Is Yosemite Worth It? This 150-Year-Old Negative Review Laughingly Misses the Mark
Yosemite has changed since 1870, but some things remain the same.
Yosemite National Park visitors love recording their experiences—the good and bad. The urge to share the beauty, the sunrise, or even the bad traffic isn’t new. As early as 1870, when Yosemite had been designated a state park but wasn’t yet a national park, tourists recorded their impressions of the woods and waters and offered advice to fellow travelers. “Does it pay to visit Yosemite?” asked writer and actor Olive Logan in a 150-year-old newspaper reflection she wrote after a trip to the park. She was motivated by a desire to “commune with nature.” Despite the “delicious mountain air” and the views in the “celebrated” valley, Logan’s answer was an emphatic “no.”
Her account, a historical parallel to the Instagram or Twitter reflections that a tourist of today might offer, points to how visits to Yosemite have changed dramatically in the last century and a half, and what has surprisingly stayed pretty much the same.
Logan’s chief complaint about the park was how long it took to get there, and how uncomfortable the trip was. Before the advent of smoother forms of transportation, the fastest way to Yosemite from the Bay Area included two days of stagecoach rides and a day on horseback. She described the dusty roads that choked her and the wobbling, creaking coach itself. She welcomed the scenery—“wild and grand”—and in particular the fresh fruits available at ranches along the coach’s path. The riding portion of the journey was a kind of torture to Logan and to anyone else not used to riding horses. There was the welcoming sight of Yosemite Valley itself at the end of the journey, but Logan’s aching bones, rather than the rock walls and waterfalls, loomed large in her memory.
Over the years, transportation to the park has radically transformed. The trans-continental railroad helped easterners access Western parks. Logan, for instance, was likely joined by more than 1,000 travelers in 1870, the year after the railroad was completed. In 1900, the first car rolled into the Yosemite Valley, ushering in a new era of increased access. Improved roads for cars helped increase the number of visitors from just 5,500 in 1906 to more than 200,000 twenty years later. But the quicker, smoother road to the park didn’t alleviate all complaints. Speeding and the “gas-breath” of the automobiles were among the objections, according to the National Park Service.
Today, a journey by car from San Francisco takes a little over four hours. While the advent of a century of visitors experiencing nature through a car window undoubtedly democratized access far beyond Logan’s wildest dreams, it also led to new dilemmas. Balancing access to the park with the traffic and potential impacts of vehicles remains a chief challenge as the Park Service confronts a popularity crisis today. In 2022 Yosemite saw 3.6 million visitors.
One aspect of Logan’s Yosemite experience that will seem familiar to 21st century visitors is that she needed specialized clothes for the trip. Just as we might go to REI for hiking shorts or a warm jacket, Logan also outfitted herself with the requisite equipment of the day. For a young woman in 1870, that meant a Bloomer costume: loose-fitting pantaloons associated with the fight for women’s rights in lieu of the long and heavy skirts that were the common fashion of the day. Because bloomers were a rare style for the even more rare Yosemite traveler, Logan had her outfit custom made by a dressmaker.
For Logan, this specialized outdoor attire was “hideous” but a necessary part of the trip because of all the horseback riding she would be doing. While the array of clothing available for park visitors for all seasons has—thankfully—expanded, the idea that park-goers need special gear for their trip remains.
Like modern day travelers to Yosemite, Logan had plenty to say about lodging en route to and in the park as well as the cost of food and other amenities. In 1870, the options were few. She and her fellow travelers stayed at the Hutchings House in the old Yosemite Village, near Sentinel Bridge. For Logan, who was exhausted from her day of riding, there was little to compliment that abode except that the whiskey flowed freely. Other accounts from the time describe mattresses stuffed with ferns and nothing more than sheets separating the beds from one another.
The food on her trip ranged from “eatable” to “disgusting” and she noted that the cost was just as high as a grand hotel back in San Francisco. It was all a part of the suffering she endured because of her Yosemite fever. Those with Yosemite fever today might alleviate their symptoms at a wide range of lodging options, from backcountry tent cabins and campsites to the grand Ahwahnee hotel. Logan would be delighted. While the food options have undoubtedly improved, the concerns about availability and cost of lodging remain for many visitors. A night at the Ahwahnee will set visitors back more than $600 in 2023 and rooms book up quickly. Entrees in the restaurant range from $36-$76.
Logan’s account of the Native Americans living in Yosemite Valley is jarring to park lovers accustomed to thinking of Yosemite as a wild place without a human history. Native Americans have resided in what would become Yosemite National Park for more than 5,000 years.
At the time of Logan’s visit, white tourists held a range of offensive and contradictory views about the presence of the Southern Sierra Miwok (or Miwuk). Some were fascinated by the Miwok and saw these residents as part of the wilderness scene rather than separate from it. Others, like Logan, bought into 19th century white writers’ racist notions of Native Americans as both lazy and potential enemies who took away from the park experience. Logan described the Indigenous residents she encountered as “clad in tatters, covered in vermin”, and at the same time capable of “waging a war of extermination against the whites” if they had more power.
Ultimately, Logan argued that she simply didn’t want to see “these people” close to her resort vacation. Logan’s presumption that she, an outsider and tourist, belonged in the valley in a way that longtime residents did not, was one that many visitors came to accept as a given. This viewpoint paved the way for decades of park management that forcibly removed Native American residents (though Yosemite did so many decades later than other national parks) while conceptualizing the park as a natural preservation area where humans were only visitors.
Rather than simply imagining Yosemite as an untrammeled wilderness, however, visitors of the first half of the 20th century could also attend events such as the Yosemite Indian Field Days, where Native Americans performed for white tourists. These residents participated in the booming tourist economy and learned to navigate white expectations about authentic Native American dress and craft as a way to stay employed and living on their ancestral lands.
In recent years, both Indigenous activists and park officials have worked to integrate the history of Native Americans in Yosemite into official narratives and park interpretation, though this process is ongoing and still at odds with western conceptions of national parks as bastions of people-less wilderness.
Are there modern visitors to Yosemite that echo the grumpy impressions of Olive Logan from 150 years ago? To be sure: the Yelp reviewer of today offers pithy assessments of these grand icons much as Logan did. For Yosemite, one unhappy visitor gave the park a 1-star review and wrote, “trees block view and there are too many gray rocks.” Logan herself wrote something similar. Were the waterfalls eleven times higher than Niagara Falls? Yes, they were, but to her they looked just like a fireman’s hose. Were the stone walls indeed a mile high? Yes, but they didn’t look that tall. Travelers’ negative accounts of trips can be an enjoyable, even juicy read, as they challenge assumptions about the inherent good in making a journey to begin with.
Far more common, though, are the many millions of visitors to the grand park who have come away with a sense of awe. Their experiences, from their transportation to their dress to their accommodations certainly varied. Their embrace of the natural wonders and their readiness to find delight in the setting, sometimes in spite of the discomforts and inconveniences, link their visits to those who came before them.
Does it pay to visit Yosemite? Generations of visitors have answered: absolutely.