Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Yosemite ValleyContentsPrevious: Yosemite Valley Routes

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


Time was when, at New York, a visit to the Yosemite Valley was classed in the same category as an expedition to the North Pole, and adventurous persons bent on attempting it were urged, before they left, to make their wills and settle their affairs. But in those days a terrible journey across the prairies, the rivers, the deserts, and the mountains had really to be accomplished before the traveller entered upon the object of his enterprise. Now, with the help of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads, we are bottled across the continent with the utmost comfort, and at a considerable rate of speed, and are carried to Stockton, the starting-point for the Big Tees and the wonders of Yosemite, in a peculiarly agreeable manner. Consequently, the terrors of the expedition are considerably shorn. An atmosphere of romance, nevertheless, surrounded it, and tourists returning from it spoke vaguely of obstacles encountered and difficulties and represented themselves as having a kind of undefinable claim to the character of heroes. It cannot be said that any more moderate views prevailed in our guide books. Hence, friends gathering around as recommended that we should invest in a particular kind of flannel clothing, and that our “female relatives”—from sweet seventeen up to mature fifty—should add to their usual wardrobe the indispensable Bloomer costume. So, too, a certain kind of bag was necessary, in which to deposit the male attire, the ladies’ wardrobe, and the Bloomer costume, when we had arrived at the boundary of the civilized world. Stages and other vehicles here ceasing to exist, we should need to mount on horseback, slinging the said bags behind us without any fear of losing them. We were told by some of our good-natured friends that it was madness to attempt such a journey with ladies in our party; others, better natured, kindly said that the ladies were quite as able to undertake it as ourselves. Under these circumstances, we so for bowed to custom as to make the usual preparations, and, in despite of the scruples of the ladies, remembered the Bloomer costume.

Having completed these formidable arrangements, we started for Stockton, which, some twenty years ago, was the great central point whence the miners made their way to the mines—that is, to wealth and prosperity, or to ruin and premature or violent death. The town was once famous as “one of the dullest and most stupid places” in all California. Its inhabitants don’t call it dull, and we don’t affirm its stupidity. It is well built, well governed, and the scenery around it would occupy you pleasantly for a day or two.

From Stockton we set out, at length, on our journey to the Yosemite, selecting the shortest and easiest route —that of Hardin’s.

On this route our first stage is the Twelve Mile House, where we breakfast and take horses. Thence we traverse an undulating country, blooming with wild flowers, but containing few shrubs or trees. At Twenty-five Mile House we again change horses; and about noon we reach Knight’s Ferry, on the Stanislaus River, a pleasant settlement, surrounded by farms and orchards, and rendered doubly pleasant to the traveller as his dining station.

Crossing the Stanislaus Bridge, we wind to the left, over an offshoot of the mass of trap called the Table Mountain, so called because its summit seems to be comparatively level for about twelve to fifteen miles. Towards evening we arrive at Chinese Camp, where we spend the night, satisfied that our day’s journey has been one of which we have a right to boast.

The next morning we are up betimes, and ride in merry mood up hill and down hill, through leafy avenue, across grassy glade—the whole landscape having an indescribable air of freshness about it to the Tuolumne River, and the mining settlement of Jacksonville. Beyond has a kind of paradise that would have set some of the old-world poets raving—“Keith’s Orchard and Vineyard,” where, as in Milton’s Garden of Eden, fruits of the greatest variety and finest quality ripen for the benefit of humanity.

The Tuolumne River we cross at Stevens’ Bar Ferry, and thence we wind up Mocassin Creek to “Newhall and Culbertson’s Vineyard.” If we had not said so much in praise of Keith’s, we would say it in honour of Newhall and Culbertson. Drink their health, my friends, in glass of white wine which beats “Catawba”!

We now begin our ascent of the mountain—an ascent of 7000 feet. Sturdy pedestrians, with kindly feelings towards animals, will here trudge afoot; ladies can still keep to their conveyances.

We get an interval of rest at Kirkwood’s, while the horses are watered, and the mails and passengers (those who don’t ride) are turned over to the stage for Coulterville. Now we are off for Garrote, where we shall breakfast, passing on our way “the sturdy branch-lopped and root-cut veteran trunk of a noble and enormous oak, some eleven feet in diameter, still standing on on right:” it has given name to the locality, “Big Oak Flat.

At Garrote we transfer our admiration to the excellent and admirable attendance at Savory’s, or the Washington Hotel.

On our way to Second Garrote (who gave these names, we wonder?) we pass another delicious Eden-like orchard —Chaffey and Chamberlain’s—of which consider it our duty to say that it is the last orchard on this side of the Yosemite Valley. We may, therefore, suggest the necessity of laying in a supply.

After leaving Sprague’s Ranch behind us, we find the landscape rapidly changing in character. It is evidently laid out, so to speak, on a bolder scale—the hills are replaced by mountains, the groves by forests, the calm and gentle by the romantic and picturesque. As our friend Hutchings tells us, in his vigorous way, an occasional deer will now shoot across our track, or covies of quail, with their fine plumage and nodding “top-knots,” whirr among the bushes. It we have any feeling for the magic of sweet sounds, we shall listen delighted to the meadow lark, the robin, and the oriole; and recollections of our childhood will come back with the low purring note of the dove. Instead of the eastern woodpecker “tapping at the hollow beech tree,” the red-headed Californian species, with whose wonderful ingenuity Wilson has made us familiar,—El Carpintero, the Carpenter Woodpecker,* —is hard at work boring holes in the bark of a large pine tree, and afterwards carefully plugging them up with acorns, or examining them with a critical eye, to see if his toil does credit to his taste. The reason for this latter occupation is, according to Hutchings, still a mystery to naturalists. As the greatest activity in the storing was in the fall, and the inspection went on at other seasons, it was for many years supposed that an instinctive provision for a coming want was the cause. But as this variety of woodpecker has seldom or never been area feeding on the acorn, or on the supposed insect which it contained, some doubt has arisen as to the satisfactory nature of its occupation.*

* Also known as the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

* It is generally understood, however, that a maggot makes its way into the acorn, and, in due time, is extracted by the woodpecker to satisfy his appetite.

Resuming our journey, we pass, in due succession, Hamilton’s, near Big Gap; Hardin’s Mill, 7 miles; Hodgeden’s, 6 miles; Coburn’s, at Crane Flat, 5 miles; and Tamarack Flat, 5 miles.

The entire road opens up to us a series of the most magnificent landscapes ever designed and executed by the Divine Hand. Are you a votary to colour? Here you have it in all its rarest and richest hues—now light and floating, now deep and intense—from azure to ultra-marine, from pink to crimson, from the palest emerald blade to the deepest sea-green foliage. Are you a lover of form? Contemplate, then, its thousand varieties, from the utmost ruggedness of outline to the most delicate curve of grace—rounded, pyramidal, sharp, bold, soft, sublime. In the ravine beneath you, the Tuolumne winds its silver thread. On the cliffs above, the ancient forest trees rear themselves like the pillars of a magnificent temple. The flanks of the valley are sometimes bare, but oftener clothed with the most luxurious verdure. Far away against the horizon, the mountains roll like billows, till they blend in the distant sky. Near at hand, you catch the music of waters tumbling unseen from rock to rock.

Beyond Hardin’s we cross the south fork of the Tuolumne, and climb to a well-wooded table-land, where various kinds of conifers attain to a remarkable height and girth.

Horace Greeley does justice to this superb forest-growth. He considers that the one feature in. which the Sierra Nevadas surpass other mountains is in their forests. “ Look down,” he says, “from almost any of their peaks, and your range of vision is filled, bounded, satisfied, by what might be termed a tempest-tossed sea of evergreens, filling every upland valley, covering every hill-side, crowning every peak but the highest, with their unfading luxuriance.” Many hundreds of pines are eight feet in diameter, with cedars at least six feet; and these forest-giants extend for miles and miles in serried ranks almost as close as those of a well-disciplined army. The summit meadows, moreover, are adorned with a heavy fringe of balsam fir of all sizes, from those barely one foot high to those hardly less than two hundred.

In fact, you must see this vast wilderness of colossal trees before yon can rightly appreciate their imposing and almost formidable aspect.

By diverging a mile or two from our route—which we shall not do, though leaving other travellers their fall liberty of choice—we may see the “Tuolumne South Grove” of mammoth trees. The trees hero are of the some genus (Wellingtonia or Sequoia gigantea) as those of Calaveras and Mariposa. They are about thirty in number, and some of them are fine specimens. Two, growing from the same root, and uniting a few feet above the base, are called the “Siamese Twins.” They measure about 114 feet in circumference at the ground, the diameter, of course, being about 38 feet. The bark is 20 inches thick.

Crossing the grassy water-meadow of Crane Flat, we keep to the north-east until we reach the summit of the watershed that pours the Tuolumne in one direction and the Merced, or “River of Mercy,” another. We pause, almost breathless with the wonder and beauty of the scene before he, full as it is of God’s grandest, mightiest, and most surpassing handiwork, and, mute with astonishment, and lost in awe, begin the descent into the Yosemite Valley. It is by no means a “facilis descensus Averni,” for the road is difficult and nerve-testing, and yet it is charming as a young man’s fancy could wish it to be with over-arching trees and flowering bushes.

At Tamarack Flat we all of as mount on horseback. taking care that our saddles shall be well secured, and enter upon the more difficult and dangerous part of the downward track. Yet we hardly notice the danger, our eyes and attention are so arrested by the novelties which cluster everywhere about us.

A rough and rustic bridge takes us across Cascade Creek,—the said cascade wandering far away in a succession of falls and whirlpools; never resting; never conquered by any obstacle; now white with foam; now dark as night; now crooning a soft low tune; now seething and hissing in sudden fury.

Then the guide bids as pause on a rocky projection, called Prospect Point, whence we can see the Merced flashing in a craggy ravine beneath.

Down the swift declivity of the mountain we cautiously and patiently make our way. The foot is reached, and close below no are the foaming rapids of the river, and on each bank the clustering firs and aspiring pines, loading the air with the fragrance of their leaves. Above us, apparently at a tremendous elevation, the firmament glows like an immense sapphire; and before as extends in all its rare and undefinable magnificence, closed in by vast precipitous walls of gleaming granite, thronged with colossal pines, murmurous with the echoes of falling waters, the enchanted land of the New World—the Valley of the Yosemite!*

*Pronounced Yo-sem'-i-tè.

Observe: the valley at present is accessible only by two entrances—the one we have just taken; and the other, immediately opposite the river, by way of Mariposa. It is proposed to carry a railroad into the valley.

Next: Yosemite ValleyContentsPrevious: Yosemite Valley Routes

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management