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The Yosemite Valley, and the Mammoth Trees and Geysers of California (c1870)


“Wonderful, indeed, are all His works,
Pleasant to know, and worthiest to be all
Had in remembrance always with delight;
But what created mind can comprehend
Their number, or the wisdom infinite
That brought them forth, but hid their causes deep?”


The reader must be pleased to suppose that he and we have returned to San Francisco, and are now intent upon a new expedition to the celebrated Geyser Springs of California.

We go by steamer to a place called Vallejo (25 miles),* lying very near the town of Benicia, famous for its production of the pugilistic hero, the “Benicia Boy.” Thence we take the cars up the Napa Valley, which in loveliness, though not in grandeur, may compete with the Yosemite. Its length is estimated at 30 miles, and its width at 5 miles. The hills on either side are of picturesque outline and most luxuriantly wooded, while the vale itself is a specimen of what cultivation can effect under a genial climate and upon a fruitful soil.

* At Vallejo, the tourist, if so inclined, may take the Napa Valley Railroad; or may drive, ride, or pedestrianize, as he feels inclined.

At the end of this enchanted garden we reach Callistoga, where we pass the night; and next morning, at six o’clock, we enter an open stage, and entrust ourselves to the care of the illustrious Californian “whip,” Friend Foss. On this occasion, he certainly displayed the utmost skill and coolness. He started with six horses at full gallop, and this gallop was kept up as long as the condition of the road would permit. As, on our approach to the Geysers, we ascended a mountain nearly 4000 feet high, the pace maintained was truly wonderful. At length, after a splendid drive through a fine country, we pulled up at Geyser Hotel; rested and refreshed ourselves; and pushed forward into the Geyser Canyon.

The traveller at first becomes aware of an extraordinary rush and roar, like the escape of steam from a hundred locomotive boilers. Next, his organ of smell is seriously titillated by a very strong stench of sulphur; and next he feels a remarkably uncomfortable degree of heat in the soil over which he laboriously limps.

He now finds himself in front of a small boiling stream of alum; and at no great distance flows another of nitric acid, or it may be of Epsom salts, soda, sulphuric acid, or ammonia: for this canyon seems to be the great laboratory of Nature, where she keeps her inexhaustible supply of “chemicals.” A deep opening, marked by a column of steam and filled with a volume of liquid black as ink, is called the “Devil’s Inkstand.” Further on lies the “Witches’ Caldron,” a pool of 3 feet in diameter, but so deep that it has never been fathomed. Here you may enjoy the unromantic but useful experiment of boiling some eggs in three minutes. But the scene is scarcely fitted for it. The caldron is a well deep in the precipitous side of a mountain; and the liquid with which it is filled being black and sulphurous, it seems fit to reserve it for some more appropriate feat than boiling eggs!

There are upwards of a thousand jets of steam constantly escaping in this canyon, which—with its noises, its stenches, and its mists and its intense heat—may not unfairly be regarded as a ravine let loose, in some mysterious way, from the infernal regions.

To the left is the “Steamboat,” where, high above your head, springs the roaring, hissing steam, until every nerve in your body is jarred and net shivering. Another, sounding like the whirring machinery of a mill in motion, has very fitly been called the “Devil’s Grist-Mill.” The same ubiquitous personage has, at another part of the canyon, his “Tea-Kettle.” The “brew” is not one which mortals are likely to have a fancy for; and if you thrust your stick into it, it snarls and sputters like a huge cat when a strange dog enters her presence.

Singular to say, the brook which traverses the canyon is cool and clear at its source, and for some distance into the canyon; but as the numerous springs pour into it, its temperature rises, and its purity is sullied. It flows into the Pluton River.

The canyon is full of interesting features. For instance, a little way up, you can find out a deep and shadowy pool, which engulfs the united waters of the springs above it, and these, growing cool in their progress, while retaining their medicinal properties, the basin becomes a bath fit for a Ninon L’Enclos—in fact, for any beauty that ever was or will be memorable.

Keep in the same direction, and you will light upon “Proserpine’s Grotto,” where the beauty might attire and compose herself after her bath. It is surrounded by rugged rocks of the most fantastic outline, and by trees which entangle their branches no as to form a pleasant “contiguity of shade.” And through this shade many fanciful glimpses can be caught of the gorge as it narrows far away into an apparent fissure, and seems to terminate in the very blue of heaven; while waterfalls flash down the rugged sides, like sudden gleams of a silver wing.

Some people have said, exclaims our Hutchings indignantly, that Californian scenery is monotonous, that her mountains are all alike, and that her skies repeat each other from day to day! We can confidently assert that nothing; more signally false was ever said, for California is emphatically the “land of contrasts.” As for its skies, see them at dawn, at noon, and at eve, or when they are decorated with night’s glorious jewellery of worlds, and judge for yourself whether poet’s imagination ever conceived a spectacle more various, more splendid, and more magnificent!

Next: Lake TahoeContentsPrevious: Mammoth Trees

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management