Celebrating Yosemite 12: Closing Thoughts and Hiking Half Dome
When I began thinking about writing a book on Yosemite my wife insisted that I simply could not write a story of the park’s administration throughout its 150-year history. Rather, I must write about the Yosemite that she knew as a child, when, during her family summer vacations, her folks freed both her and her brother to explore Yosemite Valley on their bicycles. She regaled me with stories of jumping off the Sentinel Bridge on a dare, spending whole afternoons pedaling from one side of the Valley to the other, and the sheer sense of freedom that only a child can feel in such a place.
I smiled and said yes dear (I’m married, not stupid), but admittedly I had no intention of writing that book. Instead, I was more interested on building upon the draft administrative history I had co-wrote as a graduate student to, as I stated at the beginning of this series, tell the enduring challenges in meeting millions of visitors’ desires on how to enjoy Yosemite. But my wife wouldn’t quit harassing (or as she argues, regaling) me that Yosemite’s story was more than just its administration, leading me to finally telling her in a no certain terms that if she wanted to write that particular book she could damn well write it herself! Quickly followed with, “Yes dear, I would absolutely love to take out the trash right now.”
But a strange thing happened as I started going back through the research I did all those years ago – I began to see hundreds of stories like my wife’s. Some I have written about over the past year as I have begun to puzzle out Yosemite’s story in my first, and admittedly rough, thoughts on the park’s history. Others I have yet to unpack, including the role of Native peoples in Yosemite, the public’s views surrounding fire and wildlife management within the park, and the continued struggles over the National Park Service’s attempts to limit visitor numbers while remaining relevant to America’s changing demographics.
So, in the spirit of story telling, I want to end my series of the Yosemite Grant’s 150th Anniversary with a story of my own. I spent two summers in the park researching what would become the draft Yosemite National Park Administrative History. Most weekdays I sat in the park’s windowless archive in El Portal, but weekends were mine to explore Yosemite. Not a bad way to spent a couple summers.
One Saturday morning, I awoke before dawn and drove into the Valley, arriving at the Vernal Fall trailhead just as the sun began to rise over the Sierra. Hoisting my small pack onto my back I set off in the quit of morning hoping to climb Half Dome. At the Vernal Fall Bridge I fell into a conversation with a couple also making their way to the top. We quickly agreed to hike together, and set off towards Nevada Fall. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, I believe he was a runner, but do recall the view of the Nevada Fall from the John Muir Trail. Carved out of a granite cliff, the trail takes a more southerly approach to the fall, and is often much less crowded, which we discovered at the top of the fall where the hoards were already crowding the more popular Mist Trail.
After trekking through the Little Yosemite Valley up switchbacks carpeted with pine needles, we scrambled up Quarter Dome before reaching the base of Half Dome. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait in line to climb up the cables, yet the broad expanse of the Dome’s Summit was crowded with small groups of hikers lounging in the sun. After taking in the sights, and losing my nerve on approaching the edge of the Dome’s face, the three of us decided to make our way back down. Climbing down is always more difficult than climbing up, and many folks were clearly not as comfortable on the way down as they had been on the way up. Long lines formed as hikers, fearful of the descent’s steepness, inched their way down the cable. The bottom was a zoo, as growing numbers, having started hours later I had were now just making it to the base of the dome. Beating a hasty retreat, my new friends and I raced back down to the trailhead where we said our goodbyes and I drove out of the Valley under the afternoon sun.
My experience hiking Half Dome was not unique. Once considered “perfectly inaccessible,” by 2012 roughly 1,200 hikers made the ascent to the top of Half Dome daily. During the summer months hikers typically had to wait in line to access the cables that allowed hikers to climb to the top. Installed by members of the Sierra Club in 1919, the cables opened the summit of the dome to anyone willing to make the trek. But like the Merced River, the designation of Half Dome as a wilderness area in 1984 began a two-decade long struggle over the number of visitors making the ascent, which included me that morning.
In order to meet the ever-growing popularity of the Half Dame hike and meet its requirements under the Wilderness Act, in 2012 Yosemite installed a permit system limiting the number of day hikers allowed on Half Dome to 300. The public met the plan with mixed emotions. Many decried the park’s limiting of access to the dome’s summit, while others praised the attempts to limit the impacts caused by hundreds of hikers making the climb throughout the summer. A small minority demanded the park cut the cable all together, a demand seen as undemocratic by the vast number of commenters on the final plan.
Looking back over the past eleven months of my ruminations over Yosemite’s history a common thread has begun to emerge–its visitors. While shaped by early boosters such as Hutchings, followed by the National Park Service and concessioners, Yosemite’s story is about its visitors. Over the past 150 years, visitors have defined Yosemite through their experiences and expectations. And by telling the stories of its visitors we can evoke why Yosemite has meant so much to so many people.
There is no doubt that Yosemite is a spectacular place. Yet it is also a place of contradiction – at once apart from and a part of civilization. It is this incongruity that makes Yosemite so interesting, and leaves me with more questions that I hope to unravel as I begin the next stage of writing its history.
On that note, I best get the rest of my chores done. Thanks for reading, and see you on the trails.