Glimpses of Yosemite: From Geologic Marvel to Cultural Icon (May 2023)

This essay first appeared in the May 2023 issue of Choice (volume 60| issue 9).


Most bibliographic essays deal with an intellectual topic. This essay instead will deal with a location, and readers might ask why. The location of interest is not just a set of geographic coordinates but Yosemite: a glacial valley, a national park in the Sierra Nevada of California, and a place of cultural significance where the various character strands of an emerging national identity  came together in the fabric of American history. In 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill authorizing withdrawal of acreage from the federal land bank to establish a natural area reserved for enjoyment by everyone. Administration of the land was given to the new state of California, which later established a board of commissioners to oversee its development as a park. The commissioners established the principles by which Yosemite would be managed, and these principles eventually became a model for the federal government in establishing future national parks. Although the first national park to be formally defined as such was Yellowstone National Park (in 1873), Lincoln’s action, taken in the midst of the Civil War upheaval, marks perhaps the first time in world history that a place of natural beauty was officially set aside for all to enjoy. Yosemite would not formally become a national park until the 1890s, but the scene had now been set for the United States and other countries to establish many more wilderness parks.

This essay will highlight resources on the attributes and significance of Yosemite, sometimes zooming out from the valley to the surrounding area now associated with the national park. Among the works included are titles that focus on individuals associated with the history of the park—the famous and infamous who either lived in or visited the valley—and the now-celebrated imagery of Yosemite when the park was first created, imagery that brought the beauty of the park to those who could not physically visit it. The park of today is a mosaic of features, some brought about by granitic masses and glacial weathering, some the result of human activity. The works mentioned here address that full range of activity, including noteworthy events that have occurred in and about the park—important among them the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to fetch water for San Francisco (discussed later in this essay). Books dealing with this and other topics continue to appear, testifying to the importance of Yosemite not just as a national park but as a cultural icon. Works discussed here include not only recent scholarship but also works in the public domain, chestnuts of the literature on Yosemite.

About the Author:

Larry T. Spencer is professor emeritus of biology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Plymouth State University.