Field Notes From Yosemite: Yosemite's High Country, A Tradition in Educational Excellence

The historic Parsons Lodge in Yosemite National Park is the backdrop for seminars on the history of the national parks and the High Sierra. Photo Courtesy of the Yosemite National Park Archives.

Editor's note: Jeff Pappas has one of those dream jobs: During summers he's Ranger Jeff Pappas at Yosemite National Park, and during the off-season he's known as Dr. Jeff Pappas and teaches American history (including a course on national parks, of course) at Colorado State University. On occasion he will pen Field Notes from Yosemite for Traveler's readers.

Nestled peacefully in Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows, at roughly 8,600 feet above sea-level, sits Parsons Memorial Lodge, a modest fieldstone structure built in 1915 to celebrate the life and good works of Edward Taylor Parsons. It’s surrounded by some of the most recognized topographical icons in the Sierra Nevada, such as Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Crest, Mountains Dana and Gibbs.

Residents and visitors alike are treated daily to the awesome power of extraordinary high-country beauty. Serene, glorious, and ever-changing, the meadow community of lupine, lodgepole pine, granite, and water mark this splendid and unique place with rare distinction.

In addition to its remarkable natural beauty, Tuolumne also maintains a rich cultural tradition, one that's experienced each summer by thousands of campers and Pacific Crest and John Muir Trail hikers, who hoof-it north to south, from Washington State to Mexico, and vice-versa, for a quick bite to eat at the rustic Tuolumne Meadows store and grille.

Each season local Indian tribes recreate traditional walks near Tuolumne to replicate important trade routes that went on for hundreds of years. A young and energetic John Muir assisted the legendary University of Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte on his first student expedition to the High Sierra, rendered so eloquently in LeConte’s classic book, A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierra.

Significantly, it was here, too, where the Sierra Club was co-founded by Muir in 1892 with assistance from his literary agent at The Century Magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, himself a prominent figure in the early conservation movement. It was also here that the Sierra Club organized its now famous outing program made possible through the generous tidings of Parsons and his family.

The building today, in fact, represents all the marvelous history of Yosemite’s high country told so well in the interpretive displays inside and outside the structure. As a result of this natural and cultural collision, Parsons Memorial Lodge was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987 by the National Park Service.

As with so many wonderful events that happen at NPS sites all over the nation, it’s truly the workings of committed rangers and concerned citizens that infuse a sense of purpose and love that allow places such as Parsons Lodge to express what makes our parks so interesting and historically meaningful.

In 1992, Yosemite ranger-naturalist and long-time Tuolumne resident Margaret Eissler started a unique series of interpretive events at Parsons, staged every weekend between early July and late August, as a way to celebrate the centennial of the Sierra Club and its legacy in Tuolumne Meadows.

Margaret’s efforts have matured over the years, bringing to Tuolumne some of the most respected and inspirational writers, activists, musicians, historians, and scientists associated with Yosemite and the greater Sierra Nevada ecosystem. Reminiscent of an earlier time in Yosemite history when the University of California and the Sierra Club organized the popular LeConte Memorial Lectures in Yosemite Valley—where a litany of celebrated literary and scientific greats like Willis Jepson, William Frederic Bade, and A. L. Kroeber dispensed and condensed their path breaking research to an eager Yosemite audience—so too has Margaret’s Parsons series joined such august company promoting the need to further encourage the serious educational role of America’s National Park System.

And this summer is no different. Once again Parsons Lodge will be teeming with the voices of those committed to and actively engaged in Yosemite’s long and studied heritage. The range of programs this season is impressive. From a distillation of Tim Duane’s excellent 1999 book Shaping the Sierra to the more introspective thoughts of critically acclaimed writer Scott Russell Sanders to the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan, who will be joined by prize-winning poet Jane Hirshfield.

Once again Margaret has succeeded in bringing to Yosemite’s high country the best of the best, a list of who’s who among America’s most sought after thinkers, writers, and activists. Keen, however, to the history of Yosemite and a prominent presenter this summer is Donald Worster, a distinguished professor of environmental history at the University of Kansas and the author of several important books on the American West, most notably Rivers of Empire, Nature’s Economy, Dust Bowl, a biography on John Wesley Powell, A River Running West and most recently, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir.

For many years now, literally since Muir’s death in 1914, Yosemite National Park has actively taught the Muir story to thousands of park visitors. There is perhaps no other historical character as important to Yosemite as Muir. He is consistently credited (and rightly so) with establishing the national park in 1890, and his famous crusade over the Hetch Hetchy crisis is legendary among students of 20th century environmental history.

On Saturday, August 22, at Parsons Lodge, park visitors will be treated to a rare discussion on Muir, featuring Donald Worster and fellow writer, teacher, and long-time friend to Yosemite Michael P. Cohen, himself the author of three important books, The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, The History of the Sierra Club, and A Garden of Bristlecones.

The discussion is a timely one as well, as the National Park Service contemplates its 100th anniversary in 2016. New scholarship, such as Worster’s book, interestingly the first-ever historical treatment of Muir, provides a wonderful opportunity for the park community to consider this new synthesis in light of current interpretive practices.

This is public history at its best: a melding of academic and popular ideas that could influence the way we think about John Muir and his place in Yosemite history. Like all Parsons Lodge programs, this lecture is open to the public. So if you find yourself in Yosemite’s high country this summer and would like to learn more about the park, please come join us. It’s a marvelous way to spend a weekend afternoon. For additional information see this site.