You are here

Park History: Yosemite National Park


The Merced River and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Photo by vanallensb via flickr.

Older than Yellowstone National Park in terms of being set aside for the public's enjoyment, Yosemite National Park could fairly be called the elder statesman of the National Park System. And, no doubt, there are those who would say Yosemite's scenery is second to none in the system.

You also could say that Yosemite is a macrocosm of sorts of the National Park System, both in terms of the scenery it projects and the issues it must grapple with.

Fears over what might happen to the incredible beauty of the Yosemite area by those looking to exploit that scenery for their own gain led U.S. Senator John Conness of California to lobby in the 1860s for some form of protection for the area. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln granted his wishes by signing a bill that granted the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California as an inalienable public trust.

This was, as the National Park Service points out in its history on the park, "the first time in history that a federal government had set aside scenic lands simply to protect them and to allow for their enjoyment by all people. This idea was the spark that allowed for Yellowstone becoming the first official national park a few years later, in 1872."

Eighteen years later, still not convinced the Yosemite area was being adequately protected, John Muir led efforts that resulted in Yosemite gaining national park status on October 1, 1890.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Yosemite still is struggling with development issues. Earlier this year a federal appellate court ruled against Yosemite officials and their Yosemite Valley plan. The ruling, which brought to a halt more than $100 million in construction work on the valley floor, centered on whether the park's development plan for the valley would illegally intrude on the wild and scenic Merced River.

Now, this was not the first time concerns over the valley's development were brought to light. Back in 1971 former National Park Service Director George Hartzog fretted about traffic in the Yosemite Valley, and went so far as to say that, "(T)he automobile as a recreational experience is obsolete. We cannot accommodate automobiles in such numbers and still provide a quality environment for a recreational experience."

And for sure, head into the Yosemite Valley at the height of summer and you'll by confronted by masses of humanity. Humanity on bikes, on roller blades, drifting on rafts and tubes down the Merced River, milling about food courts, gawking at climbers tackling El Capitan.

Fortunately, there's much, much more to Yosemite National Park than the glacially-scraped valley floor. True, you can't say you've really experienced Yosemite without touring the valley floor, without looking at the cascading waterfalls, perhaps hiking to the top of Half Dome, walking through the opulent Ahwahnee Hotel, without hiking at least part of the way up the Mist Trail.

There's also the photography shop that descends from Ansel Adams, the interesting Yosemite Museum with its interpretive exhibits on Yosemite's native Miwok and Paiute people, as well as demonstrations of basket-weaving, beadwork, and traditional games. And the reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee behind the museum is always open and worth a stroll.

Head out of the valley, though, and you'll find a spectacular, horizon-stretching landscape in just about any direction you head. Go south to Wawona and you can tour the Mariposa Grove of sequoias or visit Glacier Point with its breathtaking overlook of the Yosemite Valley. Head to the Tioga Road and the High Sierra overwhelms your windshield and invites you to explore this landscape of granite domes, wildflower meadows, forests, and lakes.

Those with time shouldn't miss an opportunity to walk out into this landscape, whether for a short hike or a longer, multi-day excursion.

The bottom line is that while the park turns 118 on October 1, it wears its age decidedly well.


I just returned from a trip to Yosemite NP. I spent 2 days hiking from Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, 5 days backpacking from Cathedral Lakes , Sunrise, Merced Lake, Red Peak Pass, & then down to the valley for 2 nights. My impressions are as follows; Tuolumne Meadows is a fantastic intro to the High Sierras and the hike from Cathedral to Sunrise was truly spectacular. I was practically in tears just reflecting on Muir's Range of Light. The park in it's entirety is an incredibly brutal & beautiful gem. The walk to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp was truly picturesue and a tribute to all the people who have done trail building in this park. I had 2 days of almost complete wilderness solitude from Lake Washburn to Illiluoette Falls in some of the most gorgeous alpine country you might imagine. And then there's Yosemite Valley. While many people (myself included) probably would assume John Muir would have a meltdown if confronted by this spectacle, I had several experiences that changed my mind.

Let me start with the Hybrid- Bus free shuttle system. These are very nice and really efficient at moving (thousands?) people around the valley everyday. The system was easy to use and keeps the traffic to a minimum for such a busy place.2nd, the park & concessionaire employees were ALL very helpful & friendly, and I don't mean in that corporate-disney kind of way. They all seemed genuinely pretty happy with their luck at working in Yosemite even if the pay isn't the greatest, and were perfectly willing to offer any park info they had. 3rd, I wish I'd had more time to check out the park's programs. I would have loved to take a painting class and seen several of the talks given by authors at The LeConte Memorial Lodge. The programs were enticing & topical.

I can't imagine another park being anywhere near this competent at handling the daily masses of people who flow into this park, and considering that, they have really done a great job with Yosemite Valley. If John Muir was around today, he might not like to hang out in the valley, but he would surely see the value of it and the potential for advocacy of all the parks through visitors' experiences.

I have never felt so at home in any other park and I can't wait to return!

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide