|El Capitan reflected in water at Yosemite Valley.|
The area now making up Yosemite National Park has been inhabited for at least 3000 years. The native Indians living there in the 1800s called themselves the Ahwahneechee, and among their trading routes with other tribes were those to Mono Lake.
Following the California Gold Rush, tensions rose between the Ahwahneechee and the white settlers. This led to the Mariposa War, during which the U.S. Army forced the Indians under the leadership of Chief Tenaya to a reservation near Fresno, Calif., in 1851. A reconstructed Ahwahnee village stands today by the current Yosemite Museum.
Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, a surgeon with that Army battalion, named Yosemite Valley. Awestruck with the valley’s beauty, he later wrote the book “The Discovery of the Yosemite.”
Entrepreneur James Mason Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres visited the area in 1855. Hutching’s articles about Yosemite and Ayres’ artwork of Yosemite Valley spurred tourism to the region.
Concerned with how commercial interests might change Yosemite, a movement began to preserve the area. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a land grant in which Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove was set aside as a state park run by the state of California. This was the first instance of the federal government establishing a park for preservation and public use, a precedent that allowed Yellowstone to become the country’s first national park in 1872.
Perhaps the most famous name associated with Yosemite – naturalist and explorer John Muir – arrived in the area during the late 19th century. Muir’s lobbying led Yosemite to becoming a national park in 1890 – though California still retained control of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. This park included the Tuolumne Meadows. Then in 1903, Muir took Theodore Roosevelt camping there – a move that convinced the president three years later to place Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove under federal protection as part of the national park.
Initially, the U.S. Army patrolled Yosemite National Park. Among them was the famous Black 9th Cavalry, known to most as the Buffalo Soldiers. From the Army troops stationed at Yosemite came the distinctive “ranger hat” that National Park Service rangers now wear.
In 1916, Congress created the NPS. New lodges, campgrounds, trails, and all-weather highways soon followed. A controversial dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley also was constructed. A century later, Yosemite ranks as the third most visited national park with 3.9 million experiencing its beauty in 2015.
For trails leading to various sites associated with these historical events, click the links in the text.
Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.