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Bisecting this district from east to west is the great trough of Yosemite Valley, its bottom gouged down more than half way to sea level. The same type of geological architecture is exemplified by the Hetch Hetchy a few miles to the north and by the canyons of the San Joaquin, Kings and Kern to the south. In none of these, however, are magnitude, beauty and accessibility so ideally combined as in Yosemite.
As to the origin of these valleys, and of Yosemite in particular, there is still some discussion among scientists. Whitney’s old theory of a great cataclysm and the sinking of a small block of the earth’s crust has been entirely displaced, and geologists are now seeking to determine if glaciers have been solely responsible for the present landscape or whether ice and water worked hand in hand. A good summary of the various theories of geological history, as well as a popular discussion of all the geological phenomena of the region, is contained in the “Sketch of Yosemite National Park and an Account of the Origin of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valleys,” by Dr. F. E. Matthes of the U. S. Geological Survey. This government publication may be obtained in Yosemite at the office of the Superintendent for ten cents.
Yosemite Valley remained undiscovered by white men until in 1850 marauding Indian bands from the mountains raided several foothill trading posts. In retaliation the “Mariposa Battalion” was organized to subdue these mountain tribes and force them into a large reservation in the San Joaquin Valley. The last to be conquered and the most warlike were the Yosemites living in fancied security in their stronghold, the deep grassy valley of “Awahnee.” It was in pursuit of this tribe that the members of the Mariposa Battalion first entered Yosemite on March 21, 1851. The story of the one-sided campaigns which extended over two summers is well told by Dr. W. L. Bunnell, the surgeon of the party, in his “Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851” (4th Edition, 1911, G. W. Gerlicher, Los Angeles).
An excellent summary of the early history of Yosemite Valley has recently been published as a Park Service bulletin and may be obtained free at the government information bureau in Yosemite.
All points of scenic interest are indicated in the road and trail trips, but the following brief discussion of the major features of the valley may serve to orient the new-comer. In this connection the aeroplane-view frontispiece will be found exceedingly useful.
First and most impressive are the great rock masses. The square-cut 3200-foot cliff of El Capitan at the Gates of the Valley is regarded by many as the most awe-inspiring of all great rocks; yet others affirm that Half Dome, a few miles eastward, is just as mighty and far more lovable.
The castellated Cathedral Rocks rising half to two-thirds as high as El Capitan on the opposite side of the valley are dwarfed in comparison, but are given an individual personality by their exceptional outline. Just eastward, the marvelously delicate pinnacles of the Cathedral Spires, each towering over 500 feet from its base, stand out from the great south wall. Less interesting but very mighty are the Three Brothers, rising 3800 feet as a great buttress of the north wall. Opposite them the Sentinel Rock, a huge obelisk-like watch tower, guards the south ramparts.
At the upper end of the valley the dome formation is dominant. To the north are the rounded summits of North Dome, Basket Dome and Mount Watkins. The granite walls below them have fractured in great concentric arcs, forming the marvelously symmetrical Royal Arches, at the east end of which is the striking vertical promontory of Washington Column. At the edge of the perpendicular cliffs of the south wall is Glacier Point, the finest lookout point in the valley, and a short distance back from the rim are the symmetrical curves of Sentinel Dome.
Yosemite Valley is formed by the confluence of two great canyons—Tenaya Canyon from the northeast and the upper Merced Canyon from the southeast. Between them originates a great backbone ridge which extends many miles to the northeast and exhibits many examples of dome structure and glacial sculpture. Lowest of its promontories is the roughly hewn Grizzly Peak, which is flanked on the east by the well rounded summits and smoothly planed sides of Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. Then, standing in massive isolation 5000 feet above the valley and 2000 feet above its immediate base is Half Dome. Further to the northeast along the ridge are the two Quarter Domes, the Pinnacles and Clouds Rest, the highest summit in the immediate vicinity of Yosemite.
Tenaya Canyon, a great glaciated gorge countersunk thousands of feet into the granite, is practically impassable. The main canyon of the Merced, however, as it comes from the east, widens to form the Little Yosemite Valley. With its level meadows and sheer granite walls flanked by perfectly formed domes, it is marvelously like Yosemite but smaller. Further eastward is the High Sierra.
There are five great waterfalls in Yosemite and a number of lesser ones which would be world-famous were it not for the comparison. During the flood waters of spring they are at the height of their beauty, amplifying the living landscape by their many columns and booming power. Later, as the snow fountains of the high places are gradually depleted, they take on a more filmy gracefulness but are lacking in exuberant impressiveness.
Three of the five falls, the Bridalveil, Yosemite and Illilouette, leap from hanging valleys into the main canyon. All of the minor falls are of the same type. Vernal and Nevada Falls, on the other hand, are formed by the entire Merced River pouring over great steps in the mighty box canyon at the east end of the valley.
First seen and most graceful is the Bridalveil, dropping daintily 620 feet at the right portal of the great valley gate. Well may we wonder how this charming fall with its exquisite rainbows came to be called Pohono or “spirit of the evil wind” by the Indians.
Most famous of all, the highest fall in Yosemite and in all the world, is the Yosemite. Its first sheer plunge of 1430 feet would set it apart as the greatest of its kind, but by a series of six quick jumps it descends another 800 feet to the brink of the final precipice, over which it leaps gracefully 320 feet to the valley floor. Seen from below, the 2600-foot drop often appears as one fall, though in reality the Upper Fall is fully one-third of a mile back of the lower. In winter a great ice cone, sometimes 500 feet high, forms beneath this Upper Fall, and its collapse causes riotous ice-floods in early spring. “Choolook,” which in Yosemite dialect meant simply “the fall,” has a most changing personality. In late summer and autumn he loses much of his springtime power and obeys every whim of the ever-changing winds. But the most delightful of all his moods may be seen during the time of the full moon when the foot of the Lower Fall is veiled by the delicate iridescence of lunar rainbows.
From the western edge of Panorama Cliff the lace-like Illilouette Falls disappears into its box canyon east of Glacier Point. The filmy character of its 370-foot foam-curtain is almost never appreciated because of the lack of a proper viewpoint. The old Indian name Too-tool-a-we-ack sought to reproduce the sound of gurgling and falling water.
Vernal and Nevada pour over the rims of two successive glacial amphitheatres in the main canyon of the Merced. Both carry a great volume of water and are much less variable than the mural falls.
Vernal, dropping 317 feet in a wide and unbroken sheet, has often been pronounced the symmetrically perfect of all falls. Its foot is always bathed in blowing mists which give rise to most exquisite circular rainbows. Referring to the spray, the Yosemites called the fall Yan-o-pah or “little water cloud.”
Nevada, widely tossing out its spray-rockets, gives a vast impression of power which is probably nowhere equaled except in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. In its descent of 594 feet it strikes a projecting ledge, which caused the Indians to name it Yo-wy-we or “twisting rock.”
There is yet another great fall in the Yosemite region, but concerning it little is known. It is so inaccessible in the mighty Tenaya Canyon that it is even nameless, and no one has ever reached its base. Seen from afar pouring over a rounded precipice in the canyon bottom it appears to be between 600 and 1000 feet in height.
The minor falls are very beautiful in early spring but all are ephemeral, blooming delightfully with the melting of snows, but dying in summer. Largest and best known are the Cascade Falls, which drop 594 feet over the north wall of the lower Merced Canyon and form one of the chief objects of interest in the ride from El Portal to Yosemite. Ribbon Fall, highest of all, descends delicately in one 1612-foot leap into a recess just west of El Capitan. From the rugged south wall Widow’s Tears pours 1170 feet to the rock talus. Just west of Sentinel Rock is a series of picturesque cascades which, in spring, are dignified by the name of Sentinel Falls. Royal Arch Fall is one of the most beautiful but most ephemeral of the small falls. During sudden rainstorms or usually rapid thaws, supplementary falls pour into the valley over many of its ramparts. John Muir describes the storm of 1871 in which fifty-six such cataracts appeared in the upper end of Yosemite Valley.
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