Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the end of the nineteenth century, John Muir had become a major figure in American society, representing, to many, the conservation movement. Having spent many years living in and visiting the Yosemite area, in east central California, he was convinced that it was a special area in need of preservation. With pressure increasing to open this area for widespread use, in the late 1880s Muir began pushing hard for its incorporation as a national park, as Yellowstone, in northwestern Wyoming, had previously been. After convincing the editor of The Century magazine to visit Yosemite, the editor understood the need for this to happen. Muir was invited to write an article for the magazine advocating the protection of Yosemite. Thus, this article was written and published in early 1890, and by the end of the year, the highlands area around the Yosemite Valley had been designated a national park. It would take another sixteen years of pressure by Muir for the federal government to take control of the valley and of the Mariposa Grove, thereby incorporating what later became the major tourist destinations into the park.

Summary Overview

By the end of the nineteenth century, John Muir had become a major figure in American society, representing, to many, the conservation movement. Having spent many years living in and visiting the Yosemite area, in east central California, he was convinced that it was a special area in need of preservation. With pressure increasing to open this area for widespread use, in the late 1880s Muir began pushing hard for its incorporation as a national park, as Yellowstone, in northwestern Wyoming, had previously been. After convincing the editor of The Century magazine to visit Yosemite, the editor understood the need for this to happen. Muir was invited to write an article for the magazine advocating the protection of Yosemite. Thus, this article was written and published in early 1890, and by the end of the year, the highlands area around the Yosemite Valley had been designated a national park. It would take another sixteen years of pressure by Muir for the federal government to take control of the valley and of the Mariposa Grove, thereby incorporating what later became the major tourist destinations into the park.

Defining Moment

With the movement of more and more people into the western part of the United States, less and less land was being left in its natural state. While most land was still undeveloped, this did not mean that logging, mining, and grazing were not extending into what had once been remote wilderness. Although the first attempt at conservation had been in 1864, when President Lincoln signed a bill giving the state of California control of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove for the preservation of these areas, in the following decades, the pressure to exploit natural resources had far surpassed the movement to conserve or preserve natural areas. However, conservation steps were taken, such as the establishment of the first national park in 1872, administered by the Army. John Muir's sojourn into the Yosemite wilderness in 1869 transformed his life and eventually the nation. He came to experience the wilderness as a religious experience. For him, it was not to be conserved; rather, it should be preserved.

Ranchers' desires for more land upon which to graze their animals resulted in their unrestricted movement onto federal land. If at any time they did violate any federal statute, enforcement was a low priority for the government. Thus, domestic sheep were grazing on the highlands around the Yosemite Valley, causing great harm to the native plants. Witnessing what was occurring, Muir felt compelled to protect this beautiful wilderness area from harm. For several years he advocated for federal protection of the region just outside what had been granted to California. Finally, in 1889, he was able to get the editor of The Century magazine to join the cause, resulting in this article and the creation of the national park the next year.

Once he had an appropriate forum through which to communicate his ideas to the nation, Muir was able to get quick results—as he had become a leading figure in the conservation movement. In 1871, Muir published his first article about the region. From that time forward, Muir wrote numerous articles, and by 1876, he began giving public lectures, advocating for the protection of forests, especially in and around Yosemite. His articles about the wilderness and his travels were so popular that some were used in school textbooks. With no strong opposition to the incorporation of the land into a park, Muir's push succeeded with virtually no opposition. This accomplishment, along with his writings and other accomplishments, have made Muir virtually the patron saint of the wilderness preservation movement in the United States.

Author Biography

John Muir (1838–1914) was born in Scotland, but his family moved to Wisconsin in 1849. His father was a strict conservative Christian who disapproved of Muir's interest in the world around him. He was mechanically inclined, attended the University of Wisconsin, and took science classes before moving to Canada during the Civil War. After the war, he returned to Indiana, where an accident in a saw mill injured one eye. After recovery, he walked to the Florida Keys, traveled to Cuba, then back to New York, studying the plants all along the way. In 1868, he sailed to California, and then visited what would become Yosemite National Park. He took up residence there, working as a shepherd, and studied all aspects of the area. He would later travel as far north as Alaska, but his focus was upon the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and especially the Yosemite area. From 1878 until his death, he split his time between the wilderness and Martinez, California, where he married Louisa Strentzel in 1880. His later years included writing numerous books and articles, co-founding the Sierra Club, and lobbying for the preservation of wilderness areas and the creation of national parks.

Historical Document

The cañon begins near the lower end of the meadows and extends to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a distance of about eighteen miles, though it will seem much longer to any one who scrambles through it. It is from 1200 to about 5000 feet deep, and is comparatively narrow, but there are several fine, roomy, park-like openings in it, and throughout its whole extent Yosemite features are displayed on a grand scale—domes, El Capitan rocks, gables, Sentinels, Royal Arches, glacier points, Cathedral Spires, etc. There is even a Half Dome among its wealth of rock forms, though less sublime and beautiful than the Yosemite Half Dome. It also contains falls and cascades innumerable. The sheer falls, except when the snow is melting in early spring, are quite small in volume as compared with those of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy, but many of them are very beautiful, and in any other country would be regarded as great wonders. But it is the cascades or sloping falls on the main river that are the crowning glory of the cañon, and these in volume, extent, and variety surpass those of any other cañon in the Sierra. The most showy and interesting of the cascades are mostly in the upper part of the cañon, above the point where Cathedral Creek; and Hoffman Creek enter. For miles the river is one wild, exulting, on-rushing mass of snowy purple bloom, spreading over glacial waves of granite without any definite channel, and through avalanche taluses, gliding in silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge boulder-dams, leaping high into the air in glorious wheel-like whirls, tossing from side to side, doubling, glinting, singing in glorious exuberance of mountain energy. Every one who is anything of a mountaineer should go on through the entire length of the cañon, coming out by Hetch Hetchy. There is not a dull step all the way. With wide variations it is a Yosemite Valley from end to end.


Most people who visit Yosemite are apt to regard it as an exceptional creation, the only valley of its kind in the world. But nothing in Nature stands alone. She is not so poor as to have only one of anything. The explorer in the Sierra and elsewhere finds many Yosemites that differ not more than one tree differs from another of the same species. They occupy the same relative positions on the mountain flanks, were formed by the same forces in the same kind of granite, and have similar sculpture, waterfalls, and vegetation. The Hetch Hetchy Valley has long been known as the Tuolumne Yosemite. It is said to have been discovered by Joseph Screech, a hunter, in 1850, a year before the discovery of the great Merced Yosemite. It lies in a northwesterly direction from Yosemite, at a distance of about twenty miles, and is easily accessible to mounted travelers by a trail that leaves the Big Oak Flat road at Bronson's Meadows, a few miles below Crane Flat. But by far the best way to it for those who have useful limbs is across the divide direct from Yosemite. Leaving the valley by Indian Cañon or Fall Cañon, you cross the dome-paved basin of Yosemite Creek, then bear to the left around the head fountains of the South Fork of the Tuolumne to the summit of the Big Tuolumne Cañon, a few miles above the head of Hetch Hetchy. Here you will find a glorious view. Immediately beneath you, at a depth of more than 4000 feet, you see a beautiful ribbon of level a ground, with a silver thread in the middle of it, and green or yellow according to the time of year. That ribbon is a strip of meadow, and the silver thread is the main Tuolumne River. The opposite wall of the cañon rises in precipices, steep and angular, or with rounded brows like those of Yosemite, and from this wall as a base extends a fine wilderness of mountains, rising dome above dome, ridge above ridge, to a group of snowy peaks on the summit of the range. Of all this sublime congregation of mountains Castle Peak is king: robed with snow and light, dipping unnumbered points and spires into the thin blue sky, it maintains amid noble companions a perfect and commanding individuality.

You will not encounter much difficulty in getting down into the cañon, for bear trails may readily be found leading from the upper feeding-grounds to the berry gardens and acorn orchards of Hetch Hetchy, and when you reach the river you have only to saunter by its side a mile or two down the cañon before you find yourself in the open valley. Looking about you, you cannot fail to discover that you are in a Yosemite valley. As the Merced flows through Yosemite, so does the Tuolumne through Hetch Hetchy. The bottom of Yosemite is about 4000 feet above sea level, the bottom of Hetch Hetchy is about 3800 feet, and in both the walls are of gray granite and rise abruptly in precipices from a level bottom, with but little debris along their bases. Furthermore it was a home and stronghold of the Tuolumne Indians, as Ahwahne was of the grizzlies. Standing boldly forward from the south wall near the lower end of the valley is the rock Kolána, the outermost of a picturesque group corresponding to the Cathedral Rocks of Yosemite, and about the same height. Facing Kolána on the north side of the valley is a rock about 1800 feet in height, which presents a bare, sheer front like El Capitan, and over its massive brow flows a stream that makes the most graceful fall I have ever seen. Its Indian name is Tu-ee-u-la-la, and no other, so far as I have heard, has yet been given it. From the brow of the cliff it makes a free descent of a thousand feet and then breaks up into ragged, foaming web of cascades among the boulders of an earthquake talus. Towards the end of summer it vanishes, because its head streams do not reach back to the lasting snows of the summits of the range, but in May and June it is indescribably lovely. The only fall that I know with which it may fairly be compared is the Bridal Veil, but it excels even that fall in peaceful, floating, swaying gracefulness. For when we attentively observe the Bridal Veil, even towards the middle of summer when its waters begin to fail, we may discover, when the winds blow aside the outer folds of spray dense comet-shaped masses shooting through the air with terrible energy; but from the top of the cliff, where the Hetch Hetchy veil first floats free, all the way to the bottom it is in perfect repose. Again, the Bridal Veil is in a shadow-haunted nook inaccessible to the main wind currents of the valley, and has to depend for many of its gestures on irregular, teasing side currents and whirls, while Tu-ee-u-la-la, being fully exposed on the open cliff, is sun drenched all day, and is ever ready to yield graceful compliance to every wind that blows. Most people unacquainted with the behavior of mountain streams fancy that when they escape the bounds of their rocky channels and launch into the air they at once lose all self-control and tumble in confusion. On the contrary, on no part of their travels do they manifest more calm self-possession. Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy. It is a sunny day in June, the pines sway dreamily, and you are shoulder-deep in grass and flowers. Looking across the valley through beautiful open groves you see a bare granite wall 1800 feet high rising abruptly out of the green and yellow vegetation and glowing with sunshine, and in front of it the fall, waving like a downy scarf, silver bright, burning with white sun-fire in every fiber. In coming forward to the edge of the tremendous precipice and taking flight a little hasty eagerness appears, but this is speedily hushed in divine repose. Now observe the marvelous distinctness and delicacy of the various kinds of sun-filled tissue into which the waters are woven. They fly and float and drowse down the face of that grand gray rock in so leisurely and unconfused a manner that you may examine their texture and patterns as you would a piece of embroidery held in the hand. It is a flood of singing air, water, and sunlight woven into cloth that spirits might wear.

The great Hetch Hetchy Fall, called Wa-páma by the Tuolumnes, is on the same side of the valley as the Veil, and so near it that both may be seen in one view. It is about 1800 feet in height, and seems to be nearly vertical when one is standing in front of it, though it is considerably inclined. Its location is similar to that of the Yosemite Fall, but the volume of water is much greater. No two falls could be more unlike than Wa-páma and Tu-ee-u-la-la, the one thundering and beating in a shadowy gorge, the other chanting in deep, low tones and with no other shadows about it than those of its own waters, pale-gray mostly, and violet and pink delicately graded. One whispers, “He dwells in peace,” the other is the thunder of his chariot wheels in power. This noble pair are the main falls of the valley, though there are many small ones essential to the perfection of the general harmony.

The wall above Wa-páma corresponds, both in outlines and in details of sculpture, with the same relative portion of the Yosemite wall. Near the Yosemite Fall the cliff has two conspicuous benches extending in a horizontal direction 500 and 1500 feet above the valley. Two benches similarly situated, and timbered in the same way, occur on the same relative position on the Hetch Hetchy wall, and on no other portion. The upper end of Yosemite is closed by the great Half Dome, and the upper end of Hetch Hetchy is closed in the same way by a mountain rock. Both occupy angles formed by the confluence of two large glaciers that have long since vanished. In front of this head rock the river forks like the Merced in Yosemite. The right fork as you ascend is the main Tuolumne, which takes its rise in a glacier on the north side of Mount Lyell and flows through the Big Cañon. I have not traced the left fork to its highest source, but, judging from the general trend of the ridges, it must be near Castle Peak. Upon this left or North Fork there is a remarkably interesting series of cascades, five in number, ranged along a picturesque gorge, on the edges of which we may saunter safely and gain fine views of the dancing spray below. The first is a wide-spreading fan of white, crystal-covered water, half leaping half sliding over a steep polished pavement, at the foot of which it rests and sets forth clear and shining on its final flow to the main river. A short distance above the head of this cascade you discover the second, which is as impressively wild and beautiful as the first, and makes you sing with it as though you were a part of it. It is framed in deep rock walls that are colored yellow and red with lichens, and fringed on the jagged edges by live-oaks and sabine pines, and at the bottom in damp nooks you may see ferns, lilies, and azaleas.

Three or four hundred yards higher you come to the third of the choir, the largest of the five. It is formed of three smaller ones inseparably combined, which sing divinely, and make spray of the best quality for rainbows. A short distance beyond this the gorge comes to an end, and the bare stream, without any definite channel, spreads out in a thin, silvery sheet about 150 feet wide. Its waters are, throughout almost its whole extent, drawn out in overlapping folds of lace, thick sown with diamond jets and sparks that give an exceedingly rich appearance. Still advancing, you hear a deep muffled booming, and you push eagerly on through flowery thickets until the last of the five appears through the foliage. The precipice down which it thunders is fretted with projecting knobs, forming polished keys upon which the wild waters play.

The bottom of the valley is divided by a low, glacier-polished bar of granite, the lower portion being mostly meadow land, the upper dry and sandy, and planted with fine Kellogg oaks, which frequently attain a diameter of six or seven feet. On the talus slopes the pines give place to the mountain live-oak, which forms the shadiest groves in the valley and the greatest in extent. Their glossy foliage, warm yellow-green and closely pressed, makes a kind of ceiling, supported by bare gray trunks and branches gnarled and picturesque. A few specimens of the sugar pine and tamarack pine are found in the valley, also the two silver firs. The Douglas spruce and the libocedrus attain noble dimensions in certain favorable spots, and a few specimens of the interesting Torreya Californica may be found on the south side. The brier-rose occurs in large patches, with tall, spiky mints and arching grasses. On the meadows lilies, larkspurs and lupines of several species are abundant, and in some places reach above one's head. Rock-ferns of rare beauty fringe and rosette the walls from top to bottom—Pellaea densa, P. mucronata and P. Bridgesii, Cheilanthes gracillima, Allosorus, etc. Adiantum pedatum occurs in a few mossy corners that get spray from the falls. Woodwardia radicans and Asplenium felix-faemina are the tallest ferns of the valley—six feet high, some of them. The whole valley was a charming garden when I last saw it, and the huts of the Indians and a lone cabin were the only improvements.


cañon: canyon, using Spanish punctuation

Merced Yosemite: what is now known as Yosemite Valley, through which the Merced River flows

taluses: plural of talus, loose rock at the bottom of rock walls

Document Analysis

The text reprinted here is virtually the whole second half of the article written by John Muir in his proposal for the creation of a national park consisting of the region around Yosemite Valley. The proposed park would contain about 15,000 square miles, with two major valleys, the Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Yosemite Valley, sometimes referred to by Muir as the Merced Yosemite Valley. This half of the article focused on the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was flooded by the completion of a reservoir in 1923. The two valleys paralleled each other not only in orientation, but in their physical characteristics and beauty. Thus, there are many references comparing the two valleys: their rock formations and their waterways. While there was and is a wide variety of flora and fauna within the region, Muir understood that what would draw people to a national park in Yosemite were the panoramic views of water and rock.

Beginning upstream from Hetch Hetchy, Muir describes the beauty of what is now known as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. As in Muir's day, this area is today not accessible by vehicle. The description of the formations that border the river is a virtual catalog of the formations found in Yosemite. El Capitan, Cathedral Spires, Half Dome, and others are compared to what could be found in this canyon. Having traveled extensively in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Muir's statement that the cascades in the river in this canyon “surpass those of any other cañon in the Sierra” has great meaning.

Moving into the broader, now flooded, Hetch Hetchy Valley, Muir continues to describe the wonders of the region. The directions he gives for traveling from Yosemite to Hetch Hetchy are where the roads and trails are still located. The gray rock that created the walls along both canyons is described as the same. Standing out in both valleys were the waterfalls which poured water hundreds of feet from the hills and mountains into the valleys. Describing them in great detail, Muir hoped that the unique waterways would help gain support by those who might want to see them in the future, undisturbed by people. His poetic language regarding how he saw an ethereal quality in the Tueeulala Falls demonstrates the spiritual quality that the wilderness had for Muir. Having referred to the “divine repose” of the flowing stream, Muir ends his description by proclaiming the wonders of the falls he saw as a “flood of singing air, water, and sunlight woven into cloth that spirits might wear.” For Muir—and, he hoped, for those considering the creation of the park—this was the essence of wondrous beauty. Unlike most lobbying efforts, Muir's article says nothing about the proposed legislation until the last paragraph of the full text. Having tried to share a vision of the unique features of the Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valleys, he hopes that they can be preserved.

Essential Themes

John Muir wanted all people to have the opportunity to experience nature as he had experienced it. This meant that the wilderness must be preserved, not just conserved. It also meant that he tried to help others experience it with the same mindset which guided him, a mindset which saw the natural world as an ethereal experience. He believed that if he were able to help others view the world as he did, then preserving the wilderness and, in this case, establishing a national park at Yosemite could be accomplished. In terms of the creation of the national park, Muir was totally successful. In terms of saving all the wilderness, especially Hetch Hetchy Valley, he was not as successful. However, Muir and others demonstrated that there was popular support for the creation of national parks and for preserving wilderness areas.

In this article, Muir spends more time describing the Tuolumne River canyons and valleys than he did the Merced/Yosemite Valleys. Because fewer people had visited Hetch Hetchy, and thus it was less disturbed, Muir hoped that by focusing on it, a truer picture of the wilderness might be given to the readers. Even though later in the 1890s, there would be a split in the movement between those who sought to conserve (i.e., carefully manage) the wilderness areas and those, like Muir, who sought to preserve the wilderness areas, in the twentieth-century Muir became an iconic figure for people in both movements. His dedication to the wilderness, his travels throughout western North America, and his ability to communicate what he experienced has made his writings timeless for those seeking to continue his legacy. The Sierra Club is a good example of how his influence has continued to play a major role in American society. John Muir was a man who lived at a pivotal time in American history, the period when a decision had to be made whether or not to preserve what remained of the wilderness. He was not totally against the use of forest resources or ranching, but he did recognize that the unique beauty of certain areas was worth more than devastating them for a relatively small economic gain. Muir helped convince the general public, and political leaders that the wilderness was worth saving. This has inspired many people to continue his mission.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Fox, Stephen. American Conservation Movement: John Muir and his Legacy. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986. Print.
  • “The John Muir Exhibit.” Sierra Club. Sierra Club, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Muir, John. The Yosemite. 1912. The Sierra Club, 2003 Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Perrottet, Tony. “John Muir's Yosemite,” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, Jul. 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Worster, Donald. A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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