The geology and glaciation of Yosemite are what make the national park unique. Briefly, what happened during the millions of years past was this:
Magma (molten rock) was pushed up in the region we know as Yosemite, but it did not reach the surface—hence there are no volcanoes. Cooling slowly, the molten material became granite, a very hard igneous (fire-formed) rock with noticeable crystallization.
Erosive forces—including rivers and glaciers—eventually removed most of the overlying rock, exposing the granite. During the ice ages, glaciers followed the paths of least resistance—along the Merced and other river valleys. Thousands of feet thick, the heavy glaciers gouged, scraped and plucked any weak rock, using the material to grind away even more of the valley bottom and walls. The last major ice-age ended 10,000 years ago. It was those gigantic glaciers that carved Yosemite Valley into the shape we see today.
The first people to hunt, gather, and live in the Yosemite area were Native Americans, who had been in the region for some 8,000 years.
The first white people to set eyes on Yosemite were probably members of the Walker Party in 1833. The first documented visit, however, came after the California Gold Rush. European-American prospectors and settlers rushed to California’s Central Valley by the tens of thousands, creating problems with the indigenous people. Battles were fought, and in an effort to track the Yosemite Indians, the Mariposa Battalion came upon Yosemite Valley in 1851.
Word of the valley’s incredible waterfalls and sheer granite cliffs, combined with magnificent groves of giant sequoia trees, quickly captured the nation’s interest. In 1864 President Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees for preservation, placing it under the control and supervision of the State of California. This was actually the beginning of the national park philosophy, although the term wasn’t used until Yellowstone National Park came into being.
John Muir was a writer, naturalist and preservationist, and was very important in Yosemite’s early history, influencing such important Americans as Teddy Roosevelt. The two men camped in Yosemite and discussed ideas that set the stage for preserving the nation’s unique natural places.
Yosemite has been one of my favorite destinations for many years, having visited it more than 30 times. I’ve hiked many of the trails, including two treks to the top of Half Dome. The first time was just after my 17th birthday. My best friend and I took my 10-year old Ford from where we lived in Southern California and spent a week in Yosemite. One fine day we hiked to the top of Half Dome and back. The next time I went to the top was 14 years later. I’d been a school teacher in San Diego, and had gotten a summer job in Yosemite Valley as a seasonal park ranger—in the interpretive division. Included among my responsibilities was giving campground programs, lectures, and leading nature hikes. It was one of the most exciting jobs I’ve ever had. Having two consecutive days off, a fellow ranger and I hiked to the top of Half Dome, carrying food, water, and sleeping bags in our packs. After a glorious sunset, we spent most of the night praying there would be no lightning strikes. That was a long time ago, when I was young and fearless; plus, park regulations were less strict back then.
All travelers to the park should see Lower Yosemite Fall up close. From the parking lot, a short path leads to the bridge from which you have a perfect view of the waterfall. (Note: Yosemite’s waterfalls do not have an s at the ends of their names.) True, in the middle of summer there will be many other people enjoying the view from the bridge. To get a little “alone time” with the lower falls, go really early in the morning. Or at night. Or both.
Bridalveil Fall takes about the same modest effort as the lower falls, and is equally rewarding. Plan on getting sprayed as the water crashes against the rocks and the wind blows it toward you. Cover your camera and lean forward; it is indeed refreshing.
Many of the longer hikes begin in the valley, which is 4,000 feet elevation. The most rewarding day hike is also one of the most popular. It’s the trail from Happy Isles to the bridge, then following the Mist Trail along the Merced River to the tops of Vernal and Nevada falls, and returning by the John Muir Trail. With a vertical gain of about 2,000 feet and a total distance of several miles, you’ll return to your camp tired—but with a smile that’ll last several days. Take water, lunch, camera and rain gear (Mist Trail is wet).
Shorter, yet steeper and more demanding, is the trail to the top of Yosemite Fall. It takes you past the base of the upper falls. During spring runoff it’s a thundering and awesome spectacle. At the top is a viewpoint—looking straight down the falls.
Nowhere in the country—and perhaps in the entire world—will you find so many tall, sheer granite walls. Half Dome and El Capitan are the most noteworthy, but the entire valley consists of one vertical cliff after another.
To get a bird’s eye view of the magnitude of the valley’s granite walls, drive to Glacier Point and look down into the valley and across at Yosemite Fall. Then backtrack to Washburn Point and look down on Nevada and Vernal falls, and straight out to Half Dome and the High Sierra. Granite mountains and domes spread out as far as the eye can see.
Don’t overlook Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. It’s near the south entrance—the road from Fresno. The grove abounds with Giant Sequoias, which are the largest, heaviest single organisms in the world. Some of the giants approach 270 feet in height and have a base diameter of 30 feet or more. They can live 4,000 years. The words “awe-inspiring” barely begin to convey the feelings a person has when standing next to one of these gigantic trees. If you’re a pretty good hiker, walk up to the top of the grove and back. If you’re only so-so, take the shuttle to the top and walk back. If your hiking days are now part of history, take the shuttle for the round trip. Impressive as the trees are from the shuttle, however, walking among them is the thing to do. Note: there’s also an easy yet rewarding loop trail by the parking lot.
Good luck photographing these giant sequoias, however. They’re so tall that getting a good picture is very difficult. One important tip: have someone stand at the bottom of the tree. That will at least give the photo a sense of scale.
When to go to Yosemite?
If you want to see Yosemite’s waterfalls in all their glory, go a week or two before the Memorial Day crowds. That’s also when the wildflowers are in bloom, so it has many benefits to offer. Unfortunately, the Tioga and Glacier Point roads may not be open before Memorial Day.
Spring offers full waterfalls with road closures.
During summer, both the high country roads are open, and they are each worth a full day’s sightseeing. Skies tend to be clear and the air warm. The valley can get downright hot occasionally, whereas nights at the higher elevations found on Tioga Road and the highway to Glacier Point can be chilly. Summer also brings the crowds.
Autumn offers nice yellow colors to deciduous trees, crowds are mostly gone, but there is little water in the falls.
Winters can be dramatic because of the snow; however, you must deal with the cold.
RVers note: Camping reservations—especially in Yosemite Valley—are recommended.
Travelers with large RVs will want to camp in the valley, at Wawona (near the south entrance), or Hodgdon Meadows (near the Crane Flat entrance—Highway 120 from the west). You’ll want to disconnect and go sightseeing no matter where you overnight. There are smaller campgrounds along the Tioga and Glacier Point roads, but negotiating a big rig through them can be difficult.
I prefer camping in Yosemite Valley, even though that’s where the concentration of people is to be found. My reasons? It’s in the center of things. You are surrounded by sheer granite walls. Morning and afternoon drives around the valley give opportunities to check out the views as the light and shadows change. You also have most of the waterfalls, the meandering Merced River, and quiet meadows where the deer feed.
A quick tip about watching deer. If you approach too closely, they will leave. Want good photographs? You must have a fairly long telephoto lens. Chasing them away from their feeding is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Besides, the south end of a deer heading north is not much of a photo.
We in the United States are blessed to have so many natural scenic masterpieces. To me, there are three national parks that every American should definitely visit: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Yes, it’s true—Yosemite National Park can be a busy place. With huge sequoia trees, lovely forests, clear streams and rivers, spectacular waterfalls, and sheer granite walls, that’s understandable.
And certainly good enough reasons to go.