When I think of the overwhelming majesty of Yosemite National Park, I cannot help but agree with Carl Sharsmith, a longtime Yosemite ranger. When a park visitor asked what Carl would do if he only had one day in Yosemite, Carl replied, “I’d go sit by the Merced River and cry!” And he was right: There may never be enough time to see all the grandeur of the Yosemite, in all its wonder. But however much time you have to spend, Yosemite National Park is worth the trip. It does not matter what season. Every experience—taking a sunrise walk with a ranger, strolling through the rain on a chilly fall afternoon, picnicking along the Merced in the summer, being surprised by the mist coming off Bridalveil Falls, noticing deer or coyote across a field, or marveling at wildflowers as they come to life after a spring shower—adds to the tapestry that is Yosemite. Each experience is its own unique treasure.
Although I grew up in California, my first visit to Yosemite was as an adult in October 1989. I was attending a conference, so was able to enjoy the park through small excursions around the meetings and dinners that were part of the event. Since then, I have returned to Yosemite many times, in all seasons. But I will always remember the gray skies and subdued autumn colors of that first visit.
A BIT OF HISTORY
By the time of my first trip, the Tunnel Tree in the Mariposa Grove had already collapsed and Mirror Lake was drying up rather quickly, but most of the wonders of the 1200 square mile national park were still available for visitors thanks in good part to the preservation efforts of John Muir, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1833, white explorers first discovered the gorgeous Yosemite Valley that was home to Indians for years and years, but full exploration did not begin until 1851. By 1855, the first tourist groups descended on the Valley, and speculators started considering ways to exploit the area’s natural resources.
John Muir, always a friend to Yosemite, made extensive pleas to preserve the area in its natural state. In 1864, Lincoln signed the act that ceded Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to California as a public park. In 1890, the land around Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were made a national park. Finally, in 1906, California gave its portion of Yosemite to the United States, and Yosemite National Park was formed. In 1913, a controversial decision was made to dam the Tuolumne River to create the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to provide drinking water for San Francisco; the project was completed in 1923. Although less spectacular than Yosemite Valley, the Hetch Hetchy Valley had been impressive, and its flooding to create the reservoir is still mourned and contested by many.
SOME FAVORITE YOSEMITE VIEWS
Over the years, I have visited Yosemite National Park many times. Although a visit any time of the year is wondrous, I tend to avoid the summer—it is just too crowded! My favorite destination is Yosemite Valley, but I have explored other areas as well, including trips to Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadows, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. On my trips I usually do not wander too far off the beaten path because of some health and mobility limitations. That means I will never see everything the park has to offer, but I can experience quite a bit. For example, I will never hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls or up the back way to Glacier Point, which reaches a staggering height of 7,214 feet. But I can drive to the Glacier Point Lookout, once the road opens each spring. From that view, it is easy to see why John Muir offered the following conclusion: “The most striking and sublime features on the grandest scale is the Yosemite.”
Each visit, as I drive out of the 8-mile tunnel that leads into the Valley, I am overwhelmed by the glory of the Tunnel View. Off in the distance is the aptly named Cloud’s Rest, which—at 9,926 feet—truly seems to reach into the sky and grab hold of the passing clouds. When the sun breaks through, it is magnificent.
The more I visit Yosemite, the more I realize that it is a mercurial place, changing its mood and personality with each season. The crowds and weather also contribute to the subtle distinctions that make each visit special. Over the years, it is the contrast apparent from one visit to the next that stands out for me, even in something as simple as a fallen tree in the meadow. The contrasts apparent in some of the major features of the Valley are even more impressive.
El Capitan is a granite monolith that rises 3600 feet above the Merced River, but at times it is obscured by fog.
Yosemite Falls is probably one of the most well known features of the Valley. The Falls plummet a total of 2,245 feet in stages and are designated as the Upper and Lower Falls. At the falls, the water’s power and majesty can be felt.
If you have never visited the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, make the time to stop at least once. You will discover over 500 mature giant sequoias. Many of these trees are over 3,000 years old. The largest one is 290 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter. There is a tram ride and an easy trail that allow visitors to mingle with the trees.
One of the most recognizable views of Yosemite is Half Dome, which stretches up 8,842 feet. Whenever I see it, I remember the Indian legend a ranger shared on a nature walk one year. It is a great story that explains many of the topographical features of the Valley. The story also stresses the human connection to the area and reminds us all that we should be guardians of the valleys and mountains around us.
Here is the Legend of Tissiak as I recall it: The first couple, Tissiak and Nangus, was traveling into the Valley from the East. As usual, Tissiak was playful and impulsive and ran off from Nangus. In his frustration, Nangus started beating Tissiak to make her stay by his side. The Great Spirit intervened and placed Tissiak into the mountains where she would always be safe. Can you see her face on the side of Half Dome? The papoose she was carrying became the Royal Arches opposite her, and her tears filled Mirror Lake. Her bread basket toppled and became the dome above the Arches. Her scattered, broken loaves of bread took root as pine trees throughout the Valley. The Great Spirit broke Nangus’ staff and sent him off alone, but not before giving him a love and understanding of the landscape around him. The point of his staff became the Lost Arrow Spire near Yosemite Falls. Wherever the broken staff pieces fell, giant redwoods sprang up.
It is an easy hike to Bridalveil Falls, another of the famous locations within Yosemite Valley. Depending on the season and the year’s rainfall, you could experience a trickle of water or downpour as the falls plunge 620 feet. The Yosemite Indians (Ahwahneechee) called this place Pohono, the spirit of the puffing wind. If a breeze picks up, you are likely to get drenched as the spirit races by.
Chief Seattle may have never visited Yosemite Valley, but his general words about rivers seem to be especially apt for the Merced River that runs through the heart of the Valley: “The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. . . . and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any other brother.” A visit to Yosemite would not be complete without some sort of interaction with the Merced, whether that be picnicking along its shores or wading into the shallows to cool off in the summer.
Happy Isles is the name given in 1885 to a pair of small islands formed where the Merced River enters Yosemite Valley. You can take a tram to the general area and then relax at Happy Isles for an hour or the whole afternoon. Once there, you will understand why W. E. Dennison, guardian of the Yosemite State Grant, named the place as he did. He states, “No one can visit them without for the while forgetting the grinding strife of his world and feeling happy.” On one of my visits, I spent a good part of the afternoon watching an American Dipper playing in the water. This bird is a wonder, the only North American aquatic song bird that catches water bugs by walking underwater on the river bottom.
One of my favorite visits to Yosemite was in the winter with my dad. We only had time to stay for an afternoon, but Dad wanted to take some pictures. It was a great day, even though it was very cold. We did not do much hiking, but we did enjoy the quiet and the solitude and shared some time with a couple coyotes that were out hunting in a snow-covered field.
Another of my favorite visits came one May, when I made a last minute decision to visit Yosemite before summer school started. It seemed destined to be a remarkable trip. I called the Ahwanhee Hotel on a lark only to discover they did have a room available because of a last-minute cancellation. This hotel is usually booked months and months and months in advance. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by some friendly deer and found many water lilies blooming in the hotel’s outdoor fountain. But the next morning, the weather was overcast and dreary, unexpected for a spring day. The air was heavy with the expectation of rain. But the rains came quickly, and left just as fast. With the returning sunshine, I was surprised by the splashes of color evident everywhere I looked. Dogwood was in bloom along many pathways, and I also spied Wild Iris, Western Wallflowers, and Snow Plants. It was a glorious spring adventure!
THE SPIRIT OF JOHN MUIR
Isn’t Yosemite National Park grand? I really wanted to visit Yosemite this month. With all the rains California received this year, I figured the wildflowers would be gorgeous. Unfortunately, I have too many commitments right now that keep me from making such a trip. That’s part of the reason I am writing this blog about Yosemite—it lets me take a virtual trip! If you have visited before at least once, you know what I mean about its wonders. If you’ve never visited, add a “Trip to Yosemite” high on your Bucket List.
When you go, keep yourself open to communing with the spirit of John Muir. He loved Yosemite and protected it for most of his life. One year, a ranger pointed out a pale splotch on the rock face near Yosemite Falls. He explained that a recent rock slide in that area had left that mark, where the rocks had given way. He claimed, if you looked closely, you would see the silhouette of John Muir’s face, watching the falls he so loved. I was doubtful, but when I looked, I did think I could see his face, there, in the rock. Can you see him?
“As long as I live, I’ll hear water-falls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks. Learn the language of the flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” John Muir
“In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” John Muir