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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



In the Yō-semité Valley, April 30.

Just imagine those people in San Francisco telling us that we could see the Valley (do the Valley is the correct expression) in two days, but that three would be ample! Three days of jolting over the roughest roads—three days of hard work rushing from point to point in this wonderland, and then the weary journey to be done over again, shaking all impressions of calm beauty from our exhausted minds!

Well, I for one have wandered far enough over the wide world to know a unique glory when I am blessed by the sight of one, and the first glimpse of this extraordinary combination of granite crags and stupendous waterfalls showed me plainly enough that it would take me weeks to make acquaintance with them, and that if I fail to do so, I shall regret it all my life. So I have written to give up my passage to Honolulu for the present, and have also written to request that my letters may be forwarded thence to me here. This will make yet one more delay of three weeks in hearing from you; but now that so many months have elapsed without letters, I have got into a way of doing without them (I do not thereby mean to say that you need not write regularly!). But thanks to all the items of home news, and of Fiji news, which I have gathered since landing in San Francisco, I feel fairly aucourant of what is going on, so the hunger for letters shall not carry me away from the Sierras in three days!

Now, to tell you the news of to-day. We had a drive of about twenty-seven miles from Clarke’s Ranch to this place, so we were obliged once more to pack ourselves into the vile van which does duty as a coach. They tell us that later in the season, when the roads have been repaired, they will put on good coaches. I heartily wish they had done so before we came; or still better, that we had arranged to ride to the valley, and send only our unfeeling luggage by coach.

Formerly every one had to ride, and the old bridle-track was led in zigzags along the face of steep hills, by the deep gorge through which the river Merced has cut for itself a way of escape from the valley, between rock-walls which rise precipitously for several hundred feet above its tumultuous waters. For ten miles the said track had to pass through a deep canyon where there was no room at all for a trail, so it was actually blasted from the solid rock, and at some points was led at a height of several hundred feet above the roaring stream, with no protecting parapet of any sort, but a sheer perpendicular fall, where one false step would assuredly prove the last. Along this dangerous trail, wise, sure-footed horses crept warily, as if knowing that they were responsible for the safety of their riders as well as for their own.

Now safer though less picturesque roads have been engineered, by which the valley can be approached from several different points. That by which we entered is, I think, known as “Inspiration Point.” When we started from Clarke’s Ranch, we were then at about the same level as we are at this moment—namely, 4000 feet above the sea. The road gradually wound upwards through beautiful forest and by upland valleys, where the snow still lay pure and white; and here and there, where it had melted and exposed patches of dry earth, the red flame-like blossoms of the snow-plant gleamed vividly.

It was slow work toiling up those steep ascents, and it must have taken us much longer than our landlord had expected, for he had despatched us without a morsel of luncheon; and ere we reached the half-way house, where we were to change horses, we were all ravenous. A dozen hungry people, with appetites sharpened by the keen, exhilarating mountain air! No provisions of any sort were to be had; but the compassionate horse-keeper, hearing our pitiful complaints, produced a loaf and a pot of blackberry jelly, and we all sat on a bank and ate our “piece” (as the bairns in Scotland would say) with infinite relish, and drank from a clear stream close by. So were we satisfied with bread here in the wilderness. I confess to many qualms as to how that good fellow fared himself, as loaves cannot grow abundantly in those parts.

Once more we started on our toilsome way across mountain meadows and forest ridges, till at last we had gained a height of about 7000 feet above the sea. Then suddenly we caught our first sight of the valley lying about 3000 feet below us, an abrupt chasm in the great rolling expanse of billowy granite ridges—or I should rather describe it as a vast sunken pit, with perpendicular walls, and carpeted with a level meadow, through which flows a river gleaming like quicksilver.

Here and there a vertical cloud of spray on the face of the huge crags told where some snow-fed stream from the upper levels had found its way to the brink of the chasm—a perpendicular fall of from 2000 to 3000 feet.

The fall nearest to where we stood, yet at a distance of several miles, was pointed out as the Bridal Veil. It seemed a floating film of finest mist, on which played the loveliest rainbow lights. For the sun was already lowering behind us, and the afternoon shadows were stealing over the valley, though the light shone clear and bright on the cold white granite crags, and on the glittering snow-peaks of the high Sierras.

Each mighty precipice, and rock-needle, and strange granite dome was pointed out to us by name as we halted on the summit of the pass ere commencing the steep descent. The Bridal Veil falls over a granite crag near the entrance of the valley, which, on the opposite side, is guarded by a stupendous square-cut granite mass,

Looking down the Valley
Photo-Engraved by T&R Annan
[click to enlarge]
projecting so far as seemingly to block the way. These form the gateway of this wonderful granite prison. Perhaps the great massive cliff rather suggests the idea of a huge keep wherein the genii of the valley braved the siege of the Ice-giants.

The Indians revere it as the great chief of the valley, but white men only know it as El Capitan. If it must have a new title, I think it should at least rank as a field-marshal in the rock-world, for assuredly no other crag exists that can compare with it. Just try to realise its dimensions: a massive face of smooth cream-coloured granite, half a mile long, half a mile wide, three-fifths of a mile high. Its actual height is 3300 feet—(I think that 5280 feet go to a mile). Think of our beautiful Castle Rock in Edinburgh, with its 434 feet; or Dover Castle, 469 feet; or even Arthur’s Seat, 822 feet,—what pigmies they would seem could some wizard transport them to the base of this grand crag, on whose surface not a blade of grass, not a fern or lichen, finds holding ground, or presumes to tinge the bare, clean-cut precipice, which, strange to tell, is clearly visible from the great San Joaquin Valley, a distance of sixty miles!

Imagine a crag just the height of Snowdon, with a lovely snow-stream falling perpendicularly from its summit to its base, and a second and larger fall in the deep gorge where it meets the great rock-wall of the valley. The first is nameless, and will vanish with the snows; but the second never quite dries up, even in summer. It is known to the Indians as Lung-oo-too-koo-ya, which describes its graceful length; but white men call it “The Virgin’s Tears” or “The Ribbon Fall”—a blending of millinery and romance doubtless devised by the same genius who changed the Indian name of Pohono to “The Bridal Veil.”

We passed close to the latter as we entered the valley—in fact, forded the stream just below the fall—and agreed that if Pohono be in truth, as the Indian legend tells, the spirit of an evil wind, it surely must be a repentant glorified spirit, for nothing so beautiful could be evil. It is a sight to gladden the angels—a most ethereal fall, light as steam, swaying with every breath.

It falls from an overhanging rock, and often the current produced by its own rushing seems to pass beneath the rock, and so checks the whole column, and carries it upward in a wreath of whitest vapour, blending with the true clouds.

When the rainbow plays on it, it too seems to be wafted up, and floats in a jewelled spray, wherein sapphires and diamonds and opals, topaz and emeralds, all mingle their dazzling tints. At other times it rushes down in a shower of fairy-like rockets in what appears to be a perpendicular column 1000 feet high, and loses itself in a cloud of mist among the tall dark pines which clothe the base of the crag.

A very accurate gentleman has just assured me that it is not literally perpendicular, as, after a leap of 630 feet, it strikes the rock, and then makes a fresh start in a series of almost vertical cascades, which form a dozen streamlets ere they reach the meadows. He adds that the fall is about fifty feet wide at the summit.

The rock-mass over which it falls forms the other great granite portal of the valley, not quite so imposing as its massive neighbour, but far more shapely. In fact, it bears so strong a resemblance to a Gothic building that it is called the Cathedral Rock. It is a cathedral for the giants, being 2660 feet in height; and two graceful rock-pinnacles attached to the main rock, and known as the Cathedral Spires, are each 500 feet in height.

Beyond these, towers a truly imposing rock-needle, which has been well named “The Sentinel.” It is an obelisk 1000 feet in height, rising from the great rock-wall, which forms a pedestal of 2000 more.

As if to balance these three rock-needles on the right-hand side, there are, on the left, three rounded mountains which the Indians call Pompompasus—that is, the Leaping-Frog Rocks. They rise in steps, forming a triple mountain 3830 feet high. Tall frogs these, even for California. Imaginative people say the resemblance is unmistakable, and that all the frogs are poised as if in readiness for a spring, with their heads all turned the same way. For my own part, I have a happy knack of not seeing these accidental likenesses, and especially eschew those faces and pictures (generally grotesque) which some most aggravating people are always discovering among the lines and weather-stains on the solemn crags, and which they insist on pointing out to their unfortunate companions. Our coachman seemed to consider this a necessary part of his office, so I assume there must be some people who like it.

Farther up the valley, two gigantic Domes of white granite are built up on the foundation of the great encompassing wall. One stands on each side of the valley. The North Dome is perfect, like the roof of some vast mosque; but the South, or Half Dome, is an extraordinary freak of nature, very puzzling to geologists, as literally half of a stupendous mass of granite has disappeared, leaving no trace of its existence, save a sheer precipitous rock-face, considerably over 4000 feet in height, from which the corresponding half has evidently broken off, and slipped down into some fearful chasm, which apparently it has been the means of filling up.

Above the Domes, and closing in the upper end of the valley, is a beautiful snowy mountain, called Cloud’s Rest, which, seen from afar, is the most attractive point of all, and one which I must certainly visit some day. But meanwhile there are nearer points of infinite interest, the foremost being the waterfall from which the valley takes its name, and which burst suddenly upon our amazed vision when we reached the base of the Sentinel Rock.

IT is so indescribably lovely that I altogether despair of conveying any notion of it in words, so shall not try to do so yet a while.

But from what I have told you, you must perceive that each step in this strange valley affords a study for weeks, whether to an artist, a geologist, or any other lover of beautiful and wonderful scenes; and more than ever, I congratulate myself on having arrived here while all the oaks, alders, willows, and other deciduous trees, are bare and leafless, so that no curtain of dense foliage conceals the countless beauties of the valley. Already I have seen innumerable most beautiful views, scarcely veiled by the filmy network of fine twigs, but which evidently will be altogether concealed a month hence, when these have donned their summer dress. To me these leafless trees rank with fires and snows. I have not seen one since I left England, so I look at them with renewed interest, and delight in the beauty of their anatomy, as you and I have done many a time in the larch woods and the “birken braes” of the Findhorn1 (where the yellow twigs of the larch, and the grey aspen, and claret-coloured sprays of birch, blend with russet oak and green Scotch firs, and produce a winter colouring wellnigh as varied as that of summer).

[1The river Findhorn in Morayshire, Scotland.]

Here there is an enchanting reminder of home in the tall poplar-trees—the Balm of Gilead—which are just bursting into leaf, and fill the air with heavenly perfume. They grow in clumps all along the course of the Merced, the beautiful “river of Mercy,” which flows through this green level valley so peacefully, as if it was thankful for this quiet interval in the course of its restless life.

There is no snow in the valley, but it still lies thickly on the hills all round. Very soon it will melt, and then the falls will all be in their glory, and the meadows will be flooded and the streams impassable. I am glad we have arrived in time to wander about dry-footed, and to learn the geography of the country in its normal state.

The valley is an almost dead level, about eight miles long, and varies in width from half a mile to two miles. It is like a beautiful park of greenest sward, through which winds the clear, calm river—a capital trout-stream, of about eighty feet in width. In every direction are scattered picturesque groups of magnificent trees, noble old oaks, and pines of 250 feet in height! The river is spanned by two wooden bridges; and three neat hotels are well placed about the middle of the valley, half a mile apart—happily not fine, incongruous buildings, but wooden bungalows, well suited to the requirements of such pilgrims as ourselves.

They are respectively kept by a German (with, I think, a Scotch wife), an Englishman, and an American. The latter, in my opinion, occupies by far the most desirable position, being the farthest up the valley, and consequently the most retired. The wife of its proprietor, Mrs Barnard, was one of our fellow-travellers, and to her care we determined to commend ourselves. But finding that our friends had already secured their quarters at the central hotel, we resolved to spare our poor bones the last straw of jolting; and so we, too, have for the present taken up our abode with our countryman, Mr Black, and find ourselves very well cared for.

When we saw what a splendid view of the Great Yō-semité Falls we get from this house, we thought it must be the best position, and no mistake. But when, this evening, we wandered up the valley, and perceived that it was quite as beautiful as seen from the other, we confessed that the honours were well divided, and began to understand something of the size of a fall to which a mile east or west matters so little!

May-day, 1877.

May-day! What a vision of langsyne! Of the May-dew we used to gather from off the cowslips by the sweet burnside, in those dear old days.

“When we all were young together,
And the earth was new to me.”

I daresay you forgot all about May-day this morning, in the prosaic details of town life. But here we ran no such risk, for we had determined to watch the Beltane1 sunrise, reflected in the glassiest of mountain-tarns, known as the Mirror Lake; and as it lies about three miles from here, in one of the upper forks of the valley, we had to be astir betimes.

[1Beltane—the old Scotch name for May-day—familiar to every High-lander. It is derived from Beil-teine, which means “Baal’s fire,” and marks the day as the great spring festival of our pagan ancestors. See ‘In the Hebrides’ (by C. F. Gordon Cumming), p. 215. Chatto & Windus.]

So, when the stars began to pale in the eastern sky, we were astir, and with the earliest ray of dawn set off like true pilgrims bound to drink of some holy spring on May morning. For the first two miles our path lay across the quiet meadows, which as yet are only lightly sprinkled with blossom. We found no cowslips, but washed our faces in Californian May-dew, which we brushed from the fresh young grass and ferns. Soon, they tell me, there will be violets, cowslips, and primroses. We passed by the orchard of the first settler in the valley; his peach and cherry trees were laden with pink and white blossom, his strawberry-beds likewise promising an abundant crop.

It was a morning of calm beauty, and the massive grey crags all around the valley lay “like sleeping kings” robed in purple gloom, while the pale-yellow light crept up behind them, the tall dark pines forming a belt of deeper hue round their base.

About two miles above the Great Yō-semité Falls, the valley divides into three branches—canyons, I should say, or, more correctly, cańons. The central one is the main branch, through which the Merced itself descends from the high Sierras, passing through the Little Yō-semité Valley, and thence rushing down deep gorges, and leaping two precipices of 700 and 400 feet (which form the Nevada and the Vernal Falls), and so entering the Great Valley, where for eight miles it finds rest.

The canyon which diverges to the right is that down which rushes the South Fork of the Merced, which bears the musical though modern name of Illillouette. It rises at the base of Mount Starr King, and enters the valley by the graceful falls which bear this pretty name.

By the way, the Starr King has no connection with astronomy and midnight heavens. It was named in memory of a good man, or, as a lady here described him to me, “a lovely man”—a term which is here applied to moral worth. It was remarked of a hideous but excellent person, “Well, I guess he don’t handsome much, but he’s kind of lovely!”

The third canyon, branching off to the left, is that whither we were bound. It is called the Tenaya Fork of the Merced, a stream which flows from Mono Lake, past the foot of Cloud’s Rest, and dashes down a wild gorge in a series of rushing cascades and rapids. Finally, it calms down as it flows through a quiet green glade (wherein lies a somewhat muddy pool, which is the chosen home of yellow water-lilies).

Having tasted the blessings of peace, the Tenaya takes the first opportunity of expanding and reposing, so it forms a broad pool so still and motionless that it earns the name of Mirror Lake; but soon wearying of repose, it glides off again, and hurries impetuously downhill to join the main stream.

At the point where we left the main valley to turn into the Tenaya Fork, the rock-wall forms a sharp angle, ending in a huge columnar mass of very white granite 2400 feet in height. The Indians call it Hunto, which means one who keeps watch; but the white men call it Washington Column.

Beside it, the rock-wall has taken the form of gigantic arches. The lower rock seems to have weakened and crumbled or split off in huge flakes, while the upper portions remain, overhanging considerably, and forming regularly arched cliffs 2000 feet in height. I cannot think how it has happened that in so republican a community these mighty rocks should be known as the Royal Arches, unless from some covert belief that they are undermined, and liable to topple over. Their original name is To-coy-oe, which describes the arched hood of an Indian baby’s cradle—a famous nursery for giants.

The perpendicular rock-face beneath the arches is a sheer, smooth surface, yet seamed with deep cracks as though it would fall, were it not for the mighty buttresses of solid rock which project for some distance, casting deep shadows across the cliff. As a test of size, I noticed a tiny pine growing from a crevice in the rock-face, and on comparing it with another in a more accessible position, I found that it was really a very large, well-grown tree.

Just at this season, when the snows on the Sierras are beginning to melt, a thousand crystal streams find temporary channels along the high levels till they reach the smooth verge of the crags, and thence leap in white foam, forming temporary falls of exceeding beauty. Three such graceful falls at present overleap the mighty arches, and, in their turn, produce pools and exquisitely clear streams, which thread their devious way through woods and meadows, seeking the river of Mercy.

So the air is musical with the lullaby of hidden waters, and the murmur of the unseen river rippling over its pebbly bed.

Turning to the right, we next ascended Tenaya valley, which is beautifully wooded, chiefly with pine and oak, and strewn with the loveliest mossy boulders. Unfortunately, the number of rattlesnakes is rather a draw-back to perfect enjoyment here. I have so long been accustomed to our perfect immunity from all manner of noxious creatures in the blessed South Sea Isles, that I find it difficult at first to recall my wonted caution, and to “gang warily.” However, to-day we saw no evil creatures—only a multitude of the jolliest little chip-munks, which are small grey squirrels of extreme activity. They are very tame, and dance about the trees close to us, jerking their brush, and giving the funniest little skips, and sometimes fairly chattering to us!

Beyond this wood we found the Mirror Lake. It is a small pool, but exquisitely cradled in the very midst of stern granite giants, which stand all around as sentinels, guarding its placid sleep. Willows, already covered with downy tufts, and now just bursting into slender leaflets, fringe its shores, and tall cedars and pines overshadow its waters, and are therein reflected in the stillness of early dawn, when even the granite crags far overhead also find themselves mirrored in the calm lakelet. But with the dawn comes a whispering breeze; and just as the sun’s first gleam kisses the waters, the illusion vanishes, and there remains only a somewhat muddy and troubled pool.

It lies just at the base of that extraordinary Half-Dome of which I told you yesterday—a gigantic crest of granite, which rises above the lake almost precipitously to a height of 4737 feet. Only think of it!—nearly a mile! Of this the upper 2000 is a sheer face of granite crag, absolutely vertical, except that the extreme summit actually projects somewhat; otherwise it is as clean cut as if the mighty Dome had been cloven with a sword. A few dark streaks near the summit (due, I believe, to a microscopic fungus or lichen) alone relieve the unbroken expanse of glistening, creamy white.

The lower half slopes at a very slight incline, and is likewise a solid mass of granite—not made up of broken fragments, of which there are a wonderfully small proportion anywhere in the valley. So the inference is, that in the tremendous convulsion by which this mighty chasm was created, the great South Dome was split from the base to the summit, and that half of it slid down into the yawning gulf: thus the gently rounded base, between the precipice and the lake, was doubtless originally the summit of the missing half mountain.

I believe that geologists are now satisfied that this strange valley, with its clean-cut, vertical walls, was produced by what is called in geology “a fault,”—namely, that some of the earth’s ribs having given way internally, a portion of the outer crust has subsided, leaving an unoccupied space. That such was the case in Yō-semité, is proved by much scientific reasoning. It is shown that the two sides of the valley in no way correspond, so the idea of a mere gigantic fissure cannot be entertained. Besides, as the valley is as wide at the base as at the summit, the vertical walls must have moved apart bodily,—a theory which would involve a movement of the whole chain of the Sierras for a distance of half a mile.

There is no trace of any glacier having passed through the valley, so that the Ice-giants have had no share in making it. Neither can it have been excavated by the long-continued action of rushing torrents, such as have carved great canyons in many parts of the Sierra Nevada. These never have vertical walls; and besides, the smoothest faces of granite in Yō-semité are turned towards the lower end of the valley, proving at once that they were never produced by forces moving downward.

So it is simply supposed that a strip of the Sierras caved in, and that in time the melting snows and streams formed a great deep lake, which filled up the whole space now occupied by the valley. In the course of ages the débris of the hills continually falling into the lake, must have filled up the chasm to a level with the canyon, which is the present outlet from the valley; and as the glaciers on the upper Sierras disappeared, and the water-supply grew less, the lake must have gradually dried up (and that in comparatively recent times), and its bed of white granite sand, mingled with vegetable mould, was transformed into a green meadow, through which the quiet river now glides peacefully.

We watched by the calm Mirror Lake till the sun had climbed so high in the heavens as to overlook a purple crag, and see its own image in the quiet pool. Then we retraced our way down the wooded canyon till we reached the open valley, now bathed in sunlight. Cloud-shadows floated over the dewy grass-slopes and bare summits of the Sierras, and the sunbeams played on the countless nameless waterfalls, which now veil the crags with a rainbow-tinted, gauze-like film of scattered spray and faint floating mist, swaying with every breath of air.

After breakfast the gentlemen started to explore the upper end of the valley, but I preferred a quiet day’s sketching beside the peaceful river.

This evening the sun set in a flood of crimson and gold—such a glorious glow as would have dazzled an eagle. It paled to a soft primrose, then ethereal green. Later, the pearly-grey clouds were rose-flushed by an after-glow more vivid than the sunset itself—a rich full carmine, which quickly faded away to the cold, intense blue of a Californian night. It was inexpressibly lovely.

Then the fitful wind rose in gusts—a melancholy moaning wail, vibrating among rocks, forests, and waters, with a low surging sound—a wild mountain melody.

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