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Yosemite National Park Celebrates 150 Years of Splendor
Yosemite National Park's Lower and Middle Young Lakes near Rugged Peak.
Credit: National Park Service

The most stunning granite gorge in the western United States was protected 150 years ago today (June 30), by a bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War.

The Yosemite Grant Act set aside Yosemite Valley's amazing cliffs and rushing waterfalls, and the Mariposa Grove's towering sequoias, for public use and recreation "for all time."

The preservation of Yosemite Valley cleared the way for the national park movement in the United States, according to the National Park Service. The Yosemite high country became the country's third national park in 1890. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt incorporated the original 39,000 acres (158 square kilometers) of protected valley and sequoia trees into Yosemite National Park.

The scenic views are now iconic markers of the American landscape, from Half Dome's polished knob to El Capitan's sheer drop. More than 3 million people visit Yosemite National Park annually, according to the National Park Service. [8 Amazing National Park Structures]

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Credit: National Park Service

Yosemite is a popular tourist attraction because visitors can drive straight to the stunning views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Mirror Lake, Yosemite Meadows and the giant sequoias. But the park also provides many opportunities to escape from the crowds, on backcountry hiking trails in the high sierra.

Park officials plan to celebrate the anniversary with a ceremony in the park today. Officials will also kick off a new project to restore calm and quiet to California's Mariposa Grove. The two-year project will move the current parking lot, rebuild hiking trails that are hurting roots and add flush toilets.

Along with Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite's incredible natural landscape inspired Congress to create the National Park Service in 1916 to ensure the protection of these and other pristine sites across the country.

Over the years, much has changed in how lawmakers and park officials define "protection." For example, in 1913, the City of San Francisco won approval to build O'Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was considered as scenic as its neighbor, Yosemite Valley. Today, dams are being taken down along many rivers and streams. And for decades, park managers encouraged bears to feed at park garbage dumps, as a way to draw tourists. Now, within park boundaries, every scrap of food is kept locked in bear-proof containers.

For more information on Yosemite's anniversary, visit the National Park Service's anniversary website.

Editor's Note: If you have an amazing national park or general science photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Jeanna Bryner at LSphotos@livescience.com.

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook and Google+. Original article at Live Science's Our Amazing Planet.