A Yosemite Story

— on June 3, 2019 by in editorial | nature | travel

I want to tell you a story…

For an age of the earth, hundreds of thousands of years, so long in fact that evolution had time to specialize much of the biom, ice lay across the face of the earth. It lay not just at the poles but far south and over almost any land raised high such as the mountains we name the Sierra Nevadas.

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View with stars overhead and fog shrouding the valley.

This ice was unimaginably thick, massive, real. I could give you facts: it weighs so many gigatons per square mile and it was so many thousands of feet thick. I could even tell you that it moved mountains and depressed the crust of the earth into the mantel through sheer weight. You would still fail to grasp the reality. Our minds just aren’t made for such scales.

That much ice does not lay still. Like a restless sleeper, it shifted, and slid and turned. All the while, it ground on the bed rock of the world, shattering it and carrying it away.

Half Dome catches the last rays of the setting sun at Yosemite National Park.

Melting Ice

Eventually, as all things do, that age of the earth came to an end. The ice slowly melted over centuries. On the plains of northern north America it left behind great depressions filled with water, some of which we call the great lakes among their many siblings.

Where the surface of the earth is not so flat to start, where granite spires speared the sky, the receding ice left smooth rounded domes of incredibly hard granite and basalt. In the spaces between the spires, the glaciers scrapped away the plaque of sediment and rock that had settled there in past eons. 

The ice softened the peaks, sheered the edges and gouged the valley floor into a chasm of inhuman size.

The end of Bridal Veil Falls in spring time. Water plummets and impacts the rocks at the bottom in Yosemite National Park.

Glacier move earth, sheering stone and pushing soil alike, but eventually they deposit that debris in a moraine. One such moraine lay at he exit to a place we call upper Yosemite valley. A moraine is a sort of natural dam, holding in the water from melting ice and snow and from seasons of rain. The chasm became a lake.

For thousands of years after the glaciers departed, rain and snow continued to fall. Their slow but unstoppable power carried more stone, soil and organic matter, plants had returned to the mountain tops, down into the lake where it settled slowly to the bottom of the deep melt-water lake.

Over the centuries the lake became a bog, filled totally in with sentiment, but soaked through with water held back by the moraine. The the lake surface turned valley floor was full of grass and other water loving plants happy to live in such wet soil, that is until the current age. 

Man’s Hand

A Giant Sequoia in Merced Grove at Yosemite National Park

In the mid 1800s we, and I mean Europeans for there had been other people here for millennium before, arrived in the valley. It was decided that the valley would be better with less water and just like that, with the help of a few tons of trinitrotoluene, the glacial moraine that had held the water in for ages was breached, enough any way to let the Merced river flow freely through the valley.

With the river carrying the water out of the valley quickly, the soil dried. Cones from the conifer forests on the top of the valley, as well as cotton wood fluff and oak acorns fell and found fertile soil. A forest grew overnight in what used to be a bog.

More Europeans visited and Abraham Lincoln turned Yosemite valley into the first embryonic national park in 1864. Eventually roads and hotels were built and the park transitioned from paper protection to a real treasured national park.

In Droves

Tourist stand on a rock at Glacier Point looking at Half Dome in the distance.

Today we visit the valley by the millions. We know it’s features names: El Captain, Half Dome and Glacier point. Water from melting snow higher in the mountains, and from rain, plummets thousands of feet, leaping thundering from cliffs and blows into veils of mist visible from miles away.

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point.

Standing at Glacier Point, peering over the edge, the valley is laid out below you. The cliff is so sheer, you could seemingly drop a stone and hit the colorful rectangles of the cars in the Half Dome Village parking lot or the white squares of the glamping tents.

Standing on this cliff, you can get a sense of the scale of the ice that carved and defined this place of natural wonder. The cliff you peer over is 3200 feet tall. Standing at the top, towering over the valley floor, you would have been no where near the surface of the glaciers.

Another 700 feet of solid ice lay above the spot you stand on.