Naturally Awestruck at Yosemite
Girls That Roam Got It’s Breath Taken Away By Yosemite Just As Many Women Have Before Us
by Heather Cassell
Fall is finally making an appearance. The trees are turning colors and the last gasps of summer are gripping California. Now is probably one of the best times of the year to slip away to Yosemite National Park (209-372-0200), which is located in the northeastern part of the Golden State, about a three hour drive from San Francisco.
There is a great reason why Yosemite is one of America’s celebrated national parks.
Yosemite, even for the most non-outdoorsy type, is awe inspiring and impressive. The park attracted 4,029,416 visitors in 2014. That’s 200,055 more visitors than in 2013. Even the drought, with Bridalveil Fall trickling with water on good days and heightened fire rules, hasn’t deterred visitors.
Upon entering the park, the views of Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome are incomparable, not to mention that the park is home to other natural wonders Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy, and the park’s high country.
This is the reason to visit Yosemite, even if it’s only once in your lifetime. Photographs don’t lie, but they don’t compare to seeing Yosemite’s most famous sites in person, even famed photographer and naturalist Ansel Adams renderings of Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, Half Dome can’t compete with witnessing the magnificence of these sites in real life. They are naturally spectacular, not to mention, the park is an outdoor person’s wonderland.
Nearly 95% of the park is preserved forest spanning 1,101 square miles just as it has been since glaciers cut through and shaped the granite that have become iconic natural symbols centuries ago. It wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for naturalists of the late 1800s and early 1900s and women had much to do with preserving and developing Yosemite as a national park.
Yosemite might not have become the Yosemite we know today without Jessie Benton Fremont. Jessie was a force in a time when women didn’t have much clout, but she had pedigree as the daughter of powerful US Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of Civil War hero John C. Fremont, and writing skills that she used well.
John was an officer, politician, and perhaps most important in terms of Yosemite, California, and the West overall, an explorer. The duo crafted many articles and books with the ink in Jessie’s pen, including Far West Sketches, which she described Yosemite. Her words highly influenced the creation of the legislation, the Yosemite Grant, which established Yosemite as California’s first state park with the signature of President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
It wasn’t until 1890 with the swish of President Benjamin Harrison’s pen did Yosemite become the US’s third national park.
In 1984, Yosemite was designated a United Nations World Heritage site.
Jessie and John were only one pair of key influencers, many of which who were husband and wife teams of artists, tourism and hospitality entrepreneurs, environmentalists and naturalists, explorers, photographers, and writers, that helped Yosemite become what it is today.
While naturalist John Muir and Ansel Adams long with President Theodor “Teddy” Roosevelt are noted the most for the preservation of Yosemite, women played a key role in preserving and developing tourism during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“This had been a wonderful day. Beside the job of climbing we had the flowers … The most appealing thought that the flowers left with us was that here on these inaccessible cliffs wild gardens shall remain forever undisturbed, although millions come to visit Yosemite Valley,” Naturalist-botanist Enid Michael described a day’s climb up the bluffs and Half Dome in Yosemite.
Enid was a skilled hiker and rock climber often taking to Yosemite’s then mostly virgin territory with her husband and friends, such as Virginia Best, daughter of artist H.C. Best, she married Ansel.
“She is a wonderful climber, quite fearless and willing to tackle any sort of climb,” Enid wrote in her journals about Virginia.
Enid was much more than an avid hiker and climber. She became one of Yosemite’s first seasonal female rangers in 1921. Clare Marie Hodges beat her out by three years by becoming Yosemite’s first female seasonal park ranger. However, during Enid’s 20-year tenure as a seasonally appointed park ranger (she never was employed permanently full-time), she became the most prolific author on Yosemite writing 537 articles. She also documented Yosemite’s wildflowers and created the park’s wildflower garden, which is located behind the Yosemite Museum.
A native Californian born in Gilroy in 1883, she moved to Yosemite with her assistant postmaster husband in 1919. As a ranger, Enid lectured at museums, gave nature walks, and collected and prepared plant specimens. She was particularly fond of flowers. During her tenure she had collected and mounted 1,000 plant specimens as well as recording visits by 130 bird species, according to the park services’ Yosemite website.
Her descriptions of Yosemite were exquisite, just as amazing as Ansel’s photos captured Yosemite’s majesty, Enid captured the park in words.
“Age and deformity never break the spirit of the Jeffrey pine; their gray-green clusters of needles sparkle in the sunshine and wild and triumphant are the songs they sing the wind. The junipers form massive trunks whose circumference may equal their own height and with foliage massed into hedge-like forms they are equipped to do battle with the wildest storms,” Enid writes about the majestic natural wonder of the Jeffrey pine, Yosemite’s hallmark tree. “Bold sprits are these trees, not only unabashed by the most tragic disaster but expressing courage and exalted joy as long as one shred of life is left them. And even when dead their upright barkless bodies defy the storms for many a year.”
Enid and Virginia weren’t the only outdoorsy girls to scale the cliffs and roam the trails of Yosemite. Long before them Stella, Bertha and Mabel Sweet along with their friend Maybel Davis climbed the highest peak in the park, Mount Lyell, in 1896. They were only the third group of women to scale the mountain, but the first group to descend into Tuolumne Canyon. Their tales were chronicled in the San Francisco Chronicle by their brother, according to the park services Yosemite website.
Sally Dutcher was the first woman to scale Half Dome in 1875. Kitty Tatch and her friend Katherine Hazelston famously did high kicks at Overhanging Rock on Glacier Point, 3,000 feet above the valley. In 1967, Liz Robbins became the first woman to ascend the Northwest face of Half Dome with her husband Royal Robbins. Six years later Bev Johnson and Sybille Hectell became the first all-female team to ascend El Capitan in 1973.
To recognize early women pioneers in Yosemite, some legislators in Congress proposed to honor Jessie Benton Fremont by renaming Mammoth Peak calling it Mount Jessie, after in 2014. The bill, “To redesignate Mammoth Peak in Yosemite National Park as ‘Mount Jessie Benton Fremont’ (H.R. 1192),” has been quite controversial. The House of Representatives passed the bill last year, but it has yet exited the Energy and Natural Resources committee since July of last year.
While women’s contributions to the founding and development of Yosemite remain hidden, it is because of them, their male counterparts, and those who followed that cyclists can cruise through the Redwoods on 214 paved bike paths or go off-road to enjoy more than 750 miles of trails throughout the park.
Guests can explore on their own, like we did, or take one of the park’s custom day hikes or guided group hikes, including three short hikes to hiking Half Dome, or combine biking and hiking. The park also offers biking, horseback riding, bus tours, golf, and in the winter ice skating, skiing, and snowshoeing.
The park also offers art classes, history and naturalist tours, photography walks, and several programs for kids.
Guests visiting in November might keep in mind that mid-November offers visitors a spectacular light show with the Leonid Meteor showers where an estimated 10 to 20 meteors fall per hour.
Super G was in the mood to head to the mountains for a weekend getaway. So, Girls That Roam packed up the car and took off with our friends to Yosemite.
My breath was taken away as we entered Yosemite. Half Dome is unmistakable as you drive in over the hills before dropping into the valley. That’s only the beginning. Once in the valley, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall are unmistakable as they take center stage rising above the trees in their natural beauty.
We didn’t get as adventurous as early and modern day explorers, but we enjoyed a light walk up one of the trails toward Bridalveil Falls and walking out into an open field to view El Capitan, which towers over the park.
It was breathe taking to say the least and at moments meditative and peaceful listening to the sounds of the water running over the rocks, birds chirping, and the rustle of the breeze among the trees and flowers.
This was after a night of camping.
Now, I would have preferred staying in the comfort of The Ahwahnee, Yosemite’s AAA Four-Diamond resort, as I’m not a camping kinda girl. However, Super G loves camping, so we ended up at the Curry Village campground, named after “Mother Curry,” with a heated tent (the compromise) for $83 for the night.
Yosemite offers a variety of lodging options from campgrounds to pre-built camp sites, like we did, up to luxury. Many people, if not most, come to Yosemite to camp and be out in nature like we did.
The Curry Village is one of Yosemite’s most popular campgrounds out of five – High Sierra Camps, Housekeeping Camp, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, and White Wolf Lodge – located around the park. It is also the only campground that is open year-round.
However, if a soft bed, heat, and a private shower are important to you, you might want to stay at the Tenaya Lodge, the Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, and for skiing at Yosemite book your room at Glacier Point Ski Hut.
I immediately was brought back to 4-H summer camp in my youth, except we were in cabins, like in the any pre-teen summer camp movie, when we walked into our tent and unloaded our camping gear. The shared bathroom was crammed with women clutching their toiletries, towels, and clothes as we changed for bed. Fortunately, our tent was close to the bathrooms so I didn’t have to stumble through the dark too much as Super G used the flashlight on her phone to light our way.
Later in the night, I practically froze to death in our sleeping bag when the temperature dropped overpowering our gas operated tent heater … oh! and the gas ran out around 4 a.m. I awoke cold with a pain shooting down my right leg. Super G jumped into action as I whimpered (yes, I would not survive being in one episode of Survivor) and grabbed another sleeping bag to throw over us. We fell back to sleep as we warmed up again. (Note, bring extra sleeping bags and blankets along with your other camping supplies.)
Women explorers weren’t the only ones setting up camp in Yosemite. Businesswomen also followed their husbands to the Yosemite Valley and their efforts are still enjoyed today. One of the women, Jennie Foster Curry, co-founded Camp Curry at Glacier Point, which is the only year-round camp site and where Girls That Roam and our friends stayed during our visit to Yosemite.
Jennie, who was a college graduate (highly unusual for those days), founded the 25-tent camp that provided packed lunches for outings and concierge services to tourists with her husband until his untimely death in 1917, at which point she took full control along with her children. Jennie, who became known as “Mother Curry,” along with her children grew the camp site to from those quarter tents that welcomed 290 guests annually to 650 tents with 60 rooms in cottages by 1922. Within that five years, the site also offered a range of services from a cafeteria, bathhouses, laundry, post office, and store but also an auditorium, a bakery, bowling alley, a candy kitchen, an ice plant, pool, pool hall, soda fountain, and a studio for guests to use.
Jennie wasn’t the only businesswoman providing hospitality services in Yosemite. Guests still stay at the Yosemite Lodge, which was once pioneering Irish woman Bridget Degnan’s domain. Bridget moved to the Yosemite Valley from Ireland with her husband John in 1884. Soon she was baking her specialty bread for guests traveling to Yosemite. Breaking bread with visitors grew into a full-fledge restaurant offering meals and beverages and even a grocery store at what is now the Yosemite Lodge and the site of old Yosemite Village.
Visitors can see Bridget’s oven that could bake more than 100 loaves of bread at the Pioneer History Center at Wawona.
We worked up an appetite while walking out in the woods, so our group ended our day in Yosemite enjoying a late lunch at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, one of the park’s fine dining establishments. There wasn’t a way to make a bad choice. Everything we ordered was delicious from our burgers and cheese steak to the fish and pasta. The view of the giant sequoias through the floor to ceiling windows of the dining hall as we ate was a perfect finish to our day at Yosemite.
Getting Into Yosemite
The park increased its entrance fee to $30 per non-commercial vehicle entering the park – along with all US national parks – this month. However, the fee drops to $25 November through March. Motorcyclists get in for $15, until January 2016 when it goes up to $20.
Guests can get in free during the following days: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Washington’s Birthday/Presidents Day Weekend, National Park Week’s Opening Weekend (April 18 – 19), National Park Service’s 100th birthday (August 25), National Public Lands Day (September 26), and November 11.
Getting to Yosemite
Driving to Yosemite from San Francisco is pretty much a straight drive East across the bridge to Highways 580, 205, and finally to 120.
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