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“In grandeur, sublimity, and beauty, the Yosemite Valley stands alone. At the upper end there have been shakings and rendings, rocks thrown clown on either side, sometimes as large as a great church, as if demons had been breaking up and hurling the mountains at each other. The river dashes and bounds among these fragments as if frightened and infuriated; and then half an hour’s ride brings you to the oaks, and pines, and lawns, smooth as a garden, wild as nature, not showing the mark of use, or anything to alter this park from what it was when the eye of man first looked into it.”—Dr. Todd, The Sunset Land.
We now begin our exploration of the valley.
The first feature which impresses us is the Bridal Veil Fall (the Pohonó, or “Spirit of the Evil Wind”), which descends from a height of about 940 feet. Pohonó is an evil spirit of the Indian mythology. The tradition connected with this fall, and with the second peak of the summit west of it, where you may trace the noble head and features of a demi-god in profile, we shall hereafter relate.
The fall itself is the overflow of a stream which flows down a rugged canyon, some twelve or fifteen miles, before it lets itself down from the brink of the cliff in one unbroken sheet of silver, forty feet wide, upon a mass of gigantic boulders.
Its American name is rather happy. For to one viewing it in profile, says Ludlow, its snowy sheet, broken into the filmy silver lacework of airy spray, and falling entirely free of the brow of the precipice, might well seem the veil worn by Earth at her “granite wedding,” millions, it may be, millions of years ago.
On either side of Pohonó the sky-line of the precipice is diversified in the boldest and most striking manner. The fall itself cleaves a deep chasm into the crown of the battlement. To the south-west rises a bold but unnamed rock, 3000 feet in height; and not far distant is Sentinel Rock, a “solitary truncate pinnacle,” towering to 3300 feet. Nearly opposite soar the three ascending ridges of Eleachas, or the Three Brothers, the highest attaining to the elevation of 3450 feet.
But we make our way, almost satiate with wonders, to one of the three hotels to be found in the valley— Black’s, Hutchings’, and Leidig’s, to name them in alphabetical order. The following morning we begin a systematic survey, which, at the least, will occupy us three, but may well and satisfactorily be extended to seven days. Hutchings is our guide (there can be none better), and, therefore, the first “object of interest”—to use a hackneyed phrase—which calls for our attention, and, as a matter of course, for our admiration, is
Crossing the main stream, which is here about eighty feet wide and five feet deep, we continue along the northern bank, to avoid the marshy flats on the southern, until we reach the ford, where we re-cross the river, under an embowering canopy of oak, maple, and dogwood trees.
As the snow, under the summer sun, is rapidly melting, we ford, not only the main channel, but several smaller streams. Within about a hundred and fifty yards of the fall our progress is interrupted by a succession of large boulders. Therefore we dismount, and, fastening our animals to the nearest saplings, push forward on foot.
We now proceed to climb to the base, or, as nearly as possible to the base, of the great Yosemite Falls, the loftiest cascade or cataract in the world. There are, in fact, two falls, of which the upper pours down a tremendous sheet of silver for a depth of 1448 feet, and the second plumps sheer down the precipice for 700 feet; while, between the two, measuring about 400 feet, a series of rapids form an appropriate connecting link. Thus the total height of the “sheeted column’s perpendicular” is 2548 feet. By some authorities, however, this total is brought up to 2634 feet.
It is difficult to describe the power and majesty of a gigantic waterfall. But the impression made on the mind by the ceaseless rush—by the tumbling waters perpetually flashing and gleaming, roaring and murmuring—by the intuitive feeling that the motion before you has never paused since the creation, and will never pause until Time shall cease to be,—is almost bewildering. You find yourself at a loss to take in the separate details: the huge wall of granite rising no massively before you; the huge masses of multiform rocks strewn, and scattered, and piled in every direction; the ferns, and wild flowers, and lovely mosses which here and there relieve the harsher features of Nature. All your soul is concentrated on the vastness of the fall, which seems to fill up the entire picture, so that wherever you go you still seem to see the deep glow of the waters, to catch the flash of their diamond spray, to hear the whirr and clash of their endless progress.
It is said that in the winter the spray from the great cataract freezes, and piles up and again freezes, until a hollow pillar is constructed some hundreds of feet in height. Into that pillar the waters pour, and then rebound like rainbow-coloured balls.
In the spring, the rush of the cataract and its thousand voices seem for a moment to be arrested. You hasten to the spot. The floods have undermined this glorious pillar, and made ready to topple it from its elevation. The struggle is brief, but desperate. Suddenly the ice yields, and is shivered, and hurled into the air in a thousand fragments, sparkling and shining with a lustrous gleam, and then falling back into the stream, to be carried away and seen no more.
The falls, let us add, seem, at their summit, to be about three or four feet wide; but Mr. Hutchings, who has ascended the mountain over which they take their headlong leap, declares they are fully forty feet.
They are not often visited in spring-time; but Mr. Carleton Coffin asserts that then they are a hundred times more majestic than in autumn. This we can readily believe to be the effect of the sun melting the snows. Evidences of the power of which we have spoken, but which it is so difficult to realize, are afforded, as Mr. Coffin points out, by the great boulders of granite around us, larger than a thirty-ton locomotive, which, in years remote, fell thundering down the dizzy height, snapping the great trees as if they were reeds, and grinding and pulverizing the rocks. Thus, says Mr. Coffin, the Almighty bids the forces of nature grind the solid granite into flour for human food—the “River of Mercy” carrying it out upon the meadows, to be transmuted by golden sunlight and nightly dews into ripened wheat and purpling grapes.
This is one of the loveliest localities in the valley. You confront the great falls almost with a sense of apprehension and a feeling of undefinable awe: but you look upon this crystal mirror with a sentiment of subdued admiration.
In its sheet of unrippled glass—especially at early morning—it reflects the mountains, 4000 and 5000 feet high, with such a wonderful clearness that yon can readily detect the furrows on their brows and the ledges and ravines in their rugged sides. It is not above a couple of acres in extent, but this remarkable translucency gives it a curious appearance of vastness. The bases of the mountains all around are fringed with noble trees, which supply in their various foliage a delightful contrast to the azure of the pool beneath. On the north-east a, deep canyon, or gorge, opens wide, to permit the outflow of the north branch of the “River of Mercy,” which supplies the lake.
To the north of the valley rises
or To-coy-ae of the Indians, a mass of bold, bare granite, with scarce a tree or shrub, rising to a height of 3725 feet. In its huge sides, which, for two thousand feet, are absolutely perpendicular, a colossal arch has been created by the disruption, in all probability, of several sections of the rock. Look with admiration at the “Royal Arch of To-coy-ae!” According to our guide, philosopher, and friend, Mr. Hutchings, it has never been submitted to exact geometrical measurement; but a well-trained eye gives as its altitude, from the valley to the croon of the arch, 1700 feet; its span, 2000 feet; its internal depth, 90 feet. Kings and queens of the earth, here is a noble council-chamber for ye!
To the south-cast of the Mirror Lake, or Lake Hiawatha, as it is sometimes called, towers the majestic bulk of
or Mount Tis-sa-ack, which, though by some tremendous convulsion it has been sorely reduced in elevation, and neatly one half of borne down in a broken pile into the depth of the subjacent valley, is still 4593 feet in height.
The base is shrouded in the “hazy mystery” which, more or less, surrounds everything in the Yosemite Valley. “Numerous little white clouds, becoming detached from this misty curtain, are sailing (as we gaze) up the mountain-side, dodging about among the projecting spurs, intruding their beautiful forms slowly into the dark caverns, puffed out again in a hurry by the eddying winds which hold possession of these gloomy recesses, and then resume their upward flight, each following the other with the precision and regularity of a fleet of white-winged yachts rounding the flag-boat, and each eaten up by the sun with astonishing rapidity, as they sail slowly past the angle of shadow thrown across the lower half of the mountain. High above all this, in the clear bright sunshine, towers the lofty summit, every projection and indentation, weather and water stain, fern, vine, and lichen so clearly defined that one can almost seem to touch its surface by merely extending the arm.”
The summit of this beautiful mountain has never yet, we think, been touched by the foot of man. In the Indian belief it is the borne of the good spirit of the valley, the lovely Tis-sa-ack; and a fantastic legend is connected with it which the traveller will doubtless be pleased to hear. Different writers relate it somewhat differently, but the following version seems to be tolerably accurate:—
[Editor’s note: this “legend” “was almost certainly fabricated” according to NPS Ethnologist Craig D. Bates. —dea.]
In a far distant age, the valley which eve now name the Valley of the Yosemite was the home of the children of the sun. They lived there peacefully under the guardianship of their chief, Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah, who dwelt upon the huge rock that still bears his name. With a glance of his eye he saw all that his people were doing. Swifter on foot than the elk, he herded the wild deer as if they were sheep. He roused the bear from his mountain-cave that the young people might hunt him. From the nest of the mountain height he prayed to the Great Spirit, and the soft rains descended upon the corn in the valley. The smoke of his pipe curled up into the air, and the warm sunshine streamed through it, and ripened the golden crops for the women to gather them in. When he laughed, the river rippled with smiles; when he sighed, the murmurous pines repeated the plaint. When he spoke, the voice of the cataract was hashed into silence; when his shout of triumph arose over the bear he bad slain, it was repeated by every echo, and rolled like a thunder-peal from one mountain to another. His foam was straight as an arrow, and elastic as a bow. His foot outstripped the red deer, and the glance of his eye was like the lightning flash.
But one morning, when hunting, a bright vision dawned upon him of a lovely maiden sitting alone on the very summit of the South Dome. Unlike the nymphs of his tribe, she was not wreathed in tresses black as night, nor was the glean of darkness in her eyes; but down her back fell the long golden hair like a stream of sunshine. Her brow was pale with the beauty of the moonlight; dear eyes were blue sa the mountains in the hour of twilight. Her little feet shone like the snow-crests on the pine-woods of the winter; she had small cloud-like wings drooping from her marble shoulders; her voice murmured sweetly and softly, like the tones of the night-bird of the forest.
“Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah!” she whispered, and was gone From crag to crag, over gorge and chasm, rushed the impetuous chief in pursuit of the aërial beauty; but, lo! her snow-white wings had conveyed her to the unknown land, and Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah saw her no more.
Day after day did the young chief wonder among the mountains seeking after the beautiful one he had lost. Day after day did he lay sweet acorns and fragrant wild flowers upon her dome. Once his our caught her footstep, light as the fall of a snowflake on a river. Once he caught a glimpse of her form, and a tender glance from her radiant eyes. But be was voiceless before her; nor eves did her sweet tones fall upon his expectant ear. So passionate was his love for Tis-sa-ack, so absorbed was he in his dreams and thoughts of the beautiful maiden, that he forgot his people; and the rains ceased to descend, and the valley became athirst, and the crops withered where they stood; the beautiful flowers bent their heads and died; the winds lost their power, and ceased to cool the valley; the waters passed away, and the green leaves faded into brown. Nothing of this was seen by Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah, for his eyes were wholly fixed on the vision of the mountains. But Tis-sa-ack saw it, and saw with sorrow; and kneeling on the gray rock of the dome, she prayed to the Great Spirit that he would again give to the people the bright flowers and delicate grasses, the leafy trees, and the nodding acorns.
Then, in a moment, the great dome on which she knelt was cloven asunder, and through the gorge thus opened rushed the melting snows from the Sierra Nevada the wide channel of the River of Mercy. And the rocks that simultaneously fell from the mountain banked up so much of the waters as were sufficient to fill the Mirror Lake. Then indeed, the scene was changed. The birds wetted their rings in the rills and pools, and burst into joyful song; the grasses spread stealthily over the gladdened soil; the flowers received a new life, which they penned out in grateful fragrance; the golden corn sprung up in its abundance, and the merry wind aroused a thousand slumbering echoes. But in the convulsion which had inaugurated this transformation, the maiden had disappeared for ever. And for ever the half-dome bears her mime, in grateful recognition of her love for the Indian people Tis-sa-ack. Every morning and evening the sun lifts from or lays his rosy mantle upon the summit; and all around the margin of the lake bloom myriads of white violets, the memorials of the snow reaches dropped from Tis-sa-ack’s wings as she flew away.
When Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah discovered that she would be seen no more, he abandoned his rocky fastness; and, with a bold hand, carving the outline of his head and form on the face of the rock that still bears his name, a thousand feet above the valley, he went in search of the lost one. On reaching the other side of the beautiful ravine, a feeling of deep melancholy fell upon him. Unwilling to quit it, he sat down, gazing far away towards the sunset, whither, as he believed, his Tis-sa-ack had bent her flight.
And as he sat, his grief weighed heavily on his heart, and he ceased to have motion or life in his blood. Slowly he changed into slope; and the voiceless, breathless, lifeless figure may still be seen by every visitor to the Yosemite, looking afar off to the land of the sunset, in wistful inquiry for the loved and lost.
So runs the legend.*
* See Dr. Todd, “Sunset Land;” Ludlow,. “Heart of the Continent;” and Hutchings, “Scenes of Wonder in California.“
The next point to which the admiring, wondering, open-eyed and open-eared visitor betakes himself is the Pohonó, or Bridal Veil Fall. This is passed by those who enter the valley either from Coulterville or Mariposa, and has already been noticed by us. In visiting it from any of the hotels, we keep down the south side of the valley. On our left rises the lonely Sentinel Rock, on whose crest so often blazed the watch-fires of the Indians. Beyond we come to a succession of curious peaks, very picturesque and suggestive in their outline. These are the Cathedral Rocks and the Cathedral Spires— names which no imaginative traveller will consider appropriate.
Its addition to what we have already said about the feathery, luminous, lace-like fall, we take leave to borrow from Mr. Hutchings an allusion to the Indian superstition respecting it:—
“Pohonó,” he says, “from whom the stream and the waterfall received their musical Indian name, is an evil spirit, whose bread, is a blighting and fatal wind, and consequently is to be dreaded and shunned. On this account, whenever from necessity the Indians have to pass it, a feeling of distress steals over them, and they fear it as much as the wandering Arab does the simooms of the African desert: they hurry past it at the height of their speed. To point to the waterfall, as they travel through the valley, is in their minds to induce certain death. No bribe could be offered large enough to tempt them to sleep neat it. It is, in truth, their belief that they hear the voices of those who have been drowned in the stream perpetually warning them to shun Pohonó.”
To visit these beautiful and justly-famed falls we must take quite an opposite direction to any we have yet followed. On leaving the hotel we turn to the right, and ascend the valley, which widens as we advance, and is brightened by noble oak trees, standing alone or in clumps at irregular intervals.
The precipitous wall of granite on our right, 3740 feet high, is silvered by a number of tiny rills that glide or leap down its face. At one point the jutting rocks unite no as to suggest a faint resemblance to a hospice; and this, with a recollection of the Alps, has been named Mount St. Bernard. But, in fact, the outlines of the peaks are so very varied that a lively imagination can easily suggest a hundred quaint resemblances; and these resemblances are more or less conspicuous as we look upon them in shadow or in sunshine, at dawn or purple twilight.
On our right we pass the Royal Arches, Washington Tower, the North acid South Domes, and more picturesque and magnificent objects than we have time or space to enumerate. Let the traveller beware of fatiguing himself with admiration, or when he reaches the falls he will have spent his enthusiasm, and be forced to contemplate them (if he can) with indifference. Admiration! Why, who can have a sufficient supply to bestow, not only on rocks and rills, hat on all the lofty and noble trees around us—pine, cedar, spruce, black oak, and dogwood; or on all the flowering shrubs and fragrant flowers, from the white azalea and the aromatic laurel to the modest primrose and larkspur?
The “Vernal” Fall, as it is unmeaningly named—that is, the Pi-wy-ack—lies upwards of two miles from the hotel. The view of this beautiful cataract obtainable from below, where it mingles with the river in a noisy, boiling, foaming whirlpool, is very fine; but the view from above is infinitely finer. The ascent is made by means of the Ladders (charge for ascending and descending, 75 cents); and the prospect we see may be described somewhat as follows. Here what is called the Middle Fall of the river, after thundering through a rugged gorge, springs from the ledge of the precipice in one unbroken leap of 350 feet in depth and 60 feet in width. Think, 0 reader, of the sublime spectacle hidden in these figures!—a wall, and yet a moving wall, of apparent silver, lit up with diamond and ruby flashes, and 350 feet in height!
Climbing between stunted pines and huge boulders for about half a site, we arrive at the base of the Yo-wi-ye, or Nevada Fall, which, if inferior in beauty to the Pi-wy-ack, has, at all events, a greater volume of water. Its height is 700 feet. It falls from a precipice whose higher portion is singularly smooth and perpendicular. Then it is deflected by an unseen ledge in a slantwise direction, and at an angle of about 30°; the effect of the sudden deviation being to expand it, “like a half-opened fan,” to the width of 200 feet. The spectacle, consequently, is not only sublime and imposing, but exquisitely beautiful; and all the more so from the contrast of the shining, shifting, foaming waters, to the rugged framework of granite in which they are set like a picture.
We are weary of description, or we would tell you of another fall—Tu-lool-we-ack—in the South Canyon gorge, which is 600 feet high, and “a very pretty thing, sirs, as it stands!” Just go and look at it for yourself, my friend. It drops down into a kind of semicircular basin, whose rocky sides are as near perpendicular as may be.
The view of the South Dome from the recesses of the South Canyon is one of those sights which no man forgets, however long he may live. It fills you with an overpowering sense of tine grandeur of Nature—of the tremendous power of Nature’s Creator, who net in motion the resistless agencies that have wrought out these features of majesty and awful sublimity.
Of the noble summits—so varied in their configuration, no similar in their grandeur—that close in the Yosemite Valley, but few have been ascended; and to ourselves, who abominate the vulgarization of Nature, this seems a special matter for thankfulness. At the north side of the Nevada Fall, however, a mass of rock, 2000 feet above the foot of the cataract, and differently entitled Mount Given, Bellows Butte, Mount Francis, Mount Frederick, and the like, by the fancy of successive visitors—more properly and significantly the Cap of Liberty—can be conquered by the profane foot of man without any great difficulty. The prospect—at all events, from the south-eastern angle— is very impressive, and includes the winding course of the Merced, and the tremendous headlong plunge of the Nevada, the majestic Yosemite Falls, the Sentinel Dome, the Mount Starr King, the regal South Dome, and a legion of other lofty peaks.
Not less magnificent is the picture revealed from the summit ridge of the Three Brothers; but still more magnificent is that which the bold spirit enjoys who rises to the level of the crest of Mount Beatitude.
For from this noble elevation (2900 feet) we obtain a complete, unbroken view of the valley and its inclosing peaks. Like a ribbon of silver, the Merced winds its way among the dark-leafed trees. The kinglike head of Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah fives our gaze. Then we turn to the grand summits of the South Dome and the Clouds’ Rest, and the billowy masses seem to roll far away into an ocean of dint azure, relieved by snow—tipped waves. In the foreground, on the left, the Ribbon Fall descends in water and diamond spray front a height of 3300 feet; on the right we may once more admire the beautiful Pohonó, or Bridal Veil Fall, with the peak of the Three Graces (3600 feet) towering in the background.
The Sentinel Dome is also easy of ascent; and is worth ascending, not only because it commands a fine prospect of the valley—with South Dome conspicuous over every other feature—the North Dome, Clouds’ Rest, Cap of Liberty, Mount Starr King, the Yosemite Falls, the Nevada Fall, the Vernal Fall, and the Cataract of the Merced, but because its panorama includes a prolonged extent of the Sierra Nevada. Its principal summits are the following:—
|Mount Hoffman, 13,572 feet.||Cathedral Peak, 11,000 feet.|
|Mount Dana, 13,227 feet.||Mount Lyell, 12,270 feet.|
|Castle Peak, 12,500 feet.||Gothic Peak, 10,850 feet.|
|Mount Starr King, 9,600 feet.||South Dome, 10,000 feet.|
The valleys of the San Joaquin and Sacramento, and the Coast Mange, near the Golden Gate, are also visible.
The elevation of the Yosemite Valley above the sea, according to the Geological Survey, is 4060 feet. In the middle of summer, therefore, the heat is never overpowering; in winter, snow falls to a depth of from two to five feet. The valley is about seven miles long, and from half a mile to one and a quarter miles wide. It lies about due south-west to north-east. The total area is 8480 acres. The granite walls on either side rise from 4000 to 6000 feet in height.
Our account of this Eden land will close, with our readers’ permission, in some words of honest enthusiasm, partly borrowed from Charles Brace’s “New West.”
There are excursions enough, as he says, to occupy the traveller—especially if he carry a sketch-book—for weeks among the beautiful scenes of the valley. Mount your horse early in the morning—or, still better, trust to your own legs—and stroll up and down the marvellous canyon, enjoying the various novel scenes that open up at every step. To lie down in sight of one of the Great Falls is a sufficient summer-day’s wort: for any reasonable man; and when he is weary of well-doing in this direction, let him ride to Inspiration Point, on the Mariposa trail, and gain such a view of the valley as is nowhere else attainable.
In Mr. Brace’s opinion, the wonderful thing about the canyon, which will hereafter attract many an invalid from distant lands, is its divine atmosphere. The climate is so mild and invigorating that nothing can surpass it. Breathing the air of the Yosemite, a new hope and strength are infused into your life. The charm of the wonderful valley is its cheerfulness and joy. Even the awe-inspiring grandeur and majesty of its features do not overwhelm the sense of its exquisite beauty, its wonderful delicacy, its rich colour, and intense vitality.
“As I recall,” says our friend, “those rides in the fresh morning or dewy noon, that scene of unequalled grandeur and beauty is for ever stamped upon my memory, to remain when all other scenes of earth have passed from remembrance: the pearly-gray and purple precipices, awful in mass, far above one, with deep shadows on their rugged surfaces—dark lines of gigantic archways or fantastic figures drawn clearly upon them—the bright white water dashing over the distant gray tops seen against the dark blue of the unfathomable shy—the heavy shadows over the valley from the mighty peaks—the winding stream and peaceful greensward with gay wild flowers below—the snow- summits of the Sierras far away—and the eternal voice of many waters wherever you walk or rest. Thi, is the Yosemite in memory.”
And this it is which, long as life shall last, will be indelibly impressed on our heart and imagination—woods, and mountains, and leaping waterfalls.
|American Name.||Indian Name.||Meaning of|
|940||Bridal Veil Fall.||Pohonó.||Spirit of the Evil Wind.|
|3300||Ribbon Fall.||Lung-oo-too-koo-ya.||Long and slender.|
|2034||Yosemite Fall.||Yo-se-mite.||Large Grisly Bear.|
|First Cataract, 1600 ft.||Second do., 434 ft.||Third do., 600 ft.|
|350||Vernal Fall.||Py-wy-ack.||Cataract of Diamonds.|
|600||South Canyon Fall.||Tu-lool-we-ack.||——|
|3850||Sentinel.||Loya.||A medicinal shrub.|
|2000||Royal Arch.||To-coy-ae||Shade to Baby Cradle Basket|
|6000||South Dome.||Tis-sa-ack.||Goddess of the|
|3725||North Dome.||To-coy-ae.||Shade to Baby|
|2000||Cap of Liberty,|
the base of
|3270||Sentinel.||Loya.||A medicinal shrub.|
|3300||The Captain.||Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah.||Semi-deity, and|
Great Chief of
|3100||Point East of|
* Based upon the table in Hutchings’ “Scenes of Wonder in California.”
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