Contrails over El Capitan..
Yosemite National Park is a place of American dreams and legends, where the most beautiful landscape in the land has inspired countless people to create art and preserve wild places.
I have a framed photograph in my home, purchased years ago by my parents in an antique shop, showing President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir on horseback, with Half Dome rising majestically in the distance.
This photograph captures a significant moment in American conservation history, when Muir convinced Roosevelt to add Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the young Yosemite National Park. That was 1903, when Muir and Roosevelt camped together in the Mariposa Grove, where they had heated conversations around the campfire–conversations that dramatically shaped the American conservation movement.
Roosevelt went on to create some of the iconic national parks in America, including Crater Lake, Wind Cave, and Mesa Verde. He also set aside many national monuments, several of which later became national parks, including Grand Canyon and Mt. Olympus (which is close to where I live). He created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, which now administers 155 national forests. He created the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903, a system that now includes 551 preserves across all 50 states. With Roosevelt’s hearty love of the outdoors and his scientific mind, he was the right president at the right time to take action to conserve America’s endangered natural resources at a time when the frontier had just closed and the need for limits to logging and hunting and other activities had become crystal clear to those who love the land.
Our trip to Yosemite was brief by any standards. We entered the park on an October morning, camped overnight, then left for the long drive home early the next afternoon. But what a fine visit we had!
Under sunny skies, we drove through Tuolumne Meadows, stopping to see stunning granite domes and viewpoints. Towering Sierra Red Firs and Jeffrey Pines cast shadows across the road; we stopped to hop from rock to rock across Yosemite Creek, not realizing that it would soon plunge over cliffs over 2,400′ into Yosemite Valley below. On we drove, under contrails zooming for miles across the blue sky. Sleepy, sleekly muscled climbers from France aired their sleeping bags in brilliant morning sunshine at Lembert Dome.
Autumn colors lit up spaces between the pines. The clean and beautiful granite reminded me of Mt. Rushmore, where Theodore Roosevelt’s face looks powerfully out at the western landscape. Yet Roosevelt wasn’t the only figure on Mt. Rushmore to figure prominently in Yosemite’s history. In a break from fighting a war, Abraham Lincoln actually set aside Yosemite as a park in 1864. His action deeded the land to the State of California; it was only later in the 19th century, when Yosemite was threatened by grazing and other concerns, that this great land became a national park.
On we drove, stopping for a long time to photograph the bare granite of Olmsted Point, named for the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who had a strong hand in designing how Yosemite National Park was to be managed. Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America, designed Central Park in New York City, as well as park systems in Seattle, Portland,
Boston, Chicago, and numerous other American cities. From Olmsted Point, the mountains rolled on to the horizon. The foreground of cracked granite, punctuated by boulders and bonsai conifers, made for some wonderful pictures against the vivid blue sky. Once again in an American western national park, we observed that German tourists were more plentiful and willing to walk than the natives.
Driving on, we left our mark on the land by creating a tiny, happy snowman atop a lingering snowbank from the snow that fell a couple of days before. We had been in Lee Vining at the time, hoping to drive across the Sierra to enter Yosemite National Park. But a flashing sign on US 395 said that California Highway 120 was closed and that we couldn’t go over Tioga Pass. That delayed our trip, and when we stopped at a US Forest Service information station, the attendant said that he didn’t know if the pass would reopen before the winter. But it did, a day later. The road over this 9,943′ pass was largely built in the 1930s, but even with today’s technology, snow keeps the road closed during a very long winter that can stretch in some years from sometime in October to sometime in July.
Upon entering the national park, we had asked the entrance station ranger where we could camp. He said that Yosemite Valley was out of the question unless we had long-standing reservations, and instead suggested Hodgdon Meadow near Big Oak Flat. We took his advice, got there in the afternoon, and set up camp beneath towering Sugar Pines, where we found several of the huge cones (they grow up to 26″ long!) of this species.
In camp we had to take all our food and cooler and cooking gear out of our car, and place it inside a national park-provided steel locker at the back of the campsite. Bears have a long history in Yosemite, and they have grown more and more brazen about getting food from campers. Lately, they have been breaking into cars–especially family minivans–by either peeling back the metal doors like a tin can, or by smashing a window and crawling inside. Campers are warned to never store their food inside a car. Backpackers have to
store their food in bearproof containers that they carry with them, because bears have learned to snip off ropes previously used for hanging food. The National Park Service’s ongoing battle with bears is entertaining; visitors can see bear traps and signs everywhere. Later in the day, in Vosemite Valley, we saw a cinnamon-colored bear that sported a stylish orange ear tag, identifying the bear to the Big Brother rangers watching his habits. Actually, the bear appeared at the same time that we smelled a delicious aroma of French fries cooking, which was either emanating from one of the valley’s nearby restaurants, or from a vehicle powered by biofuel from a fast food restaurant’s waste grease. Either way, it attracted bears and hungry visitors.
But back to my narrative. After leaving camp, we drove on a twisting mountain road toward The Valley. Almost immediately, we noticed that the forest had been recently burned, and this huge scorched area continued for miles. It
turned out that this fire had just recently stopped smoldering. The Big Meadow Fire, begun on August 26 as a 91 acre prescribed burn to enhance meadow habitat, escaped its enclosure and ran wild and free through the surrounding forest until it was recaptured on September 10. During that time the hungry fire consumed 7,425 acres of pine forest, leaving much of the forest as dead as charcoal dust after a steak barbeque. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men … but really, all was not lost. Fire is as natural to the California’s pine forests as bikinis are to its beaches. The scorched pines will give way to chaparral, which will eventually give way to a pine forest, which will then burn. That’s how this landscape cycles through time, and there’s not a whole lot that we humans can do to affect it, except to postpone the inevitable.
Into Yosemite Valley, that glorious place that looks like a magnificent painting of our idea of what American wilderness was like before the coming of white settlers. Above the monolith El Capitan, which towers over the valley, two jet contrails made a big X, as if showing us that X marks the spot of the most beautiful place you’ll ever see. Which might be the case, were it not for the contrails. Actually, the contrails have been a problem over Yosemite all day; I think that the national park must be on the flight path for a lot of jets heading to and from San Francisco. Under certain weather conditions, the vapor trails make long-lasting streaks across the sky. It is a darn good thing that Ansel Adams did most of his work here before the advent of jet travel, or his iconic photographs of Half Dome and El Capitan would have white streaks marring those magnificent black skies he created in the darkroom.
Speaking of Ansel Adams: if there was a Mt. Rushmore of nature photography, Ansel Adams’ bald pate would be carved of solid granite and would share the cliffs with Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas. Adams’ black-and-white monumental works, printed in the darkroom, helped excite me about photography years ago, during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. At that time, the Sierra Club sold magnificent posters of wilderness areas captured in Adams’ stirring photographs. When Adams died in the 1980s, I felt a strong sense of loss. Adams lived in Yosemite Valley for a time, and had a studio in the valley that continues to this day under his name. To honor the great photographer, there is an Ansel Adams Wilderness that we saw from a distance as we drove up the road to Tioga Pass.
Deeper into Yosemite Valley we drove, joining the line of other cars coming to see a place unspoiled by humans. We drove past vast parking lots, past
hundreds of dirty white tents known as “Housekeeping Camp,” where you can rent an unheated tent for a night for $109, linens extra. On past the campgrounds, where campfire smoke fills the clean valley air. Past the Ahwahnee Hotel, where wealthy visitors can enjoy an elegant experience for $525 per night in the high season. On to Curry Village and Yosemite Village, with their attendant wilderness sprawl of shops and cabins and motel rooms and tents. Past the colorful tents in the climbers camp.
By then I had taken scores of beautiful pictures despite the crowds. For a last photograph, I joined a dozen other serious photographers at a bend in the Merced River, all of us taking the same beautiful picture of sunset light reflecting off El Capitan and into the river. Stunning! Then back to camp.
If it seems like I am being a bit hard on the messy human developments of Yosemite Valley, it is because I want it to be as beautifully wild as when Teddy Roosevelt accompanied John Muir on horseback through a still mostly wild valley. That is just a dream, of course, and we will continue to get eroded riverbanks and problem bears and air pollution. I had hoped that a 1997 flood, which wiped out campgrounds and buildings in the valley, would have been an opportunity to rethink development in the valley, but the subsequent changes were minor, as Park Service planners have to deal with long-entrenched and powerful political constituencies that want to maintain the status quo. If it was up to me, I’d take a bulldozer to all the lodging and stores and attendant structures here, leaving just the access road. Let people sleep and dine outside this sacred place. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that fantasy to come true …
Back in camp, we watched a Williamson’s Sapsucker working on a tall pine–the first time we had ever seen this species (and that’s a big thing for a birdwatcher!).
The next morning we packed up camp, then returned to the valley, stopping along the Merced River to photograph reflections of morning light on El
Capitan. It was a lovely morning, with mist rising off quiet stretches of the stream. Morning is a wonderful time in a national park, as campers tend to rise late and quiet is preserved until mid-morning.
Our schedule required us to leave Yosemite early, but we still wanted to see the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which is located several dozen miles away. We stopped along the way for a last look at Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, where a big white tour bus unloaded its passengers. Everyone walked to the edge of the viewpoint and was stunned by the view, which takes in the valley, with El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Half Dome, plus several waterfalls. It is among the most beautiful viewpoints anywhere, and it has been recently renovated to enhance the experience. Ansel Adams’ magnificent “Clearing Winter Storm” was taken from this point.
Upon reaching Mariposa Grove, we ate a quick lunch, then walked up the path. The park kiosk was out of brochures in English, but there were brochures available in a rainbow of languages. Alas, we are language-challenged, except for the language of nature.
The Mariposa Grove was just as pretty as when Roosevelt and Muir camped there just over a hundred years ago. Biologists have since learned that trampling by too many humans damages the shallow roots of these immense trees, so people are now confined to the asphalt trails. No more joining hands with several dozen other people to circle a tree for a photo. Biologists also realized that Giant Sequoias need fire in order to maintain a Sequoia grove; in fact, a prescribed burn had taken place in this grove earlier in the year, so there were fire-blackened stretches of forest floor and charred lower trunks. We were pleased to see that young Sequoias were growing among the immense trunks of their ancestors, so the forest appears healthy.
After our walk in the sacred grove, we climbed into our car and began the long drive home, immensely rejuvenated by our all-too-brief visit with the most beautiful place in America.
I mentioned the work of three photographers who were pioneers in the area of nature photography. To see more of their work, go to:
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