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The Flora of the Region of the Yosemite—General Description of the Valley and its Principal Points of Interest, with their Heights.
A marked and peculiar feature observed in the landscape of the Merced River slopes, while going to the Yosemite, especially on the Coultersville route, is the dense growth of the chamiso and the manzanita. These shrubs are found most abundant below the altitude of the growth of sugar-pine, upon dry, slaty ground; though a larger variety of manzanita, distinguishable by its larger blossoms and fruit, and its love of shade and moist clay-slate soil, may be found growing even among the sugar-pine. A peculiarity of this shrub is, that like the Madroña and some trees in Australia, it sheds a portion of its outer bark annually, leaving its branches beautifully bright and clean. The manzanita, when in full bloom, is one of the most beautiful of shrubs; its delicately tinted and fragrant blossoms filling the air with the perfume of an apple-orchard, while its rich evergreen leaves are only shed as others put forth. The name, manzanita, is Spanish, signifying little apple—the fruit in flavor, but more especially in smell, resembling the apple.
These chamiso and manzanita thickets are almost impenetrable to large animals, except the California lion and grizzly bear. At certain seasons of the year, during their trips to and from the High Sierras, when the berries are ripe, these coverts are the resort of such visitors. The grizzly comes to indulge his fondness for the little apples, and the lion (how hath the mighty fallen!) to feed upon the wood-rats, mice and rabbits that he surprises in these furzy thickets. Occasionally a deer, as he comes along unconscious of danger, but too near the feline lair, is pounced upon by the lion, or perhaps a stray horse or mule may fall a victim; but in no case dare the lion attack his savage associate the bear, or any of his progeny.
In going to the Yosemite by way of the Mariposa route, after reaching the summit of the gap or pass in the “Black Ridge” or Chow-chilla mountain, over which the Mariposa route passes, to the South Fork of the Merced River, the yellow pine, the sugar pine, the Douglass fir and two other species of fir, are seen in all their glory. Here, too, is to be found the variety of white or yellow cedar (Libo cedrus decurrens), growing to a size not seen at a less altitude, unless perhaps on the north side of some spur from these mountains. If the ridge be followed to the right as far as the Big Trees, instead of descending the road to the South Fork, some very large pine, cedar and fir trees will be seen, in addition to the great attraction, the Sequoia.
At the time I first passed over this route there was but a dim Indian trail; now, a very good stage or wagon-road occupies it. As the descent to the South Fork is commenced, dogwood will be observed growing at the head of a little mountain brook that has its source in the pass, together with willows and other small growths of trees and shrubs. The “bush-honeysuckle,” when in bloom, is here especially beautiful; and several fragrant-blossomed shrubs will attract attention—the kalmia, especially. The forest on this route is equaled by few in California, and it extends to the Yosemite almost uninterrupted, except by the river and a few mountain meadows. The Coultersville route also affords like views of uninterrupted forest, even to the verge of the valley, but confined as the trail was when it was first made to the narrow divide, one could not so well appreciate the beauty of the trees while looking down upon their tops as he would while riding among them. A few sequoias can be seen on this route, near Hazel Green and near Crane Flat.
Mr. Greeley says: “The Sierra Nevadas lack the glorious glaciers, the frequent rains, the rich verdure, the abundant cataracts of the Alps, but they far surpass them; they surpass any other mountains I ever saw, in wealth and grace of trees. Look down from almost any of their peaks, and your range of vision is filled, bounded, satisfied, by what might be termed a tempest-tossed sea of evergreens, filling every upland valley, covering every hillside, crowning every peak but the highest with their unfading luxuriance.
“That I saw, during this day’s travel, many hundreds of pines eight feet in diameter, with cedars at least six feet, I am confident; and there were miles of such and smaller trees of like genus, standing as thick as they could grow. Steep mountain sides, allowing these giants, to grow rank above rank, without obstructing each other’s sunshine, seem peculiarly favorable to the production of these serviceable giants. But the summit meadows are peculiar in their heavy fringe of balsam fir of all sizes, from those barely one foot high to those hardly less than two hundred; their branches surrounding them in collars, their extremities gracefully bent down by weight of winter snows, making them here, I am confident, the most beautiful trees on earth. The dry promontories which separate these meadows are also covered with a species of spruce, which is only less graceful than the firs aforesaid. I never before enjoyed such a tree-feast as on this wearying, difficult ride.”
Had Mr. Greeley taken more time, it would not have been so wearying to himself or mule. He rode sixty miles, on one mule the day he went to the Yosemite, but his observations of what he saw are none the less just and valuable, though but few of the pine trees will measure eight feet in diameter. It is true, probably, that few forests in the United States are so dense and beautiful in variety as those seen on the old Mariposa route to the Yosemite by way of the meadows of the Pohono Summit. About these meadows the firs especially attract attention, from the uniform or geometrical regularity their branches assume. No landscape gardener could produce such effects as are here freely presented by the Great Architect of the universe for the admiration of his wayward children. Here in this region will also be found the California tamarack pine, and a variety of pine somewhat resembling the Norway pine, called Pinus Jeffreyi. There is still another pine, to be found only on the highest ridges and mountains, that may be said to mark the limit of arbol vegetation; this dwarf is known as pinus albicaulis, and could it but adapt itself to a lower altitude, and retain its dense and tangled appearance, it would make good hedge-rows.
Professor Whitney speaks of still another one of the pine family, growing about the head of King’s and Kern Rivers, which he calls pinus aristata, and says it only grows on those highest peaks of the Sierras, although it is also found in the Rocky Mountains. Of the more noticeable undergrowth of these mountain forests and their borders, besides grasses, sedges, ferns, mosses, lichens, and various plants that require a better knowledge of botany than I possess to describe properly, may be mentioned the California lilac and dogwood, the latter of which is frequently seen growing along the mountain streams, and in the Yosemite. It grows in conjunction with alder, willow, poplar, or balm of Gilead, and a species of buckthorn. In isolated patches the Indian arrow-wood is found. This wood is almost without pith, and warps but little in drying. For these qualities and the uniformity of its growth, it was especially esteemed for arrow-shafts; although sprouts from other shrubs and trees were also used.
It will have been observed, while going to the Yosemite, that the chimaso, white-oak and digger-pine are upon the southern slopes, while the thickets of mountain-ash, shrub or Oregon maple, and shrub live-oak, chinquepin and trailing blue and white ceanothus and snow plant are found upon the north side of the ridges, except when found at a greater altitude than is usual for their growth. On descending into the Yosemite, the visitor will at once notice and welcome the variety of foliage.
Upon the highest lands grow pine, fir, cedar, spruce, oak and shrubs. In the meadows and upon open ground, according to the richness of the soil and moisture, will be seen flowers and flowering shrubs of great brilliancy and variety.
The whole valley had the appearance of park-like grounds, with trees, shrubbery, flowers and lawns. The larger trees, pines, firs, etc., are of smaller growth than are usually found on the mountain slopes and tables. Still, some are of fair dimensions, rising probably to the height of one hundred and fifty feet or more. One large pine, growing in an alcove upon the wall of Tote-ack-ah-noo-la,—apparently without soil—is quite remarkable. The balm of gilead, alder, dogwood, willow and buck-thorn, lend an agreeable variety to the scenery along the river. Their familiar appearance seem, like old friends, to welcome the eastern visitor to this strange and remarkable locality. The black-oak is quite abundant in the valley and upon the slopes below. It was the source of supply of acorns used by the Yosemites as food, and as an article of traffic with their less favored neighbors east of the Sierras.
Along the river banks and bordering the meadows are found the wild rose, and where the soil is rich, dry and mellow, the wild sunflower grows luxuriantly. Of wild fruits, the red raspberry and strawberry are the only ones worthy of mention, and these are only found in limited quantities. A thornless red raspberry grows upon the mountains, but its blossoms are apt to be nipped by frosts and the plant is not a prolific bearer.
The meadows of the valley are generally moist, and in the springtime boggy. Later in the season they become firmer, and some parts of them where not in possession of sedges, afford an abundant growth of “wild Timothy;” blue joint, Canada red-top and clover. In addition to these nutritious meadow-grasses, there is growing on the coarse granite, sandy land, a hard, tough wire bunch grass unfit for grazing except when quite young. This grass is highly prized by the Indians for making baskets and small mats. Its black seeds were pulverized and used as food, by being converted into mush, or sometimes it was mixed with acorn meal and was then made into a kind of gruel. The common “brake” and many beautiful species of rock ferns and mosses are quite abundant in the shady parts of the valley, and in the cañons, and more especially are they found growing within the influence of the cool, moist air near the falls. Growing in the warm sunlight below El Capitan, may be seen plants common among the foot hills and slaty mountains. Of these plants, the manzanita, the bahia confertiflora and the California poppy are the most conspicuous.
The climatic and geologic or local influences upon vegetation in this part of California, is so remarkable as to continually claim the notice of the tourist, and induce the study of the botanist. So peculiar are the influences of elevation, moisture, temperature and soil, that if these be stated, the flora may be determined with almost unerring certainty, and vice versa, if the flora be designated, the rock’s exposure and mineral character of the soil will be at once inferred. The extreme summer temperature of the valley rises but little over 80° Fahrenheit, during the day, while the nights are always cold enough to make sleeping comfortable under a pair of blankets.
Thus far in narrating the incidents connected with the discovery of the Yosemite, I have not been particularly definite in my descriptions of it. Unconsciously I have allowed myself to assume the position, that this remarkable locality was familiarly known to every one.
From the discovery of the valley to the present day, the wonders of this region of sublimity, have been a source of inspiration to visitors, but none have been able to describe it to the satisfaction of those who followed after them. The efforts that are still made to do so, are conclusive evidences that to the minds of visitors, their predecessors had failed to satisfactorily describe it to their comprehensions; and so it will probably continue, as long as time shall last, for where genius even, would be incompetent, egotism may still tread unharmed.
Realizing this, and feeling my own utter inability to convey to another mind any just conception of the impressions received upon first beholding the valley, I yet feel that a few details and figures should be given with this volume. Prof. J. D. Whitney in his “Yosemite Guide Book” says, in speaking of the history of the discovery and settlement of the Yosemite Valley: “The visit of the soldiers under Captain Boling led to no immediate results in this direction. Some stories told by them on their return, found their way into the newspapers; but it was not until four years later that so far as can be ascertained, any persons visited the valley for the purpose of examining its wonders, or as regular pleasure travelers. It is, indeed, surprising that soremarkable a locality should not sooner have become known; one would suppose that accounts of its cliffs and waterfalls would have spread at once all over the country. Probably they did circulate about California, and were not believed but set down as “travelers’ stories.” Yet these first visitors seem to have been very moderate in their statements, for they spoke of the Yosemite Fall as being “more than a thousand feet high,” thus cutting it down to less than half its real altitude.”
At the time of our discovery, and after the subsequent lengthy visit under Captain Boling, our descriptions of it were received with doubt by the newspaper world, and with comparative indifference by the excited and overwrought public of the golden era. The press usually more than keeps pace with public opinion. Although height and depth were invariably under-estimated by us, our statements were considered “too steep” even for the sensational correspondents, and were by them pronounced exaggerations. These autocrats of public opinion took the liberty to dwarf our estimates to dimensions more readily swallowed by their patrons.
I have made many visits to the Yosemite since “our” long sojourn in it in 1851, and have since that time furnished many items for the press descriptive of that vicinity. My recollections of some of these will be given in another chapter. Although many years have rolled off the calendar of time since the occurrences related in these chapters, no material change has affected that locality. Human agency can not alter the general appearance of these stupendous cliffs and waterfalls.
The picturesque wildness of the valley has since our first visits b visits been to a certain degree toned down by the improvements of civilization. The regions among the foot-hills and mountains that serve as approaches to the valley, where we hunted for savages to make peace with our National Government, now boasts of its ranchos and improvements. The obscure trails which we followed in our explorations, and on which we first entered, have long since been abandoned, or merged into roads or other trails used by the proprietors of the territory in the vicinity. The white man’s civilized improvements have superseded them. Instead of the stormy bivouacs of our first visits, or the canvas of our longer stay, the visitor now has the accommodations of first class hotels with modern improvements. The march of civilization has laid low many of the lofty pines and shady oak trees that once softened the rough grandeur and wildness of the scenery. Stumps, bridges and ladders now mark the progress of improvements. These, however, only affect the ornamental appendages of the scenery—the perishable portion of it alone. The massive granite walls are invulnerable to modern ingenuity of adornment. The trail over which we approached the valley on our first visit was below the more modern trails, and its general course has now been appropriated by the stage road over which the tourist visits the Yosemite. The rocky slabs and stretches down which we then slid and scrambled, have since been graded and improved, so that the descent is made without difficulty.
The “Mariposa Trail” first approached the verge of the cliffs forming the south side of the valley, near what is known as “Mount Beatitude,” or, as the first full view above has been designated, “Inspiration Point”; which is about 3,000 feet above the level of the valley. In a direct line from the commencement of the first descent, to where the trail reaches the valley, the distance is probably less than a mile, but by the trail, it is nearly four miles in a circuitous zigzag westerly course. The vertical descent of the trail in that distance is 2,973 feet.* [*A wagon road now enters upon a lower level.]
I have adopted the statistics of measurements given by Prof. Whitney in his “Yosemite Guide Book” as my standard, so as to be modernly correct. These statisties were from the State Geological Survey, and are scientifically reliable. From a point on this descending trail, my most impressive recollections of a general view were first obtained. My first sight of the Yosemite was suddenly and unexpectedly unfolded from its junction with the old Indian trail; the view was made complete by ascending to a granite table. The first object and the principal point of attraction to my astonished gaze was “El Capitan,” although its immensity was far from comprehended, until I became familiar with the proportions of other prominent features of the valley. After passing it close to its base, on the next day, I made up my mind that it could not be less than 1,500 or 2,000 feet above the level of the valley.
Prof. Whitney in speaking of this object of grandeur and massivenes massiveness, says: “El Capitan is an immense block of granite, projecting squarely out into the valley, and presenting an almost vertical sharp edge, 3,300 feet in elevation. The sides or walls of the mass are bare, smooth, and entirely destitute of vegetation. It is almost impossible for the observer to comprehend the enormous dimensions of this rock, which in clear weather can be distinctly seen from the San Joaquin plains at a distance of fifty or sixty miles. Nothing, however, so helps to a realization of the magnitude of these masses about the Yosemite as climbing around and among them. Let the visitor begin to ascend the pile of debris which lies at the base of El Capitan, and he will soon find his ideas enlarged on the point in question. And yet these debris piles along the cliffs, and especially under El Capitan, are of insignificant size compared with the dimensions of the solid wall itself. They are hardly noticeable in taking a general view of the valley. El Capitan imposes on us by its stupendous bulk, which seems as if hewed from the mountain on purpose to stand as the type of eternal massiveness.
“It is doubtful if any where in the world there is presented so squarely cut, so lofty and so imposing a face of rock.” The foregoing is the most concise and best description of El Capitan I have ever seen, and yet, it cannot impart the ecstacy of reverence for the sublime one feels in its presence.
Another peculiarity of El Capitan, is one that belongs to headlands that are designated points-no-point; that is the apparent difficulty of passing them. While passing at a distance, the convenxity of the wall seems to remain immediately opposite the observer.
From the Mariposa trail as it descends, can be seen most of the prominent cliffs which form its massive side walls. This trail reaches the bottom of the valley near its lower extremity. Below this trail, it narrows to a rocky cañon, almost impassable except for the Merced river, which leaves the valley through this gorge. I shall again refer to this cañon in another chapter.
The valley is about six miles long and from half a mile to over a mile in width at the head of the valley proper. It is irregular in shape, but its general direction is nearly east towards its upper end. Its outlines will be better understood from a view of the accompanying map, which has been mostly copied from that of the State Geological Survey—Prof. Whitney’. The three cañons which open into the valley at its upper end, are so intimately connected with it that a general description will include them all, particularly the parts of them in close proximity to the valley. They will be specially described when reached.
The sides of the valley are walls of a grayish-white granite, which becomes a dazzling white in a clear sunlight. This intensity of reflection is, however, toned to a great extent by the varying haze which permeates the upper atmosphere of the valley for most of the time. This haze has sometimes the appearance of a light cloud of blue smoke, with its borders fringed with a silvery vapor. At other times—during August and September—the tint is enriched, and at sunrise and sunset for the valley the golden light seems to permeate the haze, and lend its charm to the gossamer film that shields the sight from the glare of the reflecting granite.
The walls on each side are in many places perpendicular, and are, from the level of the valley to the top of the cliffs, from 2,660 to 4,737 feet in height, or, as they are generally described, from half a mile to a mile in height. Prof. Whitney, however, says: “The valley is sunk almost a mile in perpendicular depth below the general level of the adjacent region.” This is undoubtedly correct, for in his description, he says: “The Yosemite Valley is nearly in the center of the State, north and south, and just midway between the east and west bases of the Sierras; here a little over seventy miles wide.”
Prof. Whitney’s estimate of the depth of the valley must be literally correct, for the general slope of that region is toward the valley, except from the west, its lower end.
At the base of these cliffs is a comparatively small amount of debris, consisting of broken rocks which have fallen from above. A kind of soil has accumulated on this talus, which is generally covered with vegetation. Trees of considerable size—oaks, pines, firs, cedars, maples, bay and dwarf oak, and lesser shrubs, are frequent. Although this debris is scarcely observed in a general view, its height above the bottom of the valley is in many places from three hundred to five hundred feet next to the cliff, from which it slopes some distance into the valley. In a few places the bases of the cliffs appear as if exposed nearly to the level of the valley. The valley proper is generally level through its entire length. The actual slope given is “only thirty-five feet between the junctions of the Ten-ie-ya Fork and the Bridal Veil Creek with the main river, four miles and a half in a straight line.” The elevation of the valley above the sea level is 3,950 feet. The Merced River, which is about seventy feet wide in an ordinary stage of water, courses down through the middle cañon, meanders through the valley, being restrained or confined to near the centre of it by the sloping talus at its sides—the sloping debris piles occupying nearly one-half of the bottom of the valley.
Although the soil is principally of a sandy character, the marshy land subject to overflow, and some of the dry bottom land, have a deep, rich alluvial soil.
The two beautiful little meadows in the lower section of the valley, afford forage for animals. On the slope above, not far from the Pohono Falls, the Yosemities built their huts, as if unconscious of “The Spirit of the Evil Wind,” near their habitations.
Not far from the foot of the descent of the Mariposa trail, the original trail branched; one trail continuing on up the south side of the valley, the other crossing the Merced toward El Capitan. Another original trail came up on the north side from the gorge below. A small foot-trail entered this from the northern summit of the Coultersville trail, but it was purposely left so obscure by the Indians, as to lead to the belief that it was impassable for horses. This trail was modernized, and is now known as the “Coultersville Trail.” On angle of El Capitan is “Ribbon Falls.” The cliff over which the water pours is nearly 3,000 feet high, but the perpendicular height of the fall is but little over a thousand feet. This fall is “a beauty” while it lasts, but it is as ephemeral as a spring shower, and this fact must have been known to the sponsors at the baptism.
Just above El Capitan are the Three Brothers, the highest peak of these rocks is 3,830 feet.
Next above these is the Yosemite Fall. The verge of the cliff over which this fall begins its descent is 2,600 feet above the level of the valley. Prof. Whitney in describing this fall, says: “The fall is not in one perpendicular sheet. There is first a vertical descent of 1,500 feet, when the water strikes on what seems to be a projecting ledge; but which, in reality, is a shelf or recess, almost a third of a mile back from the front of the lower portion of the cliff. From here the water finds its way, in a series of cascades, down a descent equal to 626 feet perpendicular, and then gives one final plunge of about 400 feet on to a low talus of rocks at the base of the precipice.” He also “estimates the size of the stream at the summit of the fall, at a medium stage of water, to be twenty feet in width and two feet in average depth.” The upper portion of the full spread of its base is estimated to be a width of from one hundred to three hundred feet at high water. The wind gives this fall a vibratory motion; sometimes equal to the width of the column of water itself at the base of the perpendicular descent.
The ravine called Indian Cañon is less than a mile above the Yosemite Fall; between the two, is the rocky peak called the “Lost Arrow,” which, although not perpendicular, runs up boldly to a height of 3,030 feet above the level of the Merced.
The Indian name for the ravine called Indian Cañon was Lehamite, and the cliff extending into the valley from the East side of the Cañon is known as the “Arrow-wood Rocks.” This grand wall extends almost at a right angle towards the East, and continues up the Ten-ie-ya Cañon, forming the base of the North dome (To-co-ya) which rises to an elevation of 3,568 feet above the valley.
In the cliff which forms the base of this dome-shaped mass of rocks, are the “Royal Arches,” an immense arched cavity evidently formed by portions of the cliff becoming detached from some cause, and falling out in sections to the depth of seventy-five or one hundred feet from the face of the cliff. The top of the arch appears to be 1,200 feet or more above the valley. The extreme width of the cavity is about the same, or perhaps a little more than the height. Adjoining the “Royal Arches” on the East, is what is called the “Washington Column.” This projecting rounded mass of rock, may be said to mark the boundary of the valvey proper and the Ten-ie-ya Cañon, which here opens into the valley from a Northeasterly direction.
On the opposite side of Ten-ie-ya Cañon is the Half Dome (Tis-sa-ack) the loftiest peak of the granite cliffs that form a part of the walls of the Yosemite Valley. Its height above the valley is 4,737 feet. On the side next to Ten-ie-ya Cañon this cliff is perpendicular for more than 1,500 feet from its summit, and then, the solid granite slopes at about an angle of 60 degrees to its base. The top of this mass of rock has the appearance of having been at one time a dome-shaped peak, now however, but half remains, that portion split off has by some agency, been carried away. At its Northerly base is Mirror Lake, and farther up the Cañon is Mr. Watkins, Cloud’s Rest, a cascade, and Lake Ten-ie-ya.
This brief outline of description includes the principal points of interest on the north side of the valley. From the lower part of the valley, the first prominent object reached on the south side, is the Bridal Veil Fall. The water of the “Po-ho-no” here falls over a cliff from a perpendicular height of 630 feet, onto a sloping pile of débris, about 300 feet above the level of the Merced, in reaching which it rushes down the slope among the rocks in cascades and branching outlets. The total height of the cliff over which the water falls is about 900 feet. The trees on the slop below conceal the lower part of the fall, so that at a distance it appears as if reaching to the bottom of the valley. Just above the Bridal Veil are what have been termed the “Three Graces,” and not far above these, are the peculiar appearing pinnacles of rocks to which the names of Cathedral Rock and Cathedral Spires have been given. Cathedral Rock is 2,660 feet high. The spires just beyond are about the same height from the level of the valley. They are pointed columns of granite 500 feet high, attached at their base with the cliff forming the side of the valley. The next prominent object on the south side is Sentinel Rock, 3,043 feet high. This pinnacle of granite is on the extremity of a point of rocks extending into the valley. For a thousand feet or more, it has the form of an obelisk, below which it forms a part of the projecting rocks. The next object is the massive point projecting into the valley, and which here forms an angle towards the south; it is called Glacier Point. This has an elevation of 3,200 feet above the valley. From this point some of the finest views of the vicinity can be seen. Behind Glacier Point and Sentinel Rock, appearing as if these cliffs formed a part of its base, is the South Dome, known also as the Sentinal Dome. The name of “South Dome” was originally given to this dome-shaped mass of granite by our battalion. It is 4,150 feet above the valley. The South or Glacier Cañon is just above Glacier Point. At the head of this rocky impassable cañon, is the beautiful fall I have named “Glacier Fall.” This fall is about 600 feet high. The middle cañon, Yanopah, opens from the east. The Merced river comes down this cañon into the valley.
In a distance of two miles, a descent from over 2,000 feet of perpendicular height is made. This includes the Vernal and Nevada Falls. The Vernal is about 350 feet high; the Nevada something over 600 feet. The rapids between the falls have a descent of about 300 feet. The Vernal and Nevada are about one mile apart. On the north side of the middle cañon is the Cap of Liberty, rising to a height of 2,000 feet above its base near the foot of the Nevada Fall. This stupendous mass of rock stands nearly perpendicular on all sides but one. Farther up, on the south side of Tenie-ya Cañon, is Clouds Rest, which is 6,000 feet above the bottom of the Yosemite. Between Glacier Cañon and Yanopah is the Noble Starr King. The immense cliff forming the extreme westerly point of the divide between Tenie-ya Cañon and the Yanopah branch, has had various names affixed to it, none of which seems to have been satisfactory. It was between the lower face of this wall and Glacier Point that Capt. Boling laid off and had cleared for use his racecourse; and hence, in speaking of the locality, it was sometimes designated as Boling’s Point, as the starting place for the race.
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