Top 10 Things to Know About Yosemite National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

Did you know that Yosemite National Park was first protected by Abraham Lincoln? Or that it’s black bears are hardly ever black?

California’s vast granite temple boasts some of the most fascinating facts – and fantastic views – of any park in the world. Best known for towering waterfalls like Yosemite Falls, immense granite monoliths like El Capitan, and landscapes full of giant sequoias as far as the eye can see, the national park has been an American staple for generations. But it’s magnificent history stretches back eons.

Below, we’re hitting the top 10 things to know about this 747,956 acre wonderland. We’ll stretch far back into that past, then all the way up to present day, so you’re fully equipped with the knowledge you need to appreciate Yosemite’s splendor.

10. Here, There Be Giants

The Grizzly Giant sequoia tree is seen under a starry sky in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

Giant sequoia trees, that is. Yosemite’s most famous living residents, these ancient giants can be seen from three incredible groves inside the national park. From spring to fall, Mariposa Grove (near Yosemite’s South Entrance off Wawona Road/Highway 41) offers the best route for visitors to see these magnificent beings. Tuolumne and Merced Groves near Crane Flat shouldn’t be missed, either.

Once you arrive to a sequoia grove, you’ll immediately feel their presence. These giants can grow to be 30-feet in diameter and over 250-feet-tall. They do so over eons, with the species able to reach 3,000-years-old.

Visitors look at the Grizzly Giant tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias on May 21, 2018 in Yosemite National Park, California which recently reopened after a three-year renovation project to better protect the trees that can live more than 3,000 years. (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

In fact, giant sequoias are the third longest-living tree species on Earth. The oldest in Yosemite is the Grizzly Giant (above) of Mariposa Grove. Grizzly is surrounded by approx. 500 other mature giant sequoias surround this famous giant, and many visitors remark a changed outlook on life after having spent time beneath these ancient, enormous beings.

9. Abraham Lincoln First Protected Yosemite National Park

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th president of the United States of America. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Decades before John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt came to champion Yosemite National Park, President Abraham Lincoln did so. As president, Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant on June 30, 1864 in order to protect Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley.

Lincoln’s foresight came almost a decade before Yellowstone became the first national park, and half a century before the creation of the National Park Service. Through his protection, the 1864 land grant became the first time the government protected land because of its natural beauty. The intent? Preservation so that the American people could enjoy and behold Yosemite’s splendor – something the National Park Service upholds to this day.

8. Yosemite Falls is One of the Tallest Waterfalls in the World

Did you know Yosemite is home to one of the tallest waterfalls in the world? Now you do! Today, Yosemite Falls towers above Western Approach Trail, but the immense 2,425-foot wonder has existed for eons.

Yosemite Fallis is not just a single waterfall, however. It’s comprised of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the middle cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall. Together, their size is so immense that the falls can be spotted from around Yosemite Valley.

Head to the park in springtime to see the falls at their full glory after winter snow melts. As autumn comes, the famous waterfall begins to dry up to sleep through winter once more.

7. John Muir was Instrumental to Yosemite National Park’s Founding

John Muir (1838-1914) Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation. Campaigned for preservation of US wilderness including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Founder of The Sierra Club. Photograph. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

“But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912

Many other prolific American figures came to Yosemite’s aid in Lincoln’s stead. Perhaps the most famous of all Yosemite’s champions is naturalist John Muir. From 1868 to 1874, Muir lived within what is now Yosemite National Park today. The Scottish-American became enthralled with the Sierra, and made it his life’s mission to protect it.

In kind, he lobbied (successfully) for the creation of Yosemite National Park, which came to be in 1890. But this wasn’t enough. The land was in need of additional protections, so Muir called on President Theodore Roosevelt, touring him around the park in 1903. The president abided Muir’s wish, restoring Lincoln’s Yosemite Grant to the federal government in 1903.

Keep an eye out in the park for John Muir’s story, historical markers, statue, and more.

6. Yosemite is a Hiker’s Paradise

Hiker silhouette facing Bridaveil waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. California, USA. (Photo by Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images)

If you’re a climber, you know Yosemite is a prime climbing destination. But the park is incredibly accessible for adventurers of all skill levels, which is where hiking comes in.

In fact, hiking is the best way to see Yosemite. The park holds over 750 miles of trails. And unlike some national parks, Yosemite is open to hikers of all skill levels year-round.

One of the most sought-after trails is Yosemite Falls Trail, which leads to a stellar lookout of the valley and falls. For hikers of all experience levels, Mirror Lake Trail offers an easier yet gorgeous trek through the park. And for the experienced trekkers, Half Dome Hike is a bucket-list worthy challenge.

For more ways to hike Yosemite, see our Yosemite National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Lower Yosemite Falls to Stanford Point.

5. Buffalo Soldiers: Yosemite’s First Park Rangers

In this 1899 photo, Buffalo Soldiers in the 24th Infantry carried out mounted patrol duties in Yosemite. (Photo credit: National Park Service, NPS archives)

As the photo above shows, Buffalo Soldiers were among the first national park rangers in U.S. history. These Black army regiments were founded after the Civil War, and soldiers were often dispatched westward to fight in the Indian Wars, where Indigenous Plains Tribes gave them the “Buffalo Soldier” moniker.

After the wars, these incredible soldiers became many of the first backcountry rangers in the budding national parks. From there, they would expand alongside Caucasian counterparts to become park rangers across the first national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Frustratingly, the Buffalo Soldiers’ prominent role in national park history has become all-but forgotten in recent times. But an incredible 500+ Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park alone. There, they would evict poachers and timber thieves and extinguish park-threatening wildfires. And they did it all under the rampant racism of the time.

4. Wildfires are Key to Yosemite’s Future

GROVELAND, CA – AUGUST 21: The sun sets through heavy smoke from the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wildfires are integral part of the Yosemite ecosystem. They’re a part of the natural cycle of the land. But recent climate change has fires burning hotter and more intensely than any time in known history. Fires like the Washburn Wildfire and Oak Fire caused unprecedented damage over the last year alone.

West Stanislaus County Fire firefighters monitor the Rim Fire as it approaches Yosemite Lake on August 23, 2013 near Groveland, California. The Rim Fire continues to burn out of control and threatens 4,500 homes outside of Yosemite National Park. Over 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze that entered a section of Yosemite National Park overnight and is only 2 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In 2013, the Rim Fire (above) was the largest forest fire in California history at the time. It was also the largest fire in Yosemite history. Over 400 square miles were burnt to the ground with little remaining in a fire that was of unprecedented heat and fury.

Officials often point to this fire as the beginning of the modern “fire age” in which these “super wildfires” are becoming more and more common. To combat this, Yosemite National Park runs a meticulous controlled fire program throughout the landscape. The program is proving key to the survival of the park, and the many who live there – including giant sequoias.

3. Yosemite’s Indigenous Past, Present, and Future

As soon as the Ice Age glaciers retreated over 11,000-years-ago, humans moved into the Yosemite Valley. Today, their descendants still call this fascinating place home.

Yosemite holds more than 4,000 years of Indigenous American history. Thousands of generations managed wildfires with controlled burning, long before it became a Euro-American science. Indigenous peoples hunted, cultivated, and thrived within Yosemite for eons. It is their home.

But it’s not just history; a mistake many often make when referring to Native cultures. Indigenous Tribes such as the local Miwok thrive in their ancestral homeland. “Miwok” is also spelled “Miwuk” or “Me-Wuk,” and translates as “people” or “Indian people” in their language. The word is used to identify persons who are descended from the different Miwok groups in California.

Today, one of the most prominent Indigenous settlements visitors to Yosemite have access to is their Indian Village of Ahwahnee, located behind the Yosemite Museum in Yosemite Valley.

“This reconstructed village is located on the former site of the largest Indian village in Yosemite Valley. The bark houses, ceremonial roundhouse, sweathouse, pounding rocks, cabin, acorn granaries, and chief’s house are representative of the structures found in a Sierra Nevada Miwok village of the late nineteenth century,” the park cites. “Today the village is still actively used by members of the local American Indian community for ceremonies and special gatherings.”

2. Yosemite’s Tangled Bear Legacy

Black bear in Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Photos taken 29-31 May 2015. (Photo by Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Long before any of us humans were here, North American bears ruled Yosemite. And that may look like a grizzly bear (above), but it’s not. It’s one of many cinnamon-colored black bears that roam the ecosystem.

Black bears are hardly ever actually black in Yosemite. They range from deep brown to reddish and blonde, with many sporting this cinnamon color. True brown bears once roamed California, but they were hunted to extinction by Euro-American settlers who found them an existential threat to their way of life. The last known brown, or grizzly bear, of the Yosemite area was shot and killed in the 1920s.

Today, somewhere between 300 to 500 black bears roam Yosemite. Their conservation is a key element of the park, too, after early visitors to the park were allowed to feed and even pet wild bears at “bear stations” – a wildly misguided decision that took decades to break the public of.

For more on the park’s incredible bears and wildlife, see our Yosemite National Park Wildlife: From Black Bears to Mountain Lions, Which Animals You’ll See and ‘How-To’ Wildlife Safety.

1. El Capitan of Yosemite’s Granite Temple

Afternoon light on mountains in Yosemite National Park. (Photo by: Mark Bauer/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A perfect example of a glaciated landscape, Yosemite is the result of Ice Age glaciers retreating. As they did, they carved smooth domes, jagged peaks, and dramatic wall features of Yosemite Valley. It was this unparalleled natural beauty that prompted Lincoln-thru-Muir to preserve Yosemite as a national park.

And make no mistake, what those glaciers left behind is worth preserving. Yosemite is a natural cathedral of the most incredible kind. The native rock here is granite, which is known for its strength and durability. It’s these qualities that allow for the towering monoliths of Yosemite to stand the test of time.

(GERMANY OUT) USA: Yosemite National Park / El Capitan (Photo by Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The most famous granite formation in the park is El Capitan. Towering over 3,000 feet, El Capitan dominates the Yosemite Valley. Millions of visitors come to El Capitan Meadow to see its majesty every year. And once you do for yourself, you immediately know why.

Other incredible granite formations in Yosemite to look out for are Lower and Middle Cathedral Rock, and the Cathedral Spires; each also residing in El Capitan Meadow. Together, these giants create the crown of one of the most awe-inspiring parks on Earth, let alone America.

To plan your own Yosemite excursion, see our Yosemite National Park in California: Everything You Need to Plan Your Trip from Must-Sees and Camping to Wildlife and Trails next.