Yosemite National Park is located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. More than 5 million people visit Yosemite each year. Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra.
Yosemite National Park is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island and contains thousands of lakes and ponds, 1,600 miles of streams, 800 miles of hiking trails, and 350 miles of roads. Two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Merced and the Tuolumne, begin within Yosemite’s borders and flow westward through the Sierra foothills, into the Central Valley of California.
Yosemite National Park covers an area of 747,956 acres and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984. Yosemite is recognized for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, meadows, glaciers, and biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness.
Yosemite is one of the largest and least fragmented habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada, and the park supports a diversity of plants and animals. The park has an elevation range from 2,127 to 13,114 feet (648 to 3,997 m) and contains five major vegetation zones: chaparral and oak woodland, lower montane forest, upper montane forest, subalpine zone, and alpine. Of California’s 7,000 plant species, about 50% occur in the Sierra Nevada and more than 20% within Yosemite. There is suitable habitat for more than 160 rare plants in the park, with rare local geologic formations and unique soils characterizing the restricted ranges many of these plants occupy.
History of Yosemite: The name “Yosemite” (meaning “killer” in Miwok) originally referred to the name of a renegade tribe which was driven out of the area (and possibly annihilated) by the Mariposa Battalion. Before then the area was called “Ahwahnee” (“big mouth”) by indigenous people. Yosemite Valley has been inhabited for nearly 3,000 years, though humans may have first visited the area as long as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The indigenous natives called themselves the Ahwahnechee, meaning “dwellers in Ahwahnee.” They are related to the Northern Paiute and Mono tribes. Many tribes visited the area to trade, including nearby Central Sierra Miwoks, who lived along the drainage area of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers.
Yosemite Valley is only about one percent of the park area, but this is where most visitors arrive and stay. The Tunnel View is the first view of the Valley for many visitors and is extensively photographed. El Capitan, a prominent granite cliff that looms over Yosemite Valley, is one of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world because of its diverse range of climbing routes in addition to its year-round accessibility. Granite domes such as Sentinel Dome and Half Dome rise 3,000 and 4,800 feet respectively, above the valley floor.
The high country of Yosemite contains beautiful areas such as Tuolumne Meadows, Dana Meadows, the Clark Range, the Cathedral Range, and the Kuna Crest. The Sierra crest and the Pacific Crest Trail run through Yosemite, with peaks of red metamorphic rock, such as Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs, and granite peaks, such as Mount Conness. Mount Lyell is the highest point in the park, standing at 13,120 feet. The Lyell Glacier is the largest glacier in Yosemite National Park and is one of the few remaining in the Sierra Nevada today.
Yosemite is also very famous for its high concentration of waterfalls in a small area. Numerous sheer drops, glacial steps and hanging valleys in the park provide many places for waterfalls to exist, especially during April, May, and June (the snowmelt season). Located in Yosemite Valley, the Yosemite Falls is the highest in North America at 2,425 feet.
Also in Yosemite Valley is the much lower volume Ribbon Falls, which has the highest single vertical drop, 1,612 feet. Perhaps the most prominent of the Yosemite Valley waterfalls is Bridalveil Fall, which is the waterfall seen from the Tunnel View viewpoint at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel. Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley is another notable waterfall. Hundreds of ephemeral waterfalls also exist in the park.
All glaciers in the park are relatively small glaciers that occupy areas that are in almost permanent shade, such as north- and northeast-facing cirques. Lyell Glacier is the largest glacier in Yosemite (the Palisades Glaciers are the largest in the Sierra Nevada) and covers 160 acres.
At a variety of elevations, meadows provide important, productive habitat for wildlife. Animals come to feed on the green grasses and use the flowing and standing water found in many meadows. Predators, in turn, are attracted to these areas. The interface between meadow and forest is also favored by many animal species because of the proximity of open areas for foraging and cover for protection. Species that are highly dependent upon meadow habitat include great grey owl, willow flycatcher, Yosemite toad, and mountain beaver. Let’s not forget that black bears also roam throughout the park. Some 30 bears a year are captured by park rangers and tagged for monitoring.
Yosemite Valley is open year-round and numerous activities are available through the National Park Service, Yosemite Conservancy, and Aramark at Yosemite, including nature walks, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, bike rentals, rafting, mule and horseback rides, and rock climbing classes. Water activities are plentiful during warmer months. Rafting can be done through the Yosemite Valley on the Merced River. There are also swimming pools available at Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village.
Many people enjoy short walks and longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. Others like to drive or take a tour bus to Glacier Point (summer-fall) to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country, or drive along the scenic Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows (May-October) and go for a walk or hike.
While some locations in Yosemite require hiking, other locations can be reached via automobile transportation. Driving locations also allow guests to observe the night sky in locations other than their campsite or lodge. All of the roads in Yosemite are scenic, but the most famous is the Tioga Road, typically open from late May or early June through November.
Rock climbing is an important part of Yosemite. Camp 4, a walk-in campground in Yosemite Valley, was instrumental in the development of rock climbing as a sport, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Climbers can generally be spotted in the snow-free months on anything from ten-foot-high boulders to the 3,300-foot face of El Capitan. Classes on rock climbing are offered by numerous groups.
Yosemite Valley is open all year, although some roads within the park close in winter. Downhill skiing is available at the Badger Pass Ski Area-the oldest downhill skiing area in California, offering downhill skiing from mid-December through early April. Much of the park is open to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, with several backcountry ski huts open for use. Wilderness permits are required for backcountry overnight ski trips.
Most park visitors stay just for the day, and visit only those locations within Yosemite Valley that are easily accessible by automobile. There is a $25-30 per automobile user fee to enter the park, depending on the season. Traffic congestion in the valley is a serious problem during peak season, in summer. A free shuttle bus system operates year-round in the valley, and park rangers encourage people to use this system since parking within the valley during the summer is often nearly impossible to find.