In the early years after the Revolutionary War, America was getting a lot of flak from Europe. Visiting Europeans scoffed at America’s utilitarian architecture and lack of cultural history. In 1820, the British clergyman Sydney Smith asked, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” French historian the Abbé Raynal said, “One must be astonished that America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.” And the renowned French naturalist the Comte de Buffon continually asserted that the New World was inferior in every way to the Old.
This all got Thomas Jefferson pretty riled up, and as early as 1780 he was asserting that America’s value lay in its superior scenery. Before he was ever aware of the beauty of the West’s wilderness, he began boasting of the East, calling Harpers Ferry “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” and claiming that the Mississippi made the Danube look like “a ditch.”
Which was, if you’ve seen the scenes in question, a bit of a stretch. But America’s newness and its untried virtues were desperate for a source of nationalistic pride. Early American leaders sensed that the country’s value to the rest of the world would lie in its nature, but the one site that everyone agreed was worth crossing the Atlantic to see—Niagara Falls—had been developed and commercialized into a gaudy mess and European critics were convinced that America wasn’t capable of maintaining the virtues of its scenery. The country was on the lookout for something that would show Europe we were worth something.
So in 1851, when a battalion of gold miners marched into Yosemite Valley on the hunt for riches and discovered instead a natural wonderland, word spread quickly to the East that the scene they’d been looking for was found. Prominent journalists, artists and early photographers traveled to the Valley and published its wonders far and wide. Nearby, the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias—the largest living things on Earth—gave America something else to brag about.
In 1864, in the middle of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took a moment to sign into law the Yosemite Park Act, which deeded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California as a national trust, to be preserved for “public use, resort and recreation.”
This was the seed of the national parks idea, the first time land was set aside to be preserved simply for its natural beauty. Although Yellowstone was the first officially named national park, Yosemite and the sequoia groves to its south set the standard and the precedent for conservation.
Knowing this history, and knowing that Yosemite receives 5 million visitors a year (most of them concentrated into the valley during the summer months, at exactly the time we were there), had me pretty intimidated about our visit there. How could we do this place justice in a weeklong visit? We couldn’t, of course, but we did have enough time to fall in love—and oh, how we fell in love!
We arrived into Yosemite Valley in the late afternoon, popped into the visitor’s center for some information, and set off on the short loop trail to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. Along with the Upper Falls, this is the largest waterfall in North America and the 5th largest in the world, and it is IMPRESSIVE. Though not quite at their spring peak, the falls were still roaring with snowmelt; in August, they will be largely dried up (and, fun [or not so fun, actually] fact: earlier in the park’s history, there were seriously considered plans to dam the falls and stage releases of water during periods of peak visitation. Yikes yikes yikes.) Along the trail, Graham used his special park-provided plastic glove and bag to gather trash—a stipulation of his jr. ranger qualification that he took VERY SERIOUSLY.
The next day, we headed out on a more demanding trail to Nevada Fall. We followed the John Muir trail to the head of the fall, had a lovely picnic at the top, then descended by way of the Misty Trail, climbing down by the slippery stairs adjacent to Vernal Fall. This hike is quite steep and 8 miles long—we were wiped by the descent and took every chance to stop and take in the stunning views of the falls and river, Half Dome above us and the valley stretched out below.
Back in the valley, we hopped on the shuttle to the visitor’s center theater to watch a show written and performed by Lee Stetson, who has been acting as John Muir in Yosemite Conservancy Productions for more than 30 years. In the show, he talked about his fight to preserve the Hetch Hetchy Valley and his experiences exploring the Sierra Nevada over his lifetime. Stetson is an incredible source of Muir history and his show was perfection. Even the kids loved it and they’re still talking about John Muir and his adventures.
The next day, we shuttled out to Mirror Lake in search of a trail that a friend of David’s mom told us about. Our source lived in Yosemite for a while and told us this trail to Hidden Falls was her favorite hike in the park. The trail isn’t advertised by the NPS and none of the rangers we talked to had heard of it, but we found enough information via Google to get us to the right spot. We followed the Mirror Lake loop trail (a gorgeous little tromp in its own right), then continued on a worn but unmarked path that continued along the river up Tenaya Canyon. Half a mile or so along, we saw our first glimpse of the falls through a break in the granite above us and scrambled up over the boulders til we reached our destination: three chute falls carving through the canyon’s granite and tumbling into a series of small green pools. We ran into a hiker on our way up and a few more on our way back, but while we were at the falls, we were all alone. So alone, in fact, that we had no qualms about stripping down to our birthday suits and jumping in the icy pools to cool off. We lingered a long time, splashing, climbing around on the rocks and taking in the down-canyon views. It was a gloriously perfect afternoon.
We started the next morning at Glacier Point, overlooking the valley. David had stayed up late there the night before, taking pictures of the stars, so in the morning Graham and I let him and Margie sleep in while we went for a walk around the point. I love these little one-on-one moments with him, getting to know his clever and creative little mind and seeing how much he thrives on being listened to and loved. I think he is just the most delightful boy in the world.
After a walk and breakfast, we started the long drive up to Hetch Hetchy. Hetch Hetchy was once a glacial valley very much like Yosemite Valley, with sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, and a flat and meadowy basin floor. In one of the earliest conservation fights on record, Hetch Hetchy became a battleground when California officials began to consider it for a reservoir to provide water to the city of San Francisco and surrounding areas. Despite stiff resistance from John Muir, the Sierra Club and other preservation-minded folks, Hetch Hetchy was flooded and turned into a reservoir in 1913. But even though it is largely covered in water, we were really excited to check out the area as a critical site in the history of public lands; after the fight over Hetch Hetchy was lost, conservations redoubled their efforts and were forever after able to point to Hetch Hetchy as a prime example of what could happen to national landmarks if they weren’t protected by law. After attending the John Muir show, where he recounted the story of his activism, even the kids were excited to see Hetch Hetchy for themselves.
Alas, it was not to be. We arrived at the entrance to the northern section of the park and were turned back for being too wide. After spending so long driving to Hetch Hetchy we were pretty bummed about this, but we turned around and started toward Tuolumne Meadows, on the other side of the park.
By the time we got there, we were all tired of driving and ready for a hike. We parked Buster at the eastern border of the park and set off up the trail to Gaylor Lake. I must admit that we were not in the best of moods as we began—David and I were tired and the kids were at their most pester-y. But on the trail, some magic happened: we saw in the meadow three bucks in velvet grazing. Hoping to not scare them off, everyone quieted—even, miracle of miracles, Graham and Margie—and we walked through the woods in the late afternoon sunlight, blissfully silent and almost, it seemed to me, reverential.
At the top of the hill, we had beautiful views down to Gaylor Lake on one side and the Tuolumne basin on the other, and to the kid’s great delight, there was snow! They played for a long time before we picked our way back down in the gathering dusk, then we ended our day on the polished slope of Lembert Dome to watch the sunset over the hills.
After a big breakfast the next morning, we started a hike to Cathedral Lakes. It was an incredibly pleasant hike, three and a half miles up through the forest before the trail descended into a glacial cirque: a brilliant blue lake surrounded by slabs of polished granite and peaks patched with snow. We set up our hammock so we could relax by the lake; we had a picnic, then the kids played on the rocks while we lazed.
Eventually the mosquitoes drove us back down the trail; though a breeze kept them mostly at bay, any time the wind died down they became vicious! We walked down, then drove to Tenaya Lake, set up the kayak and paddled around for a while. We ended the day, and our time in Tuolumne, at Olmstead Point for sunset. Tuolumne Meadows was probably my favorite part of Yosemite—the scenery was gentle, the hikes quiet, the crowds fewer and the weather ideal. We absolutely loved it.
The next day, we headed back into the Valley to finish up our little checklist of Yosemite experiences. After church at the Yosemite chapel, we hauled out the kayak again for a lazy float down the Merced River to Sentinel Beach. We hit the pool and showers at Half Dome Village (the pools probably being an all-time highlight for the kids and the showers being right up there on my Great Experiences list), then ended the day at the iconic Tunnel View for sunset.
On our last day, we visited the newly re-opened Mariposa Grove. For the past three and a half years, the grove has been under restoration—they hauled out tons and tons of asphalt, restored undergrowth and performed controlled burns in critical parts of the forest. Besides creating a lovelier and more peaceful visitor experience, the project restored water flow that was previously diverted under the parking lot through culverts and got the whole forest into much healthier condition.
We were three days after the grove’s grand opening and apparently the crowds had calmed down a lot, which we were grateful for. From the Mariposa parking lot, we took a shuttle up to the grove and joined a ranger walk to learn all about the forest—more on sequoias in our post about King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks! We’d be spending the next week focused on sequoias, their unique ecology and the conservation history surrounding them, and we were so glad to start here, in the place where the idea of preserving biology first began.
Everything about Yosemite felt like a culmination of this trip, from the history to the scenery. We’ve slowed down in recent weeks, stretching out these last few park visits as much as we can, spending more time just sitting and looking around us. We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives once we’ve finished this trip and we’re still not really sure, though we know the first few steps. It’s exciting, and also scary, and I’m so glad we have these peaceful days to hike and talk and watch the sunset through the windows of the little bus-home we built together. I love these people and I love these places.
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