Early Trails of Yosemite

The early trails of Yosemite largely followed those of the Miwok and Paiute natives who traveled routes into Yosemite Valley and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to trade. Early visitors finished their trip into the valley on horseback down either the Pohono or Oak Flat trail. Sheep ranchers brought their flocks into Yosemite's high meadows from both the east and west following one of the branches of the Mono trail. And Army troopers assigned to protect the new Yosemite National Park ushered shepherds and their flocks out of the park (usually in opposite directions1) following and building on trails first traveled by Yosemite natives.
Indian Wars

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In March, 1851 Major James Savage of the newly commissioned Mariposa Battalion led troops after natives who had raided several area mining camps, including three of Savage's trading posts. The company went west from Mariposa in the Sierra foothills to Wawona and then north in pursuit of the Indians. They entered Yosemite Valley on March 25, becoming the first Europeans to visit the valley itself. This first entry into Yosemite Valley was followed two months later by another of Savage's units led by Capt. John Boling and then again in June, 1852 by U.S. infantry troops under the command of Lt. Tredwell Moore. Each of these expeditions, of what became known as the Mariposa Indian Wars, broadened awareness of the Yosemite region as you can see in the reports from the field. The interactive map pictured above allows you to explore with these first European visitors. Open the appropriate map.

To Start You Thinking -

1) You can use the scale to estimate distance in miles along any path on the map. Estimate the distance traveled by Major Savage's Battalion from Mariposa to the floor of Yosemite Valley.

2) The entry of Major Savage's group into Yosemite Valley was recorded in the journal of the company's doctor, Lafayette H. Bunnell. The doctor described the company's descent into Yosemite Valley down the Pohono Trail, opposite El Capitan. You can use the available link beneath the map to view Thomas Hill Painting of the sight that Dr. Bunnell described. Imagine that you were part of the first company of Europeans to descend into Yosemite Valley. Use the various map tools, the Bunnell journal, and Hill's painting and write your own description of the descent from the rim of Yosemite Valley to the valley floor.

3) The second expedition into Yosemite during the Mariposa Indian Wars was led by Captain John Bowling. Boling's group entered the valley to find that the Yosemite Indians had fled to the northeast across the Sierras. Open the Yosemite file and zoom in on the map of the park. Display the Mariposa Indian War layer and make sure that the other trail layers are off. Use the link tool and read Captain Boling's report of his pursuit of the native group from Yosemite Valley to Tenaya Lake.

Use the map and write your own short report describing the route up out of valley to the lake. Make sure that you include descriptions of the terrain, elevation gain, and distances involved. Remember, you can turn the topographic map on and off and use the map controls to move across the Yosemite’s terrain following Captain Bolling.

4) Today tourists enter Yosemite Valley by car or bus where formerly they came by horse drawn stage and before that on horseback or on foot. Display the Early Tourist Routes layer and click the Early Tourist Route link to read James M. Hutchings’ description of the first tourist party he led into Yosemite Valley along the Coulterville Road through Crane Flat and down the into the valley in 1859.

Hutchins says that the party rode nine miles from Crane Flat before coming to the “Stand-Point of Silence.” Zoom in some on the Crane Flat area and measure along the route from Crane Flat towards Yosemite Valley to the point on the rim of the canyon where you would first have a view up the valley. What is the approximate distance Hutchins’ party traveled from Crane Flat to this point?

Use the map and describe the descent from the “Stand-Point of Silence” to the valley floor.

5) You learned about using the high meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley as summer range for sheep in reading about John Muir’s first summer in the Sierras. By the 1890s the practice posed a serious threat to the Yosemite watershed. Calvary units operating out of headquarters in Wawona and from patrol stations throughout the Yosemite region tried to eliminate the practice. Display the Calvary Trails layer. Click the Calvary Routes link to open the May 5, 1898 article from the New York Times describing the situation.

Imagine that troops from the 4th Calvary caught up with you and your sheep in Virginia Canyon. You are led west out of the park on the trail north of the Tuolumne River Canyon and your sheep north out of the park where they are turned loose. How far back across the park do you have to travel in the effort to gather your flock? How long do you suppose the trip would take on foot?

6) The first trip across the Sierras by European explorers was led by Joseph Walker and described by Zenias Leonard, a member of the party. The Joseph Walker layer is a “best guess” about the path these explorers took based on the limited, and sometimes contradictory clues, in Leonard’s text. Follow along the Walker route on the map using the controls available. Assuming that the map is reasonably accurate explain where the Walker party would most likely have seen into the Merced River Canyon of which Yosemite Valley is a part.

1H. Duane Hampton, How the Calvary Saved Our National Parks, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1971.

Last modified in June, 2015 by Rick Thomas