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Yosemite National Park Facts

Imagine a mama bear pacing around the base of a giant sequoia towering more than 250 feet tall. Or a cougar lapping water from the pool of 2,425-foot-tall Yosemite Falls.

In Yosemite National Park, you can find some of the tallest and biggest sights on Earth. And in this article, you can find fascinating facts about Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park Facts for Kids

  • Yosemite has giant trees.
  • It has giant granite formations.
  • Yosemite’s granite rock cliffs glow like fire at sunset.
  • Over 400 species of animals live in the park.
  • Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world.
  • Yosemite Falls can produce rainbows at night.
  • Some creeks in Yosemite run slushy ice in the spring.
  • The land for Yosemite was set aside by Abraham Lincoln.

Here are some more details about these fascinating facts.

Sequoia Trees

Sequoia Trees

The park is filled with big natural wonders. The park is home to giant sequoia trees that first appeared during the Jurassic period in the time of the dinosaurs.

These ancient trees are 3,000 to 5,000 years old. Their bark can be 3 feet thick. Their branches can be 8 feet in diameter. The tallest sequoia trees are as tall as a 26-story building. There is a sequoia tree, the General Sherman tree, that is estimated to weigh 2,700,000 pounds.

There are 500 giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove and a few dozen more in Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove. You can take a shuttle bus to see trees in Mariposa. But you will need to take hikes of several miles over rough terrain to see the smaller groves.

Granite Formations

El Capitán

As big as the trees are in the park, the rocks are even bigger. Yosemite has giant granite formations shaped thousands of years ago by moving glaciers. 

One of these granite formations, called El Capitán (which is Spanish for “the Captain”), is the world’s largest block of granite. It is 3,000 feet tall, and its face is so steep that only professional climbers are allowed to scale it. Yosemite Park also has a 5,000-foot tall granite rock called Half Dome, which — you guessed it —is shaped like the top half of a dome.

Fire Falls

Fire Falls

At certain times of the year, mainly in the early spring and in the late fall, the last rays of sunlight every day illuminate the high cliffs at Half Dome and El Capitán in red and orange.

The waterfall Horsetail Fall appears to be on fire during sunset in February.

Animals

Black Bear

When you look around in the National Park, sometimes there are animals looking back at you. What kinds of animals might you encounter in Yosemite?

  • There are between 300 and 400 “black” bears in Yosemite National Park. Even though these huge animals are classified as black bears, the local bears mostly have brown fur. Bears in Yosemite usually leave humans alone, but you should stay away from mothers and their young and any bear guarding food.
  • Sometimes you can see bobcats hunting their prey during the day in the lowlands of the park. Bobcats keep the mouse and rat population under control and don’t harm humans.
  • Yosemite is home to Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep, which are an endangered species that hadn’t been seen in the park for 100 years until a few years ago. Bighorn sheep keep their distance from visitors, so you are most likely to see them through binoculars.
  • Yosemite National Park is the only place in the world you can find the Yosemite Cave Pseudoscorpion, a spider that looks like a scorpion that lives in the rocks in the park. Climbers going up El Capitán sometimes encounter it.
  • Yosemite is home to North America’s largest bat, the Western mastiff, and the spotted bat, which has huge ears and white spots. Altogether eighteen species of bats live in the park, all the way up to 10,000 feet.
  • The Sierra Nevada red fox was once thought to be extinct in the park, but a few have been sighted in the snow at higher elevations. If you get the rare chance to sight one in the snow, you will probably notice a confident stride and a “foxy” expression.
  • Mule deer are the only kind of deer you will see in Yosemite National Park. It’s important not to feed mule deer because they can’t digest the food that most humans eat.
  • Just about anywhere in Yosemite, you may catch a glimpse of a Wiley coyote, but they are most abundant in the meadows. At night, you may hear the coyotes howl. It’s their way of singing.
  • The rodent population of Yosemite National Park includes red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, and mice. At higher elevations, you could see a 5-pound rodent called the yellow-bellied marmot sunning itself on a rock.
  • Yosemite is also home to 150 different kinds of birds.

Waterfalls

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls is fourteen and one-half times higher than Niagara Falls. It is the tallest waterfall in California, the tallest waterfall in the United States, and the tallest waterfall in North America. 

Moonbows

Moonbow

A night time lunar rainbow, also known as a moonbow, can sometimes be seen in the late evening on waterfalls throughout the park.

This phenomenon is seen from the park floor on nights there is a full moon in spring and early summer. Not many park visitors stay up late enough to see the moonbows, so you won’t have to fight crowds.

Frazil Ice

In the early spring, many creeks and streams in Yosemite are filled with a slushy substance called frazil ice. It has the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee (without the cola or fruit flavorings).

Frazil ice forms when mist freezes and falls on the creek.

History

Abraham Lincoln

Yosemite was the third national park organized by the United States Park Service, but the land for the park was set aside when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant on June 30, 1864.

This was the very first time the American government set aside land because of its natural beauty so it could be protected. It became a national park after a letter-writing campaign organized by the famous California naturalist John Muir.

Frequently Asked Questions

Now let’s look at the answers to some more basic questions about Yosemite National Park.

Where is Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite National Park is nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that run up and down most of the eastern edge of California. It is about 140 miles (224 km) east of San Francisco and 100 miles (162 km) southeast of Sacramento, and 318 miles (512 km) northwest of Los Angeles by California Highway 99. 

Yosemite is close to other national parks. It is 40 miles (65 km) northwest of King’s Canyon National Park and just 15 miles (25 km) west of the Devil’s Postpile National Monument.

Who discovered Yosemite?

We don’t know the name or names of the first humans to visit Yosemite. The Ahwaneechee people lived in the valley for at least 7,000 years before explorers of European descent arrived. The Spanish probably ignored them, and the first recorded contact with non-Native people occurred sometime after 1833.

During the California Gold Rush, in 1850, a prospector named James D. Savage set up a mining camp to the west and at a lower elevation than the Yosemite Valley. He took several native wives from other tribes and then moved into Ahwaneechee territory in the valley. Having invaded Ahwaneechee’s land, Savage started a war with the tribe. They raided his supplies and killed two of his men. The conflict escalated into the Mariposa Indian War of 1850 and 1851, leading to the arrival of troops who subdued the tribe and took them off their land.

Officially, the Ahwaneechee tribe became extinct, but the US government has expelled Ahwaneechee Indians from the park as recently as 1969.

How did Yosemite National Park get its name?

Yosemite (pronounced Yo-sem-i-te) and many of the places in the park got their names from the soldiers in the Mariposa Battalion, who entered the valley in 1851 to force the Ahwaneechee Indians to go to a reservation. Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, traveling with the Mariposa Battalion, asked the captured Ahwaneechees about the names they gave many of the valley’s natural features. Dr. Bunnell couldn’t pronounce a lot of the words the Ahwahneechee tribe used for places in the park, so sometimes he substituted a  word from English or Spanish with about the same meaning. There were some names he invented in a more or less random fashion.

The name Yosemite comes from the Ahwahneechee word “uzumate,” or grizzly bear. Settlers to the Valley often called the tribe the Yosemites, as did other Native American tribes, because they were very skilled at hunting grizzly bears. The name the tribe gave itself, “Ahwahnee,” meant a place of the dropped jaw, or place of the gaping mouth.

There are many more stories about the origins of other Yosemite Park place names:

  • Bridalveil Fall. The Ahwahneechees called this place “Pohono,” meaning “evil wind.” The editor of the Mariposa Newspaper named this place Bridalveil Fall after its cascading white mist.
  • El Capitán. The Awahneechees named this imposing granite rock after Too-tok-ah-noo-lah, the first chief of their tribe. Bunnell substituted the Spanish word for chief or captain.
  • Hetch Hetchy. This place-name came from the Miwok tribe, who called it “Hatchatchie” for a kind of edible grain that grew wild there.
  • Illilouette. This name sounds French, doesn’t it? It is actually a rough rendition of the Native American word “Too-lool-a-we-ack,” which meant “a good place to hunt.”
  • Royal Arches. A member of the Mariposa Battalion gave this cliff towering over the Yosemite Hotel a name honoring the Masonic Lodge.
  • Tenaya Lake. The Anwahneechees called this lake “Pywiack,” or Lake of Shining Rocks. But Bunnell named it after Tenaya, the last chief of the tribe.
  • Tuolumne. This is a name you will see a lot in Central California. It’s the Miwok name for a picket squirrel, a kind of squirrel that is most commonly seen standing upright on its hind legs.
  • Vernal Fall. Bunnell felt that this fall reminded him of springtime, so he named it “vernal,” referring to the vernal or spring equinox.
  • Wawona. This word refers to the hoot of an owl. In a local Native American language, this term referred to an owl, the guardian of the sequoias.

How did Yosemite get to be a national park?

Tourists have been traveling to what is now Yosemite National Park to take in the views and to witness its natural wonders since the 1850s, shortly after the native people were forced out. Early entrepreneurs carried materials over rocky mountain trails to set up shelters for visitors. Interest in Yosemite was stimulated by the printing of thousands of lithographs of drawings and paintings by artists such as Thomas Hill and the duplication of photographs by the famous photographer Carleton Watkins. 

Even by the late 1850s, so many people were coming to the valley to see the sights that the US government in Washington began studying ways to preserve the park. The state government set up a park in 1864, and the US government merged it with a much larger area of land as the country’s third national park in 1906.

Who was Ansel Adams?

You will often hear about Ansel Adams in connection with Yosemite National Park.

Ansel Adams was a black and white photographer who lived from 1902 to 1984.

His photographs of Yosemite are considered works of art, and the popularity of his work did a lot to encourage over 100 million people to visit the park since it was opened.

What is the weather like in Yosemite National Park?

The weather in Yosemite varies a great deal by elevation. In the valley, near the park entrance, most summer days reach 90 °F (32 °C) or higher. It’s not always a lot cooler at higher elevations in the summer.

On the other hand, both the valley floor and higher elevations are cold and snowy in the winter, and temperatures at the higher elevations stay below freezing until early spring.

The park gets a lot more rain than the Central Valley to its west or the high desert over the mountains to its east. The part of the park in the valley averages about 35 inches (885 mm) of precipitation per year, and snowfall averages about 66 inches (1,676 mm).

What kinds of plants are found in Yosemite?

The best-known plant in Yosemite National Park is the towering sequoia tree, which is found in few other places in the world.

But there are also smaller evergreen and deciduous trees on the valley floor and grasses and wildflowers in the high mountain meadows.

Are there dangerous animals in Yosemite?

Yosemite was once known for its grizzly bears. In fact, the entire state of California was once home to about 10,000 grizzly bears, which fed on roots, berries, nuts, seeds, fish, deer, and even beached whales.

The grizzly bear was so common that it was put on the state flag. But the last grizzly bear in Yosemite National Park was sighted in 1924, and there are no natural populations of grizzly bears close enough to roam into the park.

There are other animals that require precautions in the park.

Mountain lions sometimes wander into the valley floor of the park, but they mostly roam in areas with little human traffic at elevations above 10,000 feet. There have been three deaths of hikers attacked by mountain lions in state parks in California but none in Yosemite.

It’s highly unlikely that you would ever be attacked by a mountain lion, but if you are, park rangers tell us, it is very important to fight back:

  • Don’t show your fear or weakness. Don’t crouch down. Stand tall.
  • Throw sticks or rocks at the mountain lion. 
  • Shout in a low voice.
  • Stretch out your arms to look bigger.
  • Look the mountain lion in the eye. Don’t look away.

You are unlikely to encounter a bat in Yosemite National Park during the day, but if you do, the chances are that it is sick. Viruses in bats are very contagious to people, so don’t touch them. Leave it alone.

Is Yosemite National Park dangerous?

Every year 20 to 30 visitors out of the three million who come to the park die in tragic accidents. Most of these deaths occurred in people who weren’t prepared or informed to enjoy the outdoors.

One of the most common causes of fatalities in the park is falls. Visitors get too close and get swept over waterfalls. Some hikers fall off El Capitán or over the sheer drop from the 5000-foot front face of Half Dome.

What kinds of bad decisions lead to tragic accidents?

  • There is a 400-foot stretch of trail with cables on either side leading to the top of Half Dome. Sometimes people are so determined to make the top of Half Dome that they push ahead in bad weather and fall to their deaths. Sometimes so many people are on the trail at the same time that inexperienced climbers go with the crowd and don’t make it.
  • Sometimes visitors push past clearly marked warning signs and slip and fall to their deaths. There has even been a case in which a teenaged visitor jumped a safety fence and fell to his death.
  • Some visitors get too close to the edge of a waterfall because they want a better picture. Three members of the same church group perished when they went over the falls at the same time.
  • Sometimes hikers fall from wet, slippery rocks. Wearing the right shoes and exercising caution on slippery rocks can save your life.

And what’s the rule that can save your life?

It’s really simple. Don’t go near wet rocks.

How many waterfalls are there in Yosemite?

Yosemite National Park is home to more waterfalls than anyone has ever counted. Most of the waterfalls in the park are seasonal. They run when they are filled with snowmelt in the spring, starting in late February and most years continuing until late April or May. Thunderstorms may rejuvenate some waterfalls during the dry summer, and some waterfalls become tall columns of ice in the winter.

All but two of the best-known waterfalls in Yosemite National Park are visible from the valley floor. Here’s a list of some of the must-see waterfalls at Yosemite.

Yosemite Fall is really three waterfalls cascading to the valley floor: Upper Yosemite Fall (falling 1,430 feet), the middle cascades (falling 675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (falling 320 feet). It runs from November to July. It’s possible to take a challenging, strenuous day hike from the valley floor to the top of the falls.

Sentinel Falls drops 2,000 feet down to the south side of the park valley, just to the west of Sentinel Rock. It flows from March to June. It’s actually a series of smaller falls 50 to 500 feet tall that are easy to view from the road.

Ribbon Fall, which cascades 1,612 feet, greets you as you enter the park from March to June.

Horsetail fall is “just” 1,000 feet tall, but it captures the light of the setting sun to appear to be on fire evening in mid-to-late February. It’s easily visible from the road.

Bridalveil Fall thunders in the spring and sprays a long trail of mist the rest of the year. It’s 620 feet tall.

At 594 feet, Nevada Fall isn’t the tallest fall in the park, but it runs all year. It’s easy to see from Glacier Point.

317-foot Vernal Fall flows all year, but as its source dries in the summer, it becomes two or three falls instead of one.

Beautiful Illilouette Fall flows all year round, but it can’t be seen from any road. It’s visible only after hiking steep trails. Illilouette Fall is 370 feet high.

Why is it important to protect Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite is a place where Nature is in charge. It is a place where generations of Americans have witnessed the power of water, rock, and fire prevail over the best and worst plans of humans. It is a place where the National Park Service is committed to protecting Nature for future generations to enjoy.

What can you do to protect Yosemite National Park?

Be fire smart. Nature may set fires with lightning, but humans should not destroy trees and wildlife with unattended campfires.

Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave any waste material in the park. That includes your own waste.

Take only pictures. Leave rocks and flowers and small living creatures where you find them.

Always be considerate. Millions of people visit Yosemite National Park every year. Let their encounters with you be pleasant.