California’s iconic wilderness inspired the United States’ national park movement in the 19th century, paving the way for the protection of hundreds of nature preserves that survive today.
The great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) first visited California’s Yosemite National Park as an adolescent. The 1916 encounter changed his life – inspiring his first photographs and a lifetime of conservation work.
“That first impression of the valley – white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra … was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful,” he later wrote.
Since non-native explorers first entered the Yosemite Valley in 1851, the history of the California mountain wilderness has been intertwined with that of the United States’ conservation movement.
President Abraham Lincoln placed the land under official protection from development with the Yosemite Land Grant of 1864, laying the foundation for the US National Park System, established eight years later.
John Muir, the influential conservationist who founded the Sierra Club, lobbied successfully for park status in the 1880s.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and to pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” he wrote in his book The Yosemite.
Yosemite was officially declared a national park 125 years ago, on October 1, 1890. It’s the second-oldest national park in the US, after Yellowstone National Park.
Its 3,027 square kilometers in the Sierra Nevada encompass some of the most iconic places of the American wilderness – giant sequoia trees, 750-meter waterfalls and majestic mountains up to nearly 4,000 meters, as well as El Capitan peak, a 90-meter granite monolith that is a point of pilgrimage for rock climbers and base jumpers from around the world.
Official protection since California’s pioneer days has allowed the land and its majesty to survive mostly unscathed.
Not that there haven’t been some false starts along the way, as the national parks system and accompanying concepts of nature’s purpose and worth have evolved over time.
Questionable tourist attractions like “Indian Days,” tourist shows in which local native people were paraded before visitors in cowboys-and-Indians garb, were ended in 1924.
In later decades, authorities gave up on bad ideas like feeding the park’s bears to attract them to visitor camps, and the summertime Yosemite “firefalls” created by dumping burning coals off clifftops at sunset.
If anything, the park has become more popular, and accessible, over time.
In 1903 it took a platoon of soldiers more than two weeks to ride to Yosemite from San Francisco. Now it’s an easy four-hour drive – with mobile phone reception and wi-fi on the other end.
More than 4 million people visited the park in 2014, among them hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors. International tourists made up a quarter of all visitors to the park, according to a 2009 survey, the most recent data available, nearly one-third of those from Germany and Britain.
The park faces challenges going into its sixth quarter-century.
Drought exacerbated by climate change is threatening Yosemite’s plant and animal life, as trees and meadows shrivel and warmer winters and decreased snowpack are changing the park’s ecosystem.
But the greatest risk facing Yosemite may be its own success.
The park first closed its gates due to visitor overcrowding in 1993. Some visitors complain of infrastructure that is insufficient to handle the crowds, and that the encroachment of millions of people is making Yosemite’s wilderness less wild.
Park authorities will mark the anniversary with a ceremony in Yosemite Valley, complete with a birthday cake.
“Yosemite is more beautiful than ever, … a majestic forest that should be protected and shared,” wrote lifelong park visitor Shawn Bonita in a tribute on the park’s website. “I hope that one day my kids will share the same passion for Yosemite as I do.”