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Yosemite and the National Parks

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Yosemite National Park became an official entity 120 years ago, October 1, 1890, when Congress enacted legislation creating it. 

Yosemite was not the first national park (Yellowstone was established in 1872) but it gave birth to the idea of the National Park system when Congress created the Yosemite Grant, which Abraham Lincoln signed into law in June 1864.  The Grant, which set aside land for preservation and recreation, was the first public park to be administered by a state government.  It evolved into the National Park as a result of the work of naturalist John Muir, who recognized the need for federal protection from overuse by tourists and homesteaders.

Located in east central California, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite is famous for its glaciated towering granite cliffs, dramatic waterfalls, rock climbing events, and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.  It is the setting of Ansel Adams' most well-known photographic images.  (For examples, see Ansel Adams: classic images by James Alinder.)  In 1984, Yosemite became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The history of the founding of Yosemite National Park is told in fascinating detail in Ken Burns’ documentary, "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea" and in Dayton Duncan’s book of the same title.  Both the film on DVD and the book are available in the library’s collection.  Whether you have visited a national park once, a dozen times, or never, this film will surely whet your appetite to go (again) as soon as possible.

To get the most of your visit to a national park, we recommend viewing Burns' documentary and investigating some of the following books first.

National Geographic's Complete national parks of the United States by Mel White offers basic information for travelers about the significance of each park, location, what to see and how to plan a visit.  It is a comprehensive resource featuring more than 400 parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, scenic trails, recreation areas, and seashores.

Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, wrote the centennial edition of The National Parks of America nearly 40 years ago.  In it, he shares a history and description of each park featured, including Yosemite, in well-written prose.  The name Yosemite comes from the U-zu-ma-ti  Indians who lived there, and the name Ahwahnee, given to the lodge, comes from a particular tribe and means "deep grassy valley in the heart of the sky mountains".  Udall, who cast a striking image in an interview in Burns’ documentary, died in March at the age of 90.

Nevada Barr writes the atmospheric mystery series featuring National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon as the sleuth.  In High Country, Anna is sent in to work undercover as a waitress at Yosemite's historic Ahwahnee Hotel, to find out what happened to four missing Yosemite employees.  Rooming with 20-something staffers sets her up for some amusing encounters as well as the chance to hear park gossip, including rumors of a gold mine in the park. Eventually, Anna has information that sends her on a trek deep into the park in winter, away from the relative protection of Yosemite Valley and into harm’s way in the remote Sierra Nevadas.  Viciously attacked by poachers, Anna flees into the terrifying darkness for an ordeal that will keep readers eagerly turning the pages.

A former park ranger herself, Barr has a gift for writing about the outdoor world, using the natural elements of the park as camouflage for the violent life in the wild as well as among the park's human caretakers.  She has taken Anna Pigeon to several parks to solve crimes and, although it is not her intent to set a mystery in each park, it is worth checking to see if Anna appears in the park you plan to visit.

In No Regrets: 101 fabulous things to do before you’re too old, married, or pregnant, Sarah Ivens recommends taking a deep breath at Yosemite National Park to stay sane in this hectic world.

John Muir, who devoted his life to preserving Yosemite and other natural places, said much the same thing when he wrote "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.  This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest . . . in our magnificent National Parks—Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world."

Edwin Way Teale edited The Wilderness World of John Muir, a selection of his writings, including much about Yosemite.  Responsible for the founding of several national parks, Muir (1838-1914) also founded the Sierra Club and served as its president until his death and was one of America’s most important conservationists.  Kirkus Reviews said that this collection provides "reading that is often magnificent, thrilling, exciting, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring".

For more about Muir, Yosemite, and the national parks, visit us at or call 988-2541.

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