I write this week’s column from the banks of the Merced River, in California’s Yosemite National Park. The park itself is a place of wonder: 1,170 square miles — a chunk of land about the size of the state of Rhode Island — comprised of mountains, rivers, forest, and meadow, with elevations ranging from 2,000 to 13,000 feet.

Yosemite was among the first of our National Parks. Originally set aside as a California State Park by President Lincoln in 1864, it represents the first federal authorization to preserve scenic land for the public. It was made a National Park in 1890.

More than four million people visit the park every year. To accommodate them, there are three hotels, 900 campsites, and more than 1,000 cabins. The park contains a church, several post offices and convenience stores, plus gift shops, restaurants, outfitters, and one very large supermarket. It’s more than just a town unto itself — it’s several towns: Curry Village, Wawona, Big Oak Flat, Tuolumne . . .

As I write, I’m nearing the end of a 5-day stay here with my parents and sister. We’ve done some hiking — both in mountains and sub-alpine meadows, toured a forest of giant sequoias, and viewed a number of lakes and waterfalls. Before we go, we’ll drive up to Glacier Point and look down 3,000 feet into the valley.

We’ve seen deer, all sorts of smaller, furrier animals, and a number of birds you won’t find on the East Coast. Although we’ve each had encounters with belligerent bees and wasps, we’ve managed to avoid the rattlesnakes. Yet we haven’t totally escaped the wild creatures. This morning we were awakened at 4:30 by the sound of a mother bear and her cubs, right outside our cabin, foraging the campground for a meal (despite special trash receptacles and food lockers, they found Fritos, cookies, and what appeared to be sandwich).

All told, we are not in the wilderness. We are surrounded by acre upon acre of undeveloped land (94.5% of the park), but this place is distinctly not-wild. It’s not what I expected.

I’ve been here before, passing through briefly on the tail end of a cross country road trip. A “quick” (it takes several hours) drive through the park reveals sheer rock faces, towering mountains, and seemingly endless trees, with a bustling village at its heart. You might think that this commercial center and its satellite villages were the only havens in this sprawling outback, but under closer examination, you find that it’s simply not true.

For example, on our first full day here, we hiked the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. It was only a 2 mile trail, but it took us all afternoon to get up and down it, inching our way along a steep route at the edge of cliffs and waterfalls. It was a slow, difficult, but breathtaking hike.

This sounds like something of a wilderness adventure until you find out that much of the trail was paved, and restrooms were strategically placed along it, every half mile or so. Drinking fountains too. And at the steepest points on the trail, they’d even cut steps into the ledge, sometimes with guard rails!

Reading the guidebook, I figured that this was just an unlucky example, as the trail itself was billed as “What To Do If You Only Have One Day,” but the next two days’ events proved quite similar. Only today, following unmarked trails through the sub-alpine (8,000 feet) meadows along the banks of the Tuolomne River, did we finally escape asphalt.

I have to admit, the entire park is not paved. There are plenty of longer, steeper, more remote trails that are not so “well-equipped,” such as the footpaths that lead deep into the wild sections of the Sierra Nevadas. But the average tourist will not see these in his or her “average” three-day stay.

There have long been debates over whether or not National Parks should be so accessible. While greater numbers of people, many of whom support the park with their tax dollars, will experience Yosemite only via tour bus or paved walking trail, such amenities detract from the natural beauty of the park.

I have feelings on both sides of the issue. I really appreciated those steps and railings to the top of Vernal Falls, but I could have done without the pavement. The National Parks System is considering the elimination or severe restriction of private vehicular traffic in the park, and with ample shuttle buses and bicycles available, not to mention horses and mules, I think it’s a good idea. A start anyhow.

Mother Nature herself is taking care of some of the other details. Upon arrival, campers are sternly warned about bear attacks and the importance of keeping all cars, tents, and backpacks free of food, toiletries, and other “tasty treats” (each night, there are an average of twelve automobile break-ins by bears). They are also advised not to feed the seemingly docile but potentially diseased animals — deer, raccoons, squirrels — who roam the park.

There are other forces at work to keep the wild places wild. Forest fires, usually brought on by lightning storms in the dry wooded hills, close off large tracts of the park for weeks on end. Floods, like the drastic hundred-year event which occurred this January, can put the park under ten feet of water, scouring away roads, bridges, trails, and campgrounds in their wake.

The author’s mother, in front of a giant redwood tree.

Perhaps the very act of setting aside a piece of land as “wilderness” renders it anything but wild. What wildness is there in designations and boundaries?

It’s still important. Open spaces and publicly owned lands are tremendous assets to the community, and as development spreads like wildfire, we must persist in our efforts to set land aside for public use — land free of tour buses and concession stands.

Here on the South Shore, in the past year or so, at least three parcels have been set aside: Norwell’s Donovan Property, Marshfield’s Two Mile Farm, and a large area in Pembroke at the headwaters of the North River. Perhaps more will follow.

by Kezia Bacon
Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
September 1997