Sierra Nevada (Spanish - “mountain range covered in snow”) is the longest, and arguably the grandest mountain range in America. It’s a single unbroken range almost as large as the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps combined. At 420 miles long, with a width varying from 50 to 80 miles, it covers 17% of California. To the West of it is California’s Central Valley-USA’s breadbasket; to its East is Nevada and Utah-the great basin desert.
Within the Sierra Nevada range, history unfolds at varying speed: the timelessness of the physical landscape and alpine lakes; the presence of Native American tribes who still call the Sierra Nevada home; the decomposing ghost towns left behind by California’s early settlers and miners; and the record-setting feats of modern rock climbers and mountaineers have all left their mark. Locations, landmarks, galleries with names like–Tenaya, Ahwahnee, Whitney, Olmsted, Degnan, Muir, Adams–tell the story of the parks’ human past.
Yosemite is a relatively small valley in the southern half of Sierra Nevada.
The story is, a guy came up to Yosemite, and the ranger was sitting at the front gate and the man said, “I’ve only got one hour to see Yosemite. If you only had one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” And the ranger said, “Well, I’d go right over there, and I’d sit on that rock, and I’d cry.” ― Dayton Duncan.
Nature carved Yosemite Valley during the ice age and it used glaciers to sculpt graceful valleys, gouge out sheer cliffs, and polish the granite to a shine. The last glacier to sweep through the park melted a mere 10,000 years ago, that’s a blink of an eye in geological terms.
Before the Ice Age tectonic forces had thrust up a massive, 400-mile-long block of granite that created the Sierra Nevada range of mountains. As the peaks rose, ancient rivers raced down their slopes, carving out deep V-shaped valleys that, in places, exceeded the Grand Canyon in depth. By the time the Ice Age set in; the Sierra Nevada was already a fascinating landscape. Glaciers literally spread icing on an already remarkable cake.
During the Ice Age, a series of glaciers from time to time swept through the Valley. Each time, over half of Yosemite was covered by ice. Tuolumne Meadows was buried under 2000 feet of snow, and Yosemite Valley was filled to the brim. Glaciers are essentially slow moving, constantly churning rivers of dirty ice, full of debris. Tonnes of ice flow exerts a tremendous pressure of several hundred pounds per square inch, grinding down the bedrock and sandpapering the surfaces, creating signature U-shaped valleys. These sand-papered rocks at the valley now boast the famous Glacial Polish — a glossy veneer as smooth as polished marble and challenges the rock climbers with limited hand/foot grip.
The forces of geology continue to reshape the landscape. From time to time earthquakes big and small cause rockfalls that change the valley’s topography.
For centuries native tribe of Ahwahnee inhabited the Valley. It was paradise on earth- a citadel-like hideaway filled with sweet water, edible plants, and wild game. All that changed in the first half of the 19th century, after Mexico gained control of California, and beaver trappers started venturing into the Sierra Nevada from the East, searching for fresh hunting grounds, away from the over trapped Rockies. The pace of change hastened when far more precious gold was discovered and the Gold Rush of California started in 1848. Fortune seekers arrived from Europe, China, Australia, and South America as the news spread; by 1850, 300,000 people had flooded the state, pulling out gold from Californian mines and streams. This did not bode well for the native tribes, as newcomers competed for territory, food supplies, and gold.
Yosemite Valley got noticed and raided in 1852 by a private army called the Mariposa Battalion. This was the handiwork of James Savage, a former cattle thief turned gold prospector. The battalion, in later years, attacked, executed, and evacuated the Ahwahnee tribe completely out of their Valley.
Over the next decade, few adventurous souls set up basic hotels and boarding lodges in the valley, and the word started spreading of its spectacular landscape and the giant forests of Mariposa Grove. In 1864, during the civil war, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill creating the Yosemite Grant. This radical move was unprecedented in history — never had a government set aside a section of wilderness for its citizens based solely on its natural beauty. It was an idea that later found currency in the rest of the US and the world.
Although protected by 1864 Grant, the valley developed into a cluttered series of roads, hotels, cabins, and pastures for cattle, under lax state administration. The land was tilled and irrigated to give food for residents, and a timber mill provided wood for construction and heating. State’s good intentions were translating into private profiteering.
Politicians and businesses kicked the can for another 25 years until the arrival of John Muir on the scene in the late 1890s. His unflagging efforts and lobbying, along with Sierra Club members, got Yosemite declared as a National Park–similar on the lines of Yellowstone that had been elevated to National Park status in 1872. The idea was resisted by local hotel owners, and so units of army cavalry were dispatched to protect this wilderness. Further support came when President Roosevelt visited Yosemite in 1903. The law transferring the Yosemite grant to the National Park Service finally came in 1906. And Yosemite Park, as we see it today, was born.
“I can’t help thinking that if the American West were discovered today; the most glorious bits would be sold off to the highest bidder. Yosemite might be nothing but weekend homes for Internet tycoons.” ― Nicholas Kristof
The Hall of Fame
John Muir: A Man of the Mountains
Of all the eminent artists and thinkers that Yosemite has nurtured, none has been more celebrated, more influential, and more romanticized than John Muir. His passionate nature writing helped inspire the modern nature conservation movement, and his tireless efforts were vital to the establishment of Yosemite National Park. His arrival at the little-known valley in 1868, at the age of 30, as a sheepherder, was humble. In later years he rambled about the landscape, meticulously studying nature, landscape, and taking notes. In 1892 he co-founded the Sierra Club and became its first president. Muir’s rich and poetic writings spanned the gap between literature and science. His later life was dedicated to the cause of Yosemite Valley and lobbying for its conservation.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.” — John Muir
Ansel Adams–the photographer
Yosemite’s best-known photographer, he developed a level of craft not seen in the work of his predecessors. An early advocate of the notion that photography could exercise the same aesthetic principles used by fine artists, he also became a forceful advocate for the conservation of the wilderness.
“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of gray that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”–Ansel Adams
In 1929 Adams married Virginia Best, whose father’s owned a gallery that was the forerunner to today’s ‘Ansel Adams Gallery’, at Yosemite Village. In 1940 Adams held a photography workshop at the gallery with fellow photographer Edward Weston, beginning a tradition of photography education that continues to this day. Photographer-mountaineer Galen Rowell, who Adams himself highly regarded, took some of the most extreme photos of the park, continuing to expose those faraway places to the public eye.
Other Yosemite’s Artists
In the mid-19th century, the western world was processing the industrial revolution and experiencing a rapid disappearance of old ways of life. Urban squalor and ghettoes had started pushing nature away. Such discoveries of the transcendental riches of the landscape thus molded the art and literature of that era. It strived to capture the face of God in the wild richness of nature. Literature expressed spiritualism tied to the wilderness; writers who explored such themes included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau. A parallel trend into this intellectual moment came with paintings of Yosemite by a recognized artist, Albert Bierstadt, in 1863.
3000-foot cliffs. Thundering waterfalls. Sparkling granite domes. Yosemite Valley is without question the rock star of the park. Just 7 miles long and less than one mile wide, it’s home to six waterfalls over 1000 feet tall and enough jaw-dropping scenery to keep one in a perpetual state of arousal.
It’s a Mecca for trekkers. Over 800 miles of trails crisscross Yosemite; there are trails on the floor of the Valley, trails that score the valley’s rim, and trails that explore the high Sierra, the spectacular wilderness about 8000 feet. Lush Meadows? Glacier lakes? 13,000-foot peaks? Check, check and check.
And then let’s talk about rock climbing! To say Yosemite is a good place to rock climb is like saying that Banaras is a good place to pray. To the hardcore members of the climbing community, Yosemite is the Holy Grail. Some of the sport’s most innovative techniques and equipment were pioneered here. On any given day one finds Spidermen climbers hauling up food, water, and supplies and then spending the night strapped to a portable ledge. Legends abound about the conquest of El Capitan and the Half Dome.
The risk of serious injuries, or worse, only seems to add appeal to the challenge. On average, more than 100 climbing accidents and 15 climbing parties require rescue each year. Over 100 people have died while rock climbing. Camp 4 is where they nest and mingle — this is the park rock climbers’ holiest shrine, at par with the base camp at Mount Everest. A scraggy climber named Yvon Chouinard once sold homemade climbing equipment at its parking lot, before establishing the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Today, those Granite Astronauts scale the rocks in the daytime and share their stories at nighttime campfires.
El Capitan (the Captain or Chief–in Spanish)
This massive granite monolith rising 3600 feet above the Valley floor is the world’s largest hunk of unbroken polished rock, the Kohinoor of American rock climbing. Use binoculars to spot grasshopper climbers scampering across El Cap’s series of cracks and ledges, including the famous ‘Nose.’ Once the night turns inky, and the eyes adjust, one can make out the pinpricks of headlamps dotting the rock face. Listen, too, for voices.
The first climber to conquer El Capitan was Warren Harding, in 1958, with his team and it took them 45 days, spread over 18 months to reach the top. By 1975 Jim Bridwell led a team on a one-day ascent of the nose. In 1993 female rock climber Lynn Hill ‘free climbed’ the nose. Current obsession is speed — In 2012 Hans Florine & Alex Honnold climbed the nose in a mind-blowing 2 hours 23 minutes. Since then some climbers have even climbed El Capitan, the northwest face of Half Dome, and El Capitan again in a single day. Adventure seekers have even obsessed with jumping off of it. The first successful BASE jump occurred in 1966, but the dangerous sport was officially banned in 1980.
Since 1958 over 25 rock climbers have died on El Capitan, trying.
If Yosemite Valley is a Mecca of polished rocks, the Half Dome is its Kabah. This is a granite monarch, the park’s spiritual centerpiece. And it’s a shapeshifter–looks different from various viewpoints. Rising over 4800 feet about the valley’s floor it sports a rounded hunchback and a sheer northwest face (hence the name Half Dome).
Climbing the rounded side of the dome was first attempted in 1875 by a local blacksmith with ropes and bolts; they have since been replaced with a more advanced metal cable system. By 1957 the sheer northwest face had also been conquered. Today average hikers can attempt climbing the rounded side, with its cable system. However, the final 700 feet ascent to the summit is a brute, inclined at 45 to 60 degrees.
According to Native American legend, one of Yosemite’s early inhabitants came down from the mountains to Mono Lake, where he married a Paiute named Tesaiyac. The journey back to the Valley was difficult, and by the time they reached what was to become Mirror Lake, Tesaiyac decided she wanted to return to her people at Mono Lake. Her husband refused to live on such barren land with no oak trees where he could get acorns. With a heart full of despair, Tesaiyac fled toward Mono Lake, her husband in pursuit. When the spirits heard the couple quarreling, they grew angry and turned the two into stone: he became North Dome and she became Half Dome. The tears she cried made marks as they ran down her face, forming Mirror Lake.
Before the Gold Rush and European arrival, grizzly bears were abundant in California State. And then they became a plaything or hunter’s trophy. In the second half of the 19th century, Mexican ranchers even organized ‘Bull & Bear Fights’ where the two animals, tethered together, fought to the death. The Grizzlies won the first round, at which point the ranchers tied a new bull. These macabre spectacles influenced a New York newspaper editor to coin ‘Bull market’ and ‘Bear market’ — because the bull(s) always won. Those who didn’t die fighting bulls were killed by hunters as a sport.
By Q1 of 20th-century entire grizzly population, estimated at nearly 10,000 had been exterminated. In 1911, as commemoration Bear Flag was adopted as California’s official state flag! The story goes that the bear mascot was inspired by James Adams, who in the 1850s used to walk the streets of San Francisco with his pet Grizzly called Samson!
Today the Yosemite Valley has some 400 Black Bears, comparatively docile. No one has ever been killed by Black bears in the park, though they are considered a nuisance for their ability to smell food from miles away. At our 2nd-floor hotel room, they had a special Bear Proof Lock on the balcony doors; it was common to spot bears foraging the dumpster at night. Parking lots bear (excuse the pun) warning signs for not leaving any edible inside the car; a bear can easily rip apart car doors or break windows.
The problem began in the 1920s when Yosemite’s beers discovered the pleasure of eating garbage. Instead of discouraging the behavior, the park service set up an open-air dump where the bears could feast. They even set up bleachers and stadium lighting so visitors could watch the nightly bear show. The shoe is on the other foot now and the park management expects human behavior to change. It’s for the visitors to make the environment bear-proof, and the inability to do so is punishable with fines up to $5000.
For nearly a hundred years until 1968, the firefall was one of Yosemite’s quirky popular sights. Every summer night, an immense pile of red-hot embers got pushed off the edge of Glacier Point, creating a glittering waterfall of fire that tumbled down the 3000-foot cliff. At 9:00 PM sharp, a master of ceremonies would shout out, “Let the Fire Fall” and the embers would come tumbling down while live music played in the background. However, as “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethic took hold, in 1968 the Park Service permanently ended the spectacle.
But a few years after the Glacier Point Fire Fall was extinguished, a natural fire fall became popular on the opposite side of the Valley. During the second half of February, weather permitting, the last rays of the sun stream through Yosemite Valley at just the right angle to light up Horsetail Falls, which tumbles from the eastern face of El Capitan… like a river of fire.
On a blistering day, the park’s waterways are a siren song for sweaty hikers with aching feet. And the lure is lethal. Mountain streams are seething ribbons of water and one can barrel onto a waterfall’s precipice in seconds. Over 140 have died because of drowning, and more than 40 have been swept over waterfalls since records exist from the early 20th century. Funnily enough, the Valley has been a favorite place for suicides; over 60 people have given up on life here.
The grove is the cathedral of gigantic sequoias with over 500 trees rocketing to the sky. Here one feels Lilliputian, walking amongst these giants, standing over 200 feet tall and with a girth base of 30 feet in diameter. They wear a coat of spongy, cinnamon-red bark, often marred by blaze scars, and juniper-like needles. These trees can weigh up to 2 million pounds and live over 2000 years. Some of these giants were around when Romans were learning to wear a toga!
The Sierra Nevada’s most famous tree, the giant Sequoia, is also the source of much legend and ballyhoo. Information as basic as the trees’ maximum height and width remains uncertain because loggers and claim-seekers who cut down many of the original giants found it beneficial to exaggerate records. Today, the General Sherman tree of Sequoia National Park, which measures 275ft tall and 103ft in circumference, is recognized as the largest known living specimen (and it’s still growing!).
Bodie Ghost Town
A quirky slice of Gold Rush history, well preserved in a time warp, where one can imagine the lawless Wild West, and hear the quick-draw-bar-room brawls. Bodie sits nearly 8,400 feet up in the Bodie Hills in Mono County, California, about an hour northeast of Yosemite Park.
People were robbed and shot here often. “Have we a man for breakfast?” the townsfolk used to say. That was their way of asking if anyone had been killed the night before. Gold was discovered here in 1859, and in the next decade, the place turned from a mining camp to boomtown of 10K–dotted with saloons, opium dens, gambling halls, and whorehouses, and with a reputation for unbridled lawlessness.
The clock ticked away as the town went through the boom-bust cycle; in 1962, its clock stopped. Since then, it’s made into a historic park, kept in “arrested decay”. Today, 100 odd structures sit here silently, on this barren and windswept valley, spaced out for traffic that isn’t there. A barbershop, a church, a mill, a morgue. A leaning hotel is held up by a beam; this place is a feast for “Ruin Gazers”. Homes still have their furniture in place, images on the walls, and crockery laid out, while bars have bottles of beers lining the walls.
Of course, such a place requires ghost sightings! A mystery of a woman is reportedly seen knitting in one of the houses, and sounds of invisible children playing in the streets are sometimes heard.
Legend also has it that any visitor who takes anything from the ghost town — even a rock — will become cursed and face plenty of misfortune. People believe it — the guilty have lost their goldfish, their shoe soles came unstuck, and some even got jilted in love! Now they send those stolen shoes back and glass shards back, with heartfelt apologies, and the park has put them on display. Park rangers who had to make this curse up, simply to avoid vandalism and pilferage, have a hearty chuckle once the tourists are gone.
Just south of Bodie is Mono Lake. It’s a pale gray inland sea and its ghostly Tufa towers make it seem like a swimming pool on some alien planet. The surrounding shores sport a day-old stubble of sagebrush and zillions of buzzing alkaline flies. The lake contains about 280 million tons of dissolved salts, and the water is more than twice as salty as oceans.
Back in the day, Mark Twain (Roughing it) had much to say about Mono Lake — “One of the strangest freaks of nature found in any land,” was one of his kinder comments. He described Mono Lake as California’s ‘dead sea.’ But that’s untrue. The brackish water teems with buzzing alkali flies and brine shrimp; both considered delicacies by dozens of migratory bird species and California gulls that return here year after year.
Mono Lake is much, much smaller these days, thanks to relentless water predation by LA — since 1941, it's Water & Power Department (DWP) began diverting four of Mono Lake’s tributary streams for LA’s urban water use. By 1982, Mono Lake had dropped 45 vertical feet, doubled in salinity, and lost several freshwater habitats. Courts intervened and in a 1994 decision, the State Water Board changed DWP’s water diversion licenses to ensure protection for Mono Lake and its streams. Water has since been rising.
The lake shimmers like a cup of Ambrosia, in an expanse of cobalt blue, at 6000 feet, cupped within snow-crowned summits rising 8,000 to 11,000 feet around it. The pristine water in its bowels is enough to supply each person in the US with 50 gallons of water per day for 5 years; the evaporation from the lake surface each day could supply a city the size of Los Angeles for a few years.
To us mere mortals, the lake is a strictly North American beauty — snow-splotched mountains, huge pines, red-woods, a crystalline atmosphere, and a pine-hung lake that mirrors the clouds on its surface. Lake Tahoe is a shimmer of water twenty-two miles long by ten broad, and in some places 1,700 feet deep. Straddling the Nevada-California border, it has two distinctive areas: the Northside, where cowboy-chic cabins and semi-isolated shops and cafes overlook a quiet shoreline; and South Tahoe, which glitters with casinos, clubs, and upscale boutique hotels hovering above the lake.
We stayed on the South Lakeside, at an Airbnb that took pride in its being LGBT friendly (I had to look the term up on Google). The owner had two dachshunds and specific instructions not to leave the doors open, lest the coyotes take them for their evening meal. And in the backyard, there was a depressed patch of dry grass, where a black bear often came to sleep at night!
The air here was keen and elastic, and the valley silent, except for the toot of some mountain birds, when we visited it.