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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.

1.5 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. VOLCANOES


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 pygmy mammoths.


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 reeds 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, photographers 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.

Come 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.