A Cathedral of Granite
Two weeks before we arrived in Yosemite, the first family visited on Father’s Day Weekend. In addition to promoting the Every Kid in a Park initiative and hiking the 4-mile trail, President Obama stood in front of the tallest waterfall in North America to say: “There’s something sacred about this place, and I suppose that’s why the walls of this valley were referred to as cathedral walls, because here at Yosemite we connect not just with our own spirit, but with something greater. It’s almost like the spirit of America itself is right here.”
He’s not the first president to proclaim the beauty of this place. 100 years before, President Theodore Roosevelt spent 3 nights camping in Yosemite with naturalist John Muir. 50 years prior, was President Abraham Lincoln, considering the petition of a private group of California citizens, arguing for the preservation of Yosemite’s sequoia trees and granite rocks, both larger than life. So during one of the bloodiest times of the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant to create the first federally protected land.
That’s Yosemite. It draws the most influential figures espousing the highest praise. Here is where we, as a nation, figured out what a National Park would be. And that awkward, sometimes painful, beautiful process, have produced countless stories that have crystallized into legends worthy of such a magnificent place. As we move on to Yellowstone National Park, we reflect on the themes we discovered in Yosemite National Park.
Scale and Humility
Standing on the floor of Yosemite Valley, it’s hard to imagine anything bigger than the granite cliffs that tower over you. Or walking at the base of a Sequoia or Redwood tree, our human body feels insignificant. You can find higher elevations elsewhere in the world, but the difference of scale between the floor of Yosemite Valley and the sheer granite cliffs creates an awe unmatched anywhere else. So many different people draw different lessons from this landscape, whether they were searching for it or not. Some ponder the place of man in this universe. Some reflect on the act of preservation, birthed here, and how a group of people would protect a place for us to enjoy, for all eternity. This landscape will teach, if you’ll slow down to listen.
The formation of the valley was once hotly debated. In one camp were geologists who argued that uplift, earthquakes, and erosion made this wondrous valley. On the other side were naturalists, led by John Muir. He observed patterns in the rock, and concluded that glaciers must have played a part in carving this valley. History has proven Muir right - we now know that the formations are owed to both uplift and melting glaciers. What else could have created such unique formations like El Capitan or Half Dome? Instantly recognizable, these rocks tower over the valley and soon become familiar characters that invite your gaze.
Both mountains appear in the stories of the first inhabitants, the Ahwahneechee. Ahwahnee is thought to mean “like a gaping mouth,” and Ahwahneechee to be “people of the valley.” Their stories, captured in the “Legends of the Miwok” book, describe how the Creator turned Tis-se’-yak and her husband into the faces of Half Dome and North Dome. Or how only the tiny measuring worm, Tu-tok-a-nu’-la, climbed El Capitan to save two bear cubs, when no other animals could. Miwok stories also teach respect for the land. At the waterfall Po-ho-no, one can still hear the voices of all who have drowned. The fierce power of this valley demands that these stories be passed on.
Responding to the petitions, paintings, and photographs from private citizens in California, Abraham Lincoln, during one of the bloodiest times of the Civil War, put pen to paper and signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864 — the first federally protected land in the world. Since then, the nation has been learning what it means to both protect a place’s wildness, and make it accessible for visitors.
Galen Clark became the first official guardian of the park, protecting this land with little to no support - once even foregoing a salary for four years. As ranchers continued to test the new regulation, a unit of African American cavalrymen (the Buffalo Soldiers) were sent to enforce the preservation of this idea. Still, the law could not prevent one of the greatest tragedies of John Muir’s career — the creation of a dam that flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley, providing water and power to a growing San Francisco. Many say that this travesty helped launch the Park Service into existence. There was no precedent to follow, no maps or guides. By circumstance, the trail had to be blazed here.
Here are some more Yosemite firsts:
- The Yosemite Natural History Association was the very first non-profit partner to raise funds to support the park in 1923
- Their first project was the Yosemite Museum, the first to collect and interpret cultural artifacts, marking a shift in the conservation ideology of National Parks
- Rock climbers in the 1940s and 50s flocked to Yosemite’s walls, and their equipment and techniques would influence the sport worldwide
- Accordingly, search and rescue was first formally organized to accommodate a growing climbing & adventure culture
- As bears learned that humans have food, park rangers pioneered a high-tech management program that alerts rangers whenever a bear enter a highly populated area
A recent example is the permit system for the cable summit of Half Dome. By the early 2000’s, this trail was seeing up to 1000 visitors a day. An already dangerous trail was becoming even more dangerous, and suffering damage at the hands of visitors. Between 2008-2012, the park launched a series of extensive studies, and introduced a permit system that would limit hikers to 350/day. They’re hard permits to get, and some still grumble about the hike you need to apply for, but this system will ensure the preservation of one of the country’s most storied hikes. Yosemite continues to set an example for parks all across the nation.
Setting up Shop
Here in Yosemite, Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service, envisioned great lodges that would provide luxury accommodations for VIP visitors. This is unthinkable in a parks system today that severely limits any new construction. But consider the context. Although parks had been established, they still had no legal authority, a very small budget, and little support. In order to grow the system, Mather knew that many more people would need to experience Yosemite for themselves. Accommodations, and visitorship, were about survival.
This vision resulted in the grand Ahwahnee Hotel of the Yosemite Valley - legendary for its careful and considered use of authentic California Indian designs. The Wawona lodge was built to accommodate visitors to the Mariposa Grove. The Glacier Point Mountain House welcomed visitors who summited the peak. And believing that these experiences were not affordable for everyman, David Curry established the infamous Camp Curry, an affordable community of tent cabins also on the Valley floor. In 1923, Superintendent Washington Lewis even advocated for High Sierra Camps in the backcountry, providing meals and lodging for backpackers.
In today’s park, this much use has become a mounting challenge to modern ideas of wilderness. Because people and industry are more prevalent in so many varieties, park management is also more visible. In our time at Yosemite, we found park rangers inaccessible, because of the reach of the Press Office, working to control the message of the park. But that’s not to say that the park hates its human use. Yosemite celebrates its four official partners: the Yosemite Conservancy, the Ansel Adams Gallery, NatureBridge, and Yosemite Hospitality (a subsidiary of Aramark). To many visitors, it’s these concessions that shape their visit. And so together, somewhere of and in-between these commercial ventures, lies the experience of Yosemite National Park.
A Romantics’ Confluence
The formation of many parks were aided by a unique moment - when romantic writers and painters were choosing landscape as their subject. As the first protected land, Yosemite became a mecca. Painters like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hill painted this Valley. Photographers like Chris Jorgensen and later Ansel Adams, shot mountain ranges on more easily reproducible plates. Musicians wrote popular tunes about their visits to this landscape, capturing waterfalls in meter. And John Muir, who of all the lands he advocated, loved Yosemite the most. “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” he would write. Accounts like these gave President Lincoln, and soon the general public, a reason to hear the gospel of granite.
The early tourism industry, eager to capitalize on its new commercial ventures, built its attractions in the image of the romantic movement. Although we’re often wary of stories about the “good old days,” (which almost always sets up a complaint), the confluence of romantic era artists, early tourism, and yet-established-wilderness regulations make for some spectacular moments of Yosemite’s past.
David Curry had a particular flair for the dramatic. Every evening in Camp Curry, dressed in a dapper white suit as the ‘stentor,’ his call and response with Glacier Point would proclaim it: “Let the Fire Fall!” His colleague on the 3000-foot peak of Glacier Point took his cue to push the embers of a fir fire off the edge of the cliff, creating an orange streak of embers that streamed down to the valley below. Although the Firefall no longer operates, the traditions of “Elmer!” and the Bracebridge Dinner still live on. These events worked their way into the memories of visitors, the traditions of family, and the myths of a magical park that once was.
A Playground, A Community
For many of the people we spoke with, their Yosemite stories begin in their ‘adult childhoods:’ a time when one is just old enough to decide where to live, but young enough to not yet have careers, children, or many cares. And in Yosemite, with so many hotels came so many kitchen jobs, with most jobs offering modest accommodations. Even Ansel Adams got his start as a janitor in the Sierra Club, allowing him to discover his craft, and enjoy Yosemite as his playground.
And, oh what a playground. The stable climate, sheer cliff faces, and accessibility brought rock climbers from all over the world to Yosemite, revolutionizing the sport in the 1950s. That adventuring spirit still permeates this wilderness. In our Yosemite stay, we saw slack liners setting up on on the edge of the Taft Point Fissures, and spotted two ‘diving boards’ where base jumpers (illegally) and hang gliders (legally) launch from. These are in addition to the hikers, backpackers and peak baggers who tramp along the 95% of the park which is wilderness.
Living here is not just a different pace of life, but a different set of values. One’s riches aren’t measured in salary, but by the adventures and experiences one accumulates. Even for those who aren’t given housing, employees will live out of their vans, on a friend’s property, in tents, or the side of the road. It’s that enticing to be here.
It’s that “dirt on your feet” attitude that binds the community here. Towns like El Portal, Foresta, Mariposa, Tuolomne, and Mono Lake have become home for a whole cadre of roaming young adults; many who have never left. Every other Thursday night, Sal’s Taco Night in El Portal draws a raucous local crowd. The Mobil Gas Station in Lee Vining, CA, hosts music every Thursday night, which if you visit, you should also take a midnight trip to the nearby hot springs. There’s always something to do here, and that’s because of the great communities that inhabit Yosemite.
In Yosemite, maybe more than anywhere else so far, we leave with the feeling that we’re only scratching the surface. The challenge to fully understand a history is compounded by Yosemite’s 150 years as a federally protected land. Every nook and cranny is filled with stories about: the geology, the settlement, the park service, the romantics and conservationists, the hotels, the visitors, the adventurers, and the community. We’re sure we can find a few great ones to tell. There may be only one other park that rivals the depth of the story here, and we’re headed there next: Yellowstone National Park.
Photography by Sean Shapiro Photography