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