Happy Birthday Yosemite

150 years after becoming the first parkland in the United States, Yosemite still blows our minds.

By Eric Johnson

June 30, 2014—On this date 150 years ago Abe Lincoln signed a law that did three momentous things: grant eternal protection to Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove’s ancient sequoias; essentially create the California State Parks system; and plant the seed for what would become the world’s first National Parks.

We were unaware that this was a big birthday year for Yosemite, but as it happens we’ve visited the park twice in the past several months.

Read about Yosemite's brief stint as a California State Park.

In April some friends gifted us with two nights in a hotel just outside the park. Although we are super-focused on work, we forced ourselves to peel away for a weekend. It was a big weekend.

I hadn’t been to Yosemite in springtime or summer in ages—we are frequent fall and winter visitors but avoid the park in peak season in favor of the infinitely less-crowded Kings Canyon or Sequoia. We were surprised to find fewer tourists than we expected, so we decided to take a saunter on the Mist Trail, Yosemite’s most popular hike.

Although there was very little solitude to be had on the lower portion of the trail, the people-watching was fun. And as the scenery quickly took a turn toward the awesome it was actually enjoyable to share in the communal appreciation.

Despite the dry winter, the Merced River was pumping. Approaching the 317-foot Vernal Falls, then climbing the carved granite steps alongside the thundering cascade, getting drenched by the stuff that gives the trail its name while grasping the cables that WPA workers installed in the 1940s, enjoying the delighted gasps of other people’s kids on the trail with me, I felt as much love for humankind as for the grandeur of nature.

Past the falls the crowd thinned way out. The trail at this point leaves the river’s edge and heads up through the mixed pine and black-oak forest. When I caught my first glimpse of Nevada Falls through the trees I lost the ability to breathe for a few seconds, and was glad to have the moment to myself.

I caught up with Traci and we stood at the foot of the waterfall, just the two of us, for a nice long while. Watching water fall can be mesmerizing, and this 600ish-foot waterfall is one of the grandest instances of that phenomenon. So … this is the thing about mountains in general, and about the Sierra, and Yosemite Valley in particular: These places somehow more deeply inspire feelings of awe, of gratitude, of connection … hell, I don’t know how to speak it. How is that?

I find myself in these moments in a state of wonder—I mean to say, I find myself wondering: What is going on here? I wonder about the geology, the hydrology, the history, and I find myself contemplating my own place in this world, in ways that can hardly be put into words. Happens to almost everybody, right?

John Muir, the explorer, writer, wilderness mystic and conservationist hero, famously called Yosemite home for many years, and it was Muir who inspired the visiting President Teddy Roosevelt (on a spur-of-the-moment three-night camping trip in Mariposa Grove and Glacier Point) to create the National Park Service and expand Yosemite’s protection. (It was also Muir who figured out, through pure observation, that the Valley’s spectacular granite formations were carved by glaciers.)

Muir’s wonderings also yielded some profound writings on nature. In one journal entry, he describes “another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.” I was reminded a couple months ago that even a quick jaunt to the mountains in the midst of a work crunch can deliver a taste of that.

There and Back
We were in Yosemite again, for an even briefer visit, on Memorial Day Weekend. After an annual party at the getaway home of a couple of friends, just outside the park near Tuolumne Canyon, we dropped into the valley to drop off our friend Carl, who planned to head into the backcountry. This is something he has done almost every year for 25 years, since he was seven.

Throughout his childhood Carl and his dad made annual trips to the park, and has since made a summer home of the high country around Tuolumne Meadow. He is in Yosemite right now—as I write this, according to a text he sent a couple hours ago, he is headed out for a three-night excursion with a ranger friend. Yesterday I asked him to tell me a bit about his long relationship with Yosemite.

“One of the classic day hikes was going up to Mono Pass—tales of gold propelled my young legs for the 10 or so miles, and the little Y-shaped abandoned mine seemed much deeper and mysterious than is does now. My father gamely carried a couple large rocks with fools’ gold back to the car… I also made it, but that final mild push back to the car was too much and he had to carry me.

“The day before yesterday I went up that trail again, but cut cross-country and visited five off-trail lakes I knew have been up there but never got around to—a late start due to errands and losing track of time at a lake reading meant I didn’t have time to go up Mammoth Peak, but I found a few favorite new areas. A nameless turquoise lake nestled in a granite bowl, the gentle alpine outlet of Kuna leading to a bold granite outcrop with a panoramic view of Tuolumne. The vast open spaces mean even favorite time-worn traditions always have something new to offer.”

Carl is a freelance coder based out of Santa Cruz, and is at work on an app that will help people access and appreciate the off-trail stuff that he loves. He is also a shameless high-country snob:

“When Apple announced OS X Yosemite at their last keynote I raised a fist, but shots of Half Dome and El Capitan pushed me away. It makes sense to stick with those granite icons, and I realize that Yosemite Valley is Yosemite to most, but it isn’t to me.

“What calls to me is the high country. Instead of squeezing past tourists to reach the top of Vernal Falls, I’d rather be the only person in a little alpine meadow that no trail leads to, watching the lazy curves of a stream fresh from snow melt. No cables and wooden slats to join the hordes on Half Dome, I’d rather be on a peak no one has heard of, the size of a tabletop, spinning around with my own 360 panorama.

“That solitude comes due to the efforts of many people over many years, and continues today. There’s a certain type of person that ascends from civilization, from the thru-hikers to mountain bums to concession workers to the rangers that protect the land and help guide visitors, and they all contribute to and balance the glorious solitude and raw wilderness we’re lucky to be able to access, and attempt to share with others.”

Hear hear. Thank you, everyone who protected and continues to protect Yosemite Park. Thanks to those who built the trails, hotels and roads. And thanks to those who are now tearing out parking lots and roads! Thanks John Muir. Thanks Abe Lincoln.

And happy birthday!

See more of Carl Uebelhart’s Yosemite photos here.