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The Discovery and Saving of Yosemite: A Militiaman’s Emotions

By Lee Foster

As I go to Yosemite to see the 2016 waterfalls on parade, after the snowy winter, I update this Yosemite chapter of my book Northern California History Weekends, which will come out in a new edition in 2017.

See Lee's four Northern California books on his Amazon Author Page.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.

In Brief: “As I looked, a peculiar sensation seemed to fill my whole being,” wrote the militiaman. “And I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”

Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, CA

Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, CA

Such were the sentiments of one of the first white men to see Yosemite Valley, a mountain retreat of awesome beauty in east central California. The year was 1851. Our observer was not a poet, but a rough militiaman from the Mariposa Battalion, sent to pursue Chief Tenaya and his Ahwahnechee tribesmen, who were experiencing conflict with the gold miners around Mariposa. The simple eloquence of his recorded thoughts testifies to the universal experience of Yosemite. So many travelers, when first encountering Yosemite Valley, an eight-mile funnel with a flat base and 3,000-foot granite walls, feel the same subdued grandeur about the place, a sense of nature’s cathedral, a spare and ennobling aura.

Gradually, Yosemite moved toward public protection. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed a bill, the Yosemite Grant to California, authorizing state protection of Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoias of the area. Spurred by pleas and publicity from John Muir and others, Yosemite National Park was legislated in 1890. Later, on a famous camping trip, Teddy Roosevelt visited Yosemite with John Muir. The trip energized Roosevelt to create a record-breaking number of public parks and monuments during his presidency.

The Historic Story: The history of major interest in Yosemite is not the mere human time frame but the geological story. Over eons the forces of glacial activity have scraped away at the granite rock, exposing the faces such as El Capitan and Half Dome, which stun the imagination with their size. The rushing Merced River has carried rock fragment and silt from higher mountain areas to the floor of the valley. Prior to the glacial periods Yosemite was a sea, with extensive sedimentary deposits. Gradually, geological forces of uplift thrust the sea bed to its present elevation.

Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute Native Americans established villages along the Merced River that runs through Yosemite Valley. The Native Americans called the Valley “Ahwahnee,” which possibly meant “gaping mouth.” They may have lived here for several thousand years, gathering acorns and seeds, fishing for trout, and hunting deer. Except for a period of years around 1800, when a disease known as “the fatal black sickness” forced them out of the area, the Native Americans lived peacefully within the Yosemite Valley. Not until much later, after the Gold Rush, did the white man stumble upon the area. Today you can see living demonstrations of life in a Miwok village. The re-creations occur at the Visitor Center and have been performed, in some cases, by descendants of the original Miwoks, which makes this event a highlight of a Yosemite trip. You’ll see how the Miwoks harvested the black oak acorns, hunted for deer, and lived in bark structures.

Getting There: The most direct routes to Yosemite Valley from San Francisco are Highway 120 east from Manteca or Highway 132 at the Modesto turnoff from Interstate 5-580. The all-weather gateway to Yosemite is Merced, a town in the Central Valley of California. From Merced, take Highway 140 east into Yosemite Valley. Merced is about three hours by car from San Francisco. Allow another hour for the drive in along narrow, winding roads to the park. The Amtrak train is a relaxing way to get to Yosemite. The train arranges bus transportation into Yosemite Valley from Merced.

Be Sure To See: Start at the Visitor Center, with its excellent selection of guidebooks and maps, plus a ranger to suggest outings.

A visit can recreate the wonder of Yosemite that John Muir showed Theodore Roosevelt during their famous encampment here. A marker on the valley floor recalls the event.

Some favorite initial outings here are easy to make with the help of a ranger’s directions.

Drive or tram around the valley to get a view of all the different waterfalls. Yosemite Falls is the most obvious and dominant. Upper Yosemite Falls drops 1,430 feet in one abrupt fall, and Lower Yosemite Falls drops another 320 feet.

Walk up to Mirror Lake. The walk is lovely and the setting, an alpine lake quickly silting due to natural succession, illustrates the geologic forces at work today.

Walk up to Nevada Falls. Part of the pleasure of this walk is the ever-changing vista presented of such familiar landmarks as Yosemite Falls or Half Dome.

Yosemite Valley, which 90 percent of the visitors never leave, is only a miniscule part of Yosemite National Park. The valley is seven of the total 1,169 square miles of the park. Make an effort to get out of the valley to Wawona to see the big trees, the sequoias, or to the high country to see Tuolumne Meadows.

There are 196 miles of primary roads and about 800 miles of trail to entice you beyond Yosemite Valley. Yosemite’s high country offers an excursion through a rocky alpine landscape.

The road is Highway 120, the Tioga Pass Road, which is closed in winter.

Best Time of Year: Each season brings its special rewards to a Yosemite visitor. Summer is the time of the most active historic interpretive programs and best access to roads in the high country.

Lodging: The historic lodging in Yosemite Valley is the Ahwahnee, one of the most distinctive lodgings in any National Park. Due to a “naming rights” legal controversy with Delaware North, a former Park Service vendor, the grand hotel is now known as The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.

Dining: The memorable dining here is at the venerable “Ahwahnee” Dining Room.

For Further Information: The Park Service website itself is always your best source of information. See that at

The new “vendor” for the park, Aramark, starting in 2016, manages all the practical details of travel to Yosemite, such as the lodgings. See them at

The “public” is generally not sympathetic with the “trademark” name claims of the former vendor.

The main “naming” changes now in effect are:
-Yosemite Lodge at the Falls became Yosemite Valley Lodge
-The Ahwahnee became The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
-Curry Village became Half Dome Village
-Wawona Hotel became Big Trees Lodge
-Badger Pass Ski Area became Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area

This article is an update of a chapter in one of my California books. The release date for my revision of the book, Northern California History Weekends, will be Spring 2017. My books/ebooks on California and other subjects can be seen on my website ( and on my Amazon Author Page (

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