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Places of the Pacific: Yosemite National Park

behind green tree tops in the forefront, a view of granite canyons.

This is post 2 of 3 in "Places of the Pacific."

Throughout this series, we explore three special places that form the building blocks of our Pacific Wildway and safeguard important species and ecological processes. You'll learn about ecosystem management in the Enchantments, the wonders of Yosemite National Park, and the future of the Pasayten Wilderness. All posts in this series…

Behind soaring trees, a granite canyon rises toward the sky, shrouded in haze.
Canyon walls at Yosemite National Park. Photo: Julia Walz

What can be said about Yosemite that hasn’t already been said? The awe it inspires in millions of people is evidenced by the many and varied artistic landscape paintings, postcards, letters, and writings that share the joy of witnessing the park’s majestic snow kings. John Muir’s romantic writings, Ansel Adams’ and Carleton Watkins’ powerful photographs, Thomas Hill’s evocative painting, Thomas Moran’s ethereal etchings —all of these works of art tell a tale of a landscape so valued it became the world’s first publicly protected region. The Yosemite Grant, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, was a rare and special piece of legislation that would eventually lead to and inspire “America’s best idea”—the national park.

Yosemite is beloved by many for myriad reasons. It is home to awesome natural wonders, like Half Dome and El Captain, large granite rock faces that tower high into the sky; Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America; and soaring giant sequoias, the world’s largest single tree. The promise of incredible outdoor views, adventures to suit all skill levels, and the proximity to large metropolitan areas drives visitors to Yosemite by the millions every year.

The Wonders of Yosemite National Park

John Muir inspired millions with his passionate prose about Yosemite. I could not do it any more justice, so I will let Muir’s words describe this beautiful place:

“Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Though extremely rugged, with its main features on the grandest scale in height and depth, it is nevertheless easy of access and hospitable; and its marvelous beauty, displayed in striking and alluring forms, woos the admiring wanderer on and on, higher and higher charmed and enchanted….

Of this glorious range the Yosemite National Park is a central section, thirty-six miles in length and forty-eight miles in breadth. The famous Yosemite Valley lies in the heart of it, and it includes the head waters of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous canons and amphitheaters; gardens on their sunny browns avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges….

Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude.” (John Muir, The Atlantic, August 1899).

For me, Yosemite is home. I was born and raised in California, and Yosemite was the first national park I ever experienced as an adult. Right after graduating high school, my sister and I took a road trip to the area, staying in Yosemite Valley in a small cabin. We hiked in the spray of waterfalls, biked around the valley, climbed granite faces, basked in high alpine meadows, and soaked our toes in cold, crisp streams.

A large gray granite cliff face rises toward the sky in the left half of the frame, while snow-capped mountains rise up behind it across the lower half of the frame.
Half Dome covered in snow. Photo: Jessica Walz Schafer

Yosemite continues to invoke in me a sense of unimaginable wildness. Exploring Yosemite was my right of passage into adulthood, my first real road trip exploring my own freedom at a transformative time in my life. My sister and I chose Yosemite, a place we hadn’t yet been, to explore our own senses of adventure. For a few days, we let ourselves be free, and I walked away inspired to continue in the footsteps of John Muir, realizing that “going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” (1898).

Visiting Yosemite

Since that first adventure, I have returned to Yosemite many times. I have seen the valley in every season, and it remains remarkable and awe-inspiring every time I return. If you have the opportunity to make return visits, Yosemite’s landscapes are spectacular in winter, but if you have only one chance, accessibility to all areas of the park is best in summer and fall. However, Yosemite’s highest visitor rates are in the summer months, so bring your patience with you!

I hope Yosemite National Park inspires you to seek the wild, too.  When the mountains are calling—go!

Yosemite has a multitude of trails to explore and opportunities for both one-day and multi-day excursions. My favorite adventures have been my day hikes through the Tuolumne Meadows area to Cathedral Lakes and Gaylor Lakes. Yosemite Falls is another popular destination with the opportunity to see the tallest waterfall in North America on one of the oldest established trails in the park, built between 1873 and 1877. The views at the top are spectacular. The giant sequoias are also a must-see, so do not pass up your chance to go to the Mariposa Grove. I would also recommend a snowshoe through these giant majestic trees if you get the opportunity to visit in winter. My sister, who went with me on my early adventures, recommends Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail, another popular destination for summer visitors.

Yosemite inspired me to seek the wild, to be free, and to experience life in all its wild abundance. If you take the opportunity to see this grand landscape for yourself, I hope it inspires you to seek the wild, too.  When the mountains are calling—go!

Balancing Recreation and Conservation

In 2017, approximately 4 million people visited Yosemite, with many of those visits occurring between May and October. Most visitors spend the majority of their time in the 5.9 square miles of Yosemite Valley, bypassing the Wilderness areas of Yosemite that make up about 95% of the park. It speaks volumes of Yosemite’s rare beauty that visitors can stay in a small area and still experience profound awe, but such restricted visitation isn’t without its negative impacts on the ground.

Yosemite, like other national parks in the United States, has seen a surge in visitors in the last 5 years. This large influx of people can create major disturbances for the wildlife who call Yosemite home. The largest impact in Yosemite is seen in the park’s valley, where the majority of tourists stay. Visitors trampling the valley’s meadow systems is becoming an increasing threat to the ecosystem of Yosemite, even changing the flow of the water systems.

behind green tree tops in the forefront, a view of granite canyons.
A view of Half Dome. Photo: Julia Walz

Increased human presence inadvertently threatens wildlife by fragmenting habitat. This area is special, and the stories inspired by this landscape drive more and more people to visit it. But while we desire to encourage people to interact with the world we live in, we must continue to be mindful of our impacts on the places we visit and leave no trace of our presence. Yosemite not only provides a refuge for millions of people ever year, it serves as a core reserve for plants and wildlife. To continue to serve this valuable purpose, Yosemite must be protected from increasing threats.

Protecting Yosemite in the Pacific Wildway

Two small deer prance on a snowy trail.
Two deer on a snowy trail in Yosemite National Park. Photo: Jessica Walz Schafer

Yosemite is one of the many core reserves within Wildland Network’s Pacific Wildway. Core reserves—large areas of land that protect ecosystems and wildlife—act as critical building blocks that allow us to reconnect, restore and rewild large landscapes. Yosemite’s 748,436 acres is one of the largest and most whole habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with almost 95% of the park’s acreage in designated Wilderness (704,624 acres). It is home to 250 vertebrate species, and of the 7,000 plant species in California, 20% reside in Yosemite alone. Despite the threats to its delicate ecosystems, Yosemite continues to function as an essential piece of the Pacific, not only for wildlife, but also for us.

Our Pacific Wildway project seeks to connect core reserves like Yosemite with other reserves in the Pacific, from Crater Lake National Park to the North Cascades creating a connected wildway from BC to Baja. Please consider joining us in our adventure by donating to help connect our landscapes, creating the space and freedom for all species—including ourselves—to roam freely.

More posts from Places of the Pacific

  1. Places of the Pacific: The Enchantments, May 7, 2018
  2. Places of the Pacific: Yosemite National Park, May 15, 2018
  3. Places of the Pacific: The Pasayten Wilderness, May 31, 2018

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