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Yosemite: Where To Go and What Go Do (1888) by George G. MacKenzie


The Cataracts of Yosemite.

During the spring and early summer, when the yet deep snows of the high Sierra are melting rapidly, there are many waterfalls pouring down the precipitous sides of the Valley. As the season advances, several of these cataracts dwindle away until they become almost imperceptible trickles of water. One who has only seen these torrents in their full and majestic flow can with difficulty comprehend their almost total disappearance. And one who looks on their shrunken proportions in the late autumn has even more difficulty in picturing to himself the captivating spectacle presented by the falls in their season of power and splendor. However, with the exception of the Yosemite Fall, which in some years vanishes almost completely, the more voluminous of the cataracts never diminish so much as to lose their stately attractiveness.

Taking them in the order in which they are generally seen by visitors to the Valley, the principal falls are named as follows:

Bridal Veil, Ribbon, Sentinel, Yosemite, Royal Arch, Tooloolaweack (or Illillouette), Vernal, Nevada, and Cascade.

The Bridal Veil Fall, of which the Indian name is Pohono, shoots over the southern side of the Valley, near its lower end. It is fed by a stream called the Bridal Veil Creek, which derives its water from Ostrander Lake, a small sheet of water in the mountains, about a dozen miles southward from the Valley. The width of the fall, at the top, does not exceed an average of fifteen or sixteen yards, varying according to the fullness of the stream, but it has a clear, unimpeded fall of six hundred feet. From the foot of this descent the water continues down in a cascade, but from many points of view it has the appearance of making but one flight through the nine hundred feet of space from its top to the place where the fall may be said to end. Fine, unbroken views of the Bridal Veil, which is, to many tastes, the most beautiful of all the cataracts of the region, present themselves at a number of points on either road entering the Valley. In making what is known as the Lower Round drive (that is, the drive from the hotels down one side of the Valley and up the other) the road crosses the Bridal Veil Creek below the foot of the fall. From the bridge, at

Bridal Veil Fall (Bridalveil Fall)
[click to enlarge]
this place, one may enjoy a most inspiring view of the fall in its entirety. Visitors coming in by the road from Wawona cross this bridge soon after entering the Valley.

Pohono, the name by which the Indians know the Bridal Veil, is said to contain an allusion to the breeze that is almost constantly blowing in the neighborhood. Winds are generally believed by American Indians to be caused by spirits, and the name Pohono is also said to have some reference to an evil spirit, but the real meaning of the name is obscure. This breeze (evil spirit or good) adds much to the charm of the scene. It catches the stream almost immediately below the brink of the cliff, and sways it first to one side and then to the other, with long, sweeping motions of more than ideal grace. In its far descent, the water divides into myriads of jets, like a dense flight of miniature comets. These gradually separate as they plunge through the air, so that the lower part of the majestically waving downpour is much wider than the top. Great trailing sheets of comminuted spray, sparkling under the sun like diamond dust, are blown here and there against the walls on either side. About the fall, as a whole, there is a certain lace-like effect, that, added to the gracefully pendant appearance, lends a fair measure of appropriateness to the name Bridal Veil. To heighten the resemblance, the sun’s rays, touching the top of the fall, create there an imaginable likeness to a gleaming wreath, or crown, fit for such a veil.

In the autumn, while the fall loses much of its volume, it has attractions peculiar to that season. Often the water seems to be borne upward from the verge of the cliff, a cloud of spray ascending on the winds towards the sky. Seen from below, the effect of the Bridal Veil is then of a rare and most pleasing description.

Visitors who have plenty of time, can, with satisfaction, devote a whole day, or several days, to the neighborhood of the foot of the Bridal Veil. If, indeed, there were nothing else to see in the Valley, a journey hither would be amply rewarded by this spectacle.

The Ribbon Fall (Indian name Lungootookooyah) is on the northern side of the Valley, and but little higher up than the Bridal Veil. Like the latter, it is seen very effectively from the stage-roads, as one descends to the Valley. It has an almost vertical descent, estimated at 2000 feet, and then makes a further bounding flight of more than 1000 feet before reaching the floor of the Valley. In the early part of the season of travel the Ribbon forms one of the most noteworthy pictures of the whole splendid gallery; but, as the summer proceeds, the flow of water becomes more and more restricted, until it has scarcely even a suggestion of its spring-time glory. The approach to the foot of the vertical part of the fall is somewhat difficult, on account of the great sloping aggregation of broken rock that is piled below the upright wall. The Ribbon is consequently less familiarly known, and has a more limited fame than several of the other falls.

The Sentinel Fall is on the southern side of the Valley, about two miles higher up than the Bridal Veil. It takes its name from the great Sentinel Rock, a short distance above the fall. The latter has no exceedingly great clear pitch, but comes down the side of the Valley in a succession of cascades. Seen from the Valley roads, however, its upper part has the appearance of forming one flight of several hundred feet perpendicular. There is no trail leading up by this fall, and the climb over the talus, or debris, through which it descends, is of too arduous a nature to induce the ordinary visitor to attempt it. Towards the end of July, the stream which feeds this fall is apt to disappear.

The Yosemite Falls—in their best aspect, the most awe-inspiring of all around the Yosemite Valley, and in the opinion of many competent judges the most sublime waterfalls in the world—come next in the order of presentation. They are on the northern side of the Valley, and somewhat nearer to its upper than to the lower end. In driving up the stage-road to the hotels, one obtains unobstructed views of them at several points before reaching the village.

The entire descent of the Yosemite Fall is about 2550 feet. There are, however, three distinct divisions, although from many points of view, the general effect appears to be almost like that of a single flight. Of the three divisions, the upper fall has the greatest height—about 1500 feet. The measurements

Yosemite Fall
[click to enlarge]
vary slightly. On account of the curving form of the edge of the precipice over which the water rolls, different surveyors have measured to different points. There is no other known fall carrying anything like an equal amount of water and making a single jump as great as that of the Upper Yosemite. The width of the fall at its upper edge is thirty-four feet.

The Middle Yosemite Fall is a series of cascades, having a total descent of 626 feet. The Lower Fall is a straight, downward plunge of over 400 feet. From the bottom thereof the stream foams over masses of broken rock for a short distance, and then more placidly flows onward to its junction with the Merced River.

The measurements of the Yosemite Falls, according to Professor J. D. Whitney, of the State Geological Survey, and Lieutenant Wheeler, of the U. S. Topographical Survey, are as follows:

Whitney. Wheeler.
Upper Fallft.1500 Upper Fallft.1436
Middle “626 Middle “626
Lower “400 Lower “488
____ ____
2526 2550

The stream (Yosemite Creek) which supplies these falls is fed by the melting snows in the direction of Mount Hoffmann, about nine miles distant in a “bee line.” (See under title Mount Hoffmann.) About the end of August, the fall is apt to “go dry,” although in some years there is until late in September a fairly large supply of water. The magnificence of this torrent is most apparent early in the season, when to describe the spectacle is beyond the art of man. At the time of year when the stream has diminished in its flow, it is practicable to walk directly under the Upper Fall. Behind the sloping edge, on which the descending cataract strikes, there is a deep recess in the wall, where one can sit with perfect comfort and safety, while the water shoots past the front of the broad indentation in the cliff.

One extremely interesting and beautiful sight to be enjoyed by persons who choose to visit the Valley very early in the season, is the famous Ice Cone, which forms at the bottom of the Upper Fall. It is composed of the fragments of large icicles that grow on the projections of rock at the side of the fall, and that break off when partly melted by the increasing heat of the sun. The descending trickle of water (for then the stream is not yet receiving its full supply of melted snow) washes over the pile of fallen icicles, and this, with the action of the freezing nights, weld the heap into a solid cone-shaped mass of strange attractiveness. (See Route No. 2, and second day of Route No. 10, in Itinerary.)

The Royal Arch Fall is on the same side of the Valley as is the Yosemite, and nearly two miles further up. It is quite a small stream, fed by melting snows around the North Dome, and disappears early in the summer. Its height is about 2500 feet. The name it bears is due to its descending that part of the Valley wall which is known as the Royal Arches. Sometimes a late rain causes this fall to pour down a grand stream of water for a few hours, after which it disappears again. It is best seen from the opposite side of the Valley, under Glacier Point.

The Tooloolaweack (or Illillouette) Fall.— This fall, like those hereafter described, does not descend immediately into the Valley. Leading into the upper end of the space called by that name are three gorges or caņons. Down the middle one comes the Merced River; through the northerly one flows Tenayah Creek, and that to the south is the caņon of the Tooloolaweack. The latter is less extended than the other, reaching back scarcely a mile and a half from the Valley proper. It is approached by a trail that from the south end of the Merced Bridge follows up the Merced River to the place near the junction with the Tooloolaweack Creek. By ascending the course of this creek one can approach the fall; but the climb is a very rough one, especially since a fire, which in 1887 burned over a considerable space of ground along the creek, and destroyed a bridge that crossed it. Fine views, however, of this fall are obtained from a distance, particularly from the Anderson trail, which leads up the opposite side of the Merced. This trail is the one taken when the traveler is going to Vernal and Nevada Falls, the Little Yosemite and Cloud’s Rest, and the sight of the Tooloolaweack Falls is one of the most striking bits of scenery on the route. The trail, from the head of the Nevada Fall to Glacier Point, crosses the Tooloolaweack Creek above the fall, which is there seen in a new aspect. The main Tooloolaweack Fall is about 400 feet high. From the bottom of this plunge the stream is a boiling cascade down to its confluence with the Merced.

Vernal Fall
[click to enlarge]

The Vernal Fall is a jump made by the Merced River about a mile above the place where it enters the open valley. This fall is as perfect a picture of beauty as can be found in the world. At all times of the year it displays a completeness of charm that leaves an indestructible impression on the mind of the spectator. The vertical height of the Vernal is about 350 feet. At the top of the fall the stream has an average width of about eighty feet. It shoots down into a narrow caņon, and is begirt by peaks and mountain slopes of wild grandeur. Behind it the Cap of Liberty raises its noble outline, and forms the central and most conspicuous summit in the view.

Approaching the Vernal Fall from below, the Anderson trail winds along the flank of Grizzly Peak, on the northern side of the river, until about a quarter of a mile from the bottom of the fall. Here there is a bridge, from which there is one of the best views of the fall and the rapids below it. Crossing the bridge, the trail is followed up to a great over-hanging rock with a smooth surface, on which a number of visitors, “in the early days,” painted their names. Hence the name Register Rock. Here the trail forks. The right hand branch enables visitors to ascend on horseback to the head of Vernal Fall, and then on to the Nevada Fall and Snow’s Hotel. The other branch continues up by the river to the foot of the Vernal Fall, below which is a broad rock (known as the Lady Franklin Rock, that famous woman having once visited the place,) which is easy of access, and where one may study the glories of the fall in close proximity. Leaving the foot of the fall the trail ascends a somewhat difficult route at the side of the cataract, until a wooden stairway called The Ladders is reached. By these Ladders one mounts to the top of the fall. When a party is accompanied by a guide, he will, if desired, take the horses around by the other trail, and the visitors may ascend The Ladders and be joined by the guide with the horses a short distance from the head of the fall, where the trails reunite. Or the passage of The Ladders is made in returning to the Valley, this being much less laborious than the upward climb. While there is no danger necessarily attendant on the ascent or descent by the side of the Vernal Fall, persons who are not quite sure of their steadiness of head or foot, are advised to go around by the horse trail. It is also advisable for anybody who intends passing up or down The Ladders to be provided with waterproof garments. The spray from the fall blows in dense clouds over parts of the ascent, and visitors wearing clothing not made to shed water are liable to undergo a thorough soaking.

At the top of the fall there are several places where one may with perfect safety stand and look down on the whole front of the column of foam.

Nevada Fall
[click to enlarge]

Almost immediately above the fall is a place where the river expands, and which bears the name of the Emerald Pool. The peculiar green color of the water makes the name an appropriate one. The pool is seen very well from the horse trail that leads up to Snow’s hotel, but a nearer inspection of all this part of the river above the Vernal Fall will yield an ample recompense for the trouble.

The Nevada Fall.—Close to a mile, in a straight line from the top of the Vernal Fall, is the famous Nevada Fall. Partly from its immediate characteristics, and partly from the august nature of the surrounding scenery, the Nevada Fall has obtained a world-wide celebrity. Being fed, like the Vernal, by the main branch of the Merced River, the Nevada Fall has always a large supply of water. Its height is given by Lieutenant Wheeler as 605 feet. Professor Whitney says: “Our measurements made the Nevada from 591 to 639 feet, at different times and seasons.” He gives the descent of the rapids between the Nevada and Vernal Falls at nearly 300 feet. The approach to the Nevada from the Valley is by the trails spoken of in the paragraphs concerning the Vernal. About half way between the two falls the trail crosses a bridge. Immediately above and under the bridge is the Diamond Cascade, a seething rapid, leaping over great boulders, but confined to a narrow space. Below the bridge the rapid takes the name of Silver Apron. Here the water slides with exceeding swiftness along a broad, easily sloping and smooth surface of rock. More particularly when the water in the river has begun to diminish in volume, the appearance of the Silver Apron is suggestive of delicate filigree work.

Near the foot of Nevada Fall is the hotel known as the Casa Nevada (Snow House). From this place is an unsurpassed view of the fall and of the surrounding landscape, of which the enormous granite dome known as the Cap of Liberty forms the boldest feature.

Following the trail past the Casa Nevada, and up by the side of the fall, something less than three-quarters of a mile brings one to a fork in the path. The left-hand branch leads to the Little Yosemite, Cloud’s Rest and other places. The right-hand one comes shortly to a bridge near the top of the Nevada Fall, and, after crossing the bridge, continues on to Glacier Point. A visit to the top of the falls makes a delightful part of a day’s excursion.

The Cascade Fall is at the extreme lower end of the Valley; indeed, beyond the Valley, strictly defined, and the drive to it is a succession of delightful surprises. The road follows the river closely all the way, keeping on the northern vide. The Merced, from the more open part of the Valley downward, surges over large boulders, making an almost continuous rapid. The Cascades themselves have a picturesqueness on a par with that of any falls of the kind, and the surrounding scenery is of the grandest. The trip to the Cascades is one which is particularly suitable for persons who do not care to climb on horseback or afoot to the high points surrounding the Valley. There is good fishing in this neighborhood, and it is generally a most agreeable place whereat to spend a day. From the village to the Cascades the distance is 7.67 miles, and, as the road is good, a visit may be made in an afternoon of average length, although an entire day so used will afford greater satisfaction.

Next: 4. Peaks, Points & DomesContentsPrevious: 2. Notes in General

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