Yosemite Falls

Stories of Yosemite Bring The Gorgeous Park Closer

As I walk in Yosemite Valley, I can’t help but think of its stories. Stories of glaciers and rushing rivers, granite rocks and ancient forests, animals and humans inhabiting it. I think of stories of its formation, both from geological and mythological perspective.

In the early days, humans who lived near dramatic landforms, came up with stories of their creation. Later, as science evolved, we found the geological explanations for their existence. One no less amazing than the other.

Every place has stories to tell. Yosemite, this gorgeous valley in the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by granite rocks and high peaks, has several stories to tell. Both true, science-backed stories of its creation, and myths, and legends told by indigenous people who lived here centuries ago. When I first visited this national park, I made it a point of learning about them. Especially because the park’s name itself intrigued me. What does Yosemite mean, and where did the word come from?

Yosemite: What’s in a Name?

The name itself, Yosemite, involves the story of the indigenous tribes who lived in the area before the white settlers. Yosemite was the word the surrounding tribes used to refer to the tribe who lived in the valley. Led by Chief Tenaya, this tribe was composed by renegades from several tribes living in the surrounding areas. It included people from the Mono Payute tribe from the eastern Sierras, enemies of the more peaceful tribes from the area, who spoke Miwok.

The word Yosemite in the Miwok languages literally means “those who kill” (Yos,“to kill,” the modifiere,“one who,” and the plural suffix-meti). It had two variations, Yohhe’meti(Southern Miwok) andYos.s.e’meti(Central Miwok).

The people referred to as Yosemite called the valleyAwooniorOwwonifor (gaping) “large mouth,” (AwoorOwwomeans “mouth” and the suffixnimeans “large.” ). The word referred to the appearance of the Yosemite Valley walls from their village on the valley floor. We recognize the spelling as “Ahwahne” and later “Ahwahnee, used by Bunnell, who named the valley Yosemite.

The Yosemite people called themselvesAh-wah-ne-chee,or “dwellers of Ahwahnee.” Ahwahnee originally referred to the largest and most powerful of their villages, but the word also came to mean the entire valley.

Yosemite Valley from Galcier Point R3

Why Do We Know the Valley as Yosemite?

The first white people who settled in the area were mostly miners, in constant conflict with the tribe living in the valley. After one of these altercations, when the tribe members raided their trading post and killed several men, the miners decided to drive them out of the valley. So, they formed the Mariposa Battalion, led by L.H. Bunnell, and Major James Savage, and attacked the native villages. After driving them out of their land, Bunnell named the valley in honor of the tribe. Well, sort of.

Bunnell actually thoughtYosemitemeant “grizzly bear.” This was due to a mistake in interpretation by his commander, James Savage, who understood the Miwok language but confused Yosemite forïhümat.iorïsümat.i,which means “grizzly bear.”

Creation Stories of Yosemite

The first stories of Yosemite come from people who first inhabited it. Two of the best-known myths and legends explaining the creation of its most prominent, most dramatic features.

The Legend of Formation of El Capitan

The creation legend of the granite rock known as El Capitan involves a pair of bear cubs, their mother and other animals in the area, and the hero of the story, the tiny inchworm.

In this story, the rock rose high up from the ground so fast, the bear cubs who laid down to sleep on it when it was still just a rock on the ground, didn’t even wake up. With its top reaching above the clouds, and its sides straight and slippery, the rock seemed insurmountable. None of the animals, big or small, could climb it, except the inchworm, whose feet stuck to the slippery surface.

The hero of this story, the tiny but mighty inchworm, saves the bear cubs stuck on top of the high rising rock.

The Creation Myth of Half Dome, Washington Post, and Basket Dome

Myths and legends explaining the formation of Half Dome and the granite formations surrounding it include a quarrel between a man and his wife, eventually both turned into stones by the gods who felt the need to separate them for eternity.

The couple traveled along Yosemite Valley, the woman carried a basket, while her husband had a walking stick. With the sun high in the sky, in the heat of the Valley, the couple grew extremely thirsty.

As the woman was ahead of her husband, she reached a lake with clear water first. She was so thirsty, that she drank all the water from the lake, so by the time her husband got there, he had nothing to drink. Thirsty and angry, the husband lost his temper and started hitting his wife with his walking stick. As the wife ran, her tears streaming down her face, she threw her basket at her husband. Seeing all this, the gods turned them both into stone.

The wife became Half Dome (and you can still see her tears, represented by the dark streaks on the face of the rock). The basket she threw landed upside down and became Basket Dome, while the husband was turned into North Dome.

As creative and fun as these stories are, the geologic stories of Yosemite and its formation are just as amazing.

Geologic Stories of Yosemite

Yosemite is a glaciated landscape, and its stunning scenery is the result of the interaction of glaciers with the underlying rocks. This interaction led to the formation of U-shaped canyons, jagged peaks, rounded domes, waterfalls, and moraines.

Yosemite Valley
photo credit: Leanne Fromm

With its rugged peaks surrounding the valley, Yosemite is part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, formed by a combination of uplift and tilt. What this means is that the mountain range of Sierra Nevada itself is a huge block of Earth’s crust that broke free along a fault line, uplifted and tilted towards west.

In Yosemite, the dominating rock is granite, which is formed from hundreds of smaller pieces of rocks, deep within the earth. As magma (molten rock material) flowed between them then solidified, it bound them together. Once on the surface, erosion kept forming the enormous rock pieces. All this geologic activity, over millions of years, resulted in the rock formations that add to the stunning visual effects we witness in Yosemite.

After the granitic core rose up, about 65 millions of years ago, the area of the mountain range that is Yosemite today, was lower than the rest. Later, (about 40 million years later), the area started to lift and tilt towards the southwest, resulting in the formation of the Sierra Nevada.

Volcanoes and Rivers

Rocks moving around are not the only forces that shaped the landscape in and around Yosemite though. As the rocks tilted, the rivers and streams flowing southwest increased and started cutting deeper and deeper canyons into the rock. But the story doesn’t stop here, either.

About another ten million years later, mudflow and lava from volcanic activity in the northern part of the Toulumne river buried these streams. So, they shifted their routes, turned and twisted, to go around the buried area. The present course of the rivers and streams is the result of this activity.


The mountain range kept raising in the meantime, and the world grew colder. Eventually, this led to the formation of glaciers on the highest peaks. At some point, glaciers covered most of the higher areas of Yosemite. When melted, they sent heavy water-flow down into the valleys. But these rushing waters didn’t travel alone. On their way, they picked up and carried more rocks and debris, depositing them at lower elevations. In this way, they still continued to form the landscape. More than anything else though, this glacial activity resulted in the formation of the gorgeous lakes in Yosemite.

Tenaya Lake in Yosemite NP
photo credit: Leanne Fromm

Stories of Yosemite’s People

As far as we can tell, humans settled and lived in Yosemite about 8,000 years ago. Archaeologists tell us that the earliest people in Yosemite ground seeds on flat stones and hunted with spears and atlatl. (You can find images of atlatl in ancient rock carvings in the Valley of Fire).

Indigenous Tribes

People and cultures changed, and eventually the Miwok people lived in the larger Yosemite area. By the late 18th century, most of Yosemite was home to the Southern Miwok people. The Central Miwok people lived in the norther areas.

Later, as most Indigenous people were losing their land, they came to live in Yosemite. Among them were Mono Lake Paiute, Western Mono people, Chukchansi Yokuts, and Indigenous people from the California coast. Eventually, the Valley itself was named Ahwanhee and thos who inhabited it, Ahwanchee.

Since the Valley was cut off from the outside world, they were relatively undisturbed here for longer than most tribes in the US. However, the California goldrush eventually brought miners into the area, changing the dynamics.

The California Gold Rush and Establishing the National Park

A state-sponsored militia, the Mariposa Batallion entered Yosemite Valley in 1851, attempting to remove all Native people from the Yosemite region.The US army expedition a year later followed two attempts of the battalion. Although they may have wiped out a whole tribe, they could not fully remove all Indigenous people from Yosemite.

Establishing Yosemite as a National Park did that. To be fair, no one other than people who work for the National Parks Service can live within a park’s boundaries. Still, this policy resulted in removing all Indigenous people from their ancestral homes.

Indigenous People of Yosemite Today

Still, the descendants of the Indigenous people Yosemite still live in the surrounding areas. One of the original tribes, the Southern Sierra Miwuk people is still fighting to obtain federal recognition as an indigenous nation.

The Women of Yosemite

During the Gold Rush women’s roles started to change in the areas settled by miners, including Yosemite. During the 1800s, in white societies women’s roles were still to be quiet and take care of the home and family. However, pioneer women settled in Yosemite started to change this.

They changed their clothing, to allow them to participate in outdoor activities. Inspired by the landscape and their own adventures, they started writing books. Others expanded their traditional roles to help support their families or to follow their own adventurous spirit. In Yosemite, women were adventurers, naturalists, cultural demonstrators, artists, or concessioners, helping to expand women’s roles in society.

Notable People of Yosemite. John Muir and Ansel Adams

Yosemite’s beauty attracted not only those who searched for riches or a better life, but also nature lovers, who eventually had a large role in protecting this gorgeous landscape.

You can’t mention the word Yosemite without automatically thinking about John Muir. Wilderness activist and writer, Muir was concerned about preserving Yosemite’s forests. Founder os Sierra Club, he had a great role in establishing Yosemite as a National Park.

While Muir’s words come to mind when we think of Yosemite, still citing him when talking about the beauty of the place, it is Ansel Adams images we see when we hear the word Yosemite. One of the best-known and most celebrated nature photographer of the US, Ansel Adams found inspiration in Yosemite. His photography of this landscape are some of his best-known works.

Other Stories of Yosemite

Toulumne Meadows. Yosemite NP
photo credit: Leanne Fromm

A landscape so unique, so gorgeous as Yosemite lends itself to many more stories, both real and imagined. They are stories of nature, of plants and animals, and people who lived and still live or visit the area. And everyone who visits the park has at least one story to tell.

My story of Yosemite involves a family trip with two of my daughters. It talks about a road trip we took when my older daughter, who is now only a visitor in our home, joined us on a trip. It involves hikes in pine forests to gorgeous glacial lakes, watching deer in the meadow, waterfalls in the valley, and generally spending time in nature with people who matter most to me.

And everyone who ever visits the park walks away with stories of their own, unique experiences in one of the most unique and beautiful natural landscapes in the world.

Stories of Yosemite Pin

6 thoughts on “Stories of Yosemite Bring The Gorgeous Park Closer”

  1. It was interesting to read more about Yosemite. For such a beautiful spot, it was fascinating to know the word Yosemite came from “those who kill”. Although I am sure that Yosemite has claimed many lives in its history. Stories about the creation of the different peaks were interesting. I will have to look for the wife’s tears when we next see the Half Dome. I always think of forests when I hear the name John Muir. So I guess I should not be surprised to read he was also part of preserving Yosemite forests.

    1. Thank you, Linda. Yosemite has so many stories, once I started reading about it, I got lost in them. I just barely scratched the surface. I’m always fascinated by the myths and legends of how places are formed, and compare them to the scientific explanations which are just as amazing; and often show that legends make sense…

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