Yosemite National Park, pronounced yoh SEHM ih tee, is a great wilderness in east-central California. It is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) east of San Francisco. It has about 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) of trails. Most of the trails lead to the "High Sierra," a region of sparkling lakes, rushing streams, and jagged mountain peaks. The park's Yosemite Museum has a collection of Indian displays and exhibits of the area's wildlife.
More than 60 kinds of animals and more than 200 species of birds live in the forests and mountains. Bears and deer are numerous. Yosemite has more than 30 kinds of trees and more than 1,300 varieties of plants. There are three groves of the famous Sequoiadendron giganteum or Big Trees. The best known is the Mariposa Grove, 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Yosemite Valley. It includes the Grizzly Giant Tree, whose base measures more than 34 feet (10 meters) in diameter.
In 1864, Congress gave Yosemite Valley to California for use as a public park and recreation area. John Muir, a naturalist, first saw the area in the 1860's. His reports of the beauties of the region aroused interest. Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890. But it did not include Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. California ceded these areas back to the federal government, and they were added to the park in 1906. The park has many tourist accommodations. Skiing is popular in the High Sierra. Other activities include horseback riding, fishing, golf, tennis, hiking, and swimming.
Yosemite Valley. Much of the park's most spectacular scenery is in the Yosemite Valley. The valley lies at a 4,000-foot (1,200-meter) elevation in the heart of the park. A group of explorers on their way to the Pacific Coast in the 1830's were probably the first white people to see the valley. But white people did not enter it until 1851. In that year, the Mariposa Battalion, a volunteer fighting force, set out to capture a group of Yosemite Indians. Tenaya, the Yosemite chief, had been leading raids on white settlers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He was captured, but eventually was allowed to return to the valley, which was named for his tribe.
Millions of years ago, California's Sierra Nevada was formed by a gradual series of earth upheavals. As the mountains rose, the westward-flowing Merced River accelerated to torrential speed and carved the narrow, V-shaped Merced Canyon. Later, massive glaciers flowed down the canyon. The glaciers ground and polished the canyon to a smooth U-shaped valley, nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide and almost 1 mile deep in places. Tributary streams did not carve their canyons as deep as Merced Canyon. Glaciers sheared off these canyons, leaving them as "hanging valleys." Today, the world's greatest concentration of free, leaping waterfalls pours from these valleys.
Waterfalls. Bridalveil Fall is the first waterfall seen by most Yosemite visitors. It graces the southern wall of the valley with a 620-foot (189-meter) descent. The Illilouette Falls also tumbles over the side of the valley. Yosemite Falls is formed by Yosemite Creek, leaping free from its hanging valley 2,425 feet (739 meters) above the valley floor. The Upper Falls is 1,430 feet (436 meters) high, and the Lower Falls measures 320 feet (98 meters) high. The cascades between the two tumble another 675 feet (206 meters). The total height is about 1/2 mile (0.8 kilometer).
Vernal and Nevada falls pour over giant steps formed by glaciers. Vernal Falls, 317 feet (97 meters) high, is famous for the rainbows that sparkle in the heavy mist at its base. About 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) upstream is 594-foot (181-meter) Nevada Falls. Indians named it squirming fall because a curving rock causes the water to twist as it descends. Some of the park's falls burst forth during the high-water season in spring. These include the slender 1,612-foot (491-meter) Ribbon Falls; the erratic Sentinel Falls, which drops 2,000 feet (610 meters); and the 1,170-foot (357-meter) Silver Strand Falls.
Rock masses. A number of rock masses rise sharply from the valley floor. The Half Dome rises about 8,800 feet (2,700 meters) at the head of the valley. El Capitan, which is a gigantic mass of unbroken granite, rises vertically about 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) above the canyon. From Glacier Point, one can look down more than 3,000 feet (910 meters) into the valley. Cloud's Rest, the highest point in Yosemite Valley, stands about 9,900 feet (3,000 meters) above the valley floor.
Hetch Hetchy Valley lies in the northwestern part of the park. It was carved by the Tuolumne River and ancient glaciers in much the same manner as Yosemite Valley. A reservoir covers the valley floor. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River is above Hetch Hetchy, to the east. The river rushes through the canyon, dropping 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in 4 miles (6 kilometers). It creates many cascades and waterfalls, including the Waterwheel Falls, a series of pinwheels of water. Some pinwheels rise as high as 40 feet (12 meters). Pinwheels are formed when the river, cascading down a steep granite apron, strikes rocky obstructions.
The Tuolumne River flows through Tuolumne Meadows, a vast grassland. The meadows have an elevation of about 8,500 feet (2,590 meters). Tourists camp there, and the area is also used as a base camp by mountain climbers. Tenaya Lake, near the meadows on Tioga Road, is the largest of the more than 300 lakes in Yosemite.
Transportation. Yosemite is a year-round park. Most roads remain open in the winter. But snows close roads in the High Sierra region from about midautumn until late spring. In August 1990, fires destroyed part of the park. Roads were blocked, and the park was closed for 10 days.