Welcome to Explore the California Backcountry
Over 100 million years ago, the California Backcountry was a very different
landscape than the tall mountains, majestic
granite rock faces or sculpted sandstone cliffs we see today on the eastern
and western edges of the state. 100 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean
waters lapped the shores of a much lower Sierra Nevada mountain range,
and left fossils, such as AMMONITE sea creatures, in shallow seabeds.
115 million years ago, DINOSAURS roamed areas of California's young mountains
in the northern Cascades, and dinosaurs swam in the Pacific waters that
filled what is now the entire Central Valley.
The coastal mountains had not yet even been
formed, and today we find fossils of seashells along their trails, left
when those young mountains were still the seabeds of the Pacific Ocean.
And off the coast of California, the islands we see today were not yet
formed - their emergence from the sea comes in more recent time.
million years ago the earth went through an ice age. The dinosaurs had
disappeared 63.5 million years before, and the landscape of California
was changing again. The earth's crust was moving in large plates, some
being pushed down under others, giving rise to mountains and changing
the sea levels slowly over thousands of years. The Cascade to the north,
the Sierra Nevada to the east and the coastal ranges were rising and would
eventually block out the once tropical ocean waters from the central valley.
were bubbling forth lava in the sea and on
the mainland 200,000 years ago, in much more recent times than the dinosaurs
or ammonites of the Sierras and Cascades, the islands off the shore of
Southern California were formed and the northern three islands were one
large island now called Santarosae.
Out on those islands, on a northern island we now call Santa Rosa, the
remains of the earliest human life scientists have discovered in North
America has been found, dating to 13,000 BC. By this much more recent
time WOOLY MAMMOTHS were roaming California, some swimming out to the
islands and over time changing from giant Imperial Mammoths to much smaller
As humans crossed the Bering land bridge to
the north, and migrated down into North America, many tribes settled in
California. Over 100 different tribes lived in California as First People,
some being original settlers, others migrating from the Great Basin area
as recently as 2,000 years ago.
California' FIRST PEOPLE were generally a peaceful people who understood
how to harvest natural resources to create a prosperous and contented
life for their villages.
In the Sierras, some lived in conical huts
made from tree bark, in costal and river areas they made homes from tule
layered on a wooden pole dome frame. Out on the islands they used whalebones
and sea grass mats for shelter. The California Backcountry saw these First
Peoples arrive, and it provided them with acorns for flour, grass seeds,
wild game, warm furs, and salmon and trout in its rushing rivers. GRIZZLY
BEAR and wolves still lived in the backcountry, raising their young and
living through the harshest winter snows in the deepest recesses of the
backcountry where First People only ventured in the summer months.
With the arrival of the first EUROPEAN EXPLORERS in the 1500s, and their
return to build coastal missions in the late 1700s, the face of the California
Backcountry was destined to change once again. MOUNTAIN MEN and trappers
were the first to hike the 10,000-year-old Indian trails that crossed
the backcountry at the beginning of the 1800s. SETTLERS soon began crossing
the mountains in wagons in search of farmland in the 1840s, and by the
1850s, news of the discovery of gold in the California backcountry had
spread around the world.
The peaceful years of backcountry living
would never be the same again. With the discovery of gold came thousands
of hopeful individual prospectors combing the foothills and deeper mountains;
then later came the large mechanized hydraulic mining operations that
wiped out entire mountainsides searching for gold. And then came the railroad,
blasting its way through the Sierras and cascades to link the new state
to the rest of the United States.
For the Native Americans, these years were nearly totally devastating.
While they had avoided the disease and loss of cultural practices experienced
along the coast during the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho era, 1769-1850,
the arrival of the MINERS and RAILROADS brought near total destruction
to their native way of life. Those not killed by disease, or wiped out
in raids by greedy miners who wanted their lands, moved to reservation
where life lost nearly all-familiar experiences. Native ways had seen
over 10,000 years of peaceful hunting and gathering across their backcountry
homelands, trade systems between tribes that passed mountain products
to valley tribes, and seashells and valley products back into the mountains.
With the arrival of the settlers and miners, that way of life was completely
disrupted, their land were lost, and only in recent years have the descendents
of these First People found it possible to return to the arts, crafts,
and practices of their ancestors.
With the arrival of the mountain men, settlers, and miners, also came
a constant flow of young men and women who would soon become famous writers,
and painters. Their adventurous explorations of the backcountry, from
the mining camps to the still unspoiled Yosemite Valley, has given us
exciting, humorous, and insightful records of the 19th century California
Backcountry. MARK TWAIN camped out at Lake Tahoe and made his fame recording
tales from the mining camps. BRET HARTE and JOAQUIN MILLER were California
writers working before Twain who also made their fame recording the rough
and tumble life of these early California settlement years. ROBERT LOUIS
STEVENSON followed the woman he hoped to marry from Europe to California,
and camped out in the mountains as he waited for her hand in marriage.
Once married, they honeymooned in a tumbled down miners shack in the mountains,
with poison oak creeping up through the floorboards. JACK LONDON, a California
writer who lived in the state, wrote stories of adventurers in the backcountry,
and chose to settle on a ranch in Northern California. And perhaps the
greatest adventurer of all, JOHN MUIR, devoted his life to the exploration,
appreciation, and protection of the California Backcountry.
The PHOTOGRAPHERS and PAINTERS who explored the backcountry have left
us with enduring images of turn-of-the-century California Backcountry.
From the massive granite peaks of Yosemite Valley, to the mysteries of
light across vast mountain chains, these paintings raised eastern American
awareness of the splendor, beauty, and rarity that were the treasures
of the California Backcountry. Their photographs and paintings, along
with the poetry and stories of their contemporaries, shaped the American
view of the west, and many contributed towards the preservation of California's
natural wonders by encouraging Congress to form the National Park System.
Today the California Backcountry can still be explored, there remains
wilderness rich with wildlife, and although the plants and animals may
have changed since America took this land as a state, the awe and mystery
of the wild lands is still available to remind us of the states millions
of years of GEOLOGIC, PLANT and ANIMAL, and human histories that have
shaped this fascinating land.
with us now, and learn more about these different time periods, about
the animals, people, and plants who have inhabited the California Backcountry.
Let us experience the respect and reverence for the natural wonders known
by the native peoples, and let us understand the impact the different
forms of settlement have had on the land and its resources. With this
knowledge, we can better understand how to protect these important places
for the benefit of future generations, and we can, ourselves greatly enjoy
the art, life, and adventure the backcountry holds for each of us today.