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A Trip to the Yosemite Falls

Newspaper account of an early tourist party to Yosemite Valley

Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell was a member of the Yosemite Batallion, who were the first white men to enter Yosemite Valley in 1851, while pursuing the Yosemite band of Indians. Later, he guided an early tourist party to Yosemite Valley in July 1856. The first tourist party was at least a year earlier. The following newspaper account of the visit, though unsigned, was probably written by Warren Baer, editor of the Mariposa Democrat. It was the first extensive description of Yosemite Valley. It was published in the Mariposa Democrat for August 5, 1856 and reprinted again July 23, 1857. The newspaper article has been reprinted as “Early Days in Yosemite,” California Historical Society Quarterly 1(3):271-285 (Jan. 1922), with an introduction by Ansel F. Hall. Most of the newspaper article is also reprinted in Peter Browning’s Yosemite Place Names (1988), along with other early visitor accounts.

The “R. B. Lamon” in the article is Robert Bruce Lamon, who led the first tourist party in 1854, was a California legislator from Mariposa County in 1856 (American party), and is the brother of James C. Lamon. James would later, in 1859, be the first European settler in Yosemite Valley.

Digitized by Dan Anderson, 2004, from a copy in the UCSD Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.
    —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us


[by Warren Baer, Mariposa Democrat, August 5, 1856]

This day two weeks, in company with Dr. L. H. Bunnell, we left the good town of Mariposa to the Yosemite Falls, nothing doubting that the sure-footed little pony so kindly furnished by Mr. Vandyke, of this town, would safely carry us over hill and dale to our lofty destination, near the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Towards night, we suddenly came in view of the advanced members of our party, who had succeeded in obtaining an early start on the morning of the same day, but who had mistaken their trail, and had spent several hours wandering through the woods in search of it. As soon as we were espied, our presence was greeted with welcome shouts of joy, when we encamped for the night, and next day resumed our tramp for the Valley.

We numbered six in all, viz: Madame Gautier and Mr. Frank Williams, our hostess and host of that comfortable hotel, the Union; Mr. Craft, Mr. Franklin, and our agreeable guide, Bunnell, and our humble selves. The Chowchilla was soon crossed, and that night we encamped amid stately pines and tapering firs, some twelve miles from the Valley. We were a merry and a happy crowd, and excellent fare added to our enjoyment. We had all formed and expressed our ideas as regards the shape and extent of the Valley, and the character of the scenery on which we were to feast our sight.

But let us on to the Valley, which we reached after a hurried ride of four hours from our last camping ground. We acknowledged our inability to convey even a faint idea of the accumulated mass of grandeur and loveliness that gradually unfolds itself to the startled gaze of the eager traveler. Even now with feelings of awe and veneration we recall the gorgeous array of the vast and wonderful combined in this superb display of the beautiful and the sublime. The hand is not yet formed that, with pen, pencil, or brush, can portray even a reflection of the excessive majesty of aspect that prominently fronts the vision of the shrinking visitor. We travel to foreign climes to obtain a sight of what travelers have written of—some renowned falls, mountains or rivers—or landscapes amid the Alps of Switzerland or the valleys of Italy. We eagerly seek after books wherein some novice traveler has magnified the sight-seeings of Europe, many of which possess no wonderful attributes of greatness, save in the mind of the traveler, that will compare with the scenery, separately or in whole, of the Yosemite Valley.

We came suddenly, abruptly in view of the Valley; and then commenced our descent of the mountain, following a narrow and winding trail, until we reached the plain below. There was no danger in our path, and if there had been, we would not have regarded it, for our eyes were riveted upon the scenery that was imperceptibly spreading and brightening as we descended the trail. A little way from the top of where we began to go down the mountain, stands a pine tree, opposite to a very large bold rock. On this tree you will find a sign or blaze. The mark was placed there by Mr. Peterson, the Engineer of the Mariposa and Yosemite Water Company. It defines the height of the first falls visible from this point, and which appears, at this distance off, like a white ribbon hung over a precipice. There was a break in the timber before us, which afforded a full view of the Valley. We hope no one will attribute to us designing motives, to draw travel through this country, or treat our description of the Valley as the ravings of a wild enthusiast,—because we have no other object in view than to make known to those afar off, who may have never heard of this Valley, what a wilderness of majestic beauty they have yet to explore within the limits of our own State.

As though the enchantress of the woods had suddenly waved her magic wand o’er the mountains, was this fairy scenery opened to our view. Thrilling sensations of awe pervaded our senses, which, as we approached, gradually subsided into pleasurable emotions of wonder and delight, similar to those produced upon the soul by distant music echoing amid the hills and valleys in the quiet hours of midnight. Through the blue haze that lingered o’er the scene, we traced the bold outlines of the towering peaks of the distant range of the Sierra Nevada; while before us, or rather beneath us, spread the verdant Valley of the Yosemite, encased in lofty and picturesque walls of granite, and fertilized by the transparent waters of the Middle Fork of the Merced River. As we approached, the blue haze grew fainter and thinner, seeming to fade from the rocks we neared, only to thicken in density on the more distant summits, that ever and anon were opening to our gaze. Vainly, with attentive mind, we endeavored to catch the first sound of animated nature. We saw the cascade leaping from its precipitous terminus into the depths below. We knew that the river was flowing beneath us. Yet we heard not the voice of either. Hushed was the cooing of the grouse, and still was the moan of the turtledove. The spell of silence was flung o’er stream and hill, and we appeared like intruders into the realm of Nature’s secret repose. In contemplating the grandeur of the scene, the imagination recoils back upon itself, content to follow the reach of vision, completely paralyzed by the magnitude of the expanding vista, Down, down we go, twisting, winding with the path, until we reach the meadow below. And now we first hear the gentle roar of the river, and feel the freshening breeze of the Valley. Glorious Spring was here, quickening Nature with her smiling presence, and lulling her to repose with her sportive zephyrs, sighing through the trees; while around, above, and before us—anywhere and everywhere—was written the majesty of God; and our hearts bowed in all humility to the magnitude of his greatness. Change, the handmaid of Time, was most impressively on the face of the stupendous precipices, and by the crumbling ruins scattered near their base. When first entering the Valley, the mind becomes stupefied by the immensity of the grandness to which it is opposed. Soon it begins to admire points of beauty in the rocks, or in the trees growing from the crevices of their perpendicular sides. And thus commencing with small objects, it slowly and gradually arrives at a contemplation of some particular height, and finally meditates upon their combined grandeur, blended in one universal harmony of perfect sublimity. Thus we rode along, glancing from summit to summit of towering rocks, until proceeding for about a mile and a half up stream, we came opposite the falls of what has been inappropriately called the Cascade of the Rainbow. [Editor’s note: Bridalveil Falls] We say this not to reflect upon the judgment of the gentleman who has ventured to bestow this fanciful name upon one of the most attractive cascades of the Valley. But inasmuch as the falls in the Valley are never of the magnitude of a cataract, and all reflect rainbows at certain hours of the day, the name might be promiscuously applied to all the cascades separately. This fall of water is nearly opposite to the famous giant of the valley, El Capitan. The stream of water which supplies it, rises in the ridge of mountains that divides the South from the Main Fork of the Merced River, and is one of the latter’s tributaries. The volume of water running over the precipice will average, in summer, about three cubic feet per second, and is precipitated in an unbroken sheet of spray, and without an opposing obstacle, to a depth of 928 feet below, where the stream unites with the river, after coming through a narrow channel for a distance of three hundred yards. Viewed from any quarter or point of the horizon, this cascade is very attractive. To our mind, it resembles a cambric veil, of ample folds, of the finest texture, the purest whiteness, and fringed with silver fleece or silken floss. Sitting beside the cherry trees, at some fifty yards from the falls, we were singularly struck with the graceful motion of the water in its descent, when pressed by the breeze. Its foldings and unfoldings—its wavings and its twistings—its contractings and expandings-possess an irresistibly attractive fascination, beyond any object on which we have ever gazed, and one, too, from which the eyes are drawn with the greatest reluctance. At night, when our trip recurs to our mind, we muse on its loveliness, until we again hear the noise of its waters in their fall, and see the rainbows that follow its wanderings through the air, in its downward search for the earth and the Valley. We make bold to call it the Bridal Veil; and those who may have the felicity to witness the stream floating in the embrace of the morning breeze will acknowledge the resemblance, and perhaps pardon the liberty we have taken in attempting to apply so poetical a name to this Queen of the Valley. Nearly opposite to the Bridal Veil stands the Monarch of the Vale, the El Capitan of the Yosemite Tribe. It is the terminus of a ridge of mountains, standing out in bold relief, with perpendicular front, and rising to an elevation of 3100 feet above the level of the river that roars at his base. His stern and prominent front is the first to greet the eye of the visitor. He almost seemed to frown on us as we passed near his base; and on his bleached and rugged visage, the last beams of the setting sun linger with affectionate warmth. This monster of rocks stands on the left-hand side of the Valley as you go up the stream, and adjoining him looms up, with a broad, oval top, the Signal Rock, on which the Yosemites lit their signal fires in the hour of danger. The El Capitan projects further out towards the middle of the Valley than any of his kindred, and eclipses all of them for huge proportions and lofty bearing, and is some three hundred feet higher than the Signal Rock. Opposite the Signal Rock stand three sharp-pointed peaks, almost in the position of a triangle. They are jagged, and change their shape and location when viewed from different points. They are the Three Brothers; and further up the Valley, beyond them, and slightly thrown back or in the rear of the Brothers, are the Twins or Two Sisters. They cannot be mistaken, for though, when looking down through the Valley, they seem as a single rock, yet when nearly fronting them, they present two sharp projecting points, and are worthy of attention from the great resemblance they bear to each other.

The Yosemite Falls now make their appearance on the left-hand side of the Valley as you follow up the stream; while directly opposite these Falls stands the Pyramid Rock, [Editor’s note: Sentinel Rock] which, when seen from a distance, is shaped and squared like a pyramid, but when viewed from its front, presents a flat, smooth surface. At the base of this huge monster stands a board house, [Editor’s note: Later, “Barnard’s,” “Cook’s,” and “Leidig’s” Hotel] of eighteen by twenty feet in length, without floor or chimney. Near this house we stopped for the night, and prepared our supper, which we ate with a hearty good relish; and after tracing the dim white line of the Yosemite Falls, which front the house on the North, and bowing in silent reverence to the Pyramid on the South, we closed our eyes for the night, and joyfully greeted the morning sun, which, when we awoke, was cheek by jowl with our friend El Capitan.

Our breakfast was soon finished, when, mounting our horses, we crossed over to the north bank of the river, and after pacing along through the luxuriant fern leaves, and elastic meadow grass, for the distance of from four to five hundred yards, we arrived at the foot of the Yosemite Falls—when, alighting from our saddles, we visited the Falls, and stood directly under the falling waters, until the dampness of the floating spray admonished us that we were scrutinizing too closely into the secrets of Nature. The whole height of these Falls is 2600 feet. Its first leap is over 1500 feet. The stream then runs foaming and roaring down a stony, steep channel, and then makes another leap of 400 feet, until it reaches a perpendicular height of 600 feet above the Valley, when, at this season of the year, it splashes, or rather drags itself down the sides of the rock, into its wide basin below. The Rapids between these Falls are nearly three quarters of a mile in length. When on the top, you can descend by a ravine, and come out under the first Falls.

It requires that one should be several hundred yards distant to justly appreciate the great elevation of this, the highest, and, during the month of May, the grandest of all the cascades. The impression made on the mind of the beholder is, that it partakes more of the wonderful than the sublime. The water of the last runs, or rather springs, over the precipice, with a languid splash, striking upon a projecting bunch of a hard strata of rock, which, when the stream above is full, it freely overleaps with great force, and in an unbroken fall.

Bidding adieu to the favorite Falls of the Yosemite Indians, we continued our tramp up the left-hand bank of the river, toward the broad and glistening front of the Sentinel Rock, [Editor’s note: South Dome or Half Dome] at whose base the three branches of the Merced River join together; and opposite to which stands the North Dome, and behind which the South Dome [Editor’s note: Clouds Rest] rears its ponderous, towering pinnacle, unrivaled in majesty, unequaled in height, and unsurpassed in solidified grandeur—being 3300 feet from the river to the knob of the Dome. The Sentinel Rock stands at the head of the Valley, and is equally as prominent, from its position, as El Capitan. It conveys an idea of massive magnificence, and, when viewed from either side, affords an ample view of the tremendous height of its top, and the vast dimensions of its base. Keeping it on our right, we rode along the north branch of the main stream for a mile, until we reached Mirror Lake, on whose placid surface the whole of the surrounding heights were reflected, with a distinctness and a clearness unrivaled in beauty by the substantial precipices which enclose it. The water is over ten feet in depth in the center of this Lake, and has a greenish tinge—covers an area of eight acres, and is formed by the waters which flow from Lake Ten-nay-ia, some fifteen miles north of the Valley, and which have been dammed up by a fallen mass of rocks from the craggy steeps of the Sentinel Rock. We saw a great number of trout swimming near the surface of the water, and succeeded in shooting one while basking in the sunshine.

Leaving the Lake, we returned to the junction of the streams, and keeping the Sentinel Rock on our left, we dismounted from our horses, and followed the middle tributary of the river, up a narrow and rocky gorge, for a distance of nearly two miles, when we were brought in contact with the Vernal Falls. A grove of pine-trees stand clustering around the foot of the Falls, and a large pine stands like a sentinel directly in front of the descending stream. Everything is moist and green, and the surrounding mountains enclose the stream with a graceful slope, forming a small and almost perfect amphitheatre. The water falls in one unbroken sheet, over a level, perpendicular height of 350 feet; and then following a rugged, narrow and steep channel, it roaringly wends its way to the foot of the Sentinel Rock. Here the ideal and the beautiful prevail. An exquisite thrill of pleasure pervades the senses. The stream glides over the wall above with an easy gracefulness that fills the soul with admiration. All is soft, uniform and subduing. Nothing is boisterous, irregular or misplaced.

Oh! ever green thy vale remain,
    And sweet the music of thy flow;
Nor ever strife thy waters stain,
    Or dim the luster of thy bow.

These Falls are viewed from a ledge of rocks some seventy-five yards from where the water strikes the bottom in its descent. The stream runs between the observer and the foot of the Falls. From this point you turn your back directly upon the falling water, and scrambling up the mountain before your face, hugging the ridge as closely as possible, and tugging and pulling your body up the insecure steep, you reach an Indian trail. Following this path, which turns to the left through a gap in the mountain, your feet soon press a wide plateau; and from this point the beauty and the magnificence of the scenery is beyond conception. Nature is here triumphant over Art and Genius. Before you rises in stupendous grandeur the towering summit of the South Dome, [Editor’s note: Half Dome] the highest and the most prodigious mass of solid rock in the Valley. The North Dome is more perfect in rotundity, but fails to fill the mind with so grand an idea of immensity. Side by side, between the Dome and the Nevada Falls, stand three pointed conical rocks [Editor’s note: Half Dome (South Dome), Mount Broderick, and Liberty Cap] –that nearest the water-fall being called the Sugar Loaf. [Editor’s note: Liberty Cap] The opening be the first pillar and the Dome affords a beautiful view of a pointed mountain, [Editor’s note: Clouds Rest] which is also seen from Lake Mirror. This addition to the scene fills up the measure of awful sublimity, that startles the imagination, and renders it powerless to describe. To the right, fair in view, gently roars the Nevada Falls, descending over a perpendicular wall or embattlement of 800 feet from the stream, where the water appears as though blown over the cliff in minute particles of foam, as white and as light as the driven snow before some wintry blast. It is the Snow Drift. Here we had the beautiful and the sublime so gracefully and magnificently blended in one harmonious whole, that the “’Divinity was stirred within us"—when, closing our eyes for a moment upon the vast and splendid array of Nature’s mightiness, we confessed our weakness, and in mute silence acknowledged the wonders and goodness of the One Eternal and Supreme “I am!” Descending with cautious and sliding steps down from this plateau for a distance of three hundred yards, you come to a transparent sheet of water, [Editor’s note: Emerald Pool] covering two acres of land. It is a hollow basin, and lies equidistant between the Nevada Falls and where the stream pitches off the ledge, and makes the Vernal Falls.

The Vernal and the Nevada Falls are both made by the same stream, and the distance between the two is about one-half of a mile. This Lake has been called “Frances,” in honor of Mrs. Jane Frances Neal—she being the first lady who had visited this Lake, and who speaks of the landscape as having fully repaid her for all the fatigue she endured in ascending to the plateau. Let no one attempt to change the name, but rather add some other record of her courage and her love of the beautiful and grand.

Leaving the Nevada Falls, you follow the stream as it runs first over a smooth, oval floor of granite, widening and spreading as it glides along, until it reaches Lake Frances. Here you sit down for a while, and watch for trout, but none are visible, and you continue to follow the stream after it leaves the Lake until it leaps over the brink; and then, resting on a balustrade of pure granite rock, you lean over and see the water as it precipitates itself down, away down below—making the Vernal the most graceful of cascades. Diamond drops flash and gleam on the surface of the descending stream, and rainbows play around its landing place. You shudder while you bend over the balustrade, but soon, attracted by the beauty beneath, your fear is changed to admiration, and you mount the rock, as did Mrs. Neal, and proudly exulting, can inwardly exclaim, that of all the piles of grace and grandeur that check the range of vision, there is none so great as this. It is a magnificent amphitheater, and the splendors of Nature’s works are no where on earth manifested with such impressive richness and profusion as are here emblazoned in her giant aspect.

We left the Valley with regret, and as we ascended the mountain we took one last, fond, lingering look on the noblest and fairest scenery in the world—the equal of which we may never look upon again.

The trail leading to the Valley is free from rocks, and water, cold, pure and refreshing, can be had at convenient distances along the trail. The path is shaded by tapering firs and pines of enormous size, and is almost a direct line to the Valley. By turning off to the right-hand from the trail, say about two miles before you begin to descend into the Valley, and following a path along the mountain, the visitor can obtain a fair view of three of the Falls in the Valley, from the summits where the streams pitch over the precipices; and also enjoy a beautiful view of the Yosemite Falls. For four miles up the stream that forms Mirror Lake, the scenery becomes awfully vast and terrifically grand—the rocks running up to sharp, jagged points, and towering the air to a fearful height. There are Falls [Editor’s note: Illilouette Fall] on the South stream leading into the Valley, which are about 900 feet in height, but difficult of access—a visitor having to climb over boulders all the way

Madame Gautier, who accompanied our party, was the first white woman who visited the Valley, and to her, and our kind host of the Union, we return our sincere thanks for their kindness; and also to our friend Bunnell, for his attention.

Below we give the distances from the various prominent points:

From Mariposa to the Valley, by trail of Messrs. Mann Brothers, miles 40
From the end of the trail ot the head of the Valley, and the base of the Sentinel Rock   8 1/2
From the end of the trail ot the Bridal Veil   1 1/2
From the Bridal Veil to the Yosemite Falls   4
From the Yosemite Falls to the head of the Falley   3
From the head of the Valley to the Vernal Falls   1 1/2
From the Vernal Falls, around up the mountain, winding round by the plateau, to the Nevada Falls   1 1/2

L. A. Holmes, Esq., editor of the Mariposa Gazette, and the Hon. R. B. Lamon, fully agree with us in the above estimate of the respective distances.


From the descriptions we had heard in regard to the shape and extent of the Valley, we had conceived the idea that it was a long, narrow canyon, with perpendicular rocks, the sides formed by the river’s having worn or cut a channel by the constant wearing away of some softer strata of the base or bed rock, which the stream encountered in its course. In this we were most agreeably surprised. The Valley, beginning from where the Mann Brothers trail [Editor’s note: later the Mariposa Trail] terminates at the foot of the mountain, and ending at the Sentinel Rock, at the head of the Valley, is something over eight miles in length, and will average three quarters of a mile in width. The Middle or Main Fork of the Merced River winds smoothly, with a gentle flow, between the high, perpendicular walls of granite rock, in places nearing the bases of some of the more projecting and prominent points. At the foot of the precipices are strewn fragments of rocks which have fallen from the cliffs above, displaced by the action of the frosts, or scaled off from the inaccessible sides. The stream gracefully meanders through a large area of meadow-land, which, in places, is covered with a thick growth of fern and shrubbery. Here grows the oak, the fir, the hemlock, the nutmeg, the pine, the maple, the cedar, the spruce, the laurel, the arrow-wood, the elder, the cherry, the plum, the poplar, the balsam, the dog-wood, and the willow. We carefully, yet vainly, sought for the wide-spreading beech tree; but we were amply repaid for this disappointment—our search revealing the bearberry, the raspberry, the strawberry, the gooseberry, and the serviceberry. Of flowers, we found many varieties, from the rose to the honeysuckle, and many plants which we never before remember having seen. The cherries were yet green, but the berries we obtained in great abundance, and found them to possess a delicious flavor. The fruit-trees and the berry-bushes were vigorously flowering on the south bank of the river, on which the snow remains longest in spring, and where the beams of the sun seldom reach. This was readily accounted for by our guide, from the fact that the Valley runs nearly due East and West in its course between the precipices, and that the fruit-trees, nourished and stimulated by the vital beams of the sun during the day, were nipped in their bloom by the blasting frosts of night. The temperature of the atmosphere would range, probably, during the day, in the shade, at seventy-six degrees of Fahrenheit; at night, the air is cool and refreshing. At the head of the Valley, three streams unite, and form the river that fertilizes its meadows. They are nearly all of a size—one being the stream that forms the Vernal and Nevada Falls—the other coming from Lake Ten-nay-ia, fifteen miles northeast of the Valley—and third from the Falls some five miles south of the junction of the streams at the base of the Sentinel Rock.

It appears evident, from an examination of the opposing fronts of the precipices, that at some period of time the mountain was joined in one continuous connection, and that all the streams that supply the Falls with water were united in one river, which was precipitated over an immense height or ridge of the mountain, at or near the top of the El Capitan rock, at the entrance of the present Valley; and that the mountain has been torn asunder by contracting influences, while the globe was in a state of refrigeration. If such is really the case, then when this dividing of the mountain took place, an immense chasm or lake must have been formed, which has been gradually filled up by the debris brought down by the streams, when swelled by the melting of the snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and also by the falling boulders from the heights above. We see nothing to justify the supposition that the stream encountered a soft strata of rock in its course to the Plains, and that by continual wearing, the present bed of the river was formed. Judging from the dry channels leading from the foot of the Falls of the Bridal Veil and the Yosemite Falls, the water falling from their summits, in early Spring, must be twenty times increased in volume, and the Yosemite especially must partake more of the nature of a cataract than a cascade. By the erection of steps up the perpendicular side of the Vernal Falls, the laborious ascent of the mountain, to visit the Nevada Falls, might be avoided, and thus be rendered accessible to ladies, without fatigue or risk.

Here, then, we end our task, as conscious now as when we began this attempt, of our inability to do justice to the scene. Perhaps some poet may arise, who, in verse or prose, may, in some happy moment, stamp a page with the seal of genius, and reflect the glories of the Yosemite Valley, whose every rock is an object of study and of wonder.

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