Yosemite Valley, from Tunnel View
No photograph or series of photographs, no paintings ever prepare a visitor so that he is not taken by surprise, for could the scenes be faithfully represented the visitor is affected not only by that upon which his eye is at any moment fixed, but by all that with which on every side it is associated, and of which it is seen only as an inherent part. For the same reason no description, no measurements, no comparisons are of much value. Indeed the attention called by these to points in some definite way remarkable, by fixing the mind on mere matters of wonder or curiosity prevent the true and far more extraordinary character of the scenery from being appreciated.
– Frederick Law Olmsted, A Preliminary Report on Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove, 1865
On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California. This was the first time that a tract of land was set aside for the enjoyment of the people simply for its breathtaking scenery and the uniqueness of its natural features. This act and the two Supreme Court decisions over the next sixteen years that would uphold it and clarify its provisions established the legal precedent from which descended all federal and state parks in the United States as well as the export of the concept across the globe. Yellowstone became the first National Park eight years later only because the astonishing geothermal features of the Yellowstone River watershed were located in a territory and there wasn’t a state to grant the land to. Although the Yellowstone precedent ensured the enduring federal protection of land, Yosemite is the birthplace of the National Parks.
After a gruelingly stressful month or so for each of us, on Friday, May 20, Sean and I bid our cat Elsa goodbye and hopped in an Uber Taxi to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. We were more than ready for eleven days in California.
We arrived two and a half hours early for our 9:15am flight because the TSA lines at O’Hare had been so bad in the previous week that they’d made the national news. Turns out we needn’t have worried. From the time we got in line until the time I had retied my boots was a cool sixteen minutes. A local news crew was there filming the lack of lines at security.
Mount Watkins (left), Tenaya Canyon, and Half Dome, seen from Sentinel Dome
By the time Sean and I launched our National Parks adventure in 2011, we had driven through Cuyahoga Valley together and he had previously visited one Park (Dry Tortugas) and I had visited four (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Shenandoah, and Badlands). In the intervening years, Sean had picked up Badlands during our 2014 trip to the Dakotas.
When he asked what I wanted to do for the National Park Service’s 2016 Centennial, I said that I wanted to catch up and calibrate so that by the time the year ended we’d both have been to the same Parks. No longer would we have to say, “I’ve been to eleven and he’s been to nine” or some such. Focusing on the four catch-ups and adding on some logical companion Parks as we went meant visiting eight Parks in 2016, ending the year at a twenty-two Park total, not bad for the first five years of the sixteen-year journey.
Joshua Tree National Park
In his engrossing Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve, John C. Miles, professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, traces the history of wilderness protection in the parks from their earliest days to the book’s present, 2008.
The history of the National Parks and other protected lands in the United States is the story of continually evolving ideas about how and why natural and historical areas should be protected for the common good. At its noblest, it is an acknowledgement that the people, collectively, own and administer the wildest, most beautiful and most historically important areas in the nation. The hows and whys of acquiring and administering these places is intrinsically tied to the concept of land held for the common good.
Almost 150 years ago, on June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting scenic Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be held in the public interest as a park (eventually the valley would return to federal control as part of Yosemite National Park). Eight years later, when Congress moved to protect the geothermal features around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in a region that lay in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories, there was no state to give the park to, so by default it became a national park. The concept of the national park was born out of necessity.
A year after we visited the Grand Canyon, the same group of five (Aunt Judy, Uncle Tom, Jenny, Amy, and me) spent a weekend at Yosemite National Park. This time, happily, we were joined by my cousin, Andrew, and our Grandma.