At 100, Recalling a Century of Yosemite
Above: Picnic lunch at Glacier Point, 1937.
“I have named them the Happy Isles for no one can visit them without for the while forgetting the grinding strife of his world and being happy.”
Many years ago, longtime Conservancy donor Jinny (Virginia) Garretson Corneliussen memorized those words from W.E. Dennison, an early appointed guardian of Yosemite Valley, who gave the pair of Merced River islets their blissful name in 1885. Earlier this month, Jinny celebrated her 100th birthday by taking a stroll around one of her favorite places in Yosemite: Happy Isles.
Celebrations leading up to this year’s National Park Service Centennial have encouraged people all over the country to “Find Your Park.” Jinny, born just two weeks after the 1916 Organic Act established the NPS, “found her park” in Yosemite nearly a century ago. Her father, a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, brought Jinny to the park for the first time in 1922, when she was 6.
More than nine decades have passed since that trip, but Jinny hasn’t forgotten her first visit to Yosemite. She remembers traveling through “rattlesnake country” to get to the park, family members wearing tall boots that reached up their knees, and a walk to Bridalveil Fall, where her father snapped a photo of a minister silhouetted in the spray.
Fast-forward nine years, to the summer of 1931. Jinny’s mother had passed away the previous autumn. Her father took then-15-year-old Jinny and her sister, Marydel, to the Valley, where they hiked up the Ledge Trail to Glacier Point and saw the lone Jeffrey pine on Sentinel Dome. They heard “Let the fire fall!” echo down from Glacier Point each night, as rangers pushed embers over the edge, and saw black bears at feeding pits. While those elements have faded in reality — the pine fell in 2003; the Ledge Trail was abandoned years ago; the final Firefall streamed down the cliff in 1968; and the park’s bear-feeding program ended in 1940, ushering in a new era of bear management — they remain vibrant in Jinny’s recollections.
Jinny’s memories of the park are infused with a sense of adventure and a sheer love of being outside. In the 1930s, Jinny and her girlfriends began taking annual trips to Tahoe and Yosemite. One excursion in 1937 included another trek up the Ledge Trail; a short-lived skinny dip, truncated by the arrival of a group of male hikers; and drinking water straight from the river above Nevada Fall.
Back then, Jinny says, they carried no gear – no filters or iodine, no water bottles, not even backpacks. At night, they slept as Jinny had been taught: Lying in a line on the ground, rolled up in 19th century quilts, using the tent only as a place to change clothes.
After leaving California long enough to fall in love and have three children in New York, Jinny grew homesick for the West Coast. In the 1950s, she brought her husband and kids to Santa Cruz and, soon after, on their first family vacation to Yosemite.
Almost every summer after the move, Jinny brought her kids back to the park, greeting her favorite features like old friends: Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, Vernal and Nevada falls. As the sun set, they’d head back to camp to catch a ranger talk and watch the Firefall.
Over the years, Yosemite became a beloved home base for Jinny’s family, a place to celebrate anniversaries, reunions and homecomings. In 1977, Jinny and her husband toasted 30 years of marriage during a special dinner at The Ahwahnee. Thirteen years later, at age 74, she flew up the Mist Trail during a family reunion, easily passing younger hikers as they paused to catch their breath, with the ease of someone who has trekked up and down those steep steps countless times. By then, her love for the park had prompted her to begin supporting Yosemite not just as a visitor, but also as a donor.
Just over a decade ago, Jinny moved east again, to be with her daughter CJ (Dian), another longtime Conservancy supporter. Her Yosemite license plate hangs on the wall above her washing machine, its pastel Tunnel View scene an everyday reminder of adventures in the park.
This month, 12 years after she had last foot set in Yosemite and two weeks after the National Park Service Centennial, Jinny returned to the park to celebrate her own 100th birthday. She and CJ stayed at the Majestic Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee), fulfilling a lifelong dream to spend a night in that 89-year-old historic landmark.
When one of our team members went to greet them, Jinny shared her memories for visiting Yosemite as a young girl — and talked about how much has changed since her early visits. After enjoying a round of “Happy Birthday” and a centenarian-worthy cupcake, Jinny was ready to get outside. And so she headed to Happy Isles for a walk along the river, 94 years after her first visit.
Jinny grew up with the park. She shared her love for Yosemite with generations of family, friends and visitors from all over. She has stories that can make you grin, gasp and, at times, shake your head in disbelief. Over the past century, she’s seen the park evolve, with management practices shifting in response to new knowledge and increased visitation.
In all that time, the landscape — the granite peaks and domes, the roaring waterfalls, the dancing creeks and rivers — has remained constant, a familiar companion always ready to welcome her.
Now in her 27th year as a Conservancy donor, Jinny is furthering efforts to ensure that others can create their own memories in a place that has played such a central role in her life. When asked why she has supported the park for so many years, she has a simple, perfect answer: “I can’t imagine not having it.”
Neither can we. Thank you, Jinny — and happy 100th birthday!
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Virginia Corneliussen and Dian Corneliussen-James.