Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of Northern California and covers parts of three counties, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Madera.
The Yosemite Valley, the most commonly visited part of the park, is thought to have been inhabited for at least 3000 years by a number of indigenous peoples, but in the mid-nineteenth-century gold was discovered in California which brought a huge increase of European Americans to the area, and conflict between the two populations quickly broke out. A special unit of the state militia was created to bring things under control. This unit was known as the Mariposa Battalion. Its special target was the Yosemite people, who were so named by the neighbouring Miwok tribe, and which means ‘killer’ in the Miwok language.
Inevitably tourism and commerce followed the gold rush and some foresighted citizens advocated for protection of the areas of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. A bill was prepared and put to Congress. It was passed, and signed by President Abraham Lincoln on 30 June 1864, creating the Yosemite Grant. This was the first instance of land being set aside for preservation and public use, and set a precedent for the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the world’s first national park. However the area remained under state management. In 1890 a larger Yosemite National Park was created which included the portions still under state control, however it was not until 1903 that a unified national park came into being and in 1984 this was further designated a World Heritage Site with nearly 90% of the park declared a wilderness area.
Yosemite National Park covers an area of 747,956 acres (1,168.681 sq.ml.) with topographical features ranging from craggy granite mountain tops and cliff faces to glaciers, rivers, waterfalls and lakes. Elevation varies from 2,127 to 13,114 feet (648 to 3,997 m). Millions of years ago volcanic activity deposited a blanket of igneous material over the land which solidified into granite. Later uplifts caused tilting of the land surface enabling water to flow faster and to cut channels deeper into the rock face. Glaciers formed and modified the landscape even further, widening v-shaped river valleys into broad u-shaped ones such as the Yosemite Valley. It is thought that at its peak ice thickness in the Yosemite Valley may have reached 4,000 feet (1,200 m).
Yosemite Valley covers only one percent of the park but is its focal point. The starkly blunt monolith of El Capitan looms over the valley and is a popular and testing rock climbing destination. From base to summit it is about 3,000 feet (900 m) high. Also in the Yosemite Valley are the Yosemite Falls, the highest in North America at 2,425 feet (739 m); the Ribbon Falls, which, while narrower as the name suggests, has the highest single vertical drop of 1,612 feet (491 m); and the hard-to-miss Bridalveil Falls. The high country of Yosemite provides more spectacular mountain scenery interspersed with alpine meadows. Mount Lyell is the highest peak in the park, and the Lyell glacier is the largest glacier. The glacier covers an area of 160 acres (65 ha) and is one of the few remaining in Sierra Nevada. Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs provide some relief from the pervading granite with their peaks of red metamorphic rock.
The varied landscape of the Yosemite National Park has allowed for the development of a wide range of vegetation zones and animal habitats. Forests of mixed conifers predominate but undoubtedly the area’s most famous member of the plant kingdom is the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). There are three groves where the tree grows: the Mariposa Grove, the Tuolumne Grove and the Merced Grove. The Mariposa Grove was once home to the Wawona Tree or Tunnel Tree. It was 227 feet (69 m) high and 90 feet (27 m) in circumference. In 1881 a tunnel was cut through the tree and it quickly became a popular tourist activity and photo opportunity to drive through it, originally in a horse-drawn carriage but later in a car. Sadly in 1969 it fell down under an exceptional load of snow. It was estimated to have been 2,300 years old.