It’s nearing midnight, and the full moon is bathing North America’s tallest waterfall in its milky glow.
A few die-hard photographers have timed their visit to Yosemite Falls so they can catch a glimpse of a rare phenomenon: a rainbow at night, emerging from the mist.
“You need swirling winds to help move the mist around, then you need, obviously the moon come up. And that combination is what brings it out,” explains photographer Mark Zborowksi, who is helping to lead a group of photographers through a moonbow class sponsored by the Yosemite Conservancy.
“Just a spectacular view,” Zborowski sighs. “You look up, and you can see the ridges up high and the stars. It fills your eyes, gives you a lot to feed off of.”
The naked eye can’t usually see the color spectrum of the moonbow, but a long exposure with a camera can capture it. “[It] looks like something coming out of Harry Potter’s wand. Just this thin, silvery band, but the camera caught color,” explains photographer Christie MacBride.
“I read John Muir. I read his description of when he climbed and saw the moonbow. After I saw that, I always wanted to see it,” says photographer Diane Hayward. “That literally is on my bucket list.”
Photography, in fact, has been key to Yosemite’s allure. Historians think it may have helped convince Congress – and President Abraham Lincoln – to preserve a place most of them would never visit.
“The Grizzly Giant is the size of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and, amazingly, it has a lean to it that is actually greater than the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa,” says Shenk.
This grove of giant sequoias and the iconic Yosemite Valley became the first federally protected wilderness areas when Lincoln signed the land grant in June of 1864.
“In the midst of our country’s civil war, with all the bloodshed, all the battle, all the anxiety, many of us would like to think that he took a moment and perhaps shook his head, or smiled, in just perhaps a sigh of pleasure,” says Shenk. There’s no real historical evidence, though, Shenk says, to definitively prove whether the thought of a natural cathedral in California really helped distract Lincoln, or anyone else, from anxiety about the bloody Civil war.
These areas were at first entrusted to the state of California and eventually became a national park in 1890.
“Some people have compared the idea of protecting Yosemite valley and the Mariposa Grove with the seed of a giant sequoia,” says Shenk. “The sequoias have incredibly tiny seeds. They look like an oat flake, and yet each one of those seeds has the potential to become a tree that can be 30 feet or more across the trunk, and as much as 300 feet tall, and live for hundreds of years. And so that seed planted by Lincoln’s signature has expanded to the national park system throughout America.”
But, Shenk points out, even those who urged Congress to preserve Yosemite warned that tourism had to be managed carefully. That includes Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who helped design New York’s Central Park. He served as one of the state commissioners who oversaw the Yosemite land grant.
“Not only did he predict the millions of people in the future, but he also said, and so we must be aware of the capricious damage that one visitor might make, and then multiply it by the millions,” Shenk says.
Today, four million people a year visit Yosemite. Trams carrying thousands of visitors snake through the giant sequoias on paved roads.
“Sequoia seedlings are unable to sprout where you have parking lots,” says Shenk, as he watches a line of cars snake toward the trees. “Ironically, our large parking lot in the Mariposa grove is right on top of some of the most prime, best areas that sequoias would like to rejuvenate in.”
As part of the 150th anniversary celebration, the park planned to tear out those parking lots and remove the trams in an effort to restore the grove to its original condition.
Just down the road from the giant sequoia grove, the park still makes room for traditional tourist attractions that allow a taste of the park’s early history. Georg O’Gormon (yes, that’s “Georg” – he explains with a wink that his parents couldn’t afford the “e”) demonstrates the fine points of 19th century blacksmithing for visitors at Yosemite’s Pioneer Village.
“I hope they take away the same idea that Lincoln had, and that is not only to preserve the wilderness but to preserve the way of life that people lived that came before us. And what they went through to provide us with the easy life we have today,” says O’ Gormon.
The 150th anniversary celebration was met with skepticism from some Native Americans, who can’t forget how their ancestors were treated by white soldiers and settlers in the 1800s.
Helen Hogan Coats, a southern Sierra Miwok,, was born in Yosemite in 1927. She worked in the hotel laundry washing sheets and as a babysitter for the children of Ansel Adams, the famed Yosemite photographer. Her grandmother, Lucy Telles, was an influential Native American basket weaver famous for her intricate, multicolored designs.
“I live right here on the highway that goes to Yosemite,” she says, sitting in her house perched on a hilltop in Midpines, near the entrance to the park. “So I see these buses go and go. I tell my husband, There they go again. They’re trompling down my ground again, they’re just trompling her down.’ I said, ‘Why don’t they give her a rest?’ They’re making it into a Disneyland. That’s the way I look at it. Mother earth is just trodded down too much.”
Coats says she hopes visitors coming to commemorate Yosemite’s history will stop for a while to think about what this place was like before white settlers arrived a century and a half ago.
“I mean, don’t just come in there and have a good time celebrating,” says Coats. “You got to have a little spiritual way of looking at the rocks and the trees.”
Special thanks to the Yosemite Conservancy for providing historic photographs for this article. Find more photos and learn about Yosemite’s history in Seed of the Future.
The National Park Service has created a timeline of the Yosemite Grant.