Yosemite National Park: The Valley Where the National Parks Were Born

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Yosemite Valley, from Tunnel View

No photograph or series of photographs, no paintings ever prepare a visitor so that he is not taken by surprise, for could the scenes be faithfully represented the visitor is affected not only by that upon which his eye is at any moment fixed, but by all that with which on every side it is associated, and of which it is seen only as an inherent part. For the same reason no description, no measurements, no comparisons are of much value. Indeed the attention called by these to points in some definite way remarkable, by fixing the mind on mere matters of wonder or curiosity prevent the true and far more extraordinary character of the scenery from being appreciated.

– Frederick Law Olmsted, A Preliminary Report on Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove, 1865

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California. This was the first time that a tract of land was set aside for the enjoyment of the people simply for its breathtaking scenery and the uniqueness of its natural features. This act and the two Supreme Court decisions over the next sixteen years that would uphold it and clarify its provisions established the legal precedent from which descended all federal and state parks in the United States as well as the export of the concept across the globe. Yellowstone became the first National Park eight years later only because the astonishing geothermal features of the Yellowstone River watershed were located in a territory and there wasn’t a state to grant the land to. Although the Yellowstone precedent ensured the enduring federal protection of land, Yosemite is the birthplace of the National Parks.

Although a party crossing the Sierra Nevada in 1833 encountered the valley from its north rim, white men did not enter Yosemite Valley until 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion arrived in pursuit of “troublesome” Native Americans. The goal of the battalion was to subdue the tribes and move them from the Sierra Nevada to reservations in California’s Central Valley.

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Continuing on the Wawona Road, our first glimpse of El Capitan (left), Half Dome (center) and Sentinel Dome (right) was from a high turnout above the Merced Gorge. I’d not realized we’d be able to see into the valley before going through the Wawona Tunnel, so this view came as a dramatically lit surprise.

About seven and a half miles long, roughly a mile wide, and up to a mile deep, Yosemite Valley is part of the drainage of the Merced River as it flows from the Sierra crest westward toward the Central Valley. Above Yosemite Valley, the river flows through Little Yosemite Valley, southeast of Half Dome, where it then enters Yosemite Valley via Nevada and Vernal Falls. As it flows from east to west along the flat valley floor, the Merced is fed by Tenaya Creek as it flows out of Tenaya Canyon on the northeast side of Half Dome, Yosemite Creek as it falls 2,425 feet from the north rim of the valley, and Bridalveil Creek as it plunges 617 feet from the south rim. Beneath the valley, the Merced continues to carve the steep gorge of Merced Canyon.

The walls of the valley are granite, formed by ancient volcanic activity as the Pacific Plate collided with and sank beneath the North American Plate. The Sierra Nevada was formed by the same series of tectonic collisions, lasting millions and millions of years, that gave us the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades, and the Coast Ranges. The valley itself was formed when overlying sedimentary rock eroded away exposing the underlying granite. The outline of the valley and the drama of features like Half Dome and Cathedral Spires were caused by faulting in the granite as it cooled beneath the earth’s surface. Those faults were eventually widened by the erosive work of rivers and streams. Later, during the Ice Age, glaciers scoured the granite walls of the valley as they flowed along the ancient river and stream paths. Glacial deposits ultimately were responsible for the level floors of Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, and other western Sierra valleys.

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From the turnout above Wawona Tunnel, Sean gazes at the north wall of the Merced River Gorge as it leaves Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is visible just above his head.

Yosemite Valley has been lived in by humans for at least 3,000 years, and humans have been present in the valley for at least 10,000 years. At the time of the Mariposa Battalion, the Native Americans who resided for at least part of each year in the valley were the Ahwahneechee, a band of Miwok Indiands led by Chief Tenaya. They called the valley Ahwahnee, but the name given it by Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the battalion, was Yosemite because he thought that was the name of the tribe.

Between 1851 and 1853, Chief Tenaya and his band clashed with white men from the Central Valley (and at one point were interred on a reservation near Fresno) and with the Paiute of the Mono Basin to the east of the Sierra Nevada. Tenaya was killed by the Mono Paiute in 1853. Tenaya Creek, Tenaya Canyon, and Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park are named for him. The Three Brothers spires on the north rim of Yosemite Valley are named for his sons.

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Far below the turnout, the El Portal Road into the valley follows the Merced River’s north bank through Merced Gorge.

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The setting sun and fast-moving clouds added spectacular drama to our first views of Yosemite Vally. Image: Sean M. Santos

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The north wall of the Merced River Gorge.

The Mariposa Battalion publicized the wonders of Yosemite Valley, and between 1855 and 1865, tourists and entrepreneurs, led by hotelier James Mason Hutchings, arrived and began to set up shop in the Valley. In large part, the protection of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove in the 1865 grant was a reaction to the already ongoing commercial interests in the valley, from toll roads to orchards to hotels. For fifteen years, the usual narrative of western lands had been playing out: the place was “discovered,” the military removed the inhabitants, white homesteaders moved in, and the place’s natural resources were exploited for commercial gain.

But there was something about Yosemite Valley that inspired pushback against an attitude toward North America and the frontier that was assumed by the nation as it marched across the continent. Why here? Why Yosemite?

Famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, head of the commission tasked with reporting to the California legislature on Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, offers an opinion from the time:

There are falls of water elsewhere finer, there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper chasms, there may be as beautiful streams, as lovely meadows, there are larger trees. It is in no scene or scenes the charm consists, but in the miles of scenery where cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring, are banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty.

This union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yo Semite the greatest glory of nature.

– Frederick Law Olmsted, A Preliminary Report on Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove, 1865

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We continued on through the long Wawona Tunnel and stopped for what has been called the most photographed landscape on earth, the vista of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View (seen in the image at the top of this post).

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The Merced River

Ideas about reserving public lands as parks were in the air in the United Stated in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In the mid-1830s, painter George Catlin proposed a Great Plains park that would encompass tracts large enough to hold both vast bison herds and the Northern Great Plains Indians who counted on them. That idea ran up against the genocidal effort to make as much land as possible “safe” for white settlers.

With the Homestead Act of 1862, the western territories of the United States were opened to settlement by common people. Crucially, the West was opened to non-slave owners. Before the South seceded, the slave states had blocked passage of the Homestead Act, but by 1862 (just two years before the Yosemite Grant) in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln and the congressional representatives of the North were free to open the West as they saw fit, ensuring that the territories west of the Mississippi would not become slave states.

Anxiety about how to make use of North America rose just as the United States succeeded in teeming across it. The federal policy to people the continent with white Americans was so phenomenally successful that by 1890 the Census Bureau would declare the frontier closed.The assumption that the vast natural resources of the continent were made to be exploited ran up against a growing realization that even the immense New World was not limitless.

Anxiety was also fueled, particularly in the East, by an ever-present inferiority complex about Europe. American self-identity was rooted in being a free nation on a free continent laying claim to a vast new Eden. Certainly Americans could build their own monuments to their own ideals (the dome of the US Capitol was completed in 1863, during the Civil War and between the Homestead Act and the Yosemite Grant), but if the natural wonders of the Americas were a source of pride akin to the cathedrals and palaces of Europe, how were they best to be presented? By the time of the Yosemite Grant, the closest parallel, Niagara Falls (which Olmsted had a hand in designing the landscape architecture around) was a disaster of commercial interests and hucksters fleecing tourists.

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Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall with Sentinel Dome, center left above the lowest spire

Reaction to rampant commercialism at Niagara Falls and elsewhere informed the push to protect Yosemite Valley from ruin at the hands of hoteliers and homesteaders.

Olmsted again:

The first point to be kept in mind then is the preservation and maintenance as exactly as is possible of the natural scenery; the restriction, that is to say, within the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors, of all artificial constructions and the prevention of all constructions markedly inharmonious with the scenery or which would unnecessarily obscure, distort or detract from the dignity of the scenery…It is important that it should be remembered that in permitting the sacrifice of anything that would be of the slightest value to future visitors of the convenience, bad taste, playfulness, carelessness, or wanton destructiveness of present visitors, we probably yield in each case the interest of uncounted millions to the selfishness of a few individuals.

– Frederick Law Olmsted, A Preliminary Report on Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove, 1865

The National Parks and the 150-year effort to preserve and protect land for the people is assumed to be a uniquely American idea. Famously, Wallace Stegner in 1983 said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s wonderful film amplifies that sentiment.

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El Capitan and Half Dome

But there is another, deeper tradition that informs the National Parks and the public lands of the United States.

American public lands are the twentieth-century incarnation of a much older institution known across Eurasia—in English called the “commons”—which was the ancient mode of both protecting and managing the wilds of the self-governing regions. It worked well enough until the age of market economies, colonialism, and imperialism. Let me give you a model of how the commons worked.

Between the extremes of deep wilderness and the private plots of the farmstead lies a territory which is not suitable for crops. In earlier times it was used jointly by the members of a given tribe or village. This area, embracing both the wild and semi-wild, is of critical importance. It is necessary for the health of the wilderness because it adds big habitat, overflow territory, and room for wildlife to fly and run. It is essential even to an agricultural village economy because its natural diversity provided the many necessities and amenities that the privately held plots cannot. It enriches the agrarian diet with game and fish. The shared land supplies firewood, poles and stone for building, clay for the kiln, herbs, dye plants, and much else, just as in a foraging economy. It is especially important as seasonal or full-time open range for cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep.

– Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 1990

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Half Dome

In England, in particular, the destruction of the commons wrought cultural and ecological devastation. In two great waves, first in the fifteenth and then in the seventeenth, lords and nobles fenced off the commons throughout England, destroying local village life and rendering an entire population homeless, destitute, and ripe for moving to the cities to provide the cheap labor necessary for the early Industrial Revolution.

The destruction of the commons in England and throughout much of Europe is a demolition of a sustainable relationship with the land that had functioned for much of human existence on the planet. It is reflected in the removal of Native Americans and the suppression of their sustainable stewardship of the land. (Notably, Yosemite Valley when first encountered by the Mariposa Battalion was open and park like, a valley of oak savanna and meadow, because the Ahwahneechee performed prescribed burns on the valley floor. After a century and a half of fire suppression, the valley is far less open as Ponderosa Pine forest encroached, in some instances destroying classic views of the valley’s granite formations.)

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Bridalveil Fall

The protection of the National Parks and other public lands in the United States may be a uniquely American idea, but it is akin to much of the philosophical thrust of American history that aspires it aspires to equality and freedom, even if it often stumbles. The preservation of Yosemite Valley was not only a recognition of its profound beauty, it was a reflection of pride in the North American continent and a return to the concept of the commons that embraced the commoner rather than the nobility of Europe. The preservation of a marvelous valley in California for the people, by the people, was at a national level a return to the commons, a rejection of an idea that those with the most money and the most power should control the most beautiful forests and the loveliest meadows. The concept brought to fruition in Yosemite Valley philosophically undid seven hundred years of dividing open space and excluding everyday people from its enjoyment.

Despite failures and missteps, the management of American public lands by the people’s government is not only deeply American it is deeply human, a return of Western culture to valuing nature, place, and humans that is ancient and points to a way forward in inhabiting this planet.

And it began here, in a valley 4,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada of California.

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After the vista of Tunnel View, we drove down to the parking lot for Bridalveil Fall, which was virtually abandoned.

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We used the pit toilets, gazed for a moment at the fall, and got back into the Jeep for the drive out to Hodgdon Meadow Campground in a section of the Park that would actually become National Park some sixteen years before the valley.

Further Reading:

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