The latest two posts featured our most recent trip to Yosemite, a place we return to time after time. What is it about the park that has such a strong hold on us? The next couple of posts will attempt to shed a little light on the enduring attraction this magical place has for us.
It all started in 1947 when my parents spent part of their honeymoon in Yosemite. They had overnighted in Paso Robles (at the still functioning Paso Robles Inn) and San Francisco. What an adventure that would have been, traveling the pre-freeway highway system of California, likely doubling the time it would take to drive each leg of the journey compared to today. And thus, a love of the park was launched.
We would camp there a number of times when I was a child, almost always at Lower River Campground in a site on the banks of the Merced River. These were the days when you could just show up and once a spot opened up, you could claim it as yours. We’d swim in the cold waters of the river, floating downstream on our inflatable air mattresses, do some light hiking and at night, eagerly await the Firefall.
From 1872 until 1968, a waterfall like spectacle known as the Firefall occurred each night. Red fir bark was set on fire at Glacier Point and stoked until what remained was a large mound of burning embers. On cue at 9pm, a voice would ring out from Camp Curry below and the following exchange would occur:
“Hello, Glacier Point!”,
“Hello, Camp Curry!”,
“Is the fire ready?”,
“The fire is ready!”,
“Let the Fire Fall!”,
“The Fire Falls!”
The firefall would eventually be halted in 1968 as the National Park Service felt it was an unnatural spectacle more appropriate for Disneyland than a national park, also arguing that it attracted huge crowds that damaged local meadows.
Memories of these early trips stayed with me into early adulthood and one of the first outings I took occurred the weekend I graduated from Venice High School in June 1969. I’d broken up with my girlfriend earlier in the year so had no interest in going to grad night at Disneyland and instead jumped at the chance to attend a three-day rock concert, Newport 69-Los Angeles, being held at Devonshire Downs, a horse racing track and multipurpose event facility that was located at the southwest corner of Devonshire Street and Zelzah Avenue, in the San Fernando Valley. The Downs ceased operation in 1971 and was acquired by Cal State Northridge, which built a football stadium there. In 2001, the football stadium and practically everything else was razed and most of the land was leased out for development as a private industrial park.
I and Terry, a friend from my Sea Scouting days arrived Friday afternoon and stayed the weekend, wild camping on a large piece of property owned by the well-known entertainer, Montie Montana, a rodeo trick rider and roper, actor, stuntman and cowboy who was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1994. It was truly memorable weekend; some of the acts performing were Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull, Joe Cocker, Marvin Gaye, Poco, Booker T. & The MG’s, The Chambers Brothers and Three Dog Night. And Jimi Hendrix, who was so disappointed with his performance Friday night that he came back Saturday to play a surprise jam with Buddy Miles and Eric Burden.
Monday morning Terry and I took off for the second half of our adventure, to spend the remainder of the week at Yosemite. We drove the 1966 Chevelle (327 cubic inch eight cylinders with a four speed, a dream car for an L.A. raised teenager) I’d bought earlier in the year and about all I recall of the time in the park is convincing some fellow to buy us beer with Terry getting intoxicated and throwing up out the window of the car as we drove around.
I would return one year later in the same car with Rendy and camp over the Fourth of July weekend. At that time the park didn’t generally enforce campground occupancy limits and it would be an understatement to state that most sites were oversubscribed. We camped in Upper River Campground and I recall one or more of the sites were loaded with bikers and their ladies, one of who introduced herself to us as Suzie Creamcheese.
The overcrowded conditions and tense political situation of that era (Vietnam War protests, the Chicago and Watts Riots, etc.) were like dry tinder waiting for a match, leading to a clash later named the Stoneman Meadow Riots. Fairly large groups had been congregating in that meadow across the river from camp for months and seeking to prevent another confrontation then park Superintendent Robert L. Arnberger ordered quiet hours in the valley be moved from 10 pm to 7 pm.
On the Fourth of July, groups of revelers again gathered in the meadow and by early evening an estimated 300 had settled, showing no sign of obeying the curfew. The situation in many of the valley’s campgrounds was no better, with loud drunken parties shattering the evening peace. The situation soon turned ugly as park rangers, maintenance workers, and even naturalists wearing construction helmets emerged from a tree line into the meadow where they used batons and ax handles to roust the revelers.
They subsequently lost control of the crowd and retreated from the meadow. But the fuse had been lit, and the valley was bedlam for the next several hours as the rioters set a bonfire in the road, blocked and then rolled a police vehicle onto its side and skirmished with Park Service personnel for the next several hours. In the end, the Park Service called in nearly 150 police officers from the nearby communities of Madera, Merced, and Fresno, along with U.S. marshals, to quell the riot.
Rendy and I had gone to bed before it got really crazy, and I still remember waking up the next morning to a radically different setting. Much of the campground had been cleared out and as I walked over to Camp Curry to see if I could find a newspaper, I passed a number of enforcers still wearing football helmets for protection and carrying axe handles. Looking as innocent as I could, I managed to make it over and back without drawing any undue attention.
It would later turn out that over the two days 174 people, including 41 minors, were arrested. The majority were for drugs and alcohol, but a fair number were for far more serious crimes, including assaulting a federal officer, carrying a loaded firearm, and assault with a vehicle. In the following years the National Park’s attitudes and policies about policing and campground access would change dramatically, becoming much more confrontational for the former and much more restrictive for the latter.
Reservations would soon be required for campsites and after the historic flooding in the winter of 1997 (it occurred from December 31, 1996, to January 5, 1997, and stands as the worst flood in park history with the Merced River peaking at 24,600 cubic feet per second during the flood), half of the valley’s campsites (Upper and Lower River) were permanently removed.
This would make it nearly impossible to snag a reservation in the remaining campgrounds (Upper, Lower, and North Pines), so much so that we have only done so a couple of times since then).
Joanna, Jessica and I were there a day before the start of the flooding, rain falling and the river already beginning to rise. We were staying outside of the park and after a drink at the Mountain Bar (soothing hot chocolate perked up Jessica’s sagging spirits) we drove to Oakhurst (our lodging option for many Yosemite encounters) for the night, missing the event that would reshape the valley and its accommodations for years to come. And we will discuss those in our next post.
Paso Robles Inn: https://www.pasoroblesinn.com/
Devonshire Downs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devonshire_Downs
The Lost Love-In: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-08-06-ca-315-story.html
1997 Merced River flood: https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/management/1997-flood-recovery.htm