Yosemite. trails: artistry hikers don't see

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ARTISTS have come here for years with their paints and easels, their tripods and cameras, trying to capture the beauty of Yosemite Valley. Yet Yosemite is nature's artwork, chiseled out of solid granite by that unrelenting sculptor, ice. The valley was formed by a glacier over 30,000 years ago, leaving behind El Capitan, Half Dome, Vernal Falls, and Royal Arches -- all as world-renowned as the Mona Lisa. In 1881, a journalist wrote, ``No picture by pen or brush can ever convey an idea of the vastness of the great weather-stained, scarfaced El Capitan.''

Yosemite may have eluded the artists, but there were other individuals determined to share Yosemite with the world. They were the ones who designed and created the trails, making Yosemite's natural beauty as easy to view as the paintings in a gallery.

There are 27 miles of trails leading out of Yosemite Valley, with the oldest trail, the one to Vernal Falls, dating back to 1857. The original trails in Yosemite were laid out and built by private individuals who obtained permits from the state of California. In return they were allowed to charge a toll. To get past the tollkeeper's cabin at Register Rock near Vernal Falls, a hiker had to pay $1. The owner of each trail set his own rates.

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Trails were such a popular business venture there would not have been any wilderness left if all the proposed trails had been built. Fortunately, California was not overly generous with permits. Private trailmaking proved to be a good way, however, of creating a trail system, since the state had no money for such things. California bought the trails from each individual in the late 1800s, shortly before Yosemite was made a national park.

Most hikers are so busy enjoying the scenery they don't notice the hard work that went into creating the trails. Each trail was located where it would be least vulnerable to rock slides, drainage problems, and erosion. Their endurance has been remarkable; the newest site was chosen in 1911.

It is not lack of use that keeps the trails in good condition, either. In the 1980s the trails draw 3 million visitors a year, yet even in 1875, 3,000 people came to Yosemite Valley. During the peak season (July-August), 2,000 to 3,000 tourists used the Vernal Falls Trail in the 1920s. Now, in one day in the summer months as many as 5,000 tourists may hike the trail.

When a trail has to be rebuilt, it is done much the same way it was done in the 1800s. In fact, the park maintenance crew learned how to build the trails by pulling old ones apart. It builds dry walls over areas that must be bridged, breaking most of the rocks by hand.

By analyzing problem spots in the park, the maintenance crew gets a good idea of what works and what doesn't. In the 1930s, for instance, a lot of dynamite was used in rebuilding a trail.

``There is no end of trouble on the Merced Lake Trail,'' explains Jim Snyder, a crew supervisor. ``That blasting has worked down into that rock so it freezes and rock keeps working up. By knowing how that happened and why, it makes us think twice about using dynamite.''

Today crews build up on the slick rock with a retaining wall, filling inside, instead of using the cut-and-fill method of the 1930s.

The trails in the lower valley are opened early in the spring. The maintenance crew checks the trails' drainage system, clears the debris, and corrects any erosion problems. As the snow melts, the crew moves to the high country, where 800 more miles of trails must be maintained.

A crew of 32 maintains Yosemite's trails with summer help from the California Conservation Corps. Due to heavy winters, the work is seasonal for all employees, yet the same people return year after year. Jim Snyder has worked for the park service 20 years, finding odd jobs during the three months he is unemployed.

``There are very few jobs where you can make a meadow live again,'' he gives as a reason for not finding full-time work.

He is referring to a meadow restoration project he's been involved with. As the crew repairs a trail through the meadow, it is filling ruts four and five feet deep and sodding them.

It had to rebuild Yosemite Falls Trail after a rock slide in 1980 destroyed part of it. Anyone who takes this three-mile hike to the top of the rim where Yosemite Falls tumbles, first 1,430 feet, then another 320 feet in the lower fall, can appreciate the trail work. At some of the steepest grades, cobblestone switchbacks were created. Of course, it really was not built this way to ease a hiker's climb. Instead the trail was designed so the dirt would not be shoved downhill by an army of hiking boots. Also, the water could drain from switchback to switchback, instead of down the trail, causing erosion.

Most hikers do not see the wisdom in such trail design, as they struggle upward along Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point to view the valley below. Nor do they think about the fact that if it were not for the trail, they would not be standing atop Half Dome. These trails, etched into Yosemite's hard granite walls, are a part of the national parks' artistry, even though they may not be the masterpiece El Capitan is. Practical information

Yosemite is open all year. For more information about trails, naturalist programs, camping, horseback riding, and conducted walks, write to the Superintendent, Box 577, Yosemite National Park, Calif. 95389.

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