by parking lots. While Muir may have found these developments distasteful, it was also well understood that in time Yosemite would be visited by millions. The first car entered Yosemite Valley in 1900, and today millions of people drive in every year. The ease of access allows modern Americans to simply pull up to some of the park’s most iconic views—locations that once required days of horseback riding to reach. There are pros and cons to these sorts of changes, but the passionate men and women of Yosemite’s National Park Service work tirelessly to protect the area.
The Magnificence of Yosemite
People can’t help but stare in reverence at El Capitan; it’s one of the largest exposed granite monoliths in the world, soaring more than 350 stories (3,593 feet) above the valley floor. As documented in the popular film “Free Solo,” rock climber Alex Honnold risked his life in 2017 becoming the first person to climb El Capitan—without a rope. Modern rock climbing was born on the walls of Yosemite; however, most climbers take days (with ropes) to reach El Capitan’s summit and have to sleep suspended on the rock face along the way. Perhaps equally iconic, Half Dome is aptly named for the smooth, round shape that the massive rock formation has on one side, while the other side drops straight down over the edge of a cliff into the glacially carved valley below.
Yosemite Falls, a three-part waterfall, is one of the highest waterfalls in North America. When the water is flowing at its peak, the 2,425-foot drop creates a thunderous sound across the valley. Other whimsical waterfalls in the valley include Bridalveil Fall and Vernal Fall. In spring, Yosemite’s waterfalls pour down hundreds of thousands of gallons every minute. The Merced River flows through the southern part of the park, where one can enjoy breezy meadows while walking among vibrant dogwood trees—and may even be lucky enough to spot a black bear at a distance.
People who want to get away from the crowds can drive out of the valley and up into the park’s alpine high country. There they’ll find the vast Tuolumne Meadows, and glacial lakes such as Tenaya Lake. Avid hikers can retrace Muir’s steps on the John Muir Trail, or hike up to heights of 13,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Visitors can also walk among some of the oldest living things on Earth in one of Yosemite’s three giant sequoia groves. Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove is a sequoia that measures an incredible 96 feet around its base and is estimated to be about 1,800 years old! There is no shortage of natural wonders to take in and enjoy.
Stephen Mather was the first director of the National Park Service. He summed up the vision of the National Parks when he wrote: “The parks do not belong to one state or to one section. They have become democratized. Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.” It is this American spirit that led the National Parks to become the solemn retreats they still are today.
Visiting Yosemite for the first time is a life-changing experience. People from all walks of life and all over the world are united in their love for Yosemite’s unique magnificence—words can’t express the deep effect that its trees, walls, and waterfalls have on us. Through places like Yosemite, we appreciate the sacred interconnectedness of nature, of which we all form a small part. As Muir lovingly remarked,
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at WholySelf.com