American Icons: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

One of what should be an occasional series of posts on American iconic places, natural features, sights to see, etc.  For studies of U.S. history and U.S. geography, each of these posts covers subjects an educated American should know.  What is the value of these icons?  Individually and collectively, our preservation of them may do nothing at all for the defense of our nation.  But individually and collectively, they help make our nation worth defending.

This is a less-than-10-minute video you can insert into class as a bell ringer, or at the end of a class, or as part of a study of geologic formations, or in any of a number of other ways.  Yosemite Nature Notes provides glorious pictures and good information about Yosemite National Park — this video explains the modern incarnation of Half Dome, an enormous chunk of granite that captures the imagination of every living, breathing soul who ever sees it.

Potential questions for class discussion:

  • Have you put climbing Half Dome on your bucket list yet?  Why not?
  • Is it really wilderness when so many people go there?
  • How should the National Park Service, and the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, manage these spectacular, completely unique features, both to preserve their wild nature, and allow people to visit them?
  • What are the federalism issues involved in protecting Half Dome, or any grand feature, like the Great Smokey Mountains, Great Dismal Swamp, Big Bend, Yellowstone Falls, or Lincoln Memorial?
  • Does this feature make you wonder about how glaciers carve mountains and valleys?  (Maybe you should watch this video about glaciers in Yosemite.)
  • What is the history of the preservation of the Yosemite Valley?
  • Planning your trip to Yosemite:  Which large city airports might be convenient to fly to?  (What part of which state is this in?)
  • What other grand sights are there to see on your trip to Yosemite?
  • What does this image make you think?  Can you identify the people in it?

    John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite Valley

    Who are those guys? Why might it matter? (Answer below the fold)

  • How about this image? Who made this, and so what?

    Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1870 - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

    Photo or painting? Where could you see this work?

Caption to photograph:

President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir had long talks about conservation while camping together at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1903. Roosevelt galvanized Progressive conservation and Muir galvanized the preservation movement. Their meeting of the minds symbolizes the environmental leadership the 21st century will increasingly ask of the National Park Service. (Library of Congress photo).

Painting information:

Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1870, Oil on canvas 1966.1  – Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

6 Responses to American Icons: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks Onkel Bob. A great class assignment for someone, but probably not high school juniors. I hope to be surprised.

    There’s a lot of red meat at that site, in the tables that show how many people visit. It used to be that the National Air and Space Museum (Smithsonian, not NPS) got 14 million visitors a year, compared to the total of 1.4 million for Utah’s (then) five National Parks. Sen. Hatch’s budget people unglued when I mentioned that at a sort of workshop on where to pare back federal spending, when someone mentioned NPS could be cut to near zero since visitation was not going to rise anyway. One block of D.C. got 14 million, ten times all the tens of thousands of acres of National Parks in Utah? ‘We can do better than that; let’s boost the spending on advertising and rangers . . .’

    The charts don’t show Smithsonian, but they do show the monuments NPS manages. I notice that the Lincoln Memorial got more than 5 million visits, while all of Yellowstone got about 3.2 million visits. No slight to Lincoln, but I wish more Americans would at least do a drive-by on Old Faithful in their lifetimes.

    The 100-meter rule is good in almost every park I’ve visited. There’s a trail on the opposite side of the Firehole River from the Old Faithful Inn and Lodge, and in summer I’ve been up there and found no human tracks from the previous 24 hours — meanwhile, 5,000 people stand below, 100 meters away, to watch Old Faithful spout. Such incongruities don’t take away from the value of the places at all, for me. It does mean that no one was there to catch Pork Chop Geyser blowing up, though. A pity. It must have been a fantastic site.


  2. Onkel Bob says:

    And as an afterthought, perhaps a “stroll” through this NPS resource would be an interesting class assignment:


  3. Onkel Bob says:

    # Have you put climbing Half Dome on your bucket list yet? Why not?

    Most emphatically no. The sheer number of tourons (a portmanteau of tourist and moron) predicts the experience will be most unpleasant. I have friends that have done this, and they assure me this is the case. Furthermore, North Dome and Clouds Rest possess superior views, the former being the favorite of one of the men pictured.

    # Is it really wilderness when so many people go there?

    The John Muir Trail (JMT), the world’s most beautiful highway. (Except when the thunderstorms are beating you like a drum in a Taiko festival.) One of the problems with places like this is not the number but that they concentrate in one area. I know many campsites on the JMT, and the ones I visit are 100m off the trail. I think the only people who stay there are me and the backcountry rangers who told me how to find them.

    # What other grand sights are there to see on your trip to Yosemite?

    The only dam within a National Park? One hike is is also somewhat oversubscribed but nonetheless pleasant is the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. It’s easy enough for the novice hiker and affords views that are much different than the valley floor.

    Oh, and Curry Village in the winter can be quite pleasant provided you bring extra blankets or your winter sleeping bag. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on Glacier Point should be on that proverbial bucket list.


  4. James Hanley says:

    Thanks, I’ll check out those videos (I loved the frazil ice one). As a Yellowstone aficionado (three summers there, and two of my siblings worked over a decade there), I’d love to see some Yellowstone videos of this quality.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    It’s Frozen in Dallas Week. I just stumbled into the piece on frazil ice — but having found that, I also looked at this piece on Half Dome, and it fits perfectly with an idea I’m working for class to get students familiar with icons they don’t know now, that they should know and which form great anchor points for a framework of knowledge about U.S. history that they can use. The photo of Roosevelt and Muir at Glacier Point would be a great photo for a Documents-based-question (DBQ) for AP U.S. History, and I may use it on an exam.

    And sitting here stuck because the streets were impassable and now just treacherous, with Dallas closed for a third day (unprecedented?) I had a few minutes to put it together.

    The Bierstadt painting I saw again last week, and I’ve also been working on an assignment to get students into the Amon Carter and Sid Richardson Museums for the historical stuff.

    All of it sitting in front of me . . . anyone familiar with the National Parks should be able to answer some of the questions well, and a guy like you who has been there and teaches government — I believe you got ’em right. Bierstadt is over the top in relation to the great paintings and photos of the western parks, compared to Moran or Adams, I think, but not too far out for the Hudson River School (exhibit coming in a couple of months at the Amon Carter) nor especially for the American Illuminists, a nice selection of paintings of which the Amon Carter has, with some at the Dallas Museum of Art.

    If Yellowstone had a video series on YouTube as well done as the Yosemite series, you’d think it Yellowstone Week.

    Click to the YouTube version of the video and take a look at all 13 or 14 of the Yosemite Nature Notes. And let me know if you find anything as good for anything else in the National Park System.


  6. James Hanley says:

    Do I win a prize for answering 3 of 4 questions correctly? (I.e., TR, Muir, Bierstadt, but I didn’t know where the painting was.) Honestly, I did.

    I admit to being a sucker for Bierstadt paintings, despite their over-the-top romanticism.

    So is it Yosemite week on your blog? I’m eagerly awaiting the next post.


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