Sunset over the Minarets, once a part of Yosemite.
It seems likely that whenever Yosemite is thought of today, we assume that it exists now as if it were established that way. The boundaries are what they always have been and the park encompasses all the landmarks that we associate with the park. However, that is most definitely not the case. The park has actually changed its shape considerably since it was founded and significant tracts of land were both added and subtracted to the park’s area. Many of the areas that were once a part of Yosemite, yet are no longer, would likely be iconic landmarks of the national park today. They are every bit as beautiful as the rest of the park but are no longer of it. They could be considered Yosemite lost.
Yosemite National Park was established by congress in 1890. At the time of the historic event, Yosemite Valley and the more southerly Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias had already been deeded over to the state of California for protection by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The land of these grants was somewhat arbitrarily established, especially the area containing Yosemite Valley. To determine the boundary of what was deeded to the state, the federal government simply established lines between peaks and other prominent points like the Merced River. At the time, with little survey work and lacking accurate maps, this was the easiest way to establish borders.
When the national park was created in 1890, times had changed and most of the land west of the crest of the Sierra Nevada had been surveyed. Consequently the boundaries were once again established arbitrarily but on the basis of survey lines. When surveying takes place, land is divided up into sections, which consist of 1 square mile of land. These are then grouped into townships, which are 36 sections grouped in squares, that have 6 miles on each side. When the park boundaries were laid out during the legislative process, it consisted of 30 townships surrounding the stated controlled land of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. However, much of the land on the east side of the Sierra Nevada crest had not been surveyed. Lower down, closer to settlements on the east side of the range, the land had been surveyed. Thus, for good measure, all the unsurveyed land between the crest and the mapped areas lower down were included in Yosemite National Park.
Historic map of Yosemite’s early boundaries. The 1864 grants are in green. The original park boundaries are marked by the faint yellow line. The new boundaries after the 1906 realignment are in brown. Zoom in on this map. There is a lot of great detail.
After the park was established, federal land administration continued to evolve. It soon became doctrine that administrative divisions were best created along river watershed lines. In many areas with larger mountain regions, this allowed lands to be accessed by ranger more feasibly and it unified management programs for entire watersheds, rather than having one part of a river managed one way while downstream there may be a different agenda. This posed problems for Yosemite. Although the entire headwaters of the Merced were in the park, the northern portions of the Tuolumne River watershed were haphazardly left out. Even more complicated, the North and Middle Forks of the San Joaquin River were included in Yosemite. Much of this land, especially the region of the Middle Fork was only realistically accessed from the Mammoth area on the east side.
It was decided that that park’s boundaries needed to be realigned to fit into the new doctrine of watershed management. Thus, in 1906 the park boundaries were altered, the new limits were being reckoned along the crest of the Sierra Nevada in the east and the the divides between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers in the north and the Merced and San Joaquin Rivers in the south. This gives Yosemite a much more organic appearance when looking on the map. Equally important, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were repossessed by the federal government and added to the national park. Further adjustments were later made on the western edges of the park but this significant action permanently reset Yosemite.
Since most the land added to the park is remote wilderness in the north, it did little to alter the experience of most visitors to Yosemite. The valley remained the epicenter of the Yosemite experience and it was now firmly ensconced with the park, both geographically and administratively. However, substantial tracts of land east of the Sierra crest were now lost to Yosemite. All of this land is rugged, mountain wilderness but some of it is among the most spectacular alpine country in America and has gone on to achieve iconic status on its own terms. It is fascinating to think what the public conception of Yosemite would be today if this land had remained within the park. Images that could come to mind when the fabled name of Yosemite is uttered could include Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Thousand Island Lake or Mount Ritter. Rainbow Falls would take its rightful place within the pantheon of great Yosemite Cataracts. Parker Lake would be a popular hike much like the hike to Cathedral Lakes. The human geography of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada would look much, much different than it now does.
So what does this lost Yosemite look like? What could have been a part of the famed park? They are still explored, enjoyed and admired, but likely much of it is far less known than if it were part of the park. Thankfully, it is now all preserved in the Hoover and Ansel Adams Wilderness Areas. The following are some examples of the lost Yosemite.
Green Lakes Basin, Hoover Wilderness
While the largest lakes of the Green Lakes Basin, including Green and East Lakes are outside the arbitrary 1890 park boundaries, the Hoover Lakes are in the park. The lakes are not large but the basin, located between Dunderberg and Epidote Peaks, is spectacular.
Virginia Lakes Basin, Hoover Wilderness
Once again, the random lines of the 1890 park left cut a lake basin in half. Virginia Lake itself is left out but Blue Lake and some of the smaller lakes higher up in the basin are included. This area has beautiful aspen stands and rugged peaks. An good trail network exists here and connects to the Hoover Lakes in the adjoining lake basin. With good road access, it would be easy to see this area well developed by the national park, drawing far more attention than it currently gets.
Lundy Canyon, Hoover Wilderness
Lundy Canyon is one of the most spectacular chasms in the Eastern Sierra. Loaded with waterfalls, soaring cliffs and spectacular fall color, it would be an iconic destination within Yosemite. Instead, while increasingly popular, its name is not well known outside of fans of hiking and aspens in the autumn. The adjacent 20 Lakes Basin was also included in the 1890 park. The hike from Lundy Canyon to the lake basin, once the one of the most spectacular trails in the Sierra (a rockslide in 2006 wiped out a critical section of trail) would no doubt be a Yosemite classic.
Sardine Lakes, Ansel Adams Wilderness
With incredible views down to Mono Lake, the Sardine Lakes are practically already a part of Yosemite. They lie just feet outside the current park boundary, just below Mono Pass. The best way to hike to them is from Tioga Road and make a lollipop that includes pastoral Spillway Lake.
Parker Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
One of the most distinctive and spectacular lakes in the Sierra Nevada, Parker Lake would no doubt be a favorite destination in Yosemite. Parker Lake is unusual because it is a large lake that sits at the foot of the eastern Sierra escarpment, rather than higher up in the range, similar to famed Convict Lake. This beautiful spot was not spared the random boundary lines. The easternmost tip of the lake was left out of the park.
Thousand Island Lake and the Ritter Range, Ansel Adams Wildereness
The Ritter Range is one of the most spectacular slices of mountain scenery you will find. It is simply sublime. If it had been left in the park, it would be the third hub of a Yosemite Triad: the Valley, Tuolumne Meadows and the Ritter Range. While the grand towers of Ritter and Banner are the obvious epicenters, Thousand Island Lake would no doubt be a prime draw. It is simply one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The Ritter Range (in general), Ansel Adams Wilderness
The Ritter Range is a huge area and most of it falls within the 1890 Yosemite boundaries. Surrounding Ritter and Banner are plenty of other alpine lakes (including massive Garnet Lake, nearly the equal of Thousand Island Lake) and other alpine delights. Meadows, waterfalls, rocky expanses and all the best features of the wild mountains define this area.
The Minarets, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Nearly as high as Ritter and Banner and immediately south of the two peaks, the Minarets are a collection rugged spires thrusting skyward along a long divide between the North and Middle Forks of the San Joaquin. They are among the grandest mountain towers in the Sierra Nevada. It is hard to think of them not being more famous than they already are if they were the Yosemite Minarets!
Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Running through a long, deep canyon, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River flows out of Thousand Island Lake and collects all the waters from the east side of the Ritter Range. The is the main headwaters fork of the second largest and longest river in California. The river is one of the Sierra Nevada’s greats and would add a third major waterway to Yosemite.
Devils Postpile, Devils Postpile National Monument
When Yosemite was realigned, and Devils Postpile was stricken from the park, it was clear to the federal government that this special feature needed further protection. Within five years the national monument was established and the National Park Service took control following its creation in 1916. Consequently, this area has had a national park “vibe” all along and it is easy to imagine it as part of Yosemite.
Rainbow Falls, Devils Postpile National Monument
Not as tall as the giant waterfalls of Yosemite Valley but lacking nothing in terms of beauty, Rainbow Falls is a jewel along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. It, along with nearby Lower Falls are already popular hikes but would no doubt be even more so if they were part of Yosemite.
The Ritter Range does not need to be Yosemite to be appreciated!
In the end, I am certainly not advocating that Yosemite kept its original boundaries. On the contrary, I think the park’s current boundaries are sound and fit with modern administrative decisions that define the divisions of federal land. Still, it is fascinating to think how being in a national park might change the areas that were stricken from the park. They would all likely receive far more traffic than they do. Even though the Ritter Range is already a popular destination, if the Yosemite name were attached to it, it would be far busier. I am glad that these areas are left to their own devices, to be appreciated on their own terms and to be enjoyed by the hikers who explore them.