On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 25, after visiting Merced Grove, we drove Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite Valley. Our intention was to get some lunch, check out the visitor center, and perhaps wait out the rain that was forecast.
To get to the valley, we had to drive most of the length of Big Oak Flat Road, which connected our campground (Hodgdon Meadow), Merced and Tuolumne Groves, Crane Flat, and Tioga Road to El Portal Road at the entrance to the valley. All told, we’d drive the length of Big Oak Flat Road some ten times while we were in Yosemite. (Vistas, overlooks, and patches of wildflowers along Big Oak Flat Road will be peppered throughout the Yosemite posts.)
Many sections of the park along Big Oak Flat Road were extensively burned in the past twenty years. In the portion closer to the valley, devastating fires have caused the forest to give way to rolling, shrubby chaparral.
Soon we were entering Yosemite Valley, and it only underscored how sick Sean actually was that he not only dozed during the drive along Big Oak Flat Road, but was sound asleep as we entered the valley itself. Later, back home in Chicago, he would remark to friends, “El Capitan…Half Dome…Bridalveil Fall…all these iconic sites I feel that I’ve seen through a fog.”
We found a parking spot in the valley across the meadow from Yosemite Falls.
A boardwalk led across the meadow from the parking area toward Yosemite Village.
Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet.
Video: Sean M. Santos
And of course the views from almost anywhere in Yosemite Valley are just stupid with iconic vistas.
At the visitor center, we stamped our National Park Passports and browsed the Yosemite Conservancy gift shop.
We also picked up two tickets for that evening’s performance at the Yosemite Theater, Lee Stetson as John Muir. His performance is perhaps best known from Ken Burns’ The National Parks, America’s Best Idea.
Back outside after the visitor center, we noticed that the clouds above the valley had gotten heavier, and they had begun to spill into the valley over its north rim. Then we heard thunder rolling and reverberating and echoing across the valley. Despite the thunder, it was still bright above Yosemite Village. So after grabbing sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli, we sat outside to eat our lunch.
It was only about 2:30pm by the time we finished lunch, and we had lots of time to kill before the 7pm curtain for the John Muir performance. So we decided to drive out to see Hetch Hetchy.
In 1868, just before his thirtieth birthday, a young Scottish immigrant raised in central Wisconsin arrived in Yosemite Valley. After leaving his father’s farm and attending classes at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, John Muir achieved some success as a machinist and inventor. After a factory accident temporarily blinded him, he abandoned industrial efforts and headed out to see the wilderness.
Muir first walked from Wisconsin to Florida, intending to continue on to South America, but he contracted malaria. So instead he boarded a ship to San Francisco, and then walked to Yosemite Valley.
The walls are made up of rocks, mountains in size, partly separated by side cañons, and they are so sheer in front and so compactly and harmoniously arranged on a level floor, that the Valley, comprehensively seen, looks like an immense hall or temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
Muir spent a decade in the Sierra Nevada before ultimately descending to the low country and settling in Martinez, California near San Francisco, where he married and took over management of his in-laws’ farm and orchard. Nevertheless, he continued exploring North America’s great wild places, including multiple trips to Alaska.
In 1890, Muir published two articles in The Century magazine, urging the protection of Yosemite. Thus began a storied career of writing and activism, as Muir publicized the nation’s earliest National Parks and championed the National Park idea.
Muir’s writings were heavily influenced by a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which had been literally beaten into him by his domineering father, and the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and particularly Henry David Thoreau. But whereas Thoreau saw terror and the awe of the sublime at work in nature (as in his near-fatal climb of Maine’s Mount Katahdin) in addition to its more inspiring aspects closer to home (as at Concord’s Walden Pond), Muir saw nature as inspiriting in spite of the possibility of bodily harm, famously riding an avalanche down Yosemite Valley’s walls, inching out on a three-inch-wide ledge behind Yosemite Falls, and climbing a pine tree in a rain storm, all to experience these events from the perspective of nature.
John Muir took as his life’s mission the education of his countrymen in the advantages of wild country. Indeed, he conceived himself similar to John the Baptist in attempting to immerse “in the beauty of God’s mountains” the “sinners” imprisoned in civilization. “I care to live,” he wrote in 1874, “only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.” His many later writings had a unifying message: buried in the cities, Americans defrauded themselves of the joy that could be theirs if they would but turn to “the freedom and glory of God’s wilderness.”
– Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, Fifth Edition, 2014.
Beginning with his 1890 articles and culminating in his posthumously published book about his trips to Alaska (1915), John Muir became the most important voice for land preservation of his generation, with his influence extending from the nineteenth century well into the twenty-first. Although indebted to Transcendentalist philosophy, he crucially applied that movement’s revaluing of New England nature to the specific places of the West: the glaciers and mountains of Glacier Bay, the colorful desert landscapes of Petrified Forest, and of course his “range of light,” the Sierra Nevada, and its holy of holies, Yosemite Valley.
In 1892, Muir founded the Sierra Club to connect the anxious, workaday people of the cities to the rejuvenating forests and peaks of the mountains and also to advocate for the protection of these sanctuaries. There would be triumphs, not the least of which was the return of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the larger Yosemite National Park in 1906, and there would be failures, most poignantly one that is said to have broken Muir’s heart and hastened his death in 1914, the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley, which would reverberate throughout twentieth-century conservation.
And Hetch Hetchy was where we were headed next.
We recrossed the meadow to the parking area where we’d left the Jeep, and we paused to look at the Showy Milkweed and ephemeral wetlands along the path.
We decided to grab some firewood on the way out of the valley. So we looped around on the valley road to the Village Store and on the way got a taste of a Yosemite Valley traffic jam and futile fight for parking.
Soon we were back on Big Oak Flat Road, climbing up the south wall of the Merced Gorge and stopping for grand views back into the valley.
The drive to Hetch Hetchy from Yosemite Valley takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, up and over Crane Flat to the end of Big Oak Flat Road and out the Park’s Big Oak Flat entrance near Hodgdon Meadow Campground. Outside the Park, the road leads through Stanislaus National Forest and past multiple private inholdings before returning to Yosemite National Park at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance.
Beyond the entrance area, which is flat and forested, the road descends to Hetchy Hetchy by closely hugging the walls of the Tuolumne River Gorge downstream from the O’Shaughnessy Dam. High above the Poopenaut Valley, the two-lane road winds its way around a steep granite face, and unfortunately the road’s route is visible before you reach it, so you have plenty of time to contemplate the sheer drop-off. Like Big Oak Flat Road, the road into Hetch Hetchy is two-lane, but Big Oak Flat Road is wider, smoother, and better maintained (and much more highly trafficked). Usually my moving-vehicle acrophobia can be kept under control if I am the one behind the wheel, but this road, particularly some blind curves, really got to me. I could feel my hands begin to sweat and panic rise from my gut. I slowed down to a virtual stop, took some deep breaths, and thought to myself that I had to keep going since we couldn’t turn around here.
And so we did. And the drop-off to our left became less steep and we settled back in for the final approach to the Hetch Hetchy parking area.
Hetch Hetchy is writ large in the annals of American conservation.
In the early 1880s, Hetch Hetchy Valley was identified as a possible site of a reservoir to provide clean drinking water to the city of San Francisco. The proposal set off a decades-long argument between those who held firm against erecting a dam in a National Park and those who advocated for what is called the “wise use” doctrine, coined by Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service. “Wise use” theoretically calls for any natural resource to be used for the greatest good by the greatest number. In practice, though, it often means that a natural resource is used for the greatest good of the person, corporation, or conglomerate that can pay.
The fight to save Hetch Hetchy continued through the Theodore Roosevelt administration, with both Gifford Pinchot (pro-dam) and John Muir (anti-dam) bending the president’s ear.
Ultimately, the Roosevelt administration did not move forward with the project despite increased public support of the dam in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Opposition to the dam by the White House continued through the Taft administration.
Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music—things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her…
The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized. Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as in the carefully tended rose and lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks—the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc.—Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like anything else worthwhile, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, “Conservation, conservation, panutilization,” that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves; and earlier still; the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was likewise despoiled. Ever since the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, strife has been going on around its borders and I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong, however much its boundaries may be shorn, or its wild beauty destroyed…
That anyone would try to destroy this place seems incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden…
These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.
Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912.
In March 1913, Franklin Lane, former city attorney for San Francisco, became Secretary of the Interior under Woodrow Wilson. Lane had been a vocal proponent for the dam for decades. Hetch Hetchy’s fate was sealed. On December 9, 1913, Wilson signed the Raker Act, which authorized the damming of Hetch Hetchy.
The project to create the reservoir began in 1914, and the dam was completed in 1923 and raised eighty-five feet in 1938. The first water from Hetch Hetchy arrived in San Francisco in 1934.
Video: Sean M. Santos
It could have been that the damming of Hetch Hetchy created a precedent that allowed for many other large scale resource extraction projects or dams in the National Parks, but even as San Francisco seized the Tuolumne River, national opposition fomented against such future despoiling of the National Parks. In the wake of the loss of Hetch Hetchy there came a push for an independent federal agency to oversee the National Parks. This effort would culminate in the 1916 Organic Act that established the National Park Service.
The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
– National Park Service Organic Act, 1916
Throughout the twentieth century, proposals to erect dams in National Parks (such as on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument or the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park) were defeated by public opinion shaped by the cry, “Remember Hetch Hetchy!”
Having driven all the way out to it, we could not linger long at Hetch Hetchy if we wanted to make it back to Yosemite Valley in time for the John Muir performance at 7pm.
And so we headed back. I handled the road out of Hetch Hetchy much better than I’d handled it on the way in. And during the rest of the drive through Stanislaus National Forest and back down Big Oak Flat Road we made good time.
We made such good time, in fact, that we stopped at some of the Yosemite Valley viewpoints along Big Oak Flat Road as it hugged the north wall of the Merced Gorge.
After parking the car, we got a little turned around on our way to the visitor center and theater, and we had to jog a bit to make sure we got there in time. Happily, other attendees were still streaming in, and we were not late.
Video: Lee Stetson performing as John Muir for the Sierra Club of Dallas, October 2014, video by Scot Miller
It turned out that the evening’s performance presented by the Yosemite Conservancy was the opening night of Lee Stetson’s thirty-fifth season playing John Muir. The hour-long performance was quite moving. Stetson placed the monologue at the point near the end of Muir’s life when he learned that the damming of Hetch Hetchy was a done deal. It opened with the famous “Damn Hetch Hetchy!” phrase quoted above. It was something to hear Muir’s words made alive by his foremost interpreter immediately after visiting Hetch Hetchy.
The loss of Hetch Hetchy broke John Muir’s heart, and it is said that it hastened his death from pneumonia on Christmas Eve, 1914.
After the performance, we returned to camp, built a roaring bonfire, and dined.
We also chatted with our neighbors, Adam and Randi from Dallas. It turned out that we had arrived and would depart on the same days, with three full days in the Park. They had spent the day visiting Glacier Point and hiking to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point. Those hikes had not even been on my radar because the hiking guide book listed them as mid- to late-summer hikes. We were intrigued.
Exhausted and feeling drained from his cold, Sean went to bed early. I lingered by the fire, thinking about John Muir, Hetch Hetchy, and the sweep of conservation over the past one hundred years.
- John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
- Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967, Fifth Edition, 2014