Vale of Splendour


The high sierra land of Yosemite National Park fills you with wonder no matter when you visit. In each season you can experience a different facet of its natural beauty. The snow silences of Winter are pristine and pure, springtime brings meltwater cascades crashing down the rocksides, Summer brings azure blue skies and brilliant flowers in the alpine meadows and in the Autumn the pallet is a golden sheen. The park ranges from about 2,000 feet to about 13,000 feet above sealevel. The area covers about 1200 square miles and there are over 190 miles of road and 840 miles of hiking trails.

Yosemite Valley is the true gem. Massive sheer rock faces stand guard around a lush green valley with the sparkling Merced River running through it. The Valley is truly California’s greatest natural treasure and a World Heritage Site. Even the rocks have names that seem regal – Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks and Sentinel Dome. The geology of these sculpted and etched monoliths was created over millennia by the ebb and flow of giant glaciers. At the end of the Ice Age, the glaciers retreated, the ice melted and a lake was formed. Over the years the lake sedimented until it eventually disappeared to leave the valley as it exists today. It is seven miles long and about one mile wide with the sheer rock faces about a mile high.

The first humans, a Miwok tribe, arrived in Yosemite Valley nearly 4000 years ago. They named the valley Ahwahnee or ‘Place of the gaping mouth’ and called themselves Ahwahneechee. They were hunters and seed gatherers and used to spend the warmer months in the valley and retreat to the foothills during the winter.

The onset of the Sierra Gold Rush in the late 1840s marked the end of the peaceful existence for the Miwok tribe. Prospectors poured into the sierras and violent skirmishes erupted between them and the Native Americans. In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite Valley and captured the Ahwahneechee and their Chief Tenaya. They named the valley after Yo Semitee, another tribal chief, in error as they thought that was what the tribe was called. The Miwok tribe was relocated to a reservation near Fresno. Two years later they returned but Chief Tenaya was killed. Many of them then left the valley and moved to the Eastern Sierra where they were assimilated into the Paiute tribes near Mono Lake.

The high sierra land of Yosemite National Park fills you with wonder no matter when you visit. In each season you can experience a different facet of its natural beauty. The snow silences of Winter are pristine and pure, springtime brings meltwater cascades crashing down the rocksides, Summer brings azure blue skies and brilliant flowers in the alpine meadows and in the Autumn the pallet is a golden sheen. The park ranges from about 2,000 feet to about 13,000 feet above sealevel. The area covers about 1200 square miles and there are over 190 miles of road and 840 miles of hiking trails.

Yosemite Valley is the true gem. Massive sheer rock faces stand guard around a lush green valley with the sparkling Merced River running through it. The Valley is truly California’s greatest natural treasure and a World Heritage Site. Even the rocks have names that seem regal – Half Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks and Sentinel Dome.

The geology of these sculpted and etched monoliths was created over millennia by the ebb and flow of giant glaciers. At the end of the Ice Age, the glaciers retreated, the ice melted and a lake was formed. Over the years the lake sedimented until it eventually disappeared to leave the valley as it exists today. It is seven miles long and about one mile wide with the sheer rock faces about a mile high.

The first humans, a Miwok tribe, arrived in Yosemite Valley nearly 4000 years ago. They named the valley Ahwahnee or ‘Place of the gaping mouth’ and called themselves Ahwahneechee. They were hunters and seed gatherers and used to spend the warmer months in the valley and retreat to the foothills during the winter.

The onset of the Sierra Gold Rush in the late 1840s marked the end of the peaceful existence for the Miwok tribe. Prospectors poured into the sierras and violent skirmishes erupted between them and the Native Americans. In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion marched into Yosemite Valley and captured the Ahwahneechee and their Chief Tenaya. They named the valley after Yo Semitee, another tribal chief, in error as they thought that was what the tribe was called.

The Miwok tribe was relocated to a reservation near Fresno. Two years later they returned but Chief Tenaya was killed. Many of them then left the valley and moved to the Eastern Sierra where they were assimilated into the Paiute tribes near Mono Lake.

The first ‘white’ tourists from San Francisco came to the valley in the 1855 on a tour organised by James Mason Hutchings whose writings extolled the virtues of the park. Hutchings was also an entrepreneur and he wanted to profit from Yosemite so he opened a hotel in the valley.

The word spread and new hotels and homes sprung up and suddenly the valley was filled with developers and grazing domestic animals that did untold damage to the fragile environment.

Mining and logging were also carried out. A group of environmentalists, including landscape architect F.L. Olmsted, canvassed the federal government to preserve the land. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the transfer of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of redwood trees to the State of California ‘for public use, resort and recreation.’ Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, was placed in charge and he planned an ecotourist resort, but it was very difficult to keep control of the developers.

It was America’s most famous conservationist, John Muir, born in Dunbar in Scotland, who did the most to preserve fragile Yosemite. After a visit in 1869 and time spent as a shepherder he realized the damage the over a million “hoofed locusts” in the sierras were doing. Founder of the Sierra Club Muir was an ardent campaigner for a national park system and his writings, particularly in the national newspapers and the influential Century Magazine, helped get legislative protection for Yosemite. In 1870 Yellowstone was made the world’s first National Park.

Twenty years later Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the legislation that made Yosemite National Park. Bizarrely, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove didn’t join the National Park until six years later. In these early years of the National Parks, the US Army protected the parks.

Many of the first park rangers in Yosemite were the so-called ‘buffalo soldiers’ who were African-American veterans of the Spanish American war in the Philippines. They were used to police and protect the Park in order to prevent illegal grazing and poaching.

The building of road infrastructure and the Ford Production Plant, which made cars affordable to the average American family, caused a flood of visitors into the park. The Park Ranger Service you see today when you visit was formed in 1916 to help ensure the visitors respect the environment and to protect it.

Muir won many battles for conservation, but one he lost was to stop the building of a dam in the Hetchy Hetchy Valley just north of Yosemite Valley. A sister valley to Yosemite it was dammed and turned into a reservoir to supply water for San Francisco after the 1904 earthquake. There are plans to restore the valley to its former glory, but these do seem farfetched at the moment.

Photographer Ansel Adams is probably the most famous man associated with Yosemite. The “father of landscape photography” is the only photographer to have made the cover of Time Magazine. There has been no finer exponent of the monochrome photographic landscape since Ansel Adams and his realistic landscapes raised photography to an art form. His feel for light, composition and texture are magnificently manifested in his prints of Yosemite, many of which are on view in the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village.

His first interest in photography was ignited by a visit to Yosemite Valley when he was an ungainly dyslexic teenager. The impetus was a present from his parents of a Kodak Box Brownie. He could have been a famous musician, as he was classically trained. Enthralled by Yosemite he returned as a curator of the LeConte Memorial Lodge when he was in his early twenties. He continued to study music, but the patronage of a San Francisco insurance magnate Alfred Bender and the photography of Paul Strand inspired him to take up photography as his career. Ansel also used his images politically to help put forward the case for the conservation of the sierras. He was the President of the Sierra Club for forty years and he used his charisma to influence the politicians of the day.

Photography has moved on since Ansel’s time. Few photographers spend hours and hours in darkrooms, nor do they lug large view cameras around with a dozen or so glass plate negatives. Nowadays, we have sophisticated light meters that do exposure calculations and the zone system developed by Mr Adams is really redundant. Even though it is heresy to purists you can also compensate for any exposure errors on the computer. It would be interesting to see what Ansel would have done with the beautiful saturated colour films we have to day or dare I say it with a digital back to his Hasselblad and a digital image manipulation program on his computer. Apart from his images his words also inspire photographers and his maxim “Perhaps I am on the edge of making a really good photograph” is particularly poignant.

One of the sights of the summer in the valley of Yosemite is the ‘wall rats’ scaling the sheer surfaces of her gigantic iconic monoliths. A consequence of the sheerness and magnificence of these rocks is that it is one of the top places to climb in the world.

Some of the trophies that top climbers aspire to are doing it solo on the Nose on El Cap and the Snake Dike on Half Dome. From the valley floor you can see them manoeuvre like ants way above your head. They often spend the night suspended in mid air on tiny slings eating dried fruit and Kendal mint cake.

To really experience the wilderness of Yosemite National Park you need to hike out on one of the many trails and one of the best places to do it is up in the high alpine sierra at Tuolomne Meadows. The Tioga Road up to Tuolomne Meadows doesn’t open until May or June and it is inaccessible during the winter, but when it is open it is a great way to escape from the crowds down in the valley. In the winter the most common physical activities involve snow sports, especially at the winter resort at Badger’s Pass. Cross country skiers can head out on the many snow trails into the wilderness. One of the places they go to is Glacier Point and in the summer this is the best place to watch the orange sunlight sink slowly down the grey granite slab of Half Dome.

For some the spectacle of the natural environment is not always enough and they need to be entertained. Up to twenty years ago, a bonfire of red fire bark was pushed from Glacier Point down Nevada Falls – the firefall – and the spectacle was extremely popular with tourists. There was a public outcry when it was discontinued.

Getting the balance between encouraging people to come and visit Yosemite and minimising the destruction of mass tourism is still a major challenge for the National Park Service. One of the major attractions to Yosemite is the propensity of wildlife and its accessibility, but this has caused considerable problems for the rangers. The undoubted major wildlife attraction is the black bears and you do occasionally see them in the valley even in the summer when it seems packed with tourists. Although responsible tourism is promoted constantly, you still get those who leave food overnight in their cars instead of the special bear proof containers that are by all of the campsites. To an inquisitive black bear a car with food in it is like a tin of beans and their paws and the jaws are the opener. This provides some entertainment in the campsites and the owners can probably claim the damage to their cars on their insurance, but it does place human life in peril as the bears are wild animals and they are not afraid of being aggressive towards humans especially when they are hungry. It ultimately means curtains for the bear and they have to be destroyed as soon as they realise the car is a source of food. Other animals you might see in Yosemite include mule deer, coyotes, marmots, and the rare mountain lion. Yosemite National Park is home to several groves of the giant redwood trees or Sequoias. The undisputed kings of the conifers are the largest living things and they stand majestic and tall.

There is so much for the four million visitors to Yosemite National Park each year to do, but they still tend to congregate in the Valley. Traffic congestion is a nightmare, especially in the height of summer. A one-way road system and the provision of free shuttle buses has done little to ease the traffic, as the park’s service are fighting against what is considered a basic human right in the modern world. This is the right to drive your car wherever you want and the right to park right next to a natural wonder, so you can view it without having to leave the comfort of your leather upholstery.

Yosemite National Park has a special place in my heart. It was there I did the most romantic act of my decidedly unromantic existence. I got down on bended knee in the freezing snow in the Mariposa Grove among the silent magestic redwood trees. The rest as they say is history.

 

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