Waterfalls, Sesquicentinis, and Buffalo Soldiers

4+ Ways to Celebrate Yosemite’s Landmark 150th Birthday

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One June 30, 1864, Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act into law—a groundbreaking piece of legislation that provided the first-ever wild land protections in our country. The law protected two exquisite gems, Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley, which both eventually became part of Yosemite National Park. Initially, the state of California managed these areas as the world’s first state park.

Fast-forward 150 years: Yosemite National Park is now beloved by nearly 4 million annual visitors and is hosting a celebration throughout the year and beyond. Whether you celebrate Yosemite’s big birthday with a visit this year or just head there in your travel dreams, here are four of many reasons to love and support the park—today, and for the next 150 years!

The author enjoys the quiet and spectacular vistas at Wawona Point in Mariposa Grove.

The author enjoys the quiet and spectacular vistas at Wawona Point in Mariposa Grove. Photo © Megan Cantrell/NPCA.

1. Go Car-Free in Yosemite Valley

With the park’s free hybrid shuttle bus system (PDF) along with bike rentals and ample walking and running paths, there are many reasons to bid your car keys adieu when exploring Yosemite Valley. Despite current drought conditions, waterfalls are at their peak right now, and one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Falls, is a must-see stop along the route.

Extolling all of Yosemite Valley’s virtues would take a book to list (and luckily, there are many of those available!), but a few other must-dos include:

  • Stopping by the Valley Visitor Center to learn more about the park’s features, stamp your national park passport, catch one of many ranger-led programs, and help plan where you most want to explore.
  • Taking the free El Capitan shuttle from the visitor center and walking the short trail to the base of the 3,000-foot-high granite monolith, where you might see daredevil, pro climbers at work.
  • Dipping your toes in the Wild and Scenic Merced River at Sentinel Beach or other sandy spots along the way. Yosemite recently finalized its Merced River Plan—an effort that combined more than a decade of research and public engagement to protect the river corridor for the next 150 years of visitors to enjoy.
  • Strolling or cycling the boardwalk through Yosemite Valley’s stunning meadows and finding a bench for an impromptu picnic, with Half Dome, El Capitan, and other you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it landscapes as your dining companions.
  • Experiencing the Ahwahnee Hotel. Though the rooms are pricey, a happy hour drink at this historic site is a lower-budget way to experience one of the swankiest hotels in a national park. The hotel has even created a special cocktail to celebrate the sesquicentennial (a fancy word for 150th anniversary)—the Sesquicentini! Pretty much anything on the menu makes for a special treat after a day of sightseeing.
The famed and historic Ahwahnee Hotel.

The famed and historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Photo by Amadscientist.

2. Hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls

This popular hike may not offer much solitude, but the stunning views and workout for your legs are well worth the trip to Vernal Falls (3 miles roundtrip)—with bonus points for extending your trek to Nevada Falls (5.5 miles total roundtrip). Wear proper hiking shoes and be prepared for slippery conditions on the Mist Trail portion of the climb to Vernal Falls, where the spray from the waterfall can make conditions precarious. The top of Vernal Falls provides a beautiful spot for a quick recovery break along the banks of Emerald Pool before gearing up for the hike to Nevada Falls. Superlatives run like water from the falls to describe the view from the top—share your experience at MyParkStory.org!

A view of Nevada Falls.

A view of Nevada Falls. Photo © Megan Cantrell/NPCA.

3. Advocate for Buffalo Soldiers, Some of Our First National Park Rangers

Before the National Park Service was formed, African-American troops known as the Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in protecting Yosemite, as well as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Although the contributions of these honorable men are wide-ranging, they are not widely shared with today’s park visitors.

NPCA supports legislation that would allow the National Park Service to study areas related to the Buffalo Soldiers, including many sites from the Presidio in San Francisco to Yosemite. The legislation passed the House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate. Show your support by visiting our new Telling America’s Stories website and sending a Twitter message to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who co-authored the legislation. The Buffalo Soldiers’ stories deserve to be studied and told by the National Park Service. Congress has the opportunity to ensure that our country’s “best idea” more fully reflects our shared cultural diversity and heritage.

Learn more about the lives of the Buffalo Soldiers by loading this podcast by Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson into your Yosemite Road Trip playlist.

Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite National Park.

Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite National Park. National Park Service photo.

4. Go Beyond Yosemite Valley: NPCA Staff Weigh In! 

Yosemite Valley is a classic vacation spot and travelers can find oodles of tourist-oriented tips and resources for exploring it—but there’s so much to love outside the valley, too. Here are a few tips from staff at NPCA’s Pacific Regional Office.

One really great spot to spend a Saturday evening in the summer months is the historic Wawona Hotel, where you can enjoy a sumptuous outdoor barbeque dinner on the sun-dappled lawn. It’s a great place to just chill with a lemonade or a beer after a day of hiking.

-Ron Sundergill, senior director

The hikes around the Hetch Hetchy Dam show the High Sierra range at its best. High mountain lakes, granite cliff faces, and beautiful waterfalls are just the beginning of what you will encounter while exploring the lands that John Muir loved.

–Kari Kiser, senior program coordinator

Before or after your park adventures, fuel up at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining. The deli sells tasty bison meatloaf, delicious fish tacos, and outstanding pizza! No trip into Yosemite from the eastern side should be completed without this stop on the Tioga Pass, near the intersection of Highway 395.

-Seth Shteir, California desert field representative

Complement your morning of strolling amongst the amazing, giant, ancient sequoias in Mariposa Grove by hiking past the lower and upper grove to Wawona Point. The lower and upper grove loop trails are fairly easy for hikers of all levels to tackle, with plenty of places along the way to stop and let your jaw drop. Wawona Point offers sweeping, panoramic views and far fewer crowds, allowing you to enjoy the sweet sounds of silence (though it still helps to arrive early to beat the crowds along these popular trails!). Yosemite recently completed its Mariposa Grove of the Giant Sequoias plan, which will keep the park’s beloved natural giants accessible the more than one million people who visit each year, while protecting these resources for the long-term. Implementing the plan will be a multi-year project that will include a new trail system and other much-needed enhancements to the area.

-Kati Schmidt, senior media relations manager

One hike that I really like is in the northeast section of the park. You actually start outside of the park in the Hoover Wilderness (USFS-managed land) at the Green Creek Campground. From there, you hike to the top of Virginia Pass, with tremendous views looking west into Yosemite. You can then hike down Virginia Canyon and loop back towards the trailhead. It’s a 15+ mile hike that offers numerous lakes and camping spots—or for the ambitious, a tiring day hike!

-Neal Desai, director of field operations

I like Tuolumne Meadows, as they are beautiful, less busy, and rife with wildlife, including deer, bluebirds, marmots, and ground squirrels. These meadows are also within a short drive of Lee Vining, Mono Lake (famous for its beauty and waterbird migrations), and the scenic Eastern Sierra with trout-filled lakes, beaver ponds, and the fall colors of aspen groves. McGurk Meadow is one of the best spots in the park to try your hand at finding the elusive great grey owl. Sunrise and sunset are the times to attempt to find this magnificent predator.

-David Lamfrom, California desert senior program manager

Want even more beyond-Yosemite Valley tips? You got it!

If you celebrate Yosemite’s 150th birthday on June 30—or anytime this year—be sure to add your own tips below or share your adventures at MyParkStory.org.

Check out NPCA’s ParkScapes program that offers two trips to Yosemite in the next year!

About the Author

Senior Media Manager Kati Schmidt

Kati Schmidt is senior media relations manager at NPCA, and is based in San Francisco