In Britain, national parks are referred to as our “Breathing Spaces”, many of us enjoy the beauty, the tranquillity and the connection to nature and now there is no better time to celebrate this. Why? Because 150 years ago this month, on 30th June 1864, the national park ideal was born in the USA; the Yosemite Grant was signed by the 38th Congress and Abraham Lincoln and this acted as a catalyst for national parks around the globe. Importantly, there is also a strong connection to Britain; for it was the great British conservationist John Muir, who championed the cause for full National Park status for Yosemite in 1890. He became known as ‘the father’ of the US ‘national parks’; 2014 is also the 100th anniversary of his death.

Yosemite though, is in me, like the mountains and the woods were in John Muir; where “…the juiceless world…” is no more. It’s late Spring into early Summer now and life flows there like the melt water of the River Merced that meanders endlessly through the valley and from the glissading waterfalls. The pines, the oaks and the fir trees, large and proud look up to the mighty granite cliffs, as if wondering what lies beyond. The climbers, will soon find out, they are nearly at the summit of El Capitan, the vertical granite monolith rising almost 3000 ft above the valley floor, for four days they have plied their trade, hold after hold, crack after crack, crevasse, outcrop upward they move; tired, weary but the goal is near. The blue skies await, they are peering over these giants of stone that guard the glaciated valley below.

Spring and into early Summer are for me the most beautiful times to experience this wonder of nature, the colours, the light, the sounds, they embrace you, it’s where passion is massaged into your every thought, where feelings become tangible. Four million people from around the Globe should know, year on year these visiting, “…tired, nerve shaken…” beings are transformed once again into human beings; they too, like the trees stare towards the skies, engulfed in the stillness and the sounds of nature. Now, though they have to make choices, hard, almost beyond imagination as they may imagine how beauty is itself, they like the ground squirrel must decide where the bounty is, but for the visitors this isn’t about food, it is about the trails and the adventures.

From the Valley, there are relatively short day hikes as well as the longer treks to within the “Range of Light”, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including the spectacular John Muir Trail and hikes up to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous USA (means it excludes Alaska and Hawaii). I am lucky enough to have done some of the treks outside of Yosemite National Park; but for me, this is the time to experience Yosemite and the Valley as this is the time to connect with nature; as Jim Donovan from the National Park Service stated to me one year; “Spring is pretty much here…but the California poppies and other wildflowers have been booming, and they are spectacular.”

The National Park Service, provide excellent details of routes and trails and these can be found here  but for me, there are two routes that offer endless breath-taking views, where the “tired, nerve shaken” will become one with nature, where inner stresses flow away like the ice blue waters of the Merced River. For it is time to follow that River from the Valley, for some just a relatively short hike to Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls but for those who planned ahead, with day or overnight permits to hand, they will stride out further to summit Half Dome; but for all, an adventure into wildness.

Half Dome rises 8,800 feet above sea level and like a Native Indian Totem guarding the spirits of time gone by towers 4,800 feet from the Valley itself. For the day hiker this is a 14 to 16 mile round trip, taking around 10-12 hours, but whilst at Half Dome this magnificent guardian, you should take a moment to find your inner self, you have just accomplished the ultimate hike and as the website states, “…the one you can’t die without doing, and the one you’re mostly likely to die while doing.”

Yosemite, isn’t about death, it is about life, a life well lived and worth living, it makes life breath, it lets you breathe. This is the place where John Muir found his ‘religion’, a place he wanted people to experience; “Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”(Referenced from – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350).

At one time Muir sat in a tree during a thunder storm, to experience what it was like for the birds, to be part of it, but today you can be part of Yosemite with the comforts of modern life and you can spend a while there, and Yosemite will “flow into you” as it has so many times flowed into me. You will be small there, an individual, eyes wide open, staring at the sky; rain, snow, sun, light or dark, your experiences will grow slowly, very slowly as life wanders by, but come back again for Yosemite will be there, ever there…

So, spend some time in 2014 to celebrate the cultural icons that are national parks and in particular Yosemite and also think of the life of John Muir and the other creators of our “breathing spaces”. National parks have evolved a social and cultural revolution in connecting humans and nature, and thankfully today we have in some ways gone back to the original ideals, that we, the people have to be a responsible part of this for today and tomorrow.

Certain references cited from the writings of John Muir.


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