To me, of all America’s landmarks, Yosemite has always stood out as something a bit special.
The images that names like El Capitan, Half Dome and Sierra Nevada bring to mind have always held a touch of the surreal – the incredible black and white photography of Ansel Adams, snapshots of climbers sleeping in hammocks strung thousands of feet above the valley floor, feature articles in National Geographic showing images of the unreal landscape. It also brings to mind stories from my father, who went on extensive hiking and fishing trips into the backcountry of the park in his younger days.
Working just two hours away from the park meant that some adventures were always on the cards, and I’ve had a couple great weekends up there already, with some more planned out in the next month. I thought I’d share a few photos of the park, plus a bit of history and background to how this vast area was protected – and how that helped lead to what some call ‘America’s best idea’ – the National Park system.
It’s likely that the Yosemite Valley was first inhabited well over 5000 years ago – by the Native Americans, and the name of the valley actually originates from ‘Yohhe’mite’ (loosely translating to ‘those that sometimes kill’ – referencing the tribe which lived in the area). However, it wasn’t until 1850, when a troop of soldiers entered the valley seeking to end conflict between the native people and the early pioneers of the American Gold Rush, that the beauty of the area began to be advertised throughout the country. By 1855, tourists were beginning to arrive in the valley, and by the early 1860’s, there were full-time inhabitants, and a bustling tourism industry.
It’s worth noting here that in these early days of the wild West, the concept of preserving wild areas for future generations wasn’t too high on the priority list. Massive sections of ancient sequoia forest were being cut down for lumber, and the pursuit of gold and land was basically a free-for-all.
This is part of the reason why what happened next is so incredible. A consortium of men, lead by a nearby homeowner named Galen Clark, the US Senator John Conness and photographer Carlton Watkins, drafted the ‘Yosemite Grant’ which was submitted to Congress. This grant maintained the immediate area of the valley for public use – and was the first of it’s kind in America. Abraham Lincoln signed this grant into law in 1864 – in the midst of the Civil War.
Fast forward 25 years. The famous naturalist John Muir had become fixated with the region – writing extensively about his experiences in the valley and the surrounding areas. Concerned about farm usage in the upper backcountry, he worked tirelessly to rally local support, and even met with President Roosevelt within the park – in an effort to preserve the land for future generations. In 1890, 1500 square miles of land were set aside to become America’s second National Park (after Yellowstone, which had become the world’s first in 1872).
The early days weren’t without their troubles however – poachers roamed the parks, commercial endeavours thwarted the rules and the army had to be called in on multiple occasions to protect these wild spaces. A more detailed look at the ups and downs of the early years can be found via the following documentary series: America’s Best Idea – The History of the National Parks.
This was the beginning of the National Parks system – a network of public, protected land which now covers 540,000 square km of the United States, and includes 58 parks – from the Florida Everglades, the Grand Canyon, Zion, the Smokies, Yosemite and Moab.
I count myself pretty lucky to have been able to visit just a few of these areas – and although it’d be nice to think that preserving these places is just common sense, it’s worth remembering how much hard work and commitment and sacrifice various people have put in over the years to make it happen. The easy choice in all these areas would have been to exploit them for every last penny – with no awareness of the future – but thanks to men like Muir, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Clark and others, we get to enjoy them now in a state that’s probably pretty similar to how they were 100 years ago.
Yosemite itself has a pretty awesome recent history – some of it based around the rock climbing culture that kicked up over the past 30 years. Big wall climbing on the granite faces of Half Dome and El Capitan started back in the early 70s, and has evolved into a huge part of the parks allure. Another great documentary is ‘Valley Uprising’ – a recent winner at the Reel Rock Film Tour, and an awesome watch. The story behind the Columbian plane full of marijuana which crashed in one of the upper Yosemite lakes and was promptly raided by the long-term climbing community is an absolute cracker…
Anyway – enough from me today – once again, enjoy the photos, and if you ever find yourself with the opportunity, I hope you can get outside and check out Yosemite, Zion, Shenandoah or any of these wonderful places that we’re lucky enough to have preserved for us.