The view of Yosemite Valley when you emerge from the Wawona Tunnel takes your breath away. Looking east, on your left, El Capitan’s polished walls rise 3,000 feet above the rippling Merced River. On your right, the waters of Bridalveil Creek leap into the air, dissolving into mist long before finishing the 600-foot journey to the valley floor. Straight ahead, the Yosemite Valley stretches on, flanked by glacier-carved granite cliffs, with Half-Dome towering in the distance. I have never seen such beauty.
Our national parks are a tremendous heritage, preserved in perpetuity as public trusts, available to all for recreation, reflection and enjoyment. My family and I spent spring break experiencing the wonders of Yosemite, walking the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, climbing the massive granite boulders dropped randomly by ancient glacial flows, catching glimpses of woodpeckers, deer and even a large brown bear through the pristine forests. We’ve created memories that, I am quite certain, will last a lifetime.
In 1864, with substantial local support, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, which set aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove for “preservation and public use.” This first-of-its-kind move paved the way for the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the Mackinac National Park in 1875 and the Sequoia and Yosemite national parks in 1890. The Organic Act of 1916 established the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The United States now has 59 national parks, with 14 designated as World Heritage Sites.
Millions of visitors from around the world pour into our national parks each year. We were surprised at the diversity of languages we heard in Yosemite: German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Russian, along with varying dialects of English from Texan to Aussie. But language and cultural differences hardly seemed to matter amidst the grandeur of the granite cathedrals and chorus of cascading waters. We were all caught up in the magnificence of nature and nature’s God.
If you have not recently visited one of our national parks, I encourage you to gather your family, pack up your car and get out there. Utah’s Mighty Five national parks are a great place to start. Postage stamps and license plates can’t capture the miracle of Arches’ Delicate Arch. You haven’t seen a full amphitheater until you’ve seen Bryce Canyon’s amphitheater crowded with hoodoo spires of rock. Fans of classic Hollywood westerns should gaze upon the iconic monoliths of Canyonlands at least once themselves. Viewing Capitol Reef’s slightly alien Fremont Petroglyphs will take you back in time a thousand years, providing a glimpse into the ancient and the mystical. Finally, weaving your way through Zion’s swirling sandstone slot canyons will connect you to the land like nothing else.
Returning from Yosemite, I find myself agreeing with the Italian poet Dante Alighieri that “Nature is the art of God.” Surely Yosemite, Arches, Zion, Canyonlands and our other national parks are among his masterpieces.
The only regret I take home from our family’s spring break trip is the pang of regret that it took me nearly 40 years to make it to Yosemite. I am already looking forward to another visit, hoping next time to climb to Glacier Point, to hike to Vernall Falls, to summit Half-Dome. I am returning home with a renewed determination to introduce my little family to our national parks.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.