Celebrating 150 Years of Yosemite and Its Remarkable Wildlife

Editor’s Note: Yosemite National Park celebrates its 150th anniversary on Monday, June 30, and although many visit for the awe-inspiring scenery, NWF’s California Director (who lives on the southwest border of the park and worked in Yosemite for a decade) reminds us not to forget the remarkable wildlife that call it home. 

Yosemite National Park celebrates its 150th anniversary on Monday, June 30. Photo by Beth Pratt.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among national park visitors that you visit Yellowstone for the magnificent wildlife and Yosemite for the breathtaking scenery. Having worked in both parks, I feel somewhat qualified to pass judgment on this unofficial pronouncement. Yes, Yellowstone deserves to be crowned champion of the charismatic mega-fauna, as during my time there I dodged elk herds to get to the post office, and claim a personal record of seeing eight grizzly bears in a single day. Characterizing Yosemite as a wildlife wasteland because of a lack of bison herds, however, misses the ‘story behind the scenery’ so to speak, and omits a rich part of the experience.

Like countless others, I became instantly captivated by this awe-inspiring cathedral of granite on my first visit. And I am still filled with a surge of joy when the mighty rock sentinels greet me as I drive through Yosemite Valley. As Muir remarked, “this grand show is eternal,” and I never become weary of Yosemite’s charms. I live near its west entrance and spend most of my free time losing myself in the comforting embrace of its backcountry.

During my first visit to Yosemite in 1992, I encountered a friendly coyote on a winter day in Yosemite Valley. Photo by Beth Pratt.
And in my over twenty years of wandering in the park, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter many of the remarkable wildlife that call Yosemite home, beginning with my first trip in 1991. I had driven into Yosemite Valley during a major snowstorm and almost had the place to myself as the road had been closed behind me. I took full advantage of the gift of Yosemite as a private winter playground, and enjoyed making snow angels and constructing a snowman in El Capitan Meadow, all while a lone coyote regarded me curiously. Snowflakes speckled his luxuriant winter coat and his tracks made their own snow art alongside mine. For over an hour we seemed like the only two living things in Yosemite Valley until he finally trotted away and disappeared into the storm.

From that first coyote encounter, all my memories of granite and water also vibrate with the living world of the park.

A wonderful rite of spring in Yosemite is the annual love song of the Yosemite toad in the high country. Photo by Beth Pratt.
For instance, each year the Gaylor Lakes basin comes alive with a chorus of amphibian song. I recall first hearing the symphony—and being a bit baffled at the noise— as I strolled down to Lower Gaylor Lake and caught the sonorous trilling of one creature in particular, a song rising above even the boisterous shouting of the Clark’s nutcracker. After consulting the guidebook, I reckoned this was my introduction to the Yosemite toad. Once the snow melts—or even before as the critter has been observed tiptoeing over snowfields to reach their breeding grounds—the males emerge from hibernation and start singing for a mate. Their distinctive “love song” can be heard up to 100 yards away, and as the naturalists Grinnell and Storer noted in 1924, “its mellow notes are pleasing additions to the chorus of bird songs just after the snow leaves.”

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The rock-dwelling pika definitely rank as Yosemite’s cutest critter. Photo by Beth Pratt.
Another musically inclined animal of Yosemite, the almost unbearably adorable pika, emits an unmistakable high-pitched chirping. For me, watching the pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of Yosemite’s alpine landscape as the towering peaks. Pikas can be elusive, and more often seen than heard, so imagine my astonishment in meeting not one, but several very social pika ambassadors over the years. Once while stopping for a water break, a scampering over my boot startled me and I looked down just in time to see a pika dashing up the slope, perhaps thinking me just another rock in the rockpile. And on another excursion I shared a picnic with a friendly pika. As I took my meal break near Mt Dana, the little critter remained with me for an hour, dashing back and forth to gather a nice alpine salad of lupine stalks. Pikas do not hibernate, but dry vegetation in the sun to create a “haystack” for winter consumption. The mischievous pikas have also been known to loot their neighbors’ haystacks, but this one made no move to try and steal my Clif bar.

I’m always delighted to see one of Yosemite’s black bears on my hikes. Photo by Beth Pratt
The animal with an infamous reputation for looting in Yosemite—black bears—hold a special place in my reminiscences, as I worked on a project aimed at curbing their appetite for human food and their propensity to destroy cars in pursuit of said tasty cuisine. The Yosemite Conservancy teamed up with the NPS to create the Keep Bears Wild campaign and even enlisted the help of the late Phil Frank, who had penned many a cartoon in homage to the bears’ insatiable appetites (bear incidents remain greatly reduced to this day as a result of the successful project). Although I prefer my wild bear encounters, my most entertaining bear story involves a lone youngster surprising a staff person in the Conservancy’s offices. Lou Carter, a longtime El Portal resident, called me frantically one morning to the copy room. I just assumed the copier had broken down yet again, so did not expect to see a bear emerge. Just another day in the office in Yosemite!

The rare and remarkable great gray owl in Yosemite. Photo by Joe Medley / U.S. Forest Service.
One of park’s most remarkable–and rarest–inhabitants are the Yosemite great grey owls. Joe Medley, a UC Davis PhD candidate and researcher affiliated with the USFS has studied the owl for years remarked, “This is an amazing bird. They have a very specialized sensory system and can detect and catch prey under a foot of snow from sound alone.” Early biologists who visited Yosemite also noticed the uniqueness of the bird, including Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer in their 1924 book, Animal Life in the Yosemite: “The discovery of the Great Gray Owl in the Yosemite section was one of the notable events in our field experience.” And just as notable for me was a chance sighting of a great grey owl during one of my forest hikes. I gazed up into a tall ponderosa pine and caught a glance of the distinctive facial discs encircling the distinct yellow eyes and counted myself very lucky to be in the presence of this seldom seen guardian of the forest.

I could add so many other wildlife moments, like discovering the tracks of a mountain lion with ranger Dick Ewart on the Granite Divide, or hearing the soft patter of a bobcat trailing me on the boardwalk near Happy Isles, or relaxing by the Tuolumne River one evening as a great blue heron swooped out of the dusk to catch a fish.

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Climbers on El Capitan have reported Pacific chorus frogs hanging out on the rocky cliffs. Photo by Beth Pratt.
Yet my favorite Yosemite wildlife tale comes from rockclimbers scaling El Capitan who report seeing tiny Pacific chorus frogs hanging out on the cliffs. Perhaps even the smallest of creatures aren’t immune to seeking out a good vista point. People will always flock to Yosemite for the scenery, to feel the spray of Yosemite Falls, or peer down from the dizzying heights of Glacier Point. Certainly let us cherish and enjoy the grandeur of the landscape, but we should not neglect the wonderful array of life that calls this “noble park” home.

A version of this story was featured in the new book, Inspiring Generations: 150 Years, 150 Stories in Yosemite.

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