As winter approaches (it was in the high 30s this morning when I woke), most of us have put away our backpacking gear. My wife and I have a couple more longish day hikes planned in the weeks ahead, but there will be no more overnight trips until 2019. These short days and cold nights are a perfect time to catch up some on the history of the trail we all love so well. Today I begin a multipart post revealing a little background behind the names you will encounter as you walk from Yosemite National Park to the top of Mount Whitney. We’ll begin at the southern trailhead.
Happy Isles. After the Yosemite Grant was signed in 1864, by President Abraham Lincoln, a series of “Yosemite Guardians” were appointed to care for the valley. The first was Galen Clark (see Clark Point, below). The third, W. E. Dennison, in a letter written in October of 1885, wrote, “I have named them the Happy Isles, for no one can visit them without for the while forgetting the grinding strife of his world and being happy.” The image, above, is of a thank you letter written by Dennison to John Muir while he was guardian.
Merced River. In the fall of 1806 the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga came upon this river just several days after the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Also known as the Feast of Our Lady of Ransom, it was a liturgical ritual that paid tribute to the Mercedarians, a Catholic order established in 1218. Moraga named the river Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (River of Our Lady of Mercy). The name was later shortened to Rio de la Merced, and by the mid 1800s simply the Merced River. The Native American name was “Aux-um-ne.”
Mist Trail. The Mist Trail is an alternative route to the top of Nevada Falls. If you are hiking the JMT you will pass the trail intersection where the Mist Trail begins, but you will not actually walk it. The trail gets its name from the all-enveloping cloud of moisture, created when the Merced River falls on the rocks adjacent to the trail. Much of the trail was built, as it appears today, by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The name first appeared on a map in 1958.
Vernal Fall. The Native American name was Yan-o-pah, translated roughly into a small cloud (see Mist Trail, above). Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion, named the waterfall “vernal” in 1851 because it reminded him of an “April shower.” A member of the Mariposa Battalion, Bunnell is credited with leading the first expedition of western (non-Native American) explorers into Yosemite Valley. The photo, above, is estimated to have been taken near the spot where many of the iconic valley landmarks would have first revealed themselves.
Clark Point. The most spectacular view from the the first few miles of the John Muir Trail comes from Clark Point. Named for the first Yosemite Guardian, Galen Clark, the views of Liberty Cap, Nevada Fall, and the back side of Half Dome are awe inspiring. Clark is credited as the first westerner to discover the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. He stumbled into the grove after moving to the mountains at the advice of his physician. The fresh, mountain air was to add a little time to the six months he had to live, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 39. It must of worked, since he died on March 24, 1910 – four days prior to his ninety-sixth birthday.
I hope you have enjoyed this; more next week!
Good hiking, Ray