Frederick Law Olmsted and Yosemite Valley

Excerpted from The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

In June of 1864, with the Civil War raging and re-election uncertain, President Abraham Lincoln signed a relatively minor bill transferring Yosemite Valley to California to be held “inalienable” for “public use, resort, and recreation.” Governor Low provisionally accepted the grant shortly thereafter and named a commission to oversee the new park. He chose as the head of the commission Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect already known for work on New York’s Central Park but then acting as manager for the Las Mariposas estate in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Olmsted attempted to describe Yosemite for others (especially the lawmakers who had not visited it but would soon vote on accepting the park and funding it). First noting the great cliffs, the waterfalls, the broad meadows, and the qualities of the light and climate, he came to the essence of Yosemite:

There are falls of water elsewhere finer, there are more stupendous rocks, more beetling cliffs, there are deeper and more awful chasms, there may be as beautiful streams, as lovely meadows, there are larger trees. It is in no scene or scenes the charm consists, but in the miles of scenery where cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring, are banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty.

The union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part or one scene or another, not in any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yosemite the greatest glory of nature.

The essence of the physical landscape was the juxtaposition of the steep cliffs with the flat valley floor. In numerous areas, the flat floor of the valley comes right to the base of the soaring cliffs, and through this valley the Merced River lazes its way along in view of the majestic falls. As Olmsted noted, other places had the same ingredients; Yosemite stood apart in the assembly of the parts.

If we ask what geologic process made Yosemite unique, the answer would have to be glaciers acting on very heterogeneous granitic rocks. Yosemite’s special nature relies on the far greater depth the glaciers cut compared with the other “yosemites,” (the other deep glacial canyons of the Sierra) and this was made possible by the vulnerabilities of its complex geology. While California’s state geologist Josiah Whitney was therefore unquestionably wrong in arguing that Yosemite was created by faulting and John Muir, despite exaggeration, correct in identifying glaciers as the valley’s sculptors, neither fully traced back Yosemite’s origin to its roots. The awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley existed—and could serve as the template for the most extensive national park system in the world—because of the accident of many chemically different bodies of granitic rock coinciding with the right elevation in the Sierra Nevada where glaciers could carve a massive, steep-walled valley.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and prominent earth-science journals, and he is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics. He blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.