A calmness spreads across Yosemite National Park. It's an hour before the sun will begin to peek over the famed 3,000-foot monolith El Capitan and warm the wings of butterflies. Nocturnal animals, such as mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, have begun to burrow in for the long day. Bears make their own hours.
Behind the scenes, a special group of people is also preparing to greet the day. It takes a host of people working together to ensure that Yosemite remains in good shape for the host of native plants and animals that call it home.
Approximately 10,000 volunteers signed up to work in the park during 2008, says Heather Boothe, Yosemite's volunteer program manager for the National Park Service. Their donated hours – 155,500 – equaled the efforts of 75 full-time employees working year-round. That's especially important in a time of reduced budgets.
"Volunteers are the future of the park system," she says. "They become stewards who share their experiences with others in their community."
They spend as little as a half day or as much as 30 hours a week tackling jobs as diverse as restoring a riverbank, serving as archaeology field assistants, and guiding tours. In their spare time, they enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the park.
Paula McNerney of South Dakota first visited Yosemite in 1992 when she tackled the top of Half Dome, an all-day hike listed as extremely strenuous. "I fell in love with the park's grandeur and diversity," she says.
As a result of that experience, Ms. McNerney has volunteered one month each summer for the past four years. She's often posted at the kiosk near the Happy Isles Trailhead to answer questions from visitors.
When asked the most humorous question she's fielded, she smiles. " 'How long is the four-mile trail?' I get that one all the time," she answers. "No one has asked how Mist Trail got its name."
No wonder, since the granite stairway receives constant spray from Vernal Falls, one of many powerful waterfalls in the park. The Ahwahnichi Indians called it Yan-o-pah, or "Little Cloud," an apt name for the drizzle that blows across the trail all summer. Some hikers protect their cameras with a plastic bag that has a hole cut in it for the lens to peek through.
Mist Trail is one of the more popular day hikes in the park. The 600-plus steep steps follow moss-covered rocks and vibrant wildflowers, such as yarrow, penstemon, columbine, and so many others that it would exhaust the most ardent listmaker. Rainbows arc over the boulder-filled torrent.
At the top, the path spills onto a large, flat area with a railing-protected overlook. Just upstream from the lookout, Emerald Pool is the perfect spot to wring out that wet T-shirt and kick back with a handful of gorp.
Below, the Merced River appears to be a trickle. Yet between Nevada Falls above and Happy Isles the river picks up 500,000 horsepower. That's the strength of about 100 locomotives barreling down the track at 60 miles per hour.
The geology of the 1,200-square-mile park is largely what attracts millions of visitors each year. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is the biggest continuous block of granite on the planet – a rocky spine running 430 miles in length. It was formed about 10 million years ago.
After such an awe-inspiring hike, many people decide to sign up for a half-day volunteer program.
Habitat Protectors of Yosemite (HaPY) allows those volunteers to take a small role in looking after the park but requires little preparation beforehand. Not only do volunteers learn about natural history and native vegetation from park staff, their efforts also help protect one of the nation's first wilderness parks.
Volunteer duties range from removal of invasive species – nonnative Himalayan blackberries and bull thistles are the biggest foes in the valley – to restoring natural habitat, collecting seeds from native plants, removing ash from campgrounds, and more.
Tom Schneider, who designs displays for museums, chose a more active volunteer role – a summer-long duty as camp host at White Wolf Campground.
At this quiet enclave in the high country, he tends to some light maintenance and keeps camper records. The best part of his day? "Hanging out with people who share their passion for natural history and botany," he says.
For Mr. Schneider, naming the biggest reward of being a Yosemite volunteer is easy: "Some families return year after year. I've made a lot of friends."
He likes to tell stories of Bear Yellow 61 (the National Park Service tags and numbers problem bears), who once swiped a tray of raw hamburger patties in broad daylight, carried them to a slab of granite, and chowed down in full view of campers.
"Bears are so smart they recognize coolers and backpacks as sources of food," he says. "Soon they'll be reading the labels on packages!"
Volunteers also put in time at an information booth in the pedestrian mall near the Valley Visitor Center. Inside, interpretive displays cover park history, including explanations of the early glacial episode when the thickness of ice in the area may have reached 4,000 feet. The downward movement and pressure of these enormous masses scraped and polished the U-shaped valley.
It's no surprise that the sheer walls attract rock climbers from around the world. Meet Roger Brown. At the extreme end of the volunteer spectrum, he spends the entire summer working off 2,800 feet of rope. It's a long-term project to remove gear left on a well-traveled rock face.
While up there, he sets durable bolts, permanent anchors fixed into holes drilled into rock. "So far I've replaced an estimated 1,000 bolts," he says. "And swung the hammer about a million times."
Historians continue to study the lives of the first people of Yosemite; they lived and worked in the area an estimated 4,000 years ago. Arrowheads have been found scattered throughout the park. Bowl-shaped cavities dot otherwise flat rocks where acorns were ground into flour.
The connection between the native Americans who dwelled here and their environment provided much of the inspiration for the original proposal for a national park, introduced nearly 40 years before it became reality.
In 1833, Indian painter and explorer George Catlin wrote in a New York newspaper: "A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty ... where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse ... amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes." Yosemite was finally established in 1872.
Although many changes have taken place since then, the natural beauty of Yosemite endures and continues to attract volunteers who want to help make the park better and to share their love of it with others.