Postcard From Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park in California was created on October 1, 1890 when it was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison. It has been described as the ultimate pilgrimage site, the absolute manifestation of the divine, where people can celebrate God in nature.

The first white visitors were vigilantes who were paid by the California government to stop Indian raids on gold miners who had invaded land the Indians considered their home and were killing game the Indians relied on for food. The vigilantes rode into Yosemite in 1851 and 1852 in pursuit of the Ahwahneechee, a branch of the southern Miwok. A large number of the Indians were killed and their village was burned. The survivors were driven from the valley and returned later only in small, heartbroken bands. The vigilantes brought back stories of a beautiful seven-mile-long gorge between the cliffs now known as El Capitan and Half Dome. They reported the valley was filled with serene meadows and spectacular waterfalls. Ironically, the area the Indians called "Big Mouth" became known to the whites as "Yosemite," a Miwok word meaning "killer." 

Yosemite Valley
The first tourists began arriving in Yosemite in 1855 and by 1861, a steady stream of them was turning up in summer. Traveling for several days by train, stagecoach and horseback, they would reach Mariposa Grove, a stand of over 200 ancient giant sequoias, where they would rest before embarking on a descent of 26 switchbacks into the valley. 

Damage to Yosemite Valley’s ecosystem followed the tourists as they trampled sensitive plant life, chopped down trees for fire wood and left trash strewn about. Lodges and other commercial establishments soon followed and the number of visitors greatly increased as thousands of trees were felled for building material and to make way for numerous roads. A carriage-wide tunnel was cut through a 2,300 year-old giant sequoia tree which stood in the Mariposa Grove. The tree, 227 feet tall and 90 feet in circumference, became known as the Wawona Tree. Everything from horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century to automobiles in the 20th century traveled the road which passed through that tree. The tree died, but it was so massive that it stayed upright until it finally fell in 1969. 

In 1864, to ward off further commercial exploitation, conservationists convinced President Abraham Lincoln to declare Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias a public trust of California. This marked the first time the U.S. government protected land for public enjoyment. 

In 1889, John Muir discovered that the huge meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley were being overrun and destroyed by domestic sheep grazing. Muir and Robert Johnson, an influential magazine editor, began pushing for national park status to be given to the wilderness area around Yosemite Valley. This led to the government acquiring an additional 1,500 square miles of land for what would become Yosemite National Park, America’s third national park. 

I visited Yosemite, but unfortunately, due to previously made commitments I couldn't change, I only had 1 day to do it. I wouldn't normally try to visit a national park, especially one as big as Yosemite in just 1 day. I am definitely not one of those people who drive through as fast as possible, stopping for 30 seconds to take a picture at a few overlooks and scenic vistas and then declare "I've been there." They haven't "been there" anymore than looking at a comet crossing the night sky makes you an astronaut. But there was no telling when I would be able to get back to the Yosemite area again, if ever, so I decided to go and just see as much as I could. I shouldn't have. It was July, the height of the tourist season and California was enduring a record-breaking heat wave.

Bridalveil Falls
The one good thing I did was to get up and leave my San Francisco hotel so early it was still dark. Coming in via Hwy 140, I arrived at the Arch Rock entrance about an hour before the hordes came in behind me. I was able to visit and enjoy Bridalveil Falls with only a handful of other people beside me. That would prove to be the high point of my trip.  

It would have been OK if I enjoyed driving in stop-and-go traffic on the park roads and then driving for an hour around and around small, already full parking lots with a hundred other cars looking for an open spot. It was like playing musical chairs with 100 people and only 1 chair. Eventually you would be in the right place at the right time when someone would back out in front of you so you could be right there to grab their spot. Then the crowds were so big and thick unless you shoved and pushed your way to the front of the overlook, you could only see the magnificent view by looking through and over 3 or 4 rows of the people in front of you. And doing all of this in heat so bad it was hard to breath. Not fun. 

Half Dome
After 6 hours of extreme frustration doing that, I decided to visit the visitor's center and store where I could get a bite to eat, get my National Park Passbook stamped and buy a t-shirt. The crowds were so overwhelming though, you have to catch a park shuttle bus as no cars are allowed there during the heavy season. I arrived at a designated bus stop and found several hundred people standing in line. An hour later, word filtered to the back of the line that the buses were being held up as the visitor's center could only hold a limited number of people. I had been in line for over an hour, had seen only 2 buses arrive and depart and both had taken on just a few lucky individuals because they were already standing-room-only full. I had moved forward in line about 10 feet. With a 100-foot line of people ahead of me, I decided to get my sweat-drenched behind back in my rental car and just leave. 

After exiting the park on my way back to San Francisco, I passed several miles of stopped cars waiting to enter the park. I was happy to be going the other way. 

The park is incredibly beautiful and I am glad I was able to see a few of the iconic sites such as Half-Dome, El-Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and Nevada Falls. What I most remember about the park is, unfortunately, the crowds of people and the endless lines of cars. I've been to most of America's National Parks and based on this visit, I have to rank Yosemite as my least favorite. Unfair, I know, but that's the way it is. The park is the poster child for a place well on the way to being loved to death. I think the only way to truly save it would be to place limits on the number of visitors allowed in the park during any one day.

From my experience, I would strongly advise against a visit during the summer months. Go during the early spring or fall when the public schools are open and be there during the work-week, not on weekends. You should also be aware that Yosemite Valley, the region visited by the vast majority of tourists, only comprises a very small percentage of the park. If physically able, you really should plan to take a few of the dozens of designated hikes so you can get away from the overwhelming crowds of people and truly enjoy the splendor of Yosemite. Only then you will be able to say, "I've been there."

Nevada Falls

Road Trip to Utah - Part 7 - 4-Wheelin' and Rock Crawlin'

Our last full day of Mancation dawned just as bright and clear as all the other days. After a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the Moab Adventure Center for the 4-wheeler tour we had reserved. It was pretty darn expensive, but what the heck, we both love going where there's not a crowd and seeing what the mainstream average tourist doesn't. Besides, it's only money! 

Sad to report though, this particular adventure left us disappointed. I've been on a number of 4-wheel drive tours and driven a bunch in my own jeep and sadly, this one ranks at the bottom of the list. The good was that our driver was friendly and we got lucky in that there was nobody else with whom we had to share the tour. Since it was just us, the driver gave us our choice of which tour we wanted to take. We chose the "Back Country" at his suggestion for "awesome scenery and great arches that other people don't know about." He told us it would take a while to get to the off road part, but we had 3 hours so it was no big deal.

Filming a movie shut down the road
Turned out it was a big deal. The 4-wheeler was a converted military Hummer with a top and no sides - and no air conditioning. Mother Nature chose that day for the old sun to shine bright and the temperature to climb. Because of the low gearing, the Hummer couldn't go faster than about 50 MPH and we drove on pavement for 25 long, loud, uncomfortable minutes. Then we came to a dead stop because (one guess here) either another movie was being filmed or the same movie filming we had run into before (see Part 4 here) had the road closed. Evidently movie crews are allowed to shut down any road for however long they want in Utah because we sat there with the hot sun beating down on the metal top for over 20 minutes. We couldn't see what they were filming so we just sat there talking a bit. We paid good money for this and the minutes seemed like hours. Frustrating.

The "4-wheel trail" we drove on
When we were finally allowed to proceed, we drove on the pavement for another 10 minutes and then took a dirt road to the right. Finally! Now we're going to have some fun! Nope. We spent the next hour driving along the same dirt road. There were some interesting things our guide pointed out and there was some beautiful scenery and we never saw anyone else, but the road never got very rough or anywhere near challenging. My stock Ford F150 pickup would have easily driven that road. We eventually came to a wide spot and stopped. The guide said this was a good place to take pictures so we got out and walked around taking a few while he wandered away from us to have a smoke.

Beautiful scenery on the back-country tour
A few minutes later when we returned to the Hummer, he turned it around and we headed back. Sure enough, we were stopped on the road yet again while the movie filming continued. Fortunately, it only took about 15 minutes before we were allowed to drive on. We returned to our starting point just 10 minutes later than our allotted 3 hours. We had spent almost 2 hours on pavement and only 1 hour of our 3-hour, 4-wheel back country tour on a dirt road that wouldn't have challenged a regular pickup truck. Not happy. 

The most interesting place on the 4-wheel drive road
We went back to the hotel to shower and change out of our wet-from-sweat clothes. We ate a few of our road snacks we still had and ended up taking naps before we returned to Moab Adventure Center for the 4-wheelin' rock crawling sunset tour we had signed up for. We went with the mindset that if this one was as disappointing as the back country tour, we were going to raise hell until they gave us our money back. Fortunately, no hell needed to be raised because this one was a lot of fun and very interesting. 

Our Hummer on the back country tour. The driver
was off having a smoke.
We loaded up into another Hummer, but this time, we had 6 other people (3 couples) with us. They were all very nice and our guide was very outgoing, engaging, and funny. Being true to my Texas upbringing, I let the women get seated first and of course their men sat beside them so, without setting out to do it intentionally, I ended up being the last to board. That worked out great for me as that meant I got to sit in the front seat next to the driver - the very best place to be! We only had to drive about 10 minutes on pavement before turning off on a dirt road where we ended up 2 minutes later facing a large boulder. 

Our rock climbing Hummer and driver/guide
"Well," said our driver as he pointed to a group of other large boulders ahead of us, "we need to get up there, but I'm not sure how to get there." We sat there for a few seconds as he appeared to be thinking about it. "Oh, what the heck" he said, put it in 1st gear and headed straight for that big rock in front of us! The next thing we knew, our Hummer was climbing up and we were leaning way back in our seats holding our collective breath! 

I admit, I would never have thought a vehicle could have gone into and out of the places we did. We eventually caught up with another tour group and I swear the two drivers began trying to outdo each other in where they could drive those Hummers and we certainly benefited from it. Of course, it might have just been all a part of the adventure as neither of them were ever unsafe, always driving slowly and getting out to inspect the route any time it seemed particularly steep, but it was very enjoyable anyway.

Our friendly rival group going down where we had just been
About 3/4 of the way through the tour, we arrived at the top of the trail. We all dismounted and watched as the sun set and a full moon rose from behind the distant mountains. Some stood, some sat down, but everyone was very quiet, all lost in their own thoughts. Michael and I have been very good friends for many years. We get along well and I really enjoy taking road trips with him, but right then, I sure missed my wife.

After the sun went down, we headed on back. At one point, we hit a rock sticking up at the bottom of a precipitous descent which poked a hole in the oil pan. After looking it over, the driver decided it wasn't leaking much and we could limp it back to the offices. This tour certainly made up for that disappointing first excursion and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend you experience it. 

Enjoyed the scenery while crawlin' the rocks
After supper, we retired early as we planned to get an early start back home in the morning. On the way back, we stopped several times going through Colorado to take in the beautiful scenery and to eat and walk around the historic town of Creed. After one more night in a cheap little privately owned motel, we arrived back home safe and sound the next day right at our expected time. 

This trip, like many of our other road trips, proved to be a really interesting and adventurous time away from our normal every-day lives. We saw many beautiful things and we met and talked to many interesting people. I truly wish everyone could and would take some time and slow down, travel around and experience this incredibly beautiful country peopled with incredibly friendly and caring humans. As for me, I'm already in the planning stages for an epic solo "Seeing America" road trip driving 1,894 miles on Hwy 83 all the way from the border in Brownsville, Texas north into Canada. Stay tuned!
Moon rising from behind the mountains.
(photo by Michael)


Cool valley in Colorado
Waterfall in Colorado
We had a wonderful time walking around Creed, Colorado