By any measure, Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Mountains is one of the jewels in the crown of America’s national park system. It’s the fifth most-visited national park; it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, and the stunning landmarks of Yosemite Valley – Half Dome, El Capitan, giant sequoias and dramatic waterfalls – are fixed in our minds thanks to the iconic black and white images captured by photographer Ansel Adams.
Given the park’s vitality and beauty, it’s ironic that the Native American word “Yosemite” means “killers,” a name bestowed on the fearsome people who dwelled there by the surrounding tribes. The Yosemite people who lived in the valley aptly called it Awooni (“gaping”), from which the Ahwahnee Hotel – built in 1927 and one of the great park lodges of the American west – gets its name. Let’s kick off our virtual tour of Yosemite National Park by watching this two-minute video of stunning drone footage to gain an appreciation of the majesty of Yosemite Valley.
The park’s history is a microcosm of the broader national parks movement. Abraham Lincoln signed the first law protecting Yosemite from development, and naturalist and writer John Muir led a movement to create the park and expand the protected area to include hundreds of additional square miles of wilderness. In 1890, 18 years after the creation of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park was created by an act of Congress, accelerating the pace of the National Park Service’s development. A 22-minute video produced by the National Park Service presents a concise biographical sketch of Muir, beginning with his family’s immigration to Wisconsin from his native Scotland, and traces the development of the park and the National Park System. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that Muir married the daughter of a wealthy horticulturist and lived in a 10,000 square foot mansion just east of San Francisco.
Now that you’re oriented, let’s go a little deeper into the geography and features of Yosemite Valley. This virtual reality tour of Yosemite is another internet rabbit hole you could spend hours exploring. (Click on the “Virtual Tour” tab and, once you’re in, use your mouse or trackpad to rotate through 360-degree views or to click on the red markers to move to other locations. A menu bar at the bottom of the screen includes a map, a caption icon for pop-ups with explanatory text, and other navigation tools. Make sure your volume’s on to hear ambient sounds of nature!) Can you find the Galen Clark cabin site in the Mariposa Grove?
Yosemite Valley accounts for only seven of the park’s nearly 1,200 square miles, and most visitors never leave that iconic center of Yosemite. Much of the rest of the park is rugged terrain with boulder fields and high mountain lakes, where only experienced backpackers venture down unmarked trails. You can have a taste of the Yosemite backcountry experience from the comfort and safety of your desk chair – follow these backpackers as they traverse the High Sierras over 12 days, often at elevations well above 10,000 feet.
Exhausted from all that high-elevation hiking? Let’s head indoors to the Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the most impressive “Great Lodges” in America’s national parks. The same virtual reality tour of Yosemite takes you inside this beautiful building. Did you know that the set designers for The Shining were inspired by the Ahwahnee Hotel’s interiors?
Now that you’re well-fed and rested, how about a shot of adrenaline for dessert? On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold became the first person ever to climb – alone, and without ropes – the 2,000-feet granite face of El Capitan. Find the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo on your favorite streaming service, or watch Honnold’s Ted Talk for free! To calm yourself down afterwards, watch this restful webcam of Yosemite Falls.
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what Yosemite has to offer with our virtual tour, why not start dreaming about visiting in the future? Browse our complete collection of expert-led Yosemite National Park learning adventures!
About the AuthorPeter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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