Yosemite National Park
Yosemite features sheer granite cliffs, exceptionally tall waterfalls, and old-growth forests at a unique intersection of geology and hydrology. Half Dome and El Capitan rise from the park’s centerpiece, the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, and from its vertical walls drop Yosemite Falls, one of North America’s tallest waterfalls at 2,425 feet (739 m) high. Three giant sequoia groves, along with a pristine wilderness in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, are home to a wide variety of rare plant and animal species.
Things To Do In Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park has activities for lovers of the outdoors.
This park draws both seasoned outdoorsmen, nature lovers, history lovers, and those who simply love a beautiful landscape. From physical activities like hiking and rock climbing, to appreciating natural splendor, Yosemite National Park has something for everyone. Here are some of our top picks of park activities.
Hike to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome!
Like the name suggests, the half dome resembles a ball cut in half, with one rounded and one sheer side. This natural granite formation, rising 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, was untouched by humans until 1875. The first person to set foot on the summit was George Anderson. Today, you can reach the summit of this national icon in a challenging 16 mile hike (a 10-12 hour trip!), which is rewarded with unparalleled views. The summit can also be scaled by climbing the sheer rock wall, which has 12 different routes available for rock climbers. The Half Dome was originally named Tis-sa-ack, meaning Cleft Rock, by the Ahwahneechee people, the original inhabitants of Yosemite Valley. Other accounts say that the original name means “Face of a Young Woman Stained with Tears”, as the lichen which creates a tear like effect on the rock.
View Yosemite Falls!
This is the tallest waterfall in North America, dropping 2,425 feet at its highest point. The falls are accessible through the Valley Loop trail. To reach the top of the waterfall, you can take a 7.2 mile hike to Upper Yosemite Falls. There are two other sections of the waterfall available for viewing, with shorter hikes; Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Falls. The Middle Cascades has a drop of 675 feet, and Lower Yosemite Falls has a 320 foot drop.
The main village of the Ahwahneechee people was located at the foot of Yosemite Falls. The people had a legend surrounding the falls. They believed it was inhabited by the Poloti, a group of witches. The tale tells of a young woman who went to draw water from the foot of the falls, and pulled out a pail of snakes instead. Because she had trespassed on the witches’ territory, they summoned a wind, which took the young woman and her child into the pool of water.
Marvel at the iconic El Capitan!
This incredible structure is the largest block of granite in the world, and resides in Yosemite National Park. This wall, and the stories of those who have climbed it, have been memorialized in films, including Freesolo and Dawn Wall. El Capitan is visible from many different points, including Bridalviel Straight and El Cap Meadow. El Capitan is also the location of Horsetail Falls. Ambitious climbers can even take on the challenge of scaling El Capitan, using guides found through the Yosemite Mountaineering School. El Capitan was named by the Mariposa Battalion, and is thought to be a loose translation of the Ahwahneechee name for the cliff, “To-to-kon-oo-lah”, meaning “the chief”. El Capitan was carved by glaciers, and is made of the same granite which makes up much of Yosemite’s natural formations.
Visit the natural splendor of Hetch Hetchy Valley!
Located in a peaceful corner of Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy Valley boasts one of the longest hiking seasons, along with plenty of natural splendor and activities. Filled with canyons, lakes, and wildflowers, there is no shortage of appeal for the outdoor enthusiast. Popular points of destination within the valley are Smith Peak, which is the highest point in the area, and Wapama Falls, a hike filled with waterfalls.
Hetch Hetchy Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years, beginning with the seasonal migration of the Miwok and Paiute, who would travel to the valley during the summer. These tribes used the plants and resources of the valley to prepare for the winter, and for trading. They cared for the area, using controlled bushfires, which kept the forests surrounding the valley from overtaking the valley. The name of the valley is similar to the Miwok word for edible grasses, “hatchhatchie”. Nathan Screech was the first non-native to enter the valley, in the early 1850s. The settlers used the land for animal grazing, until John Muir noted the damage that the livestock had on the natural resources of the area.
Take a stroll in Wawona Meadow!
This piece of history is a unique area of Yosemite National Park, for a few different reasons. This meadow was one of the inspirations for the preservation of the park. John Muir, who was instrumental in the legislation, noted the damage that grazing animals had on the ecosystem in Wawona Meadows, and convinced others that the meadow, and the surrounding Yosemite Valley, were deserving of protected status.
Great efforts were taken to restore the natural splendor of Wawona Meadows, and now the area boasts beautiful wildflowers, and some of the area’s rarest birds. There is also a 9 hole golf course located in the meadow. To see this combination of nature and manmade pastimes, Wawona Meadows offers an easy, scenic hike that takes you around the course, and further into the remaining meadow. This trail is one of the few in the park that allows pets and bikes. With pastoral views and an abundance of wildflowers in the spring and summer, Wawona Meadows is a must-see.
Wildlife Of Yosemite National Park
With its large amount of land and different environments, Yosemite National Park supports more than 400 species of vertebrates including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
The wildlife in the park ranges from common to nearly endangered, so you never know what you might encounter! Remember, wildlife should be treated with the caution and respect that they deserve. Taking simple safety precautions and staying prepared is essential when traveling in the park. This helps keep both our visitors and the wildlife safe and happy! Here are some of the notable animals that reside in Yosemite National Park.
There are anywhere between 300 and 500 black bears in Yosemite. Black bears can weigh anywhere between 150 and 250 pounds on average when fully grown. They are a widespread species, usually living in forested areas. They subsist on grasses, berries, and insects primarily. Black bears are omnivores, and can be attracted to human communities- especially if they are fed! Easy availability of food is an attractive concept to a black bear.
Seeing a bear in Yosemite can be either awe or fear inspiring. If a bear is encountered, you should stay as far away from it as possible. Black bears can be scared off by making loud noises and waving your arms. It is recommended that patrons of Yosemite National Park follow food storage recommendations, to keep bears from stealing your food! Black bears are extremely dexterous, and capable of opening containers, and sometimes even unscrewing jars. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. No one in Yosemite has been killed or seriously injured by a black bear.
Sierra Nevada Red Fox
Yosemite recently had an exciting discovery- the Sierra Nevada red fox! This species was long thought to be locally extinct, with the last sighting in 1916. In 2010, a red fox was caught on camera in Sonora Pass. The red fox population drastically reduced due to trapping, and are now classified as an endangered species. Yosemite National Park has teamed up with many different organizations to study the red fox, determine its ecological impact, and preserve the remaining population. There are approximately 70 confirmed individuals left in the wild, and an unknown number in various parts of Oregon. Conservation efforts for this species mainly revolve around interbreeding with closely related fox species, such as the Sacramento Valley red fox. Their beautiful red fur made them a target for trappers, while also providing insulation for the cold environment of the Sierra Nevada. These foxes are nocturnal hunters, predominantly surviving on rodents.
Yosemite is home to a substantial mountain lion population. Mountain lions are also known as cougars and pumas. These essential predators are solitary and shy, and avoid park visitors when at all possible. Ranging in size from 7-8 feet, mountain lions are the second heaviest large cats, closely following the jaguar. Mountain lions are slender and agile, making them ideal ambush predators. Mountain lions hunt nocturnally for smaller mammals. As ambush predators, they use stealth to trap and hunt their prey.
Mountain lions have the largest range of any land mammal, spanning from the Yukon to the Southern Andes. This large range is made possible by their extreme adaptability, allowing them to adjust to virtually any environment. Mountain lions face threats from habitat fragmentation and loss, and loss of prey due to poaching. They mainly occupy undeveloped areas of Yosemite National Park. When they do pass through developed areas, they do not linger. It is unlikely that park visitors will encounter a mountain lion, but if you do, there are precautions you can take. Do not run, shout in a low voice and make yourself look larger, and maintain eye contact.
California Red-Legged Frog
Yosemite National Park recently experienced a resurgence of an absent species- the California red-legged frog. As the name suggests, the California red-legged frog is found mainly in California, as well as northwestern Mexico. Made famous by Mark Twain, this species began to decline with the introduction of the invasive bullfrog, and an increased population of predatory raccoons. For the last fifty years, due to these factors, the frogs have not been seen in Yosemite. With the eradication of the bullfrogs, and the reduced raccoon population in the park, an effort was undertaken to reintroduce the frogs- with great success! Red-legged frog eggs were found in spring 2019, which were the first generation born in the park in half a century!
Living in the frigid waters of the park is the American dipper, North America’s only aquatic songbird. The dipper is also known as a water ouzel. With a thick layer of down feathers to insulate and repel water, a third eyelid which helps them see underwater, and ability to maintain internal temperature, these birds are uniquely suited for their ecological niche. Their diet consists of underwater invertebrates, and their adaptations allow them to feed all year round, even in the coldest water. Unlike other bird species, the American dipper does not migrate. They are permanent residents of their niches, using their adaptations to survive year round, even in harsh conditions. These birds usually live along streams, and defend a linear territory along the banks. The American Dipper was the favorite bird of John Muir!
Pacific Tree Frog
The Pacific Tree Frog is the most common frog in the park. They are spread through all areas of Yosemite National Park. They grow to be approximately two inches long, and come in a variety of colors, including green, brown, and red. They have a black or brown eye stripe, which is their most common identifying mark.
Plant Life Of Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park’s wide range of elevation allows for a vast amount of diverse vegetation.
Vegetation zones range from scrub and chaparral communities at lower elevations, to subalpine forests and alpine meadows at the higher elevations. Of California’s 7,000 plant species, 20% of those can be found within Yosemite National Park. From incredibly tall, majestic trees, to beautiful wildflowers, to ferns, the plant life in the park is an essential part of the incredible landscape that makes this park so special. Here are some of the notable plant species that make their homes in Yosemite.
Yosemite National Park is home to a variety of coniferous trees, but the most striking are the giant sequoias. These trees are the largest living things on earth! The tallest measured 95 meters. The oldest sequoia is an impressive 3200 years old. These trees have been studied extensively for their uniquely large stature, specifically for the water transportation system they contain. Due to their size, they are required to produce large amounts of pressure in order to draw water up to their leaves.
They are limited in environment to the Sierra Nevada mountains, and often have difficulty reproducing, even when cultivated. However, in the past, these trees were far more widespread, ranging across North America. Fossil records even show evidence of these trees in Australia. The remaining trees, while rare, are evidence of a time past. Yosemite has three main areas for viewing these giants- Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove, and Merced Grove.
Giant Chain Fern
Hand in hand with coniferous forests comes the giant chain fern. It prefers wooden habitats with high moisture. True to its name, the giant chain fern has exceptionally long fronds, ranging from 1-3 meters in length. The spores of the fern are arranged in neat lines, which resemble chains. This is where the second part of the name comes from! This fern is native to North America, and is common in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. .
Yosemite National Park is a destination spot for beautiful wildflowers. One of the most lovely and diverse is the monkey flower. The term monkey flower can refer to a number of different flower species, all with a similar phenotype. Different species of monkey flower have different types of pollination and habitat. Some are self-pollinated, while others are pollinated by hummingbirds or bees. Some are more suited for desert climates, while others are more suited to heavy rainfall. The monkey flower is present throughout most of California, and boasts bright, cheerful colors. They are pollinated by bees and hummingbirds, and is a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Some varieties of the monkey flower were used in Native American medicine, specifically by the Miwok tribe. The flowers were used to treat sores and burns. The wildflowers of Yosemite are usually blooming in the spring and summer seasons.
The spear thistle is characterized by its purple flower and spiky appearance. It is also known as the bull thistle. It is an important contributor to pollinators, due to its excessive nectar production of nectar. The spear thistle reproduces through airborne seeds. It prefers bare or heavily grazed land, as grazing animals do not eat it, due to its spiky texture. However, this flower can be eaten by humans! The stems can be peeled and boiled. The spear thistle is native to Europe, and has spread to the United States. Besides being an important part of the pollination process, the spear thistle also provides important services in the ecosystem. It produces seeds that are eaten by birds, such as the goldfinch, and is a host plant for the painted lady butterfly. The spear thistle is often part of a meadow landscape.
Yosemite National Park is home to non-native plants, as well as native ones. One of these plants is Sweet William. This flower, characterized by its red petals with serrated edges, is native to southern Europe, and is used as an ornamental plant in the U.S. This flower has a distinctively spicy scent! It has become widely naturalized to North America, explaining its presence in Yosemite. Sweet William is an important part of the pollination system, attracting birds, bees, and butterflies. These flowers are edible by humans, and are suspected to have medicinal properties, although the potential medicinal value has gone uninvestigated.
Yosemite National Park has an incredibly rich history.
From the original inhabitants of the park, the Ahwahneechee tribe, we have legends surrounding the natural formations and the valley itself. Yosemite National Park has made history in the United States in many ways, including being the first parcel of land set aside for conservation and preservation by the federal government. The park was a favorite of many important figures, including John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Here are some of the most important milestones and people in the history of Yosemite National Park.
The valley of Yosemite has been inhabited for almost 3,000 years. The original inhabitants were the Ahwahnechee, or the “dwellers of Ahwahnee”. Ahwahnee means “big mouth” in their indigenous language. Ahwahnee was a major trade center for Native American tribes, including the Central Sierra Miwoks. When the California Gold Rush began, tensions between European settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of Ahwanee began to rise. During the Mariposa Wars, which were waged in order to suppress Native American populations, the Mariposa Battalion was led into Yosemite Valley by major Jim Savage. This battalion was meant to pursue Ahwahneechee forces. The forces were led by Chief Tenaya, the founder of the Ahwahnee colony. The name Yosemite came from interviews with her, before her death by the Mono Paiute.
Galen Clark was known as the Guardian of Yosemite. He grew up in Canada, and migrated to the U.S. as a young man. In 1856, after the death of his wife, he moved to California. Three years after his move, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and began to spend much of his time outside, on doctor’s orders and because of his love for nature. During this time, he was the first European American to discover the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Struck with their size and beauty, Clark was determined to preserve the grove. He wrote to Congress, and participated in the formation of legislation intended to preserve the area.
This preservation grant was the first of its kind, making history. For the rest of his life, Clark ran a hotel and guide service, and wrote three books about Yosemite. Although he could have sought to gain wealth through his discovery of the Mariposa Grove, he lived a simple life, and did not seek personal gain from the discovery. His legacy lives on, both in the park itself and in the sequoia tree that bears his name.
Abraham Lincoln signed Galen Clark’s preservation legislation into law. This was the creation of the Yosemite Grant, is the first instance of park land being set aside for preservation and public use by action of the U.S. federal government. This grant set a precedent for the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park. This grant included Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, which were passed to the state of California as a state park. Galen Clark was the first guardian of the grant.
John Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation. He spent his childhood in Scotland, before moving to the United States. During his childhood, he discovered his love of nature early, by taking walks with his grandfather. After moving, his family started a farm in Wisconsin. Muir finished his schooling in the U.S., at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his first botany lesson resparked his passion for the outdoors. Muir never graduated, but his courses in geology and botany informed his later wanderings and writings.
Years later, Muir had an accident at his workplace, which left him nearly blind. When he regained his sight, he felt he had a new purpose- to spend as much time outdoors, in communion with nature, as possible. He later settled in San Francisco, which began his love affair with Yosemite. He found himself overwhelmed by its beauty, saying that “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.” Muir was essential in the formation of Yosemite as a national park. He invited Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor of Century Magazine, to camp with him, and see the damage that domesticated sheep had done to the area. Robert, along with agreeing to publish any papers Muir wrote on the subject, used his influence to propose that Yosemite become a national park, modeled after Yellowstone.
This was successful, but the park remained under state jurisdiction, and Muir campaigned to bring the park under federal jurisdiction. Muir also co-founded the Sierra Club, which remains a very influential conservation activist group to this day. Muir was also responsible for recruiting Theodore Roosevelt’s support in moving the jurisdiction of the park from the state to the federal level. Through his work in conservation, and specifically in Yosemite Park, he was nicknamed “John of the Mountains” and “Father of National Parks”.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to California and requested that Muir take him camping for several days in Yosemite. Roosevelt spent a night beneath the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove and compared it to “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hands of man.” Muir impressed upon Roosevelt the need to expand the national park to include those lands still in California’s possession, and in 1906 the president signed a law that brought the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove under federal jurisdiction.
Stephen Mather was the first director of the National Park Service. Mather began his career as the president of Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, through which he became a millionaire. In 1904, Mather traveled to Europe with his wife, renewing his interest in nature. He began to have ideas for the national parks, including conservation and creating easy transportation to reach them. He was active in the Sierra Club, founded by John Muir, and He began campaigning for a unified federal service to oversee parks.
This idea would become the National Park Service. He was appointed to oversee this department in 1917, and served until 1929. Mathers suffered from bipolar disorder, which periodically prevented him from working. During the bouts of his illness, Horace Albright, another member of the Sierra Club, continued his work in the department. By the time he left the department, the National Park Service was overseeing 20 national parks and 32 national monuments.
How Yosemite National Park Was Formed
The story of Yosemite National Park’s formation is the story of the formation of the Sierra Nevadas mountain range.
The Sierra Nevada is a chunk of the earth’s crust that broke free along a fault system. Shaped initially by erosion during the formation of the mountain range, and modified later by glaciers, Yosemite National Park is a tale of natural formation resulting in the splendor of the park as we know it today.
A series of glaciations further modified the region starting about 2 to 3 million years ago and ending sometime around 10,000 BP. At least four major glaciations have occurred in the Sierra Nevada, locally called the Sherwin (also called the pre-Tahoe), Tahoe, Tenaya, and Tioga. The Sherwin glaciers were the largest, filling Yosemite and other valleys, while later stages produced much smaller glaciers. A Sherwin-age glacier was almost surely responsible for the major excavation and shaping of Yosemite Valley and other canyons in the area. While many of the major landmarks of Yosemite were visible before glacial sculpting, many were not. Nearly all of the lakes in Yosemite are the result of glaciers.
Much of the Sierra Nevada is composed of granite, which is shaped into some of the most striking landmarks of Yosemite. These landmarks include Hetch Hetchy Valley and the cliffs of Yosemite. Granite is composed of layers of magma, intruding on each other over millions of years. The core of the Sierra Nevada range, which is known as the Sierra Nevada Batholith, became the major peaks of the Sierra Nevada, including El Capitan and the Half Dome, two of the park’s major granite features.
Yosemite is also home to metamorphic rock, although these compose less than 5% of the total rock composition. Metamorphic rocks are rocks which have undergone a transformation, which can be due to a number of factors. These factors include the contact of magma onto the rock, which causes it to undergo changes due to high heat, and high pressure from being underground. These metamorphic rocks are remnants of volcanic eruptions, which have eroded in large part due to the intruding granite formations that dominate the Yosemite landscape.
Uplift and Erosion
Yosemite’s formation is a story of uplift and erosion. The area which would become the Sierra Nevada, and by extent, the Yosemite Valley, was once much lower in altitude. Approximately 65 million years ago, the process of uplift and tilting began. When the granite core of the area was exposed, the landscape began to change. The slope of the newly forming mountains began to uplift and tilt, which allowed for many of the areas natural landmarks began to form. What began as smaller streams in the lower altitude ran into rivers, which began to erode the granite and create the stunning formations we know today.