Yosemite, The First California State Park

On the 150th anniversary of California State Parks, a look back at Yosemite—the place it all began and the one that got away.

by Traci Hukill

June 30, 2014—One hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California "upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation ... inalienable for all time."

No one in Congress paid the bill much mind. The Yosemite Grant Act delivered to California no money for maintenance or oversight of the land, and it had no detractors, so there was no reason to argue with it. What's more, there were serious fish to fry in Washington in 1864, the height of the Civil War: 15 days earlier, Arlington Cemetery had been established on Confederate General Robert E. Lee's lawn, and on the day after Yosemite's creation the president, doubling down on Union draft dodgers, would sign a law outlawing the "commutation fee" families could pay to keep their sons out of the army.

In hindsight, of course, we know what a big deal the Yosemite grant was. No land had ever been set aside for "public use, resort and recreation." Rich people, as always, had places in the country, but no one was guaranteed access to beautiful places they didn't own.

Read a tribute to the park in Happy Birthday Yosemite

The signs were there in the beginning, however, that this was a forward-looking development. The bill was brought to Lincoln by Sen. John Conness of California, an Irish-born piano maker who made good on a claim in the Gold Rush and then got into politics. Conness was a progressive-type guy who supported Lincoln on abolition, and whose defense of Chinese civil rights in California eventually cost him his office. Conness was one of Lincoln's pallbearers.

So Yosemite, with Conness's prodding, became California's first park—and, of course, the first in the nation. (In 1972, just eight years later, Yellowstone would become the first National Park, mainly because there was no state to give it to, according to historian Dayton Duncan, as Wyoming was just a territory.)

Without a precedent to look to, California made up the whole stewardship thing as it went along. And kind of blew it. All kinds of commercial activity went on at Yosemite in the early years that the public would never tolerate today. At the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, a big hole was cut in the base of the "Wawona Tree" so carriages could drive through it for photo ops. (The tree died in 1969.) When John Muir and magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson visited Yosemite Valley in 1889, they found a hog pen in the valley emitting a stench that, according to the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea, prompted Muir to complain that the smell was "getting into the pores of the rocks themselves." The state allowed logging of giant sequoias inside the park. Outside the park, the high country surrounding Yosemite was leased to sheep ranchers. When Muir and Johnson retreated from the hog stench of the Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, they saw the damage done by sheep, which Muir disparaged as "hoofed locusts". In 1890 the two successfully lobbied Congress to create a national park in the Yosemite high country.

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt, visiting Yosemite for the first time, ditched his scheduled appearance at a Wawona Hotel dinner for an impulsive three-day, three-night excursion with Muir and came back convinced that the Yosemite Grant—meaning the Valley and the Mariposa Grove—should be united with the high country under federal protection. (Watch the 6-minute National Parks segment on Roosevelt and Muir here.) California, the thinking went, wasn't up to the job. Yosemite National Park as we know it became a reality in 1906.

But it all started with the Golden State. From the present perspective, during a year when the state's Parks Forward Commission seeks a new model for funding California's 278 state parks—and in doing so considers anew how to balance human activity with conservation—the story of Yosemite looks like a lesson: Use it with wisdom or lose it forever.

Check out a timeline of California State Parks history.
These tips and tricks for visiting Yosemite are really, really good.