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


CHAPTER V.

The High Sierra.

This is the name commonly in use to designate those parts of the Sierra Nevada ranging above the Yosemite Valley to the north, east and south. Although bearing a certain relationship to that of the Yosemite Valley, the scenery of the High Sierra has a distinct character of its own, and one not less impressive by its grandeur than is the spectacle of the glorious Valley itself. Some of the points to which reference has already been made (Cloud’s Rest and the Sentinel Dome, for examples) might be considered as part of the High Sierra, but for obvious reasons of convenience they have been classed with the sights of the Valley. From those summits some general notion may be obtained of the stern magnificence of the further region, but a more immediate acquaintance is necessary to enable one to carry away a just estimate of the scenic splendor of the High Sierra.

In this upper region there is an almost unlimited field for personal exploration, but the object of this little book is only to indicate points which may be conveniently reached by the average visitor without excessive effort or large preparation for travel. In the Itinerary herewith there are outlined routes to cover which would occupy from four or five days up to ten days. They can easily be varied, either before setting out or while en route, by persons wishing to travel faster or slower than is herein set down.

Lake Tenayah is distant from the Valley some sixteen or eighteen miles by the shortest route that can be followed on horseback. This is by the Eagle Peak trail. (See Route No. 18, Directions for Second Day.) Travelers afoot may reach the lake by following up the Tenayah Caņon from Mirror Lake, the distance being about ten miles, but involving some rather steep climbing. The difficulties, however, are not such that a fair walker would have trouble in making the trip in part of a day. Still another route is by a wagon road from Crocker’s Station, about twenty-three miles from Yosemite, on the Big Oak Flat road.

The Lake itself is not remarkable on account of its size, being about one mile and a-half long and three-quarters of a mile wide. Its distinction is due to its environment of peaks and domes of great elevation and characterized by a savage sort of sublimity. The height of these mountains and the extreme purity of the air at this altitude (close to 8000 feet), make the distance across the water seem even less than it is. Together, the softening influence of the Lake’s presence and the rugged masses of exposed granite form a scene that is a noble consort for the Yosemite Valley in the gallery of the Sierra. The Lake is nearly at the head of the Tenayah Caņon, and is fed by a little stream that gets its water from springs and snow-banks on the surrounding mountains. The greatest depth of the Lake does not appear to have been determined. On the side by which the road runs the shore shelves off very gradually, but on the opposite side and towards the center the water is of considerable depth.

Tenayah Peak, on the easterly side of the Lake, is a sharply defined crest whose apex is about 11,000 feet above the sea. It is quite heavily wooded near the base, but much the greater part is bare granite. The summit is not very difficult of access to one afoot, as the southern slant is long and gradual.

On the other shore the water ripples along the foot of Tenayah Dome—a bold example of that form of mountain, about 2000 feet in height above the Lake, and exhibiting over a large scope of its lower surface evidence of the glacial period in the shape of “glacier polish.” The friction of the moving body of ice which once filled this caņon to a depth of at least 500 feet (Whitney), and perhaps to a much greater depth, polished the granite so that it now shines under the sun like burnished steel. The rock has the appearance of having been so pressed that a coating or skin, a quarter of an inch or more in thickness, was formed on the exterior. The road by which one arrives at Tenayah is built along the base of the dome. Great slabs of granite were blasted out of the mountain side and allowed to slip down the smooth incline until they found a resting place at the edge of the water. In this way was formed a foundation for a fine esplanade, to walk along which, especially on a moonlit night, is a treat of rare magnificence.

Immediately above the Lake is a meadow through which the supplying creek descends. At the head of this verdant level is a singular, bell-shaped dome, between 800 and 1000 feet high, and known as Murphy’s Dome. It was called after John L. Murphy, for long a well-known guide in and around the Yosemite Valley, and now the owner of the “stopping place” at Lake Tenayah. The great glacier that came down the caņon seems to have swept around this dome, which is very regular in form and polished highly on parts of the surface.

Below the Lake the caņon or valley of the Tenayah becomes rather broader than above, and towards the south, at a distance of about half-a-dozen miles, is seen Cloud’s Rest. Notwithstanding this intervening space, the appearance of the majestic mountain is beautifully reflected on the placid waters of the bake. The figures of the nearer mountains are thrown back in the same way, but with greater distinctness of detail. This mirror-like effect is at its best in the morning before the light day breeze has dimpled the surface of the water, or towards evening, when the wind has gone down.

The Sierra is a region of echoes, but in no place therein is one likely to encounter a more striking echo than that of Tenayah Peak. Standing at the edge of the water in front of Murphy’s door, the visitor can, by slightly raising his voice, call forth answering tones, long repeated, of curious and pleasing distinctness and variety. The famous reverberations from Echo Wall in the Tooloolaweack Caņon (Yosemite) are less remarkable than those of Tenayah Peak.

Another of Tenayah’s curiosities is the sharp, hissing sound that is frequently heard about eight or nine o’clock in the morning. This unexplained noise appears to shoot through the air at some distance above the Lake. It has a resemblance to the sound of the tree-tops when stirred by the wind, but is more abrupt and shriller.

The meadows which partly border the Lake are covered in the summer with a dense and tall growth of delicate grasses. There are also many flowers growing on the meadows and among the fragmentary rocks of the mountain sides. Most of these flowers are similar in kind to those found in and around the Yosemite Valley. Several varieties of ferns of great beauty, especially in the early autumn, when they are changing color, abound on the mountains, and are often gathered by travelers as mementos of their visits. Tamarack and juniper trees constitute the most noticeable part of the timber growth at this elevation, and are frequently of oddly contorted shapes, due in part to the action of winter storms and the pressure of burdens of snow. On some of the mountain slopes (Tenayah Dome, for example) there is a thick and intricate growth of scrubby manzanita. Unlike the bush of the same name in lower parts of the Sierra, the manzanita here has a vine-like habit, creeping over the ground and sending fresh roots from the branches down into the scant soil of the crevices in the rock.

The business of accommodating travelers at Tenayah has not yet reached sufficient dimensions to warrant the establishment of a fully modernized hotel. Mr. Murphy, however, has for several years maintained a “stopping place,” in the phraseology of the West, that will be found quite satisfactory to all comers who are not excessively hard to please, and that may have a more piquant interest to persons to whom the shifts and devices of mountain life are matters of some novelty. The buildings for the accommodation of the public are made of logs and “shakes,” and are picturesquely situated in a grove at the head of a meadow skirting the Lake, the meadow being partly enclosed for a pasture for travelers’ horses.

Mount Hoffmann.—In coming to Lake Tenayah by the route advised, the road passes quite near to the southerly base of this mountain, about two miles and a half before reaching the Lake. Between the road and the mountain is a strip of meadow called Snow Flat, with a brook running through it. The excursion from the Lake to the summit of Hoffmann occupies a day pleasantly, although a good climber may make the ascent and return in an afternoon. There is no trail to the top, but one practicable for horses ascends to a bench on the southern side. Visitors usually ride up to this bench, fasten their horses to trees, and reach the summit afoot. Horses, however, have sometimes gone to the top. On one occasion the writer hereof accompanied two ladies who might have found the climb too much for their strength, and who rode, except for a short distance where there was some danger of the beasts’ stumbling, to the very summit. Unless led by a regular guide or by some one who has made the ascent, persons unfamiliar with mountain work may have difficulty in finding the trail up to the bench. They are advised to leave their horses on the meadow, and to go up the whole way afoot. In this way there is no difficulty in finding one’s course, as the front of the mountain is fully before the eyes.

At the eastern end of the bench mentioned there is a splendid outlook. Immediately below this point lies a Lake (also called Hoffmann), perhaps half a mile long, and resting in a lower bench than that on which the spectator stands. On its northern side the Lake is backed by a perfectly vertical wall of great height. From several other parts of the bench there are views that will well repay the slight exertion of coming hither. Upward from this shelf there is very little vegetation. A few stunted pines grow among the blocks of stone over which the climber must pick his way. There is no especial difficulty in doing so, and presently the rougher part of the ascent has been passed, and one comes to the curving, sandy slope that rounds off the top to the south. Crossing to the opposite side of the summit, which has an array of turrets, somewhat like an irregular crest, rising above the rounding surface, the visitor finds that the northern side of the mountain is a nearly perpendicular precipice of terrible grandeur. At its edge there is a sort of parapet, on which one may lean and look below with safety. The depth of this chasm is about 2000 feet. Where the wall begins to have a little slope there are great banks of everlasting snow, and immediately near the foot of the precipice is a minute lake of the vivid and peculiar blue color which distinguishes the small water holes of the Sierra. Scattered among the further ridges are nine similar lakelets. These are the sources whence is supplied the Yosemite Creek, and a glance from the top of Hoffmann explains why the great Yosemite Falls at times almost wholly cease to flow. As far as the eye can reach there is seen nothing but bare rock, utterly devoid of soil or of vegetation, excepting a few scraggy pines standing far apart among the ledges. When the winter’s snow melts it runs off the rock without any detaining interference from soil, and as soon as the main store of snow has melted there is nothing to furnish the stream with any considerable amount of water.

The views from the summit of Mount Hoffmann are unspeakably impressive, in whatever direction one looks. The whole circle of peaks to the north, the east and south of Yosemite, is included in the scene. There is but one way to get an idea of what this memorable spectacle is like, and that is by going to see it.

Although in ascending Mount Hoffmann a wide, treeless space is passed before gaining the top, there are growing on the summit a group of pines (Pinus albicaulis) of singular appearance. The trunks are of a good thickness, but the trees reach no greater height than eight to ten feet, their interlaced boughs growing very thickly and turning downward. The peculiar form of the trees appears to be due to the pressure of the great weight of snow that rests on them during several months.

Tuolumne Meadows.—(Tuolumne is pronounced in four syllables, accent on second.) From Lake Tenayah the road by which the traveler from Yosemite comes to that place continues up the caņon, between upright walls that are fair rivals for those of Yosemite in nobleness of design. The pass, gradually ascending, reaches an altitude of 9000 feet, and then turns downward at an easy grade until, some 500 feet lower than the summit of the pass, the road enters the Tuolumne Meadows. From Tenayah to this point is about four miles of continuous scenic splendor, and it is succeeded by another stretch of four or five miles equally as surprising by it’s stately beauty.

The Meadows are the upper part of the Valley of the Tuolumne River. They are about half a mile in average width, and level except where crossed by one or two indistinct moraines. They were formerly covered by a glacier of unknown depth, but judged by Professor Whitney to have been at least 1000 feet thick. The Meadows are now green with grass in summer, but the rock of the ridges on either side everywhere glistens like snow with the polish it has received from the glaciers. The Tuolumne River flows through the Meadows from east to west, descending at the lower end of the Meadows into a caņon that has never been explored. The ridge on the northern side of the Meadows is quite thickly wooded, chiefly with tamaracks, almost to the top. On the other side is a belt of timber above which one sees a succession of peaks of exceedingly eccentric shapes. The most conspicuous of these are the Cathedral and the Unicorn. The Cathedral, as seen from the Meadows, does not, however, show the outline to which is due its most appropriate name. Looking up the Meadows eastward, one faces the backbone or culminating crest of the Sierra Nevada. Two great peaks, of not widely different altitudes, look down on the Meadows. These points are Mounts Dana and Gibbs. The former is the more northerly of the two. To the right of Gibbs is another lofty and snow-burdened mountain called the White Wolf (also called Mount Morgan). The whole effect of this picture—the green level, with the rapid river coursing its length, and surrounded by the darkly timbered slopes, over which tower the shining steel-gray peaks, with banks of snow giving an added luster to their appearance—is wonderfully captivating. If there were no Yosemite and no Tenayah, the Tuolumne Meadows would, of themselves, be a sufficient cause of celebrity for the scenery of these mountains.

Soda Springs.—Towards the head of the Meadows and on the north side of the river are several chalybeate springs. The waters of these are charged with carbonic-acid gas, and are found very agreeable to the taste of most visitors. The road crosses the river above the Springs, so that the visitor must return down stream for about a quarter of a mile. This is a favorite place for camping by parties bound to or from Mount Dana or Mount Lyell. The owner, John Lembert by name, has fenced in a large piece of ground for pasture. He has built a small house over the main spring, and his own cabin will be found a curiosity in itself to persons not familiar with the modes of “roughing it” in unsettled countries. Mr. Lembert is always willing to give any information in his power to visitors. He does not keep a house for travelers, but takes pride in pointing out the various beauties of the surrounding scenery. The views from this locality are grand beyond description. A short distance above the Springs, at the side of the Meadows, is a salient point of rock to which the name of Lembert’s Peak has attached. It forms a prominent part of the scene to the eastward of the Springs.

Mt. Dana.—To reach this mountain from Soda Springs, one resumes the graded road and follows it up the northern side of the river. About three-quarters of a mile above the springs the stream forks, the left hand or northerly branch coming down from Mt. Dana and the other flowing from Mt. Lyell, off to the southeast. The wagon road leads up by the Dana branch, keeping to the left of the stream. The ride is one of unflagging interest. The turbulent rapids of the river and several emerald meadows by which one passes compose delightful foregrounds for the surrounding array of near-by and distant peaks and domes. The distance from Soda Springs to the base of Dana is between nine and ten miles. For a party without a guide the best way is to follow the wagon road to a place opposite the mountain, where woodchopping operations have been carried on and which is known as “the wood yard.” A cabin to the left of the road is passed some short time before “the wood-yard” is reached. At the latter place the traveler should turn off the road and ride directly to the foot of the mountain, crossing a small creek (dry in later summer). A good camp ground will be found among the trees at the base of the mountain. There are a number of small ponds here, and a little stream of water that runs into Dana Creek. Pasture for horses is likely to be good in the open spaces among the timber when there is but little grass on the broader meadow between the mountain and the road.

From the camp ground the visitor follows up Dana Creek, keeping it at his right hand. The hollow through which the creek descends divides Mt. Dana from Mt. Gibbs. The trail that goes up this gradually lessening depression is indistinct in many places, but there is no difficulty about threading one’s way among the rocks and stunted willow bushes. About five miles from the camp ground, and after an easy ascent of some 2000 feet, one arrives at the summit of the ridge connecting Dana and Gibbs, and which is called The Saddle. Here the horses are secured, by passing a long rope (with which the party should be provided) around one of the large boulders. that are lying at hand and fastening the halters to this rope. The last tree or bush has been passed some distance below. On the eastern side of The Saddle is a steep precipice, at the foot of which is a beautiful little lake, and the distant view between the two great peaks is an incentive to ascend still higher.

The pinnacle of Dana is 13,227 feet above the sea. The Saddle is about 11,600. From the latter place to the summit the elevation is very abrupt, especially as the top is approached. Nevertheless, the climb can easily be made by any person of average physique, care being taken not to let the feet slip on the fragmentary rock with which the upper part of the mountain is covered. A sprained ankle would be a troublesome affair to manage on this jagged hillside. The rock of the higher part of Dana is not the granite of the lower country, but a metamorphic slate of varied coloring, red and green, being the predominant hues. Many of the blocks are beautifully figured with dark green patterns resembling ferns and sprays of other plants.

Throughout the summer snow lies in patches, even on the southern face of the mountain far below the summit. A slow melting, however, goes on, and the water so produced can be heard singing among the hidden crevices between the blocks of stone under one’s feet. There is a large basin scooped out on the northern side of the mountain, and this always contains a mass of ice and snow, which is sometimes mentioned as the Dana Glacier. At the bottom of this great hole, which was once, doubtless, filled with a vast glacier, is a miniature lake of rare beauty of color.

Of all the conveniently accessible points in the High Sierra the summit of Dana commands the most far-reaching view and the one with the greatest variety of scenic character. Northeastward from the mountain, and at a depth of nearly 7000 feet below the summit, lies Mono Lake (in extent about twenty-three miles long and eighteen broad), with the surrounding valley, in which the farms with their different fields and buildings can be plainly discerned. There are a number of other smaller lakes in sight, resting among the lower mountains. It is said that on a quite clear day twenty of these bright jewels of the Sierra can be counted from the top of Dana. Beyond the Mono basin rise the ranges of Nevada, piling up one above the other and dressed with patches and ribbons of snow. Westward the eye overlooks the Tuolumne Valley and the peaks in the direction of Tenayah and the Yosemite. Northward from Dana Mounts Warren and Conness are conspicuous among an innumerable host of lesser hills. And to the south are the near-by slopes and peaks of Gibbs and the White Wolf, backed by the lengthening chain of the highest groups of the Sierra. Mt. Dana was named after Professor J. A. Dana, the distinguished geologist.

To the extreme tip of the mountain, and peeping up from among the rough splinters of rock with no apparent soil to sustain vegetation, are found several kinds of small flowering plants. Most noticeable is the Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium Confertum), whose blue and violet blossoms can nowhere else have the same appealing charm as among surroundings of a nature so tremendously in contrast with the delicate beauty of the world of flowers.

On the apex of the mountain some one has built a monument of broken rock, in the openings of which will be found several small tin boxes containing slips of paper, on which are written the names of nearly all the persons who have made the ascent.

Mount Lyell.—The difference in altitude between Mt. Dana and Mt. Lyell is inconsiderable, the accepted measurement of the latter being 13,191 feet. The summit of Lyell is, however, much more difficult to attain than that of Dana. None but the most experienced in mountain climbing should attempt it without the assistance of a guide. Lyell is reached by following up a trail that runs by the southerly branch (Lyell Creek) of the Tuolumne river, from the junction with Dana Creek near Soda Springs. Camp is made on the meadows at the base of the mountain, and as there is no trail for horses beyond this place the further ascent is made afoot. To reach the summit a glacier-like body of snow and ice, something like two miles long and half a mile wide, must be passed over. This glacier is said to move at the rate of about an inch a day. Above the everlasting snow is a pinnacle of granite about 150 feet in height, and which has been climbed by but few visitors. The southerly faces of the upper part of Mt. Lyell are sheer precipices exceeding 1000 feet in depth. Below them lie the bodies of snow whence come the highest waters of the Merced River. The view from the top of Lyell is especially fine towards the southeast, in the direction of Mt. Ritter, a peak of about equal height with Lyell and Dana, but probably exceeding either.

Cathedral Valley and Peak.—After visiting Mt. Dana or Mt. Lyell, or both, the return to Yosemite is most advisably made by way of the Cathedral Valley trail. This is reached by retracing the road past Soda Springs to the lower end of the Tuolumne Meadows, where the trail strikes off from the road in a southwesterly course. Without a guide the visitor would be likely to fail of finding the beginning of this trail, and it would be advisable to enlist the services of Mr. Lambert to point out the starting place. Once on the trail there is no particular difficulty in following it, attention being given to the “ blazes “on trees and to the pieces of rock laid up in prominent places as directory signs. After four miles of general ascent, the greater part of the way through a forest of tamaracks, the trail turns down into the Cathedral Valley. This is a beautiful meadow, with a little lake at one side, lying below the western side of Cathedral Peak.

The mass of rock called Cathedral Peak is perhaps the most impressive rock-form in the whole region surrounding Lake Tenayah and the Tuolumne Meadows. In following the route herein adopted the Cathedral first comes in sight when the tourist is approaching Tenayah from Yosemite. From the slope of the Hoffmann ridge that leads down to the lake the majestic architecture of the Cathedral is seen in the aspect which induced the adoption of that name. In the sublime view from the summit of Hoffman the Cathedral is one of the most imperial figures. It has the well-defined appearance of a regularly outlined Gothic church edifice, but of dimensions vast beyond the creative powers of man. The side wall rises vertically for upwards of a thousand feet, and the spires or slender towers at the end are hundreds of feet still higher. From the Tuolumne Meadows the Cathedral is again in view, but it does not there present the shape whence comes its most distinctive character. From the Cathedral Valley or Meadow at its base, one obtains a closer acquaintance with the huge bulk of this rock, as well as with the graceful sculpture of its shining pinnacles.

Little Yosemite.—In the Itinerary, elsewhere in this guide, the Little Yosemite is indicated as one of the places which may be visited directly from the great Valley (Routes 13 and 15). But in making the tour of the High Sierra the Little Yosemite lies conveniently in the course usually followed. Continuing along the trail through Cathedral Meadow, through Long Meadow, and over the Sunrise ridge, during which ride one is constantly surrounded by scenes of utmost interest, the junction with the Cloud’s Rest trail is reached about thirteen miles and a half from Soda Springs. About three miles further down, the trail draws near to the Merced River. Here the trail to Little Yosemite turns directly up stream. A short ride brings one to the fence inclosing the Little Yosemite, which is private property.

The name Little Yosemite is scarcely appropriate, for nothing is little in the marvellous scenery of this region. In other parts of the world the Little Yosemite would of itself be considered a sufficient attraction to invite the admiration of multitudes. Where it is, among such a superabundance of scenic riches, hundreds of persons pass by and are barely informed of the existence of such a place. It is a valley or caņon having a certain general likeness to the Yosemite in respect of its level floor and upright walls. The walls, however, are not quite so lofty, nor is the floor space so extensive as in the Yosemite proper. Neither is there such a wealth of cataracts. Grandeur and beauty there are, nevertheless, in unstinted measure.

The floor space of the Little Yosemite is between two and three miles long and about three-quarters of a mile wide. It is pretty well overgrown with timber, which is interspersed with little grassy openings. The walls are from 2000 to perhaps 3000 feet in height. At the left, after one has passed by the entrance in the fence to which the trail leads, is a grand precipice curiously and handsomely streaked with coloring like that seen on the Royal Arch wall. On the opposite side the wall is topped by two fine domes, and away at the head of the valley is the Sugar Loaf Dome, an exceptionally perfect example of this rock shape. The Merced River flows through the centre of the floor, at an elevation of over 2000 feet about its average level in the great Yosemite. Continuing up to where the river enters the Little Yosemite, one finds the stream sliding down a smooth sloping face of granite, and forming with the rapids, surging over the boulders below, a picture of exquisite beauty. This fall has been named the Silver Chain Cascade. To pass by this place on horseback is feasible but requires care, as some rather slippery inclines must be gone over. The distance so characterized extends but a few yards above the cascade. While the trail is rough, it is perfectly safe. Here the river descends through an extremely narrow gorge, one side of which is formed by the base of the Sugar Loaf Dome, along which the trail winds among a chaos of boulders.

Lost Valley.—Emerging from the upper end of this pass one finds himself in a sort of amphitheatre, heavily wooded as to the floor, and with walls of great height, and nearly vertical above the talus, arranged apparently in a complete circle. The deep shadows of these frowning cliffs together with the sombreness of the pine trees give a tone of intense gloom to this, peculiar locality, which is known by the name at the beginning of this paragraph, and which is well worthy of a visit. At the upper end of the amphitheatre the river comes tumbling and sliding down through a gap, composing a cascade, of which the lower part has much resemblance to the chute of the Silver Chain. The former is sometimes called the Gibraltar Cascade, but with what reason would he hard to imagine.

From Lost Valley and the Little Yosemite the return to the Valley may be made either by descending past the Nevada and Vernal Falls or by following the trail from the head of the Nevada Fall to Glacier Point, and thence down to the village.



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