This region of the Sierra Nevada has a rich natural and cultural history. The landscape can change completely from one mile to the next. High mountain meadows give way to turbulent rivers that thunder down deep gorges, tumble over vast waterfalls, and turn into wide, shallow rivers as they meander through the next valley. Such diversity can be attributed to the region's geologic roots, which stretch back 10 million to 80 million years, when a head-on collision between two immense plates of rock formed this mountain range. The rock, weakened by extreme temperature variations, was later carved by erosion into deep valleys, including Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon. The Ice Age brought glaciers that smoothed the faces of rocks such as Yosemite's El Capitan and Half Dome, some of the towering peaks of Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, and Kings Canyon itself.
American Indians were aware of Yosemite at least 5,000 years ago. While Egyptian scholars were making their first use of numbers, American Indians in California were living as their forebears had for thousands of years. By 1000 B.C., there were tribes -- including the Ahwahneeches (Ah-wah-nee-ches), a subtribe of the Miwok -- living in Yosemite Valley. Archaeologists have since documented 36 living sites on the valley floor that supported a vast number of inhabitants with lush vegetation and numerous animals. The largest village lay just below Yosemite Falls.
Despite the fact that the early inhabitants were called Ahwahneeches, the valley was named Yosemite by soldiers sent to oust American Indians who refused to relocate to the plains. While seated around a campfire, a doctor among the group suggested the soldiers settle on a name for the valley. Among the suggestions were Paradise Valley and Yosemite, the name by which the Indian tribes in the region were known. Some were offended by the suggestion of honoring American Indians in the valley, but in the end, the name Yosemite won. Ironically, however, Yosemite was the soldiers' mispronunciation of the word Oo-hoo-ma-te, the name of just one settlement of Ahwahneeches, whom soldiers drove from Yosemite Valley in 1851.
The Ahwahneeches' neighbors, the Monaches (also known as the Western Monos), lived in Kings Canyon and met their end during a smallpox outbreak in 1862. The Monaches kept villages in the foothills all year long, although they sometimes moved to the forest in the summer. The Potwishas and Wuksachis were subtribes of the Monaches who also lived in the foothills, around Sequoia's Ash Mountain. Kings Canyon was named in 1806 by the Spaniard Gabriel Moraga, the first European to lead an expedition in these parts. Moraga's party discovered a major river on January 6, the Roman Catholic day of the Epiphany. Being a good Catholic, Moraga christened the river El Río de los Santos Reyes, or "The River of the Holy Kings," in honor of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus on the same date, albeit many years earlier. The name was later shortened to Kings River.
The land of Kings Canyon and Sequoia remained untouched until 1827, when trappers arrived. The California gold rush drew hordes more in 1849, and abandoned mines dot Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, especially in Mineral King, a region unsuccessfully mined for silver in the 1800s.
Despite being plagued by natural upheavals, such as prehistoric earthquakes and glaciers, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon survived. Then the parks faced another challenge -- each was destined for destruction by dams, logging, and consequent flooding. Large stands of giant sequoia were obliterated in the late 1800s. Ranchers allowed their sheep to graze beneath the big trees. Sawmills were built, and zip-zip -- down came entire forests. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the wood of the largest giant sequoias is brittle and generally pretty useless. Nevertheless, early loggers chopped down a third of the ancient trees in the region. This travesty would likely have continued if not for a few mid-19th-century conservationists who pushed the government to turn the areas into parks. In 1890, Sequoia National Park was created, along with the tiny General Grant National Park, established to protect Grant Grove. Unfortunately, the move came too late to spare Converse Basin. Once the largest stand of giant sequoias in the world, today it's a cemetery of tree stumps, the grave markers of fallen giants.
In 1926, the park was expanded eastward to include the small Kern Canyon and Mount Whitney, but rumblings continued over the fate of Kings Canyon itself. For a while, its future lay as a reservoir. It wasn't until the 1960s that Kings Canyon was finally protected for good. In 1978, Mineral King was added to Sequoia's half of the park, and in 2001, President Bill Clinton established Giant Sequoia National Monument in the national forest adjacent to the parks. The parks have been managed jointly since World War II.
While the fight to save the giant sequoias raged, a similar battle was taking place over Yosemite. Here the threat came from opportunists hoping to cash in on Yosemite Valley's beauty. Soon after the Ahwahneeches were driven out, homesteaders came in. They built hotels and crude homes and planted row crops and orchards. Somehow, during the Civil War, Congress convinced President Abraham Lincoln to sign legislation protecting the valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Yosemite Valley was, in effect, the first state and national park in America. But the thousands of acres surrounding these relatively small federal holdings were still subject to exploitation in the form of mining, logging, and grazing. Happily, on October 1, 1890, a week after approving Sequoia National Park, Congress established Yosemite National Park. The new park did not include the valley or Mariposa Grove, which were still part of the older Yosemite Valley Park, but it encompassed enormous tracts of surrounding wilderness. With two administrations -- one overseeing the valley and big trees, and one overseeing the new park -- the expected overlap occurred and frustration mounted. In 1906, legislators decided to add the valley and big trees to the new park and to reduce the park's size to follow the natural contours of the land, while excluding private mining and logging operations. Everyone was set to live happily ever after. No one would have predicted that Yosemite would become one of the most popular places on the planet (though some argue that tourism has accomplished the destruction that logging couldn't).
Recent years have brought more and more human activity to this wilderness haven. Today this is the biggest challenge facing Yosemite and, to a lesser extent, Sequoia & Kings Canyon. Big changes are expected as the National Park Service grapples with the best way to permit access without causing more irreparable damage to this natural wonderland.
Who would have thought that preservation would wreak its own brand of havoc here? But we can only imagine how this beautiful place would look today had it been left in the hands of profiteers.
The Life & Times of John Muir
Over the course of his illustrious 75 years, John Muir earned a nickname: "Father of Our National Parks." In the late 19th century, he pushed for conservation of the pristine wilderness and helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon as national parks.
Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir emigrated with his family to Wisconsin at the age of 11. After an accident nearly blinded him about a decade later, he dropped everything to pursue his fascination with the natural world and decided to go to the Amazon -- on foot. He didn't make it, but traveling became a way of life for Muir, and his journeys eventually took him west. He discovered the Sierra Nevada area in 1868 and worked as a shepherd in the Yosemite area. He later ran a sawmill nearby.
Muir began writing about the Sierra Nevada the moment he arrived, and his passionate words started finding an audience in the late 1800s. He wrote a number of books, contributed to numerous periodicals, and became a leading voice in the budding environmentalist movement. In 1892, Muir helped found the Sierra Club. In 1903, he took Teddy Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite backcountry and catalyzed Roosevelt's vision of an entire system of national parks.
Muir is a legend not only for his words and his deeds, but also because he was something of an eccentric. He never shaved, making way for an impressive beard. He experienced nature to its fullest -- he climbed a tree during an incredible storm, sledded down Yosemite Valley's steep walls on his rump to avoid an avalanche, and chased a bear so he could study the animal's stride. (Not surprisingly, these actions have since been banned by the National Park Service.)
From the first moment a politician pondered Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Muir fought it. Damming and drowning a place whose beauty rivaled that of Yosemite Valley was sacrilege to him. But San Francisco needed water to drink, and Congress passed legislation approving Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in 1913. John Muir died the very next year -- some say of a broken heart.