Photograph by Galen Rowell
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A swirling ethereal dawn over Tioga Pass illuminates a land that has inspired almost religious devotion from those who have drawn near. These prophets—such as writer John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams—saw Yosemite National Park's light and spread the word.

Photograph by Galen Rowell

Yosemite—Grace Under Pressure

The Drink Box

In the middle of Yosemite Village in the deep valley of California's upper Merced River is a soft-drink machine, and on its front is a large posterized photo of a golfer about to tee up, golf cart at the ready. Large words proclaim: DISCOVER YOUR YOSEMITE. I had just come from talking with Ranger Scott Gediman, who told me, "National Parks aren't for entertainment." Yet within the Yosemite boundaries are the golf course, a refrigerated ice-skating rink, five ski lifts, snowboard runs, a kennel, a sports bar with a big-screen TV, and an annual costumed pageant reenacting an English Christmas dinner. As I tried to make note of the pop machine, I was jostled by a passing multitude bestrung with gear: cell phones, MP3 players, and pagers. I dodged baby strollers hung with diaper bags, cars with video cameras poked out the windows, and a tandem bicycle pulling a trailer hauling two barking dogs the size of large rodents. The crowd was shod more in flip-flops than hiking shoes, halter tops outnumbered field shirts, and the people licked ice-cream cones and munched tacos. Was I at a mall or in a valley world renowned for its natural wonders and its 800 miles (1,288 kilometers) of trails? Within an ace of the drink box were two hotels, a large store, a jail, a post office, an ATM, parking spaces for 2,000 cars, and more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) of asphalt pavement. The Yosemite I wanted to discover had to be somewhere else, both in time and place.


So well hidden in the Sierra Nevada is this valley that Euro-Americans did not enter it until 1851, when James Savage, operator of three trading posts in the area, led in a militia band called the Mariposa Battalion to threaten or brutalize the native residents of the valley into submitting to the increasing incursions of gold miners and settlers. On their first night, Savage's men camped near the Bridalveil Meadow. The next morning the Indians, the Ahwahneechee, seemed to have disappeared but for an elderly woman, who said, "I am too old to climb the rocks." When she refused to reveal where her people had gone, Savage (as if to fulfill his name) torched the bark homes and the food caches of the Indians and thereby began a forced and merciless dispersal that was complete in less than two years. Mariposa means "butterfly" in Spanish and Merced is "mercy," but a local Indian name is closer to the history: Yosemite is probably a corruption of yo'hem-iteh, or "they are killers."

The Lost Report

In another Yosemite Valley meadow—meadows were once more extensive here—Frederick Law Olmsted camped in 1864 while employed by a New York mining company after being hired away from his job designing Central Park. He was managing a large holding near present-day Mariposa, where the California gold-rush bonanza was giving out. The father of American landscape architecture saw wealth of another sort, a stunning cornucopia to enrich the work of artists and natural scientists and, as significantly, the spirits of common citizens. A month before Olmsted's stay in the meadow, President Lincoln signed a congressional act establishing a grant to reserve two areas of what today is Yosemite, the valley and a southerly grove of sequoias. After his expedition Olmsted wrote a report for the California legislature then governing the grant. The document is a landmark expression of the principle that a government should set aside places of signal scenic value for its citizens. Central to his reasoning is the belief that scenic beauty both calms and invigorates a human nervous system.

His report, with its timeless guidelines, never reached the legislature and remained unpublished until 1952. In the meantime, certain commercial endeavors got established in the valley and metastasized.

For its size it's possibly the most famously photographed small rock in the West. About the size of a large picnic table—for which it's been used—Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point has also served as a parking space for horseless carriages and, later, Pierce-Arrows and Studebakers. It's been a stage for a pair of dancing ladies in hoop skirts, a veritable magnet to back-flipping daredevils and the simply foolhardy. The pointy rock is famous for what is under it: some 3,000 feet (910 meters) of air, and only air, unless you count at certain moments raindrops or snowflakes. The view from behind the railing looks into Yosemite Valley and on toward the mountainous miles beyond and offers arguably the most spectacular vista in America. It's an excellent place to try to comprehend the fabrication of Yosemite from deep oceanic sediments into tectonic plates lifted, shifted, subducted, and melted into granite, then solidified, only to be lifted once more and deformed, dissolved, deepened, and dislocated by water and ice. From Glacier Point one sees a grand contorted display of the power of water and gravity—water the chisel, gravity the hammer, and the sculptor your notion of the originator of all things.

One Whopper of a Two-by-Four

Far from the crowded valley, I stood before a stump that matched the photographic fame of Overhanging Rock. To attract tourists—and perhaps help them comprehend the immensity of a sequoia—a couple of sawyers in 1881 cut a huge notch through the base of a tree, a hole large enough to allow a triple-team stagecoach to pass. The gimmicked tree, the Wawona Tunnel Tree, more than 2,000 years old, indeed drew tourists with cameras—and pocketknives—and began a fad in California of tunneling through large trees. The size of an upright sequoia, by volume the largest living organism on Earth, is difficult to conceive, and one can argue that for the most mobile nation in history, passing a wheeled vehicle through is an effective demonstration of size—and age—and is surely better than downing, say, the largest sequoia of all and turning it into a two-by-four 175 miles (282 kilometers) long. When I looked inside the now fallen Wawona stump, I found it like an old outhouse wall, carved with thousands of Kilroy Was Here's. In Yosemite it's almost axiomatic that an increase in elevation equates to a decrease in the throng, but this legendary giant couldn't go high enough to escape the tourists. Wawona, a Yosemite Indian name for a sequoia, is a word imitating the hoot of an owl, the guardian spirit of the big trees.

Saving the Park

Euro-Americans may have been slow to find Yosemite Valley, but it took tourists only four years to arrive following Savage's expulsion of the native residents. A mere year after the initial visitor, the first hotel, a ramshackle thing, went up south of the Merced River, and soon rocks were getting painted into billboards advertising patent medicines. Despite the area being in the hands of the national government, squatters—many of them failed gold prospectors—moved in to put up more facilities and begin farming the incomparable valley. Yosemite was on its way to the disfiguring commercialism so evident, then and now, around Niagara Falls. Valley businesses descending from the squatters are still in the park in various permutations, even though some of their enterprises have been slowly curtailed: The Cadillac dealership is gone, as is one of two golf courses and the once famous "fire-fall," wherein burning embers were shoveled off Glacier Point to create a 3,000-foot (914-meter) shower of orange coals.

In the parking lot of the luxury hotel, the Ahwahnee, I saw a bumper sticker: SAVE YOSEMITE FROM THE PARK SERVICE. For the past two decades the National Park Service has laboriously created a plan laying out a future for Yosemite, particularly for the overrun valley, that seeks to balance tourism with sound conservation. The plan is thorough—2,300 pages and 27 pounds (12 kilograms)—and sensible. At its core are two changes: The first is moving facilities that do not need to be in the valley to other areas of the park, thereby returning the deep heart of Yosemite to something closer to its native appearance before the arrival of Savage's militia. The second: persuading tourists to use public transport instead of private autos to get around the narrow valley. Shuttles have already reduced traffic in the valley, although they have not eliminated 2-mile-long (3.2-kilometer-long) lines of cars at peak hours. Superintendent Michael Tollefson said, "Our goal is to have a smaller human footprint."

The National Park Service has gone to such length in listening widely to various and often conflicting positions that it has become hamstrung by minor voices often arguing for historical precedent. In Yosemite that has resulted in preserving a status quo that serves not the common citizen but almost certainly some enterprise with a direct pecuniary advantage. (A few environmental groups have also questioned some of the changes, especially those that affect the Merced River.) Olmsted, in his precocious 1865 report, put his finger on it, warning against sacrificing the future of the valley to the "convenience, bad taste, playfulness, carelessness, or wanton destructiveness of present visitors." We must not yield, he said, the "interest of uncounted millions to the selfishness of a few individuals."

The View from the Dome

In my quest to experience a Yosemite matching my expectation, I headed toward the heart of the almost 1,200-square-mile (3,108-square-kilometer) park to a granite dome, this one comparatively small and undistinguished, bearing no name on my maps. Going up was like climbing the back of a mythically enormous turtle whose carapace was glaciated white granite flecked with black biotite. I was walking on what was once the floor of the Pacific Ocean, once rising magma, once the basement of numerous glaciers. Now the wide expanses of the slope were polished by ancient glacial ice. I was on a hike up through time, a geologic hike into sky.

I weaved upward among glacial erratics as big as bison, all of them waiting for that last grand slide down the dome. Among them were stones the size of quail eggs, unlike the bedrock in color, texture, and shape. These rounded and smoothed gravels had been carried to the top from some distant outwash 10,000 years ago. This place, so apparently solid and immobile, was moving: Pebbles carried up, boulders waiting to roll down, and the whole dome still rising a foot a millennium with the rest of the Sierra. I reached for a peculiar pebble that got up and hopped away before my eyes. Camouflaged to match the mountain, it was a frog—a thousand feet (304.8 meters) above the nearest standing water. Conifers, mostly Jeffrey pine, had found crevices the width of a broomstick and were drawing out a weather-tortured existence, twisting themselves into lovely grotesqueries. Clustered in the few places of scarce soil and shelter grew penstemon, Indian paintbrush, stonecrop, Sierra wallflower. Life, both rooted and legged, was extracting itself from a rock more barren than not, more hostile to organisms than otherwise.

Then I arrived on top, prepared for a jolt of some contemporary intrusiveness to open before me. But the view was quite different: to the east the magnificently jagged tops of the snowy Sierra and to the southwest the totem of Yosemite, Half Dome—but not its oft-pictured side. Rather, it showed me its humpy hind end. Looking at it was like watching a Shakespearean play from backstage, where old and familiar lines seem different, strange, new. I realized then I'd discovered my Yosemite. I could feel this grand beyondness etching itself into my memory as if each crag, every broken boulder, every spined pinecone were inscribing images. The ascent was like a journey back in time, but now I wondered what the view from the dome would be in a century, in an eon.

Reading Muir

That night I could still feel the ascent not just in my legs but in my mind too, a sense of hope heightened by this passage John Muir wrote more than a century ago: "The regular tourist, ever in motion, is one of the most characteristic productions of the present century; and however frivolous and inappreciative the poorer specimens may appear, viewed comprehensively they are a hopeful and significant sign of the times, indicating at least a beginning of our return to nature; for going to the mountains is going home."