Yosemite Valley from Eagle Peak



Elevation: 4,000 feet at Yosemite Valley


Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

  • Connector.

    Set aside some time to sit in El Capitan Meadow and watch the climbers, especially during “Rocktober.” Bring binoculars. And while you’re there, turn around and see if you can spot the old man’s face in the rocks of Taft Point.

  • Connector.

    Tackle some easy “rock climbing” yourself and hike to the top of Sentinel Dome. The reward is a 360-degree that includes both Half Dome and El Capitan.

  • Connector.

    Take a night-time wander in the Valley under a big moon. If it’s spring, look for moonbows over the waterfalls. If it isn’t, appreciate the luminescent granite bathed in silvery glow and look to see if there are any headlamps inching up the climbing routes.

  • Connector.

    Watch Bridalveil Fall dance in the wind. It’s more of a mover than Yosemite Falls.

  • Connector.

    Walk up Turtleback Dome for a less crowded Tunnel Dome view. Go at sunset to see the alpenglow.

Note: For expeditions beyond the Valley, see our page for Tioga Pass.

Why Yosemite Beckons

Meet the Mountains

Yosemite is famous for its mountains. And waterfalls. And trees. And meadows. The list could go on and on.

The various peaks that ring Yosemite Valley stand together as a rocky cocoon, but are also known in their own right: El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Clouds Rest, Three Brothers, Royal Arches, the Lost Arrow Spire. And so many more that it’s hard to decide where to look first.

They seemingly have personalities, too. El Capitan looms large and dominating — and in warm weather is dotted with climbers and the portaledges where they sleep in the sky suspended from the rock. Along its vast granite faces, they’ve blazed a map of many routes up and given them fanciful names like the Nose, Zodiac, Wall of Early Morning Light and Lurking Fear.

Half Dome is a shape-shifter. The flat face it presents to Yosemite Valley is its most famous, but from other vantage points it looks entirely different. From Glacier and Washburn Points, it looks more like a shrouded grim reaper as its rounded back comes into view. From Olmstead Point where the flat side is hidden, it appears as a far-off dome and at Mirror Lake, it’s a liquid reflection of the towering sheer face.

And The Water That Runs Down Them

The waterfalls compete for attention, too (at least in spring and summer before some go dry). Between Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil, Vernal and Nevada, others can almost be overlooked. Sentinel Falls is a good example. It’s nearly as tall as Yosemite Falls and right in the Valley, but with so much to take in, it can almost get lost in the background.

Yosemite is no doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world, but one of its most special characteristics is the emotional response it stirs in so many when they see it. Deep feelings have been part of the Yosemite story since its beginning.

Here’s just a bit more of it and some who and what shaped the legacy…

Yosemite’s Early Days

America’s westward expansion wrought a good deal of violence, and the “discovery” of Yosemite is no exception.

The Sierra served as one of the last sanctuaries for American Indians. Even as the Spanish and others who followed came to what is now California via the western coast, the mountains were a place where the natives were largely undisturbed.

(One of their lasting impressions are small holes within the rocks that can still be seen. They’re called bedrock mortars and were created when the acorns that were a staple of the Indian diet were being ground on the rock.)

But as the population swelled under the forces of settlers from the East driven by gold and Manifest Destiny, tensions — and clashes — arose over dwindling natural resources (i.e., food). In short order, the newcomers had the upper hand. By 1850, a California law was passed to subdue Indian resistance (the Act for Government and Protection of Indians), and a year later Congress passed the first Indian Appropriations Act and the reservation system came into being.

As these tensions were beginning to mount, Yosemite Valley was not immune, but it was a secret.

Known as Ahwahnee — “the place with a gaping mouth” — the only people living there were the Indians who called themselves the Ahwahneechee. Known for their fierceness, they lived within the granite walls stretching from El Capitan to Half Dome largely without intrusion. Until 1851.

It was an Ahwahneechee attack on a trading post in December 1850 that would end the tribe’s time in their mountain fortress and make Yosemite Valley known to the world.

The trading post had been owned by James Savage, and he wanted retribution. Not only had his supplies been looted and the place destroyed, but three men were killed. After an appeal to the newly formed California government, the state authorized a militia to remove Indians from areas where they posed a threat. Savage was named leader of the Mariposa Battalion, and the group set out after the Ahwahneechee.

When they found the tribe’s homeland on March 25, 1851, it was the first time non-Indians set foot in Yosemite Valley. (But it likely wasn’t the first time any had seen it; that honor is generally afforded to explorer Joseph Walker who is believed to have laid eyes on it in 1833.)

Savage’s group would succeed in displacing the Ahwahneechee. And though they were there for an uglier task, one of the militia volunteers — Lafayette Bunnell — was moved to tears by the valley’s beauty. His later descriptions of the place would be key in making Yosemite Valley known more broadly.

He was also the one to suggest Yosemite as the new name. Though he thought it was what the conquered tribe called themselves, it was actually a word that other Indians used to describe the Ahwahnechee as “those who kill.”

The Conservationists

The next group who made their mark on Yosemite’s timeline are nature-lovers who played key roles in protecting its natural splendor.

Galen Clark came to Yosemite in 1855 in one of the first tourist parties, but he didn’t have vacation in mind. Clark was ill, diagnosed with tuberculosis during his mining days and told by doctors that he likely didn’t have long to live. So he took to the mountains, thinking the environment would either improve his health or be a nice place to pass the end of his days. The change of scenery did him good, and he soon began exploring his new home.

In 1857, he happened upon the Mariposa Grove, and though he wasn’t the first to see Yosemite’s most famed giant sequoias, he is credited with discovering them and giving the grove its name. Clark marveled over the big trees and wanted others to have the opportunity to as well. He promoted them in various writings, explored and studied them, guided other visitors on tours and ultimately became their official caretaker. When the Yosemite Grant was signed to designate the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley as the first government-protected parkland set aside for public use, Clark was chosen to serve as guardian/first park ranger.

Clark wore several other hats as well. He ran an inn (rather unsuccessfully) near what is now the long-running Wawona, acted as John Muir’s research assistant on a glacier study and even wrote a sort of travel guide with tips for Yosemite travelers. His advice included what to wear (he recommended flannel shirts for men), how to avoid sunburn, and a reminder to bring cameras and offer some payment to Indians if asking them to pose for a picture.

Though he arrived anticipating an imminent death, Clark had been living in Yosemite for decades by the time he dug his own grave in the Yosemite Cemetery and planted sequoia seedlings to surround it. Even then, he wouldn’t be laid to rest there until years later. After being at death’s door in his forties, he lived to be 96.

It wasn’t the massive granite rock faces or the waterfalls that drop thousands of feet that secured Yosemite’s status as a protected natural wonder. It was the trees.

After two of the giant sequoias in Gold Country’s Calaveras Grove were cut down to be turned into circus-esque traveling displays of The Biggest Trees In the World, eventually some conservation-minded backlash emerged. News editorials and stories argued against exploiting — and ultimately destroying — what should be considered a natural treasure.

The Yosemite Land Grant: Setting a Precedent for Nature Protection

In May 1864, California Senator John Conness helped make that happen when he introduced a bill called the Yosemite Grant Act calling for Yosemite’s own big trees in the Mariposa Grove — as well as the Yosemite Valley — to be preserved for public enjoyment and not developed for economic gain. In his speech, he referenced what had happened in the Calaveras Grove as reinforcement that the incredible natural attractions being discovered in the Sierra were at risk. He would also go on to note that the Yosemite lands he was proposing be protected would be “some of the greatest wonders in the world.”

Even with the Civil War raging and a prevailing desire for Manifest Destiny-inspired land ownership under the Homestead Act, lawmakers recognized the importance of such a move.

The act was signed by Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864, marking the first time the United States government would see to it that a natural area was afforded protection so that future generations would be able to see it in the same unspoiled condition.

It would also make Yosemite California’s first state park. (The first national park would be Yellowstone. It was given federal protection in 1872 because Wyoming hadn’t yet been made a state, thus there was no state government to oversee it. Yosemite’s national park designation wouldn’t come until later, with a key push from John Muir.)

When the Yosemite Land Grant was signed, it called for the area to be managed by a guardian and a team of commissioners.

From Central Park to Yosemite

Frederick Law Olmsted was one of them. He was also the famed landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park and devised one of the early plans for how the new California state park should operate. His belief was that it should be managed in a way that would provide for universal enjoyment with less imprint on the land itself.

To that end, he proposed strategies to protect the natural environment while also arguing for better roads so that more people could see the new gift bestowed upon them by the government. Without better access, he feared that a trip to Yosemite would only be feasible for the wealthy. His report was shelved by the other commissioners, however, perhaps due to competing ideas and concern that the proposed budget would take funding from those endeavors.

Olmsted would later go on to successfully put his principles into practice at Niagara Falls State Park. He successfully led a “Free Niagara” movement to protect New York’s famous waterfalls and thwart rampant commercial exploitation (e.g., mills, factories, tacky tourist attractions) and when it became a state park, he was its designer.

The man likely most associated with Yosemite made his first visit in 1868. The short stay would change his life, and he came back the next year to settle in more permanently.

A Wild Enthusiast

Muir was the essence of a jack-of-all-trades. The Scotsman would move to Wisconsin as a child and later attend the state university in Madison. His scientific interests took root in the Midwest, and he busied himself with exploring and making models for several inventions, some of which he displayed at the Wisconsin State Fair.

After school, he would work some odd jobs (including a gig at a factory that left him temporarily blind). That must have scared him, because he soon gave in to his wanderlust and interest in the natural world. In 1867, he took a thousand-mile stroll from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Insatiable Explorer…and Glaciologist

Once he took up residency in Yosemite, Muir worked as a shepherd and in a sawmill when he wasn’t exploring. His diet during his mountain wanderings was similar to modern reliance on nutrition bars as easy meals. Most often, the only things he brought with him for sustenance were bread and tea. His zeal to see Yosemite also made him one of Yosemite’s early climbers. He’s credited with the first ascent of Cathedral Peak (which rises more than 10,000 feet).

And of course he studied his surroundings and wrote about them, musing on the plants, animals, landscape and, notably, the geology that formed it. Muir was the first to believe that Yosemite Valley had been glacially carved and was not the splintered result of a long-ago earthquake.

He also confirmed the existence of living glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. With Galen Clark’s help, he planted stakes in the ice field now known as Maclure Glacier and then returned a month-and-a-half later to confirm that they had drifted.

Today, Maclure Glacier still moves. But nearby Lyell Glacier — the largest in Yosemite and second-largest in the Sierra — has become an indicator of climate change. In 2013 it was determined that the ice was no longer moving and was therefore no longer a living glacier.

How John Muir Helped Build the National Park Idea

One of John Muir’s best-known legacies is obviously his role as advocate for national parks. The issue that helped him bring about the designation for Yosemite may be surprising — it was sheep, specifically sheep damaging Tuolumne Meadows as they grazed there. (His former job as shepherd had not endeared the animals to him, and he called them “hoofed locusts.”)

The man who helped Muir launch his cause was Robert Underwood Johnson, a magazine publisher. After touring Yosemite with Muir, he encouraged him to write about the need for expanded preservation around Yosemite. Johnson would then publish those musings in his Century magazine and also lobby Congress to take action. The plan worked. In 1890, some 1,500 square miles became protected public land under the brand-new Yosemite National Park. (And Underwood would later become Muir’s co-founder in the Sierra Club, a group they formed to provide guardianship over the Sierra’s environmental issues.)

Muir would also later be instrumental in national park designations for Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Arizona’s Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon, and Alaska’s Glacier Bay.

Despite all of these successes, he was reportedly crushed that he was unable to secure the same protection for Hetch Hetchy. Before it was flooded in 1923 to create the reservoir that provides San Francisco’s water, it was said to look much like the nearby Yosemite Valley.

Though Muir had managed better protection for a vast span in his beloved mountains, he still had concerns about the areas that first inspired the idea of preserved public lands. So he continued to write.

He also caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who during his presidency requested that Muir serve as his guide on a trip to Yosemite. (Like Muir, Roosevelt was an avowed nature-lover.) The two embarked on a multi-day camping trip in which they took in Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, the Mariposa Grove and more. Roosevelt also happily slept out in the open, even in snow.

Over the course of the excursion, Muir took the opportunity to share his worries about the varying ways Yosemite was being managed with oversight from both the state and local governments. He was particularly concerned about the areas that fell under state jurisdiction.

Taking Park Management Up a Notch

Comparing Yellowstone at the time is be a good way to think about Muir’s reservations about Yosemite being left a state park. Though it gained its preserved status after the Yosemite Land Grant, Yellowstone National Park had a big budget and good roads — two things Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Grove and the rest of the state-run California park lacked. Some of the agricultural activities and commercial enterprises that had sprang up under California’s watch also seemed damaging and/or dubious to people like Muir, who was pushing for expanded preservation.

The sights and discussion clearly made an impression on Roosevelt. Over the course of his presidency, he established five national parks, created the national monument system that allowed historic landmarks to be granted government preservation and set up the US Forest Service. In 1906, he also brought together the existing Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Land Grant as one federally run national park.

The Hosting Visionaries

Next came some entrepreneurs who paved the way for Yosemite to become one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations.

James Hutchings was one of the first non-Indians to follow the Mariposa Battalion into Yosemite Valley. After hearing their reports of the magnificent waterfalls, he decided he had to see them for himself in the summer of 1855. He had a magazine about California in mind and thought that if Yosemite lived up to the descriptions, it would make a perfect topic.

Pictures to Confirm a Paradise

In the hopes that his suspicions were right — and knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words — he brought along his friend Thomas Ayers who was an artist and could provide visuals of what they saw. Over their five-day visit, Ayers sketched what today are many of the major Yosemite landmarks, including Tunnel View, Half Dome and Yosemite and Bridal Veil Falls. Hutchings would help bring Yosemite into the minds of the masses with two written accounts of the trip, a brief article in the Mariposa Gazette soon after and a more detailed feature when he launched Hutchings’ California Magazine in July 1856.

With Ayers’ sketches, Yosemite’s beauty was no longer abstract, but it was still nearly impossible to believe that such natural grandeur could be real. People wanted to see for themselves; 42 tourists would make the trip that year, despite the difficulties getting there.

Hutchings vs. Muir

Essentially launching the Yosemite tourist trade, Hutchings would go on to live there with his family, where he became a somewhat controversial figure.

He would be one of the ones to guide the commercialization that John Muir and others found so troubling. He ran one of the first hotels (called Hutchings House), built a sawmill and was generally focused on entrepreneurship. It’s no surprise that he and Muir developed a rivalry. They were both Yosemite spokesmen, but with very different visions for it.

Interestingly, Hutchings would later serve as a guardian of the Yosemite Grant. But by this time he had somewhat strained relationships, perhaps because of his resistance to giving up ownership of his hotel once Yosemite Valley became public land. Galen Clark eventually resumed the post.

David and Jennie Curry came to Yosemite in 1899 as concessionaires. They started their tent camp below Glacier Point.

Cementing Yosemite Traditions

Though he didn’t originate it, David Curry made Yosemite’s famed firefall a grand nightly show. Acting as emcee he would set the event in motion by proclaiming “Let the fire fall” and then the bonfire that had been set high above at Glacier Point would be pushed over the edge of the cliff and create a magnificent orange stream as it fell thousands of feet in an effect similar to a waterfall. The practice would go on until 1968.

When David died in 1917, Jennie — then known as “Mother Curry” — continued on. Not only that, she expanded. By 1922, Camp Curry was well on its way to being the village it is today. There were more than 600 tents as well as cottages, a cafeteria, soda fountain, laundry facilities, a pool and bowling alley.

Stephen Mather was the first Director of National Parks and even before he was appointed to the post in 1917, he had been an ardent promoter of the idea of parks as protected public lands.

Mather was committed to running the national parks in a way that would preserve the natural environment, but he also saw the need for better accessibility and services to attract visitors and keep things running. That also meant better accommodations, and Mather’s vision for Yosemite even called for a luxury hotel to lure the wealthy (and their money). It became a reality in 1927 when the Ahwahnee opened.

The Artists

Yosemite’s fate has been heavily influenced by pictures. The sketches of Thomas Ayers made Yosemite real to those who saw them and helped launch its tourism. The trend would continue, with other imagery having a profound effect.

Carleton Watkins came to Yosemite Valley in 1861 with his camera — a monstrosity that weighed close to one ton with all of the equipment. (The load had to be hauled by mules.)

But the photos were crucial because they helped bring Yosemite to life for those who hadn’t been there. They took the sketches Thomas Ayers had made years earlier to the next level in the mind’s eye. And they helped convince Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Land Grant into law.

In more modern times, Yosemite has become well-known from the work of Ansel Adams. His black-and-white photos grace calendars, college dorm rooms, galleries and museums.

He first came to visit his muse as a teenager. He would go on to spend summers in Yosemite as a member of the Sierra Club, photographing various tour groups and even installing Half Dome’s cables. Adams was also musically inclined. He was a gifted pianist, who often played at the grand Ahwahnee Hotel and also served for a time as producer of its annual Bracebridge Dinner, which includes a pageant-style performance.

Like Thomas Ayers and Carleton Watkins, Adams’ work inspired government preservation of scenic Sierra beauty. Yosemite was already well-protected when he arrived, but Kings Canyon wasn’t (despite earlier efforts by John Muir). Adams’ photographs of this part of the southern Sierra — along with his vocal advocacy — were likely what provided the edge for Kings Canyon to finally become a national park in 1940.

The Military

In a setting as pastoral as Yosemite, the idea of military presence seems unlikely, but there’s been some at a few different points in the park’s history.

In its first days as a national park in the 1890s, cavalry members were the park rangers because there were no other resources to provide a measure of policing. Several were African-Americans, who were at the time known as Buffalo Soldiers.

Patrolling for now-unauthorized and landscape-damaging livestock was a particularly key duty. The cavalry would remain in Yosemite until 1913. A famous photo depicts several of them with their horses on and around the Fallen Monarch tree in the Mariposa Grove.

A few decades later, the military would again be living in Yosemite. This time it was recuperating Navy men during World War II.

From 1943 until late 1945, the fancy Ahwahnee was transformed into a Naval Convalescent Hospital, and its Grand Lounge was stuffed with beds for the injured.

The idea had been that the beautiful setting would provide an additional measure of healing, but in fact the reverse was true, and many felt claustrophobic being surrounded by the Valley’s ring of towering granite.

Perhaps as consolation, the Navy approved the sale of beer. This was the only naval hospital at the time to have that privilege. Though it was the only naval hospital to serve beer, it wasn’t the only one to be located in a grand mountain lodge. A similar facility was set up at the Sun Valley Lodge in Idaho.

The Climbers

Rock climbing is synonymous with Yosemite. It has some of the best big wall climbing in the world and is essentially the birthplace of the sport in the United States.

Before it took off here, climbing was much more a European pursuit — no surprise given that its mountains have been well-known for much longer.

The granite-loving adventurers are something of a tourist attraction. Many visitors stop in El Capitan meadow to watch the action with their binoculars — or squinted eyes — or pause during nocturnal walks to try to pick out climbers’ headlamps high in the sky.

One of the Valley’s first ascentionists was George Anderson. The blacksmith made the first trek up Half Dome barefoot in 1875 using a drill and homemade bolts and taking a route near where its popular cables are today.

More advanced climbers would follow the early scrabblers to Yosemite, including mountaineer Norman Clyde. But the so-called “golden age” didn’t begin until the mid-1940s when Swiss emigré John Salathé arrived.

The Blacksmith Who Advanced the Gear

The 46-year-old was hardly a young man, but he would make several climbs. His credits include the first ascent of Sentinel Rock, using homemade sturdy pitons (the spikes climbers drive into rocks for support). A blacksmith by trade, he’d constructed them of steel (possibly from the axle of his Ford), and they became the model for modern piton design. Previous versions were more or less suitable for a single use, but Salathé’s had the advantage of being reusable, not to mention much safer given their strength. El Capitan’s Salathé Wall would be named for him, despite the fact it wasn’t one of his climbing spots.

The Wino & The Purist

The early- to mid-fifties would bring Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, launching perhaps the most exciting period in Yosemite climbing. In the ensuing years, the two would conquer scores of Yosemite peaks and blaze various climbing routes, creating a legendary rivalry between two opposing personalities.

The irreverent Harding had more of a whatever-it-takes approach to climbing that tended to include more bolts and a fondness for cheap wine, while Robbins was much more of a purist. (He was an early advocate for “clean climbing” with less abuse to the rock.)

As far as their famous Yosemite accomplishments, Robbins would be on the first team to climb the sheer northwest face of Half Dome and a Harding-led group would be the first to stand atop El Capitan.

Mr. Patagonia

By the 1960s, Yvon Chouinard would emerge as another star from this period and also make several noteworthy climbs.

More recently, speed climbing has come into vogue in Yosemite. While Warren Harding’s first trek up El Capitan took 47 days, Alex Honnold and Hans Florine managed their way up in just under two-and-a-half hours in 2012.

(NOTE: More landmark events in the Sierra’s climbing history can be found in our Timeline.)

At the same time, Yosemite’s Camp 4 took root as the heart of the American climbing scene and a haven for a group who were passionate about their craft above all else.

It’s Yosemite’s only walk-in campground (i.e., advance reservations aren’t required), and though it was somewhat grungy then and remains so now, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 because of the climbing history.

The Bears

Bear sightings have been a Yosemite thrill since the beginning. The Sierra used to be home to both black bears and grizzlies, but the latter were casualties as the western frontier was settled. The fearsome brown bears were killed off and all but gone from the Sierra by the 1920s.

Today, the park works hard to discourage bear and human interaction. There are strict rules that limit bears’ access to any human food they may find tempting and campaigns to educate the public about the importance of maintaining bears’ natural diet.

It Takes LOTS of Acorns to Fill Up

It’s easy to understand the bears’ temptation — imagine having to find enough acorns per day to get the thousands of calories needed to satisfy your hunger. But bears that develop a taste for marshmallows and hot dogs instead of plants, berries and acorns tend to become nuisances in public areas, which puts them at risk for relocation or worse. They also develop health problems like rotting teeth.

But encouraging bears to eat right wasn’t always Yosemite policy. In the 1930s, ranger-led bear feedings (of garbage) were a favorite spectacle, and there were even bleachers to watch the show.

Signs to Save Lives

Another element of modern bear management in Yosemite is its “Speeding Kills Bears” signs. Introduced in 1997, the goal is to reinforce the risk of animal-vehicle collisions in the park. The large yellow “Red Bear-Dead Bear” signs mark where such accidents have occurred.

The Natural Spectacles

The firefall was a beloved man-made marvel until it was discontinued in the late 1960s. (Before it was revived at Curry Village, it got its start from James McCauley who ran the now-gone Glacier Point Mountain House Hotel). And though new generations won’t have the opportunity to see that particular Yosemite wonder for themselves, nature still puts on many shows without any outside help. Some of these more organic spectacles include:


The rosy glow cast on the mountains at dawn and sunset.


Rare lunar rainbows caused by the moon’s reflection on water when conditions are right. The best time to see them in Yosemite is late spring and early summer when the falls are peaking and the moon is bright (and big).

Horsetail Fall

A naturally occurring reproduction of the firefall when this waterfall near El Capitan is given a fiery appearance by the setting sun. But the first half of February is the only time when there’s enough water in the fall, and the sun’s position allows the light to hit at the right angle to produce the phenomenon.

The Yosemite Falls Ice Cone

Winter visitors aren’t likely to see a cascade of water at Yosemite Falls, but they may get the opportunity to see the ice cone at its base. It’s the build-up of falling ice.

Frazil Ice

Another chilly, watery phenomenon is frazil ice. It can occur any time temperatures drop below freezing and is essentially frozen mist that then floats in Yosemite streams. Look for the slush after cold nights, especially in spring.

The Disasters

Other naturally occurring phenomena have been more damaging, notably fires, floods and rockfalls.

Prescribed fires have been an important aspect in forest management for some time, but Yosemite has also seen some recent and devastating wildfires.

Rim Fire

The 2013 Rim Fire now has the distinction of being Yosemite’s most notorious. The massive blaze started outside the park, but by the time it swept in the boundary a week later, it was well on its way to becoming the third-largest fire in California history.

It claimed more than 400 square miles, with about a quarter of that being inside the park. Human-caused, it was reported in August and not contained until October.

The flames and heat caused damage so severe that a substantial portion of the affected area is now a moonscape totally devoid of living things. The aftermath is visible along Highway 120, leading up to the Big Oak Flat entrance and extending along the route to the Tioga Pass. The scene along Hetch Hetchy Road is especially jarring. The Rim of the World Vista point between Buck Meadows and the Yosemite entrance also offers a thorough and startling view.

The Foresta Fire(s)

The barren trees seen from Highway 120 that are closer to Yosemite Valley were not victims of the Rim Fire, but rather two different fires in Foresta, a private community where individual landownership was grandfathered once Yosemite became a national park.

The first was a major blaze sparked by lightning in 1990 that would force the first-ever park closure and claim thousands of acres and many of Foresta’s buildings. One of the homes lost belonged to Shirley Sargent, a noted Yosemite author. Her valuable records of Yosemite’s history were also destroyed. She and others made harrowing escapes as the flames drew near their dwellings, hers being all the more difficult because she was handi-capped.

A second fire followed in 2009, a prescribed burn that grew out of control.

Yosemite had a landmark flood in 1997 that forced a 73-day shutdown — the longest in its history. The so-called “New Year’s Day Flood” occurred January 2nd when a type of precipitation-heavy tropical storm called a Pineapple Express brought three days of warm rains to the melting snow. (Yosemite had several other major floods before this, nearly all caused by rain falling on snow.)

The result was major flooding for the Merced River, with the waters rising as high as 16 feet in some areas. Much of Yosemite was underwater for days, and the ensuing damage was tremendous. One example: nearly half of the rooms at Yosemite Lodge were destroyed. (A controversial plan to rebuild near Camp 4 didn’t come to fruition.)

To provide some perspective on the flood’s drama, signs throughout the park mark the elevated waterline.

An Indian Curse?

When the Ahwahneechee were driven from Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Battalion later killed the son of their chief, it is said that the old Indian leader — named Tenaya — issued a curse. Today, some would argue that rockfalls are one manifestation of it (along with other calamities, especially in Tenaya Canyon where the Yosemite Search & Rescue has paid several visits).

Something to See & Hear

Rockfalls are caused by a combination of weathering and stresses in the rock that cause fracturing, which in turn eventually causes massive slabs to break free and drop thousands of feet. The tumbles are not uncommon, and evidence of them is readily visible throughout the park, both in the rock faces and in the boulders and shattered talus that lie at the foot of several mountains.

One place where it truly can’t be ignored is on Highway 140, where part of the road was wiped out by fallen rock in 2006, resulting in the present system of one-lane traffic. (Determining a more permanent alternative has been an extended process. At one point one of the sticking points in proposals being considered was the impact on an endangered salamander.)

Hearing a rockfall during your time in Yosemite Valley is also a very real possibility. They typically start with a low rumble that sounds like thunder or perhaps a dump truck releasing a load of cargo.

The Big Ones

One of the most major rockfalls occurred in 1987 on the middle peak of the Three Brothers. It left behind an incredible 1.4 million tons of debris. Another nearly as big happened at Ahwiyah Point near Half Dome in 2009. It was lucky that it happened in the pre-dawn hours — the debris blocked a popular hiking trail around Mirror Lake.

Others in recent decades have threatened Curry Village, destroying wood and tent cabins. (Other structures there were also closed after a 2012 study suggested that they were highly at risk for rockfall damage.) The Ahwahnee’s been in danger too, and was evacuated when a 2009 rockfall produced 800 tons of fallen rock and damaged vehicles in the parking lot. But the one that proved most horrific was in 1996 at Happy Isles when 80,000 tons of rock plummeting from Glacier Point uprooted hundreds of trees and caused numerous injuries as well as one death.

share this page