Travel – Yosemite National Park (Part One)

Yosemite - vintage postcard

One of the things about moving from California to the Midwest that we miss most is the easy access to some of the great National Parks located in the Western States and one of our family favorites is Yosemite National Park.  We have spent many fun-filled vacations over the last 30 years exploring and hiking areas such as Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, and Tuolumne Meadows and we have also stayed at a variety of campgrounds, cabins and luxury hotels within the park.

Yosemite National Park is located in the state of California on the western portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains ranging in elevation from 2,127 to 13,114 feet.  The park covers almost 1190 square miles although the over 3.5 million annual visitors spend the majority of their time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley.  Visitors to Yosemite National Park can see the majestic El Capitan and Half Dome granite formations and the multitude of waterfalls, such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls, to the beautiful open space of Tuolumne Meadows and the massive giant sequoia trees of the Mariposa Grove.

In Part One, of the two part series on Yosemite National Park, I will discuss the history of the park throughout the years.  In Part Two, I will discuss Yosemite visitor information and a list of suggested places to see and things to see and do, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park (Part Two)

A brief history of Yosemite National Park

Four hundred million years ago sediments accumulated on the floor of an ancient sea and were compressed and then formed layers of rock that were thousands of feet deep.  Later now extinct volcanoes erupted and then the molten rock cooled to form granite mixed with the sedimentary rock.  Between 25 and 15 million years the rock formations were uplifted by the tectonic plates, slowly tilted to form a range of mountains that would evenly become the Sierra Nevada. Two million years ago during what became known as the Ice Age the area became covered with ice and glaciers slowly moved down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range carving the granite into dramatic domes and severe cliffs, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, and creating deep U-shaped valleys, most notably the Yosemite and Hetchy Hetchy Valleys.  As the ice and glaciers melted leaving thousands of lakes and numerous waterfalls scattered across the area.  Over time, some of these lakes filled with sediment to form forested flat lands or meadows that are seasonally covered with colorful spring flowers.

Yosemite Valley - glacier  Yosemite Valley - glacier melt

According to archaeological evidence, Yosemite Valley was first settled by the indigenous Native Americans known as the Ahwahneeshee.  The Ahwahneeshee survived on local vegetation with acorns being the main staple of their diet and they also fished for salmon and hunted deer as well as trading with other Native Americans in the region.

In the mid-19th century, during the time of the California Gold Rush, European- Americans came to the area and later established settlements within the region.  This new influx of people created conflicts with the Native Americans and in 1851 the Mariposa Wars were intended to resolve the problem.  The Mariposa Battalion, a United States Army regiment led by Major Savage, entered the Yosemite Valley in pursuit of 200 Ahwahneechee led by Chief Tenaya.  Chief Tenaya and the Ahwahneechee were eventually captured, their village destroyed and relocated to a reservation near Fresno, California. These Native American encounters were written about by the officers of the Mariposa Battalion and they also include the first documented reports of the beauty of Yosemite.  (Travel Note:  For visitors wanting to see an example of an Ahwahneechee Native American Village, one was built behind the Yosemite Museum located next to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center)

Yosemite - Miwok indiana circa 1925 Yosemite - Miwok indians 1

Between 1855 and 1860, businessman James Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres are credited for writing several articles in magazines about Yosemite.  Ayres held an art exhibition of his Yosemite drawings in New York City and quickly the news spread across the nation about the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite and it soon became a popular tourist destination.  Galen Clark, an earlier settler in the Wawona area of Yosemite, built lodgings for tourists near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees.  Visitors came to see the famous Wawona Tree, later called the Tunnel Tree.  In 1881, a hole had been cut through the tree and it was considered quite a novelty for horse-drawn carriages to carry visitors through the tree and stop to take photos.  (For more information on the Wawona Tunnel Tree, please check out the “Yosemite National Park Visitor Information” section later in this post)

Mariposa Grove - Wawona Tunnel Tree 1  Yosemite - carriage

In the late 19th century, the attitude of the people of the United States was changing toward the preservation of the land.  Galen Clark and Senator John Conness actively worked to support the protection of the Yosemite Valley and President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill on June 30, 1864 creating the Yosemite Grant.  A few years later, when Yellowstone was made the first national park in 1872, this inspired the further protection of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove and the land was given to the State of California and it was made into a state park.  Eventually on October 1, 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed the legislation to create Yosemite National Park, making it the third national park in the nation.  Yosemite National Park included over 1,500 square miles of land which included the Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Meadows and the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Meanwhile the newly established Yosemite National Park was administered by the State of California and managed by the U.S. Army.

Mariposa Grove - Fallen Monarch

One of those early visitors to Yosemite was John Muir, a Scottish born American naturalist, author and staunch advocate for the preservation of the wilderness.  He wandered through most of Yosemite and was one of the first to theorize and prove with his scientific research that much of the area was created by large glaciers, which was contrary to the long held belief that the area was formed only by tectonic activity.  It was also through his efforts that Yosemite became a national park; Muir was very vocal about the overgrazing of the meadows by the sheep (ironically he briefly worked as a shepherd in the Valley), the logging of the giant sequoia (which proved to be poor building material) and the general commercialization of the park.

Yosemite - John Muir 1

Muir was now deeply involved in conservation efforts writing article for newspapers and books about his travel across the country, he was also the first president of the Sierra Club since May of 1892.  In May of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt came to Yosemite National Park and together with a small group led by John Muir as their guide they toured the park for three days.  The group traveled throughout the Valley to Mariposa Grove and to Glacier Point for magnificent views of El Capitan, Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls and the Yosemite Valley far below.  During the trip Muir advised Roosevelt to take control of Yosemite from California and transfer it to the federal government for long term protection; three years later Roosevelt signed the bill to do exactly that in 1906.  (Eventually when the National Park Service was formed in 1916, the administration and management of Yosemite (as well as the other national parks) was transferred to the new agency)

Yosemite - John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt  Yosemite - John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt  Mariposa grove

But Muir was not always successful in his conservation efforts.  There was one section in Yosemite National Park called the Hetch Hetchy Valley that rivaled Yosemite Valley with soaring granite monoliths, cascading waterfalls and beautiful meadows of flowers in spring.  In 1903, there was a proposal to dam the river to provide water and power for the growing metropolis of San Francisco thereby flooding the Hetch Hetchy and losing all the beautiful scenery.  After a failed attempt by the Sierra Club and other interests to block the project from moving forward, unfortunately the U.S. Congress authorized the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1913.  Muir was devastated by the loss of one of the most beautiful places in Yosemite National Park.

Hetch Hetchy Valley before Hetch Hetchy Valley after

Throughout the years the tourism to the park had increased steadily first with the railroads built to reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada later roads for stagecoaches and carriages were laid allowing easier transportation for visitors into the park.  In the late 19th century the National Park Service had been reluctant to allow organized commercial development within Yosemite but eventually they permitted a limited number of concessions.  In 1899 David and Jennie Curry started the Curry Company to provide concessions to park visitors and they later built s campground and cabins that would eventually become known as Curry Village.  Later another rival company, called the Yosemite National Park Company was established by John Degnan and they built hotels, stores and other park services.  In 1925 the two separate companies merged to form the Yosemite Park & Curry Company that later built the Ahwahnee Hotel in 1927.

Yosemite Lodge - vintage photo

Curry Village - vintage photo  Yosemite - camping

Throughout the years, in order to protect the land surrounding Yosemite from over development, Congress designated an additional 677,600 acres as a protected wilderness area.  The National Park Service, in order to preserve the park in its natural condition eliminated any activities that were artificially produced, such the popular nightly event known as the Firefall.  (For more information on this Yosemite tradition that was stopped in 1969, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park – Part Two)  As the visitor attendance to the park dramatically increased, especially in Yosemite Valley, traffic congestion became a big problem.  The solution that visitors were encouraged to park their cars at their hotels, campsites or visitor center while they were visiting the Yosemite Valley and take special buses that would reduce the amount of traffic on the park roads.  In September of 1995, the National Park Service started using electric buses that would be quieter and more importantly eliminate air pollution.

  Yosemite - old advertisement

For more information regarding Yosemite visitor information and a list of suggested places to see and things to see and do, please click on the link to Yosemite National Park (Part Two)

For more information about posts related to Yosemite National Park on this blog site, please click on the links to:

  • John Muir – a post about the man that helped to establish Yosemite as a National Park as well as the first president of the Sierra Club,
  • The Bracebridge Dinner – a post about the popular annual Christmas event held at the Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite and
  • Sequoia National Park – a travel post with detailed information about one of the other nearby national parks in California.

Celebration – The Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwanhee Hotel

Bracebridge Dinner - present dayThe Bracebridge Dinner is a lovely holiday tradition that is held annually in Yosemite National Park every Christmas season.  The first Bracebridge took place back in 1927 and is still currently being held over 85 years later in the Yosemite Valley at the world renowned Ahwahnee Hotel.  Every year the grand dining room of the Ahwahnee is transformed into an 18th century English manor that is inspired by a 1822 Washington Irving story, “Bracebridge Hall” as told in his book “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”.  (Irving is also famous for another story called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and please click on the link for more information about that classic tale about the headless horseman)

Ahwanhee dining room - Bracebridge Dinner 1

The Bracebridge Dinner is a three hour pageant of theatrical and musical performances that includes a seven-course formal dinner.  The tradition was started by Don Tresidder, president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, to celebrate the first Christmas after the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel was opened in 1927.  The character of the Squire Bracebridge was played by Tresidder himself, the character of Lady Bracebridge was played by his wife Mary Curry and Ansel Adams (the famous photographer) played the court jester.

Bracebridge Dinner circa 1927    Ansel Adams as the jester 1

The Bracebridge was been held annually since 1927 with the exception of the years during World War II when the Ahwahnee Hotel was commissioned by the United States government for use as a Naval Hospital.  When the tradition resumed in 1946 several new chorale musical performances were added.  Then shortly after the 1948 Bracebridge, Don Tresidder died of a sudden heart attack.  Heartbroken at the loss of the prominent Yosemite resident there was much debate over whether the show would even continue or the possibly of eliminating the role of the Squire since the part had always been played by Tresidder.  It was finally determined that the character of the Squire would remain in the show but over the years the part of the Squire as narrator was eventually reduced to a smaller role.

Bracebridge Dinner - present day 1

Throughout the years, Ansel Adams went on to serve as the production’s musical director and later the part of Major Domo, the head of the Bracebridge household, was created especially for him and the part of the housekeeper was played by his wife Virginia Best Adams. Adams also served as the musical director and official photographer and he still continued performing in the Bracebridge until his retirement in 1973.  Eugene Fulton, who had been a member of the male chorus since 1934, took over as musical director in 1946 and after Adams retirement he became the producer of the show.  Sadly, Fulton died suddenly on Christmas Eve in 1978.  His wife, Anna Marie and his daughter, Andrea took over the production of the Bracebridge for the remaining performances that year.  Eventually Andrea went onto to become the show’s director as well as playing the role of the housekeeper.  Finally, in 2013 the lottery process which had been previously used to obtain tickets for the popular Bracebridge Dinner was eliminated and now reservations are accepted in the order in which they are received.

Ahwanhee Hotel in winter

The history of the Ahwanhee Hotel

The Ahwahneechee Native Americans had long settled in the area when the Mariposa Battalion, a California militia group, entered the Yosemite Valley in 1851 to fight in the Mariposa War caused by the 1849 California Gold Rush.  Shortly after, white settlers arrived to build homes and visitors came to enjoy spectacular views of El Captain, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.  In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a federal bill in 1864 granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to State of California.  John Muir, a local naturalist with concerns for the protection of the environment, eventually lobbied for the creation of the Yosemite National Park which happened in 1890.

Visitors continued to be drawn to the beauty of Yosemite National Park and the demand for tourist accommodations steadily increased throughout the years.  In 1899 David and Jennie Curry arrived in the Yosemite Valley and soon developed several rustic cabins and campsites that became known as Curry Village.  Then, in 1917, the Yosemite Lodge was built near the base of Yosemite Falls and was the first of the Park’s traditional hotel style accommodations.

By the early 1920s, there was a need for more luxurious accommodations for the more wealthy and affluent tourists.  The Ahwanhee Hotel took eleven months to construct, cost over one million dollars to build and opened in July 1927.  It is a wonderful example of rustic elegance built in an Arts & Craft style of architecture which was very popular at the time.  It is constructed of 5,000 tons of granite, 1,000 tons of steel and 30,000 feet of wood and furnished with a unique blend of Art Deco and Native American decorating styles.

The Great Lounge of the Ahwanhee is 77 feet long and 51 feet wide with 24 foot high ceilings.  Other features of the room include 10 floor-to-ceiling windows topped by beautiful stained glass panels and there is also a massive stone fireplace with couches, chairs and tables that offers an inviting place for visitors to gather.  The room is decorated with Native American hand-woven baskets and massive wrought iron chandeliers.

Ahwanhee - Lounge

Other public rooms of the Ahwanhee include the Solarium which has massive windows on three sides of the room that have lovely views across the valley with Glacier Point in the distance.  (This area room is often used for wedding ceremonies and receptions as well as other special events)  The Mural Room is beautifully decorated with an impressive mural showing the various flowers and plants of Yosemite Valley.  The room is elegantly paneled in wood with a copper-hooded fireplace and French doors that open onto a patio and the nicely landscaped grounds.

Ahwanhee - Mural Room 1

One of the most impressive rooms of the Ahwanhee is the grand Dining Room which is 130 feet long, 51 feet wide and features a 34 foot ceiling supported by wooden beams made from sugar pine and supported by large granite stone columns, there are also floor-to-ceiling windows framed with stained glass panels.  The Ahwanhee Dining Room offers visitors the finest dining within Yosemite National Park and a more formal dress code is required.  (This room is where the annual Bracebridge Dinners are held during the Christmas season)

Ahwanhee - Dining Room

During World War II, the Ahwahnee Hotel was commissioned by the United States government for use as a Naval Hospital.  The famous Bracebridge Dinner was not held during that time and eventually the tradition resumed in 1946.  Over the years, the Ahwanhee added an outdoor swimming pool and modernized the hotel with elevators and a fire alarm system including smoke detectors and a sprinkler system.

For more information regarding the Ahwanhee Hotel and to make reservations, please see their website  For information about planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please see their website

Ahwanhee Hotel