Yosemite National Park Travel Guide


Miwok and Paiute peoples lived in the area for decades before the first white explorations into the region. A band of Miwok called the Ahwahnechee lived in Yosemite Valley when the first Caucasians entered it.

The California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century dramatically increased white travel in the area. United States Army Major James Savage led the Mariposa Battalion into Yosemite Valley in 1851 while in pursuit of around 200 Ahwaneechees led by Chief Tenaya as part of the Mariposa Wars. Accounts from this battalion were the first confirmed cases of Caucasians entering the valley. Attached to Savage's unit was Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, the company physician, who later wrote about his awestruck impressions of the valley in The Discovery of the Yosemite. Bunnel is credited with naming the valley after what he thought was the name of the band they were pursing. Correspondence and articles written by members of the battalion helped to popularize the valley and surrounding area.

Tenaya and the rest of the Ahwahneechee were eventually captured and their village burned. They were removed to a reservation near Fresno, California. Some were later allowed to return to the valley but got in trouble after attacking a group of eight miners in 1852. The band fled to take refuge with the nearby Mono tribe, which betrayed its hospitality—each Ahwahneechee was tracked down and killed by the Mono.

Entrepreneur James Mason Hutchings, artist Thomas Ayres, and two others ventured into the area in 1855, becoming the valley's first tourists. Hutchings wrote articles and books about this and later excursions in the area and Ayres' scretchs became the first accurate drawings of many prominent features. Photographer Charles Leander Weed took the first photographs of the Valley's features in 1859. Later photographers included Ansel Adams.

Wawona was an Indian encampment in what is now the southwestern part of the park. Settler Galen Clark discovered the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia in Wawona in 1856. Simple lodgings were built, as were roads to the area. In 1879, the Wawona Hotel was built to serve tourists visiting the Grove. As tourism increased, so did the number of trails and hotels.

Concerned by the effects of commercial interests, several prominent people advocated for protection of the area. A park bill passed both houses of the U.S. Congress and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864, creating the Yosemite Grant. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were ceded to California as a state park and a board of commissioners was proclaimed two years later.

Galen Clark was appointed by the commission as the grant's first guardian but neither Clark nor the commissioners had the authority to evict homesteaders (which included Hutchings). The issue was not settled until 1875 when the land holdings were invalidated. Clark and the reigning commissioners were ousted in 1880 and Hutchings became the new park guardian.

Access to the park by tourists improved in the early years of the park and conditions in the Valley were made more hospitable. Tourism started to significantly increase after the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, but the long horseback ride needed to reach the area was a deterrent. Three stagecoach roads were built in the mid-1870s to provide better access to the growing number of visitors to the Valley.

Scottish-born naturalist John Muir first wrote many articles popularizing the area and increasing scientific interest in it. Muir was one of the first to theorize that the major landforms in Yosemite were created by large alpine glaciers, bucking established scientists such as Josiah Whitney, who regarded Muir as an amateur. Muir also wrote scientific papers on the area's biology.

Overgrazing of meadows (especially by sheep), logging of Giant Sequoia, and other damage caused Muir to become an advocate for further protection. Muir convinced prominent guests of the importance of putting the area under federal protection. One such guest was Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine. Through Johnson, he was able to help pass an act of Congress that created Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890. The State of California, however, retained control of the Valley and Grove. Muir also helped persuade local officials to virtually eliminate grazing from the Yosemite High Country.

The newly created national park came under the jurisdiction of the United States Army's Fourth Cavalry Regiment on May 19, 1891, which set up camp in Wawona. By the late 1890s, sheep grazing was no longer a problem, and the Army made many other improvements. The Cavalry could not intervene to help the worsening condition of the Valley or Grove.

Muir and his Sierra Club continued to lobby the government and influential people for the creation of a unified Yosemite National Park. Then in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt camped with John Muir near Glacier Point for three days. On that trip, Muir convinced Roosevelt to take control of the Valley and the Grove away from California and give it to the federal government. In 1906, Roosevelt signed a bill that did precisely that.

The National Park Service was formed in 1916 and Yosemite was transferred to that agency's jurisdiction. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Tioga Pass Road, and campgrounds at Tenaya and Merced lakes were also completed in 1916. Automobiles started to enter the park in ever-increasing numbers following the construction of all-weather highways to the park.

To the north of Yosemite Valley but within the park is Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was slated for flooding to create a reservoir and hydroelectric power plant to benefit far-away San Francisco. A nationally polarized fight ensued, pitting preservationists like Muir and his Sierra Club against conservationists like Gifford Pinchot. The U.S. Congress eventually authorized the O'Shaughnessy Dam in 1913 through passage of the Raker Act.

Since then, preservationists have convinced Congress to set aside about 95% of the park in a highly protected wilderness area. The Park Service has also been moving away from allowing touristy inducements to visit the park, such as the famous Firefall (in which red-hot embers were pushed off a cliff near Glacier Point at night). Increasing traffic congestion in Yosemite Valley during the summer months has also been an issue of concern. Proposals to exclude all automobiles in the summer that are not registered at a hotel or campground within the valley have been investigated. This would force all summer day-use visitors in the valley to use the free shuttle system, bike, or walk in the 7-mile-long (11 km) valley.


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