Yosemite: The Range of Light
But well before 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson created the national body to manage and defend the country’s monuments and parks – and even before Yellowstone was pronounced, back in 1872, the world’s first national park – there was one majestic landscape considered worthy of protection under state law: the Yosemite Valley.
On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, the first instance of land being set aside for “public use, resort and recreation”. Just 15 years prior, a battalion of soldiers had become the first non-Indians to ride into the spectacular gorge in California’s Sierra Nevada range east of San Francisco, ingloriously slaying its Ahwahneechee residents and burning their villages to the ground. Word quickly spread, however, about the sublime beauty of the wildflower-strewn meadows flanked by monumental granite cliffs and tumbling waterfalls, luring the first tourists to its groves of giant sequoias.
“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” gushed naturalist John Muir, the man credited with putting Yosemite on the map through his prolific, rapturous musings during his years exploring the High Sierras.
“..after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light,” he wrote.
Years later, Muir would share his beloved mountain home with President Theodore Roosevelt, the man largely credited with starting America’s conservation movement. “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man,” the president wrote of his camping trip in the wilderness in 1903. “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods…and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
More than a century later, Yosemite National Park is one of America’s most popular national parks, attracting four million visitors a year. Many of them come on day trips from San Francisco, just a three-hour drive west; and most stay within the seven square miles (18 sq km) of the central valley – just one per cent of the entire park area. Yosemite is also a magnet, however, to adventurers, photographers, backcountry hikers and rock climbers who tackle some of the most challenging ascents in the world, including the glacier-carved Half Dome and the one-kilometre sheer face of the granite monolith, El Capitan.
Open year-round, Yosemite’s geographic wonders are showcased by the seasons. In spring, its famous waterfalls are fully-charged, thundering over cliffs still glistening with ice crystals. By June, delicate wildflowers announce peak tourist season, with crowds jostling for space at campgrounds, lookouts and popular trails; while Fall is less frenetic, changing foliage a bonus for wildlife spotters and hikers.
My first visit to Yosemite occurs during winter, when much of the park is inaccessible due to snow. With limited time, I opt for an organised tour with San Francisco-based company Extranomical, who offer both day trips and longer excursions into the park. Craving some independence, I settle on an overnight stay, which will provide me with park highlights whilst allowing a precious 24 hours of free time to explore on my own.
The decision not to self-drive is a prudent one; road conditions are hazardous, and some sights, such as Glacier Point and the Giant Sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove, are inaccessible due to snowdrifts. We’re also blessed with a personable guide, a veteran of 148 park visits as well as hours of extracurricular study on the geology and biology of the park, resulting in enthusiastic and knowledgeable on-road banter.
But at the park viewpoints, chit-chat is superfluous. We stand in contemplative silence at the iconic Tunnel View, the forest beneath El Capitan and Half Dome dusted in icing sugar and the wistful Bridalveil Fall plummeting 189 metres in the distance; while at the three-tiered Yosemite Falls, huge chunks of ice splinter with a thunderous echo as they tumble over the precipice.
In the heart of Yosemite Village, a handsome, lone coyote wanders along the verge, unfazed by prying eyes through bus windows; while a young mule buck, nibbling at shoots poking through snow, shows no fear as we tiptoe past on a trail.
After lunch at Yosemite Valley Lodge, I wave goodbye to my tour group and head off to explore on my own. I venture across Sentinel Meadow under the shrouded shadow of El Capitan; but the weather is setting in and afternoon light waning. I instead loop back to the Village centre to check out its man-made attractions – the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee, before a controversial name change in March 2016 due to a trademarking debacle) and the fascinating Ansel Adams Gallery.
The Ahwahnee, as it will always be to purists, is one of America’s great lodges, and as much a part of the National Park fabric as the geographic wonders it celebrates. Built in 1927 to attract affluent visitors to the park, this National Historic Landmark was constructed at a cost of nearly a million dollars from granite, steel and timber, with massive picture windows framing views of Glacier Point, Half Dome and Yellowstone Falls. Its centrepiece is the Great Lounge, featuring two stone fireplaces and a distinctive combination of Art Deco, Native American and Persian design; while its cavernous beamed dining room has played host to such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney.
Landscape photographer Ansel Adams was also a regular guest at the hotel, using it as a base during his yearly pilgrimages to Yosemite. Regarded as a “national institution”, Adams credits his seven-decade career to the distinctive light and clarity of the High Sierras. “The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious,” he wrote of his first visit to the park with his family in 1916. “One wonder after another descended upon us... There was light everywhere... A new era began for me."
During his early visits to Yosemite, Adams started courting Virginia Best, whose father owned an artist studio in the village. After their marriage in 1928, Ansel used the studio to showcase his ever-growing portfolio of landscapes; and it remains today in the hands of the Ansel family, operating as the Ansel Adams Gallery.
Adams’ images of Yosemite – including his first masterpiece, ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome’ (1927) – were his personal statement on the American wilderness, using them to promote conservation and to highlight the fragility of the environment. His photographs “did for the national parks something comparable to what Homer’s epics did for Odysseus,” critic Abigail Foerstner wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1992.
After a fresh dump of snow overnight, I awake to what can only be described as a winter wonderland, fluffy white powder sparkling under an azure, sunlit sky. I wander the trail to Mirror Lake, revelling in the cool, fresh air and thrilling at the intimate details in this perfect canvas – icicles on a bare branch, snow-covered pebbles in a stream, ice-encrusted lichen on a tree trunk, crisp reflections on glassy surfaces.
But it’s soon time for me to leave this Narnian vision. After connecting with my return tour group, we make a final pilgrimage to one of Ansel Adams’ favourite locations – the meadow at the foot of El Capitan.
The hulk is playing hide-and-seek, its solid mass a ghost beneath a gossamer cloud. Alighting from the bus, I join a row of photographers lining the banks of the Merced River, tripods splayed and fingers poised as they patiently await nature’s overdue cooperation.
I’m in luck - right on cue, the veil lifts to a collective gasp of appreciation; shutters click furiously as the granite monolith is illuminated by afternoon rays, its burnished flanks reflected in the bubbling stream as an ethereal vapour rises into snow-laden firs. It’s achingly, mind-blowingly beautiful; and I know, even with my questionable photographic skills, that I have captured a moment of glory.
In the words of Ansel Adams, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
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