Sierra Nevada Forests, part 3A: Yosemite

The discussion in the next series of posts focuses on the area around Yosemite National Park, including the adjoining national forests. This post describes the Yosemite World Heritage Site.

Yosemite World Heritage Site

There is one World Heritage Site in the Sierra Nevada forests ecoregion. Yosemite National Park, California, is 748,000 acres carved by the glacial erosion of granite, resulting in perhaps the world’s most famous national park landscape. The distinctive landscape of hanging valleys, waterfalls, cirque lakes, polished domes, moraines, and U-shaped valleys. Major park areas are the Yosemite Valley, Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, which is in a roadless area between Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne Grove, Mariposas Grove, Wawona Dome and Chilnualna Fall, and Glacier Point. The high meadows between 4500 and 7000 feet are part of the Sierra Meadows South important bird area (IBA). One of the few trans-mountain roads in the southern Sierra Nevada is the Tioga Road, which passes through Tuolumne Meadows. The Sierra Nevada Research Station of the University California Natural Reserve System is located in Wawona along the South Fork of the Merced River. Most of the park is also designated as the 704,600-acre Yosemite Wilderness. Exclusion areas outside the wilderness are the roads, hydroelectric reservoirs, private inholdings, campgrounds, and high-volume visitor areas including Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Glacier Point. These are described first, then the wilderness is described. In addition to the natural features, there are five national historic landmarks in the park.

Areas outside the Yosemite Wilderness include:

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (N37º57’ W119º47’) and Lake Eleanor (N37º59’ W119º52’) within the park are part of the Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric development of the City of San Francisco. These are described separately in the recreation lakes section.

Aspen Valley (N37º50’ W119º46’) is an area of private inholdings at 6,200-feet elevation on the former Tioga Road (connecting White Wolf with Big Oak Flat) off of Evergreen Road. The 1879 two-story Hodgdon Homestead Cabin was relocated from Aspen Valley to the Pioneer Yosemite History Center in 1960. It is used as an authentic building to interpret pioneer history.

On Big Oak Flat Road are campgrounds and sequoia groves. Merced Grove (N37º45’ W119º50’) is an area of 20 sequoia trees about one mile south of Big Oak Flat Road. Tuolumne Grove (N37º46’ W119º48’) of giant sequoias is one mile north of the junction of Tioga Pass Road and Big Oak Flat Road. Foresta (N37º42’ W119º45’) is an area of private inholdings at 4,200-foot elevation with 30 private homes, some of which are available for vacation rentals, on the western boundary of the park off of Big Oak Flat Road on Coulterville Road.

On Tioga Road are campgrounds and spur roads to other campgrounds such as Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, and Yosemite Creek. White Wolf (N37º52’ W119º39’) is a lodge and campground area and trailhead for the western part of Tioga Road. Tuolumne Meadows (N37º52’ W119º22’) is a lodge and trail head for the high alpine meadows portion of the park along Tioga Road. Yosemite High Sierra Camps are a series of five hike-in tent villages to the west and south of Tuolumne Meadows. These facilities have beds and serve dinner. The camps are located at Glen Aulin (N37º55’ W119º25’), May Lake (N37º51’ W119º30’), Merced Lake (N37º44’ W119º24’), Sunrise (N37º48’ W119º26’), and Vogelsang (N37º48’ W119º21’). The immediate area around the camps is excluded from the wilderness, but the entire trail access is within the wilderness. Vogelsang is the highest camp, at 10,300 feet elevation, and Merced Lake is the lowest, at 7,150 feet. It is currently possible to make reservations at individual camps rather than for the entire 50-mile loop (Ryan 2015).

Parsons Memorial Lodge National Historic Landmark (N37º53’ W119º22’) is located in the Tuolumne Meadows area off Tioga Pass Road.  Built in 1915 by the Sierra Club, it was one of the earliest rustic stone buildings in the national parks. The building was named for Edward Taylor Parsons, a Sierra Club director who was involved in the political fight over allowing Hetch Hetchy Dam to be built in a national park. The Sierra Club lost that battle when Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor were authorized by Congress in 1913. The site commemorates the role of the Tuolumne River in inspiring conservation of the natural world nationwide.

Yosemite Valley (N37º45’ W119º35’) was the center of the first land grant for Yosemite in 1864 and is the major park destination today. The 1980 park General Management Plan describes it as the premiere masterwork of the natural world. Iconic waterfalls line the sheer rock walls of the glaciated valley. Campgrounds and visitor accommodations are also here, although reservations are hard to get. Trails in Yosemite Valley lead to Bridalveil Fall, Mirror Lake, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America.

Majestic Yosemite Hotel National Historic Landmark (N37º45’ W119º34’)* is part of the Yosemite Valley Historic District and is on the north side of the Merced River at the base of the Royal Arches rock formation on the north valley wall. Built in 1927, the hotel is seven stories and a symbol of design excellence, 1920 architectural ideals, and Rustic-style architecture on a previously unimagined scale. A Great Lounge provides the feel of a national park hotel. The NHL is significant for its role in development of tourism, national parks, concessions in national parks, and in the public appreciation of the national park system (National Park Service 2011).

*In 2016, there is a dispute about names of some concessionaire facilities.

Le Conte Memorial Lodge National Historic Landmark (N37º45’ W119º35’) is on the south side of the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley near the Housekeeping Camp. It was constructed in 1903 by the Sierra Club to disseminate information about the Sierra Nevada and is still used for that purpose. Club volunteers man the memorial in the summer months. In 1919 it was moved to its present location across from the Housekeeping Camp. The structure is unique in the national parks for its Tudor revival architecture. Its historic significance is as a principal foothold of the Sierra Club in the mountains for which it was named.

Rangers’ Club National Historic Landmark (N37º45’ W119º35’) is on the south side of the Merced River in Half Dome Village.* The rustic chalet was built in 1920 and donated to the park by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, with the idea that rangers serving in the remote location could be provided a place of their own. The Rustic style was intended for national park architecture to harmonize with nature. The interior of the building has Arts and Crafts characteristics.

**In 2016, there is a dispute about names of some concessionaire facilities.

South of Yosemite Valley, Wawona Road leads to the south entrance. A spur road off of the Wawona Road leads to Badger Pass, Bridalveil Creek, and Glacier Point. Glacier Point (N37º44’ W119º34’) is a 3,000-foot sheer cliff that overlooks Yosemite Valley and is a trailhead for the southern portions of the park. Ostrander Ski Hut (N37º37’ W119º33’) is a winter use facility south of Bridalveil Creek. The immediate area around the hut is excluded from the wilderness, but the trail access traverses the wilderness. Wawona (N37º32’ W119º39’) includes the Pioneer Yosemite History Center and the Big Trees Hotel National Historic Landmark, described below. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center is a collection of historic structures from different locations within Yosemite.

Big Trees Hotel National Historic Landmark (N37º32’ W119º39’)* is on the South Fork Merced River. It is the largest Victorian hotel in a national park, built between 1876 and 1918, and it has operated for more than 100 years. It was constructed on the homestead of one of Yosemite’s earliest settlers, Galen Clark, and and was also the site of a stage station at the crossing of the South Fork Merced River. The seven-building national historic landmark complex contains the studio of Thomas Hill, a landscape painter of the Hudson River School, who painted here from 1886 to 1908. The other six buildings are the main hotel, the Annex, Clark Cottage, the Manager’s House, Moore’s Cottage, and Washburn Cottage.

*In 2016, there is a dispute about names of some concessionaire facilities.

At the southwestern edge of the park is Mariposa Grove (N37º31’ W119º36’). Together with Yosemite Valley, this was the first area set aside by Congress for preservation of Yosemite in 1864 and is considered the birthplace of the national park idea. The giant sequoias occupy about 500 acres and include 500 mature trees. In 2015, a parking area and transit hub is being developed at the park’s south entrance to provide visitor access and protection of the grove.

The Yosemite Wilderness designation includes 705,000 acres. The wilderness is bordered by the Emigrant Wilderness to the north, Hoover to the northeast, Ansel Adams to the southeast. The northernmost point is near Dorothy Lake (N38º11’ W119º35’), the southernmost near Mariposa Grove (N37º30’ W119º35’), the westernmost near Lake Eleanor (N37º59’ W119º53’), and the easternmost at Mount Lewis (N37º51’ W119º12’). Some major features within the wilderness are Jack Main Canyon (N38º3’ W119º41’), the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River (N37º56’ W119º33’), Lyell Canyon (N37º49’ W119º17’), Little Yosemite Valley (N37º44’ W119º30’), and  Buena Vista Crest (N37º36’ W119º29’).

Trails lead into the wilderness from Hetch Hetchy area (Wapama Falls, Rancheria Falls, Smith Peak), Big Oak Flat (Carlon Falls on South Fork Tuolumne River [from Evergreen Road in Stanislaus National Forest]), Tuolumne Meadows (Lyell Canyon, Mono Pass, Cathedral lakes, Gaylor Lake, Elizabeth Lakes, and Tuolumne River waterfalls), White Wolf (Lukens Lake, Harden Lake, North Dome, Ten Lakes), Glacier Point Road (Sentinel Dome, McGurk Meadow, Mono Meadow), and Wawona (Chilnaulna Falls). The John Muir Trail begins in Yosemite Valley and climbs to Tuolumne Meadows, where it joins the Pacific Crest Trail and continues south to Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail traverses the wilderness from Donohue Pass on the Ansel Adams Wilderness boundary (N37º46’ W119º15’) north to Dorothy Lakes Pass on the Hoover Wilderness boundary (N38º11’ W119º35’), passing Lyell Canyon, Tuolumne Meadows, Tuolumne Falls, Virginia Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, and Jack Main Canyon.

Merced River within Yosemite National Park and wilderness is part of the wild and scenic river system. The river is designated from its source on Mount Lyell to Briceburg (N37º36’ W119º58’), including glacially carved Yosemite Valley. There are four source streams that are included in the designation. Red Peak Fork (N37º40’ W119º23’), Merced Peak Fork (N37º39’ W119º23’), and Triple Peak Fork (N37º38’ W119º20’) confluence from the south, and Lyell Fork (N37º44’ W119º16’) enters from the east. From its source to El Portal (N37º40’ W119º49’)(the Yosemite National Park portion), the river flows through a conifer forest. South Fork Merced River within Yosemite National Park and Wilderness is a wild and scenic river from its source at Chain Lakes (N37º34’ W119º24’) downstream for 22 miles to the park boundary (N37º35’ W119º42’). The river passes the Wawona area. The Tuolumne River and its headwater tributaries Dana Fork and Lyell Fork are designated as wild and scenic rivers within the park and wilderness except for a section of the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. These are described in the wild and scenic rivers section.

Man and the Biosphere Reserves

There are two Biosphere reserves in the Sierra Nevada, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest.

Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest Man and the Biosphere Reserve

Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, California (N38º11’ W119º59’), is on both sides of State Route 108 near Pinecrest. This 1,700-acre research forest is composed of sugar pine, mixed conifer, and black oak forests in two units. One tract is south of Pinecrest and the other is on the South Fork Stanislaus River.

Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network

Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, California, is known for its tufa towers of evaporated salt, the area includes Mono Lake and volcanoes in the Great Basin ecoregion. However, Mono Dome (N37º58’ W119º10’) in the Hoover Wilderness and a portion of the Sierra Nevada forests ecoregion that overlooks the lake is included in the National Forest Scenic Area.

National Historic Landmarks

There are five National Historic Landmarks in Yosemite National Park, which are described under the Yosemite National Park World Heritage Site entry.