On October 1, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation that created Yosemite National Park. Check out 10 surprising facts about the UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains that is home to thundering waterfalls, sheer granite monoliths and towering sequoia trees.
1. Yosemite was not America’s first national park.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1864 that designated the 7-mile-long Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias a public trust of the state of California, it marked the first time that the U.S. government had protected natural wonders for public enjoyment. Although the creation of the public trust laid the foundation for the national park system, Yosemite did not become a national park until 18 years after the establishment of Yellowstone National Park and a week after the creation of Sequoia National Park.
2. A Scottish immigrant spearheaded Yosemite National Park’s creation.
John Muir, a native of Scotland who grew up in Wisconsin, first set eyes on the Yosemite Valley in 1868. “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” the amateur naturalist wrote. Muir lamented the destruction of the forests and vast meadows that surrounded the state-controlled Yosemite Valley. His popular articles in newspapers and magazines raised the awareness of the region’s beauty and contributed to the eventual establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890.
3. Sheep were once among the primary threats to Yosemite’s natural landscape.
A particular threat to Yosemite’s natural beauty came from sheepherders who frequently set meadows ablaze to promote the growth of edible grasses for their grazing sheep. In 1870, as many as 15,000 sheep pastured in the Tuolumne Meadows alone. “To let sheep trample so divinely fine a place seems barbarous,” wrote Muir of the “hoofed locusts” that were devastating the region’s subalpine meadows and spreading diseases that depleted the native bighorn sheep.
4. At first, the national park did not include the Yosemite Valley and its iconic landmarks.
When the federal government first established Yosemite National Park, it did not include those lands already bestowed upon the state of California in 1864, including the Yosemite Valley and its natural icons—El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. California, however, failed to prevent incursions by miners, loggers, cattlemen and sheepherders into the Yosemite Valley, which led Muir in 1895 to lament that it was “downtrodden, frowsy, and like an abandoned backwoods pasture.”
5. A presidential camping trip led to Yosemite National Park’s expansion.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to California and requested that Muir take him camping for several days in Yosemite. Roosevelt spent a night beneath the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove and compared it to “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hands of man.” Muir implored upon Roosevelt the need to expand the national park to include those lands still in California’s possession, and in 1906 the president signed a law that brought the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove under federal jurisdiction.
6. The buffalo soldiers who initially patrolled Yosemite pioneered the distinctive hat worn by National Park Service rangers.
Before the 1916 establishment of the National Park Service, management of Yosemite fell to the military. Many of the regiments of African-American men, known as buffalo soldiers, who patrolled the park were Spanish-American War veterans who had discovered that they could better shield themselves from the tropical rains of Cuba and the Philippines by pinching their high-crowned, broad-brimmed hats into symmetrical quadrants. They continued to sport the distinctive “Montana Peak” style on the home front, and it eventually became part of the National Park Service ranger uniform.
7. Yosemite bid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics.
After visiting the 1928 Winter Olympics in Switzerland, Don Tressider, president of Yosemite’s concessioner, sought to bring the quadrennial sporting event to the park. An 800-foot snow slide, a large ice-skating rink, toboggan runs and a small ski jump were constructed in an attempt to make Yosemite a winter destination and the “Switzerland of the West.” Yosemite and several other American locales ultimately lost out to Lake Placid, New York, but the park did host the West Coast tryouts for America’s Olympic speed-skating team. Yosemite still offers winter sports, including downhill and cross-country skiing at Badger Pass, California’s oldest ski resort.
8. A waterfall of fire was once one of the park’s top tourist attractions.
Beginning in the early 1870s, Irish immigrant James McCauley, who owned a hotel atop Glacier Point, ended evenings spent around the campfire with guests by kicking the burning embers over the soaring cliff. Visitors below enjoyed the shower of fire so much they began to pay McCauley to continue the practice. David Curry, the proprietor of Camp Curry, revived the Yosemite Firefall in the early 1900s after hearing guests reminisce about it. It became a nightly summertime entertainment until the National Park Service, frowning upon the man-made attraction, ended it in 1968.
9. Yosemite’s most luxurious hotel once served as a military hospital.
In 1943, the U.S. Navy leased the posh Ahwahnee Hotel and converted it into a military hospital offering neuro-psychiatric treatment. Doctors hoped the park’s tranquility and scenery would soothe shell-shocked patients, but as the National Park Service reports, they soon discovered that the towering cliffs caused claustrophobia, and the park’s isolation left bored sailors and marines preoccupied with their disturbed thoughts. Hospital administrators quickly converted the facility into a general physical rehabilitation unit, and administrators added more facilities, including a library, pool hall and bowling alley.
10. A riot broke out inside Yosemite in 1970.
During the 1960s, the national park became an increasingly popular hangout for California’s hippie subculture. “Some complaints are being heard from Yosemite park that there are more hippies than bears,” reported one newspaper, which added, “apparently, like the bears, the hippies forage off the tourists, eating any food that is left unprotected and begging for handouts.” The tension came to a head on July 4, 1970, as park rangers on horseback attempted to disperse several hundred youths from Stoneman Meadow. The situation quickly escalated with rangers using tear gas and batons against a crowd throwing rocks and glass bottles. Law enforcement was called in to quell the riot, which left seven people hurt and 138 people under arrest.