We try to be conscientious visitors and dig into what’s gone on in the places we go. Here’s a VERY consolidated timeline to get a sense of who fit in where and what happened when in terms of geology, exploring, national parks, climbing and more.
The Age of Formation
We’re not going to attempt to break down the geology into eras, but here’s the story capsule-style. Some 100 million years ago, in the age of the dinosaurs, California was being built piece-by-piece. The Sierra was the coastline, composed of spewing volcanos, and everything west was still underwater.
About 40 million years later, wind and rain eroded the Sierra’s volcanic past and built the rich soil in the Central Valley, where mastodons were prowling around. Fast forward several million years and, due to pressure from plate tectonics, the continental crust of the Sierra broke and began to rise, building the mountains. (Theories abound, but estimates say that happened some 10 million years ago.) As the Sierra climbed upward, the rivers started flowing faster, carving steep, sharp valleys.
Fast forward some more and it’s The Great Ice Age. Several periods of glaciation ensue. The dinosaurs are gone, replaced by other exotic beasts like sprinting, short-faced bears and American lions. At one point, the Sierra is sheathed in a layer of ice 270 miles long and 40 miles wide and only a few mountaintops emerge as islands. The ice carves more valleys into the rock, including Yosemite Valley.
In the meantime, geologic phenomena keep things interesting. One of the most violent volcanic eruptions in North America occurs where Mammoth Lakes now sits. The force creates a massive volcanic depression called the Long Valley Caldera. The Ice Age persists until about 10,000 years ago, but before it ends, stone-age people are staggering toward North America via the Bering Strait. The glaciers formed in the Sierra don’t disappear until around 8,000 years ago. But that’s not the end of them. The Little Ice Age starts in 1350, rebuilding icy masses. Incredibly, it wasn’t over until 1850, after the Gold Rush. The 100 or so glaciers that now exist in the Sierra are its relics.
- 1772: Spanish explorers are roaming what’s now California. Among them is a Franciscan priest named Pedro Juan Crespi, who writes of a high, snow-covered mountain range he saw far in the distance and makes a sketch. The Sierra Nevada is “discovered.”
- 1776: Another religious leader/expedition member, Father Pedro Font, puts those mountains on a map with the name Sierra Nevada, or “snowy mountains.”
- 1827: Various Indian tribes live long undisturbed in the Sierra until the early 1800s, when the next wave of explorers come to what’s now California and venture into the mountains. Jedediah Smith earns a place in history as the first white man to cross the Sierra, coming from the west somewhere near Ebbetts Pass on a fur-trapping expedition.
- 1833: Joseph Walker and the Bonneville Expedition come across east to west near Tioga Pass seeking an overland route to the Pacific. Along the way, they likely spy Yosemite Valley from afar.
- 1841: Pioneers make their way over the Sierra for a new life in the western frontier. The Bartleson-Bidwell Party has rough going through the Sonora Pass and has to abandon their wagons, but they set the overland migration to California in motion and solidify Manifest Destiny.
- 1844: John C. Fremont and Kit Carson are forced to make a grueling winter crossing of the Sierra after giving up their pursuit of the mythical Buenaventura River. During their journey through Carson Pass, they discover Lake Tahoe.
- 1844: Also that year, moving to California becomes “easier,” when the Stephens Party becomes the first wagon train to make it across the Sierra at Donner Pass (though they had to tear the rides apart and haul them piece-by-piece using ropes).
- 1846: The Donner Party become the most notorious California settlers of all time after fierce winter weather strands the group in the Sierra gap that would be named for them and some resort to cannibalism after their supplies run out.
- 1848, January: John Marshall finds gold in the American river at John Sutter’s mill in Coloma.
- 1848, February: Alta California becomes a US territory at the close of the Mexican-American war.
- 1848, December: The Gold Rush officially begins when James Polk confirms in his State of the Union address that there is treasure in California. Thousands begin making their way there to strike it rich in one of the largest mass migrations in history
- 1850: California becomes a US state.
- 1851: Yosemite Valley is no longer a secret after the Mariposa Battalion ride in to fight Chief Tenaya and his tribe in their homeland and discover one of the most beautiful places on earth.
- 1852: Murphys becomes the first Sierra tourist destination after Augustus Dowd discovers a grove of sequoias (the Calaveras Big Trees) that become a worldwide sensation for their massiveness
- 1854: Showgirl and inspiration for the “Whatever Lola Wants” song Lola Montez settles in Grass Valley for a spell of quiet(er) life with her pet Grizzly bear.
- 1855: The Yosemite tourist scene is born when James Hutchings organizes a visit into the Valley and brings along an artist (Thomas Ayres) to sketch pictures that confirm the tales being told of its natural wonders.
- 1855: That same year, Galen Clark comes to Yosemite as a tourist. Thinking himself on the verge of death from tuberculosis, he decides to move there, going on to discover the Mariposa Grove, serve as the first ranger of Yosemite and dig his own grave in the Yosemite Cemetery long before he actually passed away in 1910 at the age of 96.
- 1859: The mining action moves to Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra after the Comstock Lode of silver is discovered near Virginia City, NV.
- 1862: Mark Twain sets a wildfire in Tahoe after neglecting his campfire.
- 1863: John Muir is inventing things and developing his Wild Enthusiasm at the University of Wisconsin.
- 1864, June: As the Civil War rages, Yosemite becomes California’s first state park when Abraham Lincoln signs the Yosemite Grant Act, making Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove the first protected wild lands in the US.
- 1864, July: The California Geological Survey, which has been mapping the young state of California, reaches the Sierra’s tallest peak (and highest point in the contiguous US) and names it after their leader and state geologist Josiah Whitney.
- 1868, May: John Muir comes to Yosemite for the first time, making the trip from Oakland on foot.
- 1868, June: The first passenger train crosses the Sierra, almost a year before the Transcontinental Railroad is joined together at Promontory Point in Utah.
- 1872, March: One of California’s most major earthquakes strikes Lone Pine.
- 1872, March: Yellowstone becomes the first national park in the country.
- 1890, September: Sequoia becomes California’s first national park.
- 1890, October: Yosemite (minus Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove) becomes a national park.
- 1892: The Sierra Club is founded and John Muir is named the first president.
- 1906: Teddy Roosevelt makes Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove part of Yosemite National Park.
- 1908: Construction begins on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, putting the East Side’s contentious Water Wars in motion.
- 1909: The country gets a second Transcontinental Railroad when the Feather River Route is completed and trains are able to conquer the Northern Sierra.
- 1910: Norman Clyde comes to the Sierra and starts climbing.
- 1911: “Last Wild Indian” Ishi wanders into civilization in Oroville.
- 1913: Bodie becomes a ghost town.
- 1913: The Los Angeles Aqueduct is completed and water from the Owens Valley starts being redirected to Los Angeles.
- 1916: The National Park Service is established, a year after Stephen Mather hosted a heck of a camping trip with influential people. As the Mather Mountain Party toured Sequoia, he convinced his group of powerful companions to help him push for the national agency. He became its first director when his goal was realized.
- 1920: Lone Pine establishes itself as a Hollywood outpost. The first movie filmed on location there is Fatty Arbuckle’s The Round Up. Scores of movies, television shows and commercials would go on to be filmed in the area.
- 1923: Hetch Hetchy Valley is flooded by the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to provide water for San Francisco.
- 1924: Owens Lake dries up, a little more than a decade after completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, leaving a massive, strange-looking flat that produces toxic dust.
- 1927: The Ahwahnee Hotel opens in Yosemite, a grand mountain lodge in the tradition of others built by Gilbert Stanley Underwood. It would later inspire the look of the Overlook Hotel in the movie version of The Shining.
- 1929: The Vikingsholm estate is built on the shore of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, modeled after a Scandinavian castle.
- 1940: Kings Canyon is designated a national park
- 1943: Smoke Blanchard gets hooked on “Buttermilking” near Bishop, laying the foundation for Bishop’s bouldering scene.
- 1943-1945: Injured members of the Navy convalesce at the Ahwahnee during World War II.
- 1955: The first ski lift is built at Mammoth Mountain.
- 1955: Jack Kerouac tries (unsuccessfully) to climb the Matterhorn near Bridgeport.
- 1957: Royal Robbins and his team make the first ascent up the sheer northwest face of Half Dome.
- 1958: Warren Harding leads the first climbing team up El Capitan’s Nose.
- 1960: Frank Sinatra buys the Cal Neva Resort & Casino, and he and his Rat Pack buddies start hanging around in Tahoe more.
- 1960: The Winter Olympics are held in Squaw Valley.
- 1961: The Tioga Road connecting the East Side and Yosemite is completed.
- 1965: Oakhurst gets its Talking Bear.
- 1969: Charles Manson is held in the Independence Jail for theft. While he’s there, his role in the Tate-LaBianca murders comes out.
- 1972: Then-California Governor Ronald Regan rides on horseback to Minaret Summit to announce that he has successfully argued against a trans-Sierra highway near Mammoth.
- 1975: Jim Bridwell, John Long and and Billy Westbay become the first to ascend El Capitan in one day.
- 1986: John Bachar and Peter Croft are the first to do a one-day link-up of El Capitan and Half Dome, climbing the Nose and Half Dome’s northwest face in one day.
- 1990: A wildfire sweeps through Foresta, necessitating a harrowing rescue for residents of Yosemite’s private community as the flames draw close. The evacuees include Yosemite historian Shirley Sargent, whose home is one of several that are destroyed. She also loses her records of Yosemite history.
- 1993: Lynn Hill becomes the first person to free climb El Capitan’s Nose.
- 1997: The New Year’s Day Flood closes Yosemite for 73 days after warm rains cause snow to melt and water levels in the Merced River to raise as high as 26 feet.
- 2006, April: The Ferguson Rockslide buries Highway 140 into Yosemite.
- 2006, September: Amateur explorers find the Ursa Minor cave in Sequoia National Park. It extends more than 1,000 feet into the Earth.
- 2008: A motion-sensor camera in Tahoe National Forest records images of a wolverine. It’s the first time this huge, fierce member of the weasel family has been spotted in California since 1922. He comes to be known as Buddy.
- 2012: Alex Honnold completes the Yosemite Triple Crown, solo-climbing the park’s three most major walls — El Capitan, Half Dome and Mount Watkins — in one day.
- 2012: Chips the baby bobcat recuperates at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care after her rescue from the massive Northern California Chips Fire made national headlines.
- 2012: A vehicle-sized meteorite crashes down near Coloma, luring treasure-hunters in search of not gold, but rare and valuable space rock.
- 2013: Lyell Glacier is declared dead.
- 2013: The Rim Fire starts outside of Yosemite and burns more than two months before being contained. It claims more than 250,000 acres, making it the third-largest wildfire in California history.
- 2015, January: Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson complete their free climb up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. The steep route up the sheer face is one of the most difficult challenges to ever be conquered in the climbing world.
- 2015, May: Dean Potter sets a new sort of record for running. Establishing a new Fastest Known Time for Half Dome, he makes his way up to the summit and down in two hours and 17 minutes.
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