Hello, it’s Claire at Yosemite National Park! This first month has been an adventure of exploring, learning about the office and volunteer program operations, meeting a bunch of great people, shadowing volunteer groups, and getting very excited for the big plans we have for the Centennial year.

I thought I’d use this blog to share musings that come up in my time here, produce a series of volunteer #findyourpark themed profiles, and more. We’ll see! Today’s entry is a musing post.

The Myth of the Natural and Cultural Park Binary


When most people think of Yosemite, they think of granite, waterfalls, wilderness – the epitome of ‘nature’, prime for outdoor recreational activities and natural science . Few people associate Yosemite with ‘culture’ – the extensive American Indian history in the landscape, the scattered remnants of later European settlers, the birth of modern rock climbing culture (commemorated by Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4 appearing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003), the park’s decisions that impact the national park experience (which is definitely a cultural product), to name a few examples. Yet, the park is clearly chock full of culture – not to mention the immense cultural significance of the fact that the idea to protect land for public benefit (aka the National Park Idea) was born with the Yosemite Land Grant Act of 1864.

This misconception flows the other way, too; while many NPS units are dedicated for historical/cultural reasons and are associated with such purpose, by no means does this indicate nature is absent in these parks. Each park unit takes up physical space in the environment, however big or small, and each park addresses environmental issues such as native/invasive plants, landscape design, pollution, water conservation – in other words, ‘nature’.

Consider the picture of Gaylor Lakes at the top of the post.The remote beauty of the area is a prime example of the traditional natural resources the park is here to protect. Interestingly, just out of the frame are several old, abandoned cabins and pits that are remnants of an old silver mine (click here to learn more). Cultural history, right? Not to mention the historical Ahwahneechee presence (what did they call these lakes right over the crest of a major trading route, now known as Tioga Pass?) and the significance of the presence of an  accessible trail meandering through the landscape.

In conclusion, people categorize parks too quickly, however consciously or unconsciously, as either ‘natural/scenic’ or ‘cultural/historic’ without realizing or fully comprehending the connections to both elements found in every park. In fact, if you break down each category and think about it long enough, the line between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ begin to blur **. I think this blur serves the National Park Service well, especially in light of a major Centennial goal we CVA’s are helping to work towards: One NPS! Whether we are more ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’, urban, rural, or somewhere in between, we are one organization, one mission, one spirit!

** If you want to explore this idea further, read William Cronon’s essay The Trouble With Wilderness.

+Photo Cred to volunteer Josh Blouin!