Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

‘…a trail which was almost like a symphony, stopping, moving, looking, listening, and so on. I wanted to make this… but not to make it clear that there was a designer here… I wanted to leave it to the point that people would assume that it had always been that way.’ Lawrence Halprin

Along with the north coast, I went to Yosemite several times in the last couple months. Absolutely amazing place, as the millions of people who visit annually can all attest. I used to be bothered by the crowds, but I’ve learned to navigate the park and appreciate it without feeling bothered by them. Bringing my bicycle with me has helped immeasurably. The Valley’s a beautiful, flat place to ride around in, and a bicycle is the key to avoiding the daily traffic jams. (The park service really needs to figure out a way to get people parking outside the valley and just using bikes and shuttle buses inside. I’m skeptical it will ever happen, but I can dream, right?) Climbing has also helped me love the valley. Obviously because the climbing is so incredible, but also because I’ve ended up spending long periods of time sitting and staring at the views. And not just on the climbs. Most days I would meet up with my climbing partner at the bicycle parking at Lower Yosemite Falls, and while I waited for him, I started to really appreciate the effect that the view of the falls has for people.

Yosemite Falls

It’s the tallest falls in North America, 2,425 feet, and probably the single most viewed and photographed in the world. Lawrence Halprin redesigned the approach trail and picnic area a few years ago, and there is a lot of stonework done by the same company that did all of the stonework at Stern Grove. I don’t really remember what the approach was like before the redesign and the only ‘before photo I’ve seen is a glimpse in the video I linked above, but I remember a parking lot and a lot of crumbling asphalt. I’m pretty sure the framed view of the falls was already cleared, but possibly with the trees starting to grow back in and obscure the view again, and with a bathroom in the foreground instead of the dramatic allée. The redesign took out the parking area, made the trail into a loop, and rehabbed a lot of degraded habitat areas. It upgraded the materials and it channeled people’s movement so they would hit the key viewpoints without trampling on the vegetation or eroding the banks of the creek. And the work was done with enough subtlety and transparency that, as Halprin was hoping, most people probably don’t realize that their experience was crafted by a designer.

Yosemite Falls Approach

There’s a summary of the project here.

Yosemite Falls Approach Trail

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7 Responses to “Yosemite Falls”

  1. August 7th, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Town Mouse says:

    Wow! Can’t wait to get back there. I’ll definitely bring my sketch book, too. (Do you scan your sketches? Maybe a post on getting sketches into a blog would be good…)

  2. August 7th, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    ryan says:

    I scan them and push a few buttons in Photoshop. For the blog and for every drawing we do for our design work. I more or less know what effect that will have, but it’s definitely a part of the process that I had to learn.

  3. August 7th, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    lostlandscape (James) says:

    I remember going to a focus group in 1997 or 8 that was looking at redesigning infrastructure in the valley. Remote parking and shuttles were part of what we were asked to react to. That led to a pretty deluxe plan that would have helped with the congestion, but the plan has gone nowhere. The paper had a story a few days ago about how they’re were looking at thinning the trees in the valley, back to an early historic density. The approach to Yosemite Falls was one of the areas that was discussed. I wonder if that plan has any more supporters. The inertia of planning for the valley floor seems to lead to doing nothing.

  4. August 8th, 2011 at 10:19 am

    ryan says:

    That’s great you were on a focus group for that. That’s around when they tried visitation quotas and quickly scrapped the idea because of public outrage. Hard to get a consensus on a park that gets 4 million visitors a year, I guess. I would love to see the park go over to remote parking and shuttles like Zion has.

  5. August 8th, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Country Mouse says:

    Great to see your lovely sketches. I also am more tolerant and appreciative of people appreciating along with me these days! Also re the tree thinning – the reason it’s more filled in is because the traditional burns done by the native people are not being done any more. What we think was natural was man-made too. I’m guessing you know that though!

  6. August 8th, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    ryan says:

    There’s a book ‘Yosemite in Time’ that has a lot of then-and-now photos showing how the park has changed and not changed over the years. The photographers went to the same spots as a lot of the photographs by Muybridge and Ansel Adams and a couple of other photographers. You can see the changes in the valley pretty easily, that the tree cover is a lot thicker than it used to be. Personally, I think the meadows are the best part of the valley, after the cliffs.

  7. August 16th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    DryStoneGarden » Blog Archive » Stern Grove says:

    […] a talk by Edward Westbrook who owns Quarryhouse, the company that did the stonework at Stern Grove, Yosemite Falls and other projects designed by Lawrence Halprin. Stern Grove has 1400 tons of stone and the […]

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