Year in Yosemite: Time Travel
For thousands of years, the native peoples wandered around Yosemite with seemingly no problem. For everyone else, access to Yosemite has never been easy. I was reminded of this when a friend wrote to say she was thinking of coming to visit. “How do I find you?” she asked. My answer bordered on the ridiculous. She could fly into Fresno and we’d come pick her up. Or she could fly to San Francisco, Oakland, Burbank or Los Angeles (4-6 hours away), take the train to Fresno and again we’d pick her up. Without renting a car, none of the choices were easy and even if she rented one, the trip from all but Fresno was long (especially after flying in from the East Coast). Furthermore, unless a person loves whipping around curvy mountain roads, the drive is not much fun. All of which led me to conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yosemite was “discovered” in 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion stumbled into the Valley while chasing down local natives. After that, the only way to get to the place was by horseback. Apparently, this was no picnic. Riders traveled for days just to reach an access point into Yosemite. From there the ride over the passes and into the Valley proved too arduous for all but the most courageous visitors. And, once in Yosemite, there were few, if any, decent places to stay or eat. Ten years after the Mariposa Battalion arrived only the hardy came to gaze upon Yosemite’s wonders. But as early entrepreneurs knew, where there’s beauty, there is money to be made. And so there seemed only one answer: make the journey easier.
Of course, as so often happens, several groups of people had this same idea at about the same time. Starting in 1859, different groups of investors set out to be the only stagecoach route into Yosemite. But then, as now, bribery, political contributions and pay-offs held sway, and soon competing routes into the park were being touted. As a result, travel to Yosemite was easier and quicker but not necessarily more comfortable. Folks still had to make their way to the staging areas (usually by train), then climb aboard an aptly named mud wagon for the ride to the Valley. In summer the routes were dusty and hot. In winter they were simply impassable.
All that changed when, in 1907, the Yosemite Valley Railroad laid tracks just at the edge of the Merced River. Its trains carried visitors to El Portal where they once again climbed into horse-drawn coaches bound for the Valley. By now, nicer hotels, decent campgrounds, hiking trails and a variety of restaurants had made Yosemite a popular destination.
Then came the automobile. Just as the railroad had helped to put the stagecoaches out of business, private cars would mean the end of the railroad. At first, park rules forbade the use of automobiles in Yosemite. However, in time, they became visitors’ overwhelming choice. Now every year almost 4 million people visit Yosemite and the only way to do it is by car or bus. Once here, it is possible to park and take shuttles. But most people seem to prefer the convenience of their car—despite the mind-boggling traffic jams of summer.
I may be old-fashioned but I’m waiting for the day when we return to earlier times. When, as in the late 1800s, great staging areas are created outside the park, and people board modern-day stagecoaches (better known as buses and trams) for the last leg of their journey. Or better yet, let’s do what we do in Wawona. Thanks to the park service, our little village boasts the only stagecoach-driving ranger in the National Park Service. Here in Pioneer Village, it is still possible to board a mud wagon (now suddenly romantic rather than hot and dusty), sit back and let the horses do the pulling. It’s fun. It’s exciting. And the only pollution is the biodegradable kind.
Top image by Nancy Casolaro. Bottom image from National Park Service.
In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.