Happy Birthday, Yosemite National Park

This week marks the 122nd anniversary of the creation of Yosemite National Park. The park, which is the third oldest national park in the U.S., encompasses almost 1,200 square miles of soaring peaks, rock walls, and waterfalls in east-central California. Interest in the area was initially sparked by the photographs of Carleton E. Watkins in the 1860s, and naturalist John Muir (author of Britannica’s 10th edition article on Yosemite) spearheaded the effort to protect the area from further development and degradation. Muir’s campaign, which culminated in the designation of the site as a national park on October 1, 1890, ensured that Yosemite would remain unspoiled for generations to come. Indeed, the park drew an estimated four million visitors in 2010, providing more than $350 million in tourism revenue to the area.

Yosemite National Park

The interplay of shadows in Yosemite. Credit: © Index Open

Yosemite National Park

Upper Yosemite Fall. Credit: Micah Bochart

History of Yosemite National Park

El Capitan (left) and Bridalveil Fall (right) in Yosemite National Park, California.
© Index Open

Yosemite National Park, California, designated a World Heritage site in 1984.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
scenic mountain region in east-central California, U.S. It is situated about 140 miles (225 km) east of the city of San Francisco and some 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Sacramento. Devils Postpile National Monument lies about 15 miles (25 km) to the east, and Kings Canyon National Park is about 40 miles (65 km) to the southeast. The park, surrounded on all sides by national forest lands, encompasses 1,189 square miles (3,080 square km). It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Park headquarters are located at Yosemite Village in Yosemite Valley, in the west-central part of the park.

Natural history

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.
© Index Open

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.
© Joseph Fronteras

Half Dome in autumn, Yosemite National Park, west-central California, U.S.
Ray Atkeson-EB Inc.
The park is situated in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range, and most of it lies within the basins of the Merced and Tuolumne rivers. The land rises from west to east, the eastern boundary forming a drainage divide. Most of the tallest peaks are in the southeastern area of the park, many exceeding 10,000 feet (3,050 metres); Mount Lyell, at 13,114 feet (3,997 metres), is the highest summit. Glaciation has sculpted a number of deep U-shaped valleys, notably the Yosemite Valley of the Merced River. The valley—which curves in a gentle arc about 7 miles (11 km) long and between 0.5 and 1 mile (0.8 and 1.6 km) wide—features a number of attractions, such as sheer rock walls that rise 3,000 to 4,000 feet (900 to 1,200 metres) above the valley floor, Yosemite Falls, and huge domes and peaks. The greatest of these domes is El Capitan, a granite buttress near the western end of the valley that rises to 7,569 feet (2,307 metres) above sea level and towers some 3,600 feet (1,100 metres) above the valley. Overlooking the head of the valley is Half Dome, which reaches an elevation of 8,836 feet (2,693 metres) and provides a commanding view from its top. The renowned Yosemite Falls consists of Upper Yosemite Fall, Lower Yosemite Fall, and the cascades between them; their combined drop of 2,425 feet (740 metres) is one of the highest cataracts in the world. Other notable waterfalls in the valley include Bridalveil, Nevada, Ribbon, and Vernal falls.

Winter in Yosemite National Park, California.
© Index Open
Yosemite’s climate is strongly influenced by elevation and by the mountainous terrain. Summers are warm, with many hot days when high temperatures often reach or exceed 90 °F (32 °C) in the valley, and afternoon thunderstorms can occur, especially at higher elevations. Winters are cold and snowy. Although winter daytime highs are often mild in the valley, temperatures at higher elevations typically remain below freezing. Precipitation is moderately high and falls mostly as snow during the winter; annual total precipitation in the valley averages about 36 inches (910 mm), and snowfall averages about 65 inches (1,650 mm).

A giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) estimated to be between 1,900 and 2,400 years old, Grizzly Giant is the oldest tree in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California.
© Kenneth Sponsler/Fotolia
Plant life in the park changes markedly with elevation. Lower elevations are characterized by scattered trees (both deciduous and coniferous), shrubs, and meadows that fill with wildflowers in the spring. At the level of Yosemite Valley grow larger stands of conifers that include groves of big trees (the giant sequoias), notably at the Mariposa Grove in the southern part of the park; higher up, closer to the timberline, are mountain hemlocks and lodgepole pines; and still higher are rocky alpine areas that support only cold-tolerant species such as lichens.
Animal life is plentiful and varied within the park. Large mammals include mule deer, black bears, coyotes, mountain lions (pumas), and the endemic and endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae). Various squirrels, chipmunks, and bats constitute most of the smaller mammals, which also include the rare and endangered Pacific fisher (Martes pennati pacifica). More than 250 species of birds have been observed in the park, of which some 165 species reside there or visit regularly and the others are seen there only occasionally. Among the more common birds found are Steller’s jays, western meadowlarks, and mountain bluebirds. In addition, there are populations of amphibians (including salamanders, toads, and frogs), lizards (notably western pond turtles), and fish (especially trout).

Development and use of the park

Yosemite Valley, east-central California, U.S..; photograph by Carleton E. Watkins, 1860–61.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Trappers may have entered Yosemite Valley in the 1830s, and a miner named William Penn Abrams reportedly reached Inspiration Point (near the valley entrance) in 1849. The valley certainly became known to the world after a California state militia force pursued marauding Native Americans into it in 1851. Settlers soon followed, including entrepreneurs who set up lodgings for visitors who arrived there by horseback or on foot over rough steep trails. Interest in Yosemite was spurred by the dissemination of lithographs of drawings and paintings by artists such as Thomas Hill and of photographs by Carleton E. Watkins. Concerns about the degradation of the natural environment from this influx of people prompted calls for the federal government to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove, which it did by authorizing the establishment of a state park there in 1864.

Map of Yosemite Valley (c. 1900), Yosemite National Park, east-central California, U.S., from the 10th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, U.S.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Wagon roads were completed to the park’s northern and southern boundaries in the mid-1870s, and by 1885 some 3,000 visitors were reaching the park annually. In 1890—largely through the efforts of naturalist John Muir and writer and magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson—the U.S. Congress set aside land around the state park as Yosemite National Park. Muir continued to urge the federal government to acquire all of the parkland, and, at his invitation, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt visited him at Yosemite in 1903. Finally, in 1906, the state park land was merged into the national park. Other parcels of land were subsequently added until the park reached its present size. A railroad was completed to the west end of the park in 1907 (discontinued in 1945), and the number of visitors rose dramatically, surpassing 15,000 in 1914 and more than double that number the following year. Annual attendance passed a half million in 1940 and, after a lull during World War II, reached one million for the first time in 1954.

Mount Dana from Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park, east-central California, U.S.
© Index Open
Most visitors to Yosemite now access the park via two road entrances on the west side or one on the south at the Mariposa Grove. However, an east-west road (closed in winter) bisects the park and connects to an entrance on the east side at Tioga Pass across the Sierra Nevada’s ridgeline. Yosemite is one of the most heavily visited national parks in the country—annual attendance having exceeded three million in the late 1980s and stayed above that level.—and Yosemite Valley in particular is highly congested during the summer months. Because of heavy traffic and a lack of parking, a shuttle bus system was created to transport visitors around the valley. A plan was adopted in 2000 to improve conditions in Yosemite by restoring disturbed natural areas, easing traffic congestion with expanded bus service, and renovating lodging facilities. There are several privately operated lodging venues in the park, most of them located in the valley, in addition to some 1,500 campsites in about a dozen campgrounds maintained by the national park staff.

Reproduction of a semisubterranean Miwok dwelling, Yosemite Museum, Yosemite National Park, east-central California, U.S.
Hiking is popular along Yosemite’s hundreds of miles of trails, and thousands of climbers scale the domes and peaks annually. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail cuts across the northeastern portion of the park; before exiting in the east, it is joined by the John Muir Trail, the northern terminus of which is at the head of Yosemite Valley. Rafting is permitted on portions of the Merced River. The Badger Pass Ski Area, to the south of the valley, is a winter recreation centre. There are two visitor’s centres: a year-round one in Yosemite Valley and another, open seasonally, in the eastern part of the park near the Tioga Pass entrance. The Yosemite Museum, in Yosemite Village in the valley, contains exhibits on the area’s native Miwok and Paiute peoples.

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