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THE YOSEMITE BOOK by Josiah D. Whitney (1869)


That portion of the North American Continent which lies within the borders of the United States (leaving out of consideration the remote and isolated region now known as Alaska) presents to the traveller crossing it from East to West, in the pathway along which civilization has advanced, three well-marked grand divisions, which may be called the Eastern, Middle and Western. On the East, we have the broad belt of the Appalachian chain of mountains, determining the general direction of the coast line, made up of a series of closely compacted wrinkles of the earth’s crust, of no great elevation, never in its highest peaks quite reaching 7,000 feet, very uniform in direction and elevation over long distances, densely wooded, and offering in its fertile valleys and on its gently rising slopes every possible advantage of soil, forest and water to benefit the settler. This series of ranges does not, however, rise at once from the edge of the Atlantic; but is prepared for, as it were, by a plain gently sloping upwards as we go west and forming what is called the Atlantic Sea-board. This plain is about fifty miles wide in New England, where it is not so strongly marked a feature as further south, in which direction it gains in width, extending as much as two hundred miles back from the sea in North and South Carolina. Leaving the sea-board we rise among the Appalachian ranges, which form a belt of mountains averaging perhaps a hundred miles in width. Crossing this belt, and the broken foot-hill country which borders it on the west, forming the eastern side of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, we come in our western progress to the great central valley of the Continent—the region drained by the Mississippi and the Missouri and their tributaries. At Pittsburgh, the head of the Ohio proper, we are at an elevation of 699 feet above the sea-level; descending this river, we find ourselves, at its mouth and junction with the Mississippi, at 275 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, the average fall of the last named river in that part of its course from the mouth of the Ohio to the Gulf being only three inches per mile. In following down the Ohio we are skirting the southern border of the region of prairies, the garden of the Continent, of which nearly the whole of Illinois may be taken as the type. Crossing the Mississippi, and still pursuing our westward course, we follow up the Missouri to the western line of the State of the same name, where the river bends to the north and leaves us the choice, if we wish to keep on directly west, of one of its great branches coming in from that direction, the Platte and the Kansas. Up either of these we may travel for 500 miles, gradually and imperceptibly rising, a vast plain on either hand and an unbroken horizon in the distance, absolutely destitute of trees, except along the banks of the streams, but abounding in nutritious grasses, the food of herds of buffaloes, once almost countless in numbers, but now rapidly disappearing before the rifle and the rail. These broad, almost endless seas of grazing land are “the plains,” not at all to be confounded with the “prairies.” The plains form the western side of the great central valley, a region where from climatological causes, which cannot here be set forth, there is a great scarcity of rain, the amount of the annual precipitation diminishing rapidly as we go westward from the Mississippi river, until, between the 100th and 105th meridian it is no more than fifteen inches, or only one-third of what it is near the meridian of 90°, or in the centre of the great valley.

The eastern edge of the great tangle of mountains which makes up the western third of our territory is encountered by the traveller from the east, after passing over a thousand miles in width of the central valley, in longtitude 103°, if he strikes the Black Hills in latitude 44°; or in 105°, if he follows up the Platte and finds himself at the base of the Rocky Mountains proper. From here west he will thread his way through narrow and intricate defiles, wind around or cross over innumerable spurs and ridges, traverse narrow valleys and occasional broad plains, the former sometimes green and attractive, the latter always arid and repulsive to the last degree; he will never descend below 4,000 feet above the sea-level and will never be out of sight of mountains; these will always environ him, with thinly wooded flanks, and sterile and craggy summits, often glistening with great patches of snow which gradually lessen as the summer advances. In the distance these mountain ranges, behind their atmosphere of purple haze, will seem massive and uniform in character; as he approaches each one, he will find it presenting some new charm of hidden valley or cañon deeply countersunk into the mountain mass. As he rises still higher, he will quench his thirst at the refreshing spring of pure water fed by the melting snow above, while the grandeur of the rocky masses, the purity of the air, the solitariness and the almost infinite extent of the panorama opened before him when he fairly reaches the summit, will leave upon his mind an ineffaceable impression of the peculiar features of our western mountain scenery. It is through and over these mountain ranges, passing north of Salt Lake and striking the Humboldt river, which traverses the western side of the Great Basin at right-angles to the general direction of the chain, that the Pacific railroad threads its way across the Continent.

This great mass of mountains, which fills the space between the 105th meridian and the Pacific Ocean so completely that it must [be] considered as a geographical unit, demands a distinct name by which it may be designated as a whole, as the geographer has every day occasion to do. The term “Rocky Mountains” has long been in use for a portion of its eastern border, and the “Sierra Nevada” and “Cascade Range” are equally well known appellations of the western edge of the great mass, while the almost innumerable broken and partially, but never quite, detached masses which fill up the interior receive their distinctive names as fast as they become known to the explorer or the settler. There is no name for the whole series of ranges, however; although in former days the term Rocky Mountains was more generally used than any other; but in the progress of exploration and geographical discovery this designation has become fully fixed on the group of ranges which surrounds the Parks in Colorado, Northern New Mexico and Wyoming. Taken collectively, all the mountains bordering on the Pacific coast of America, from Cape Horn to the North Polar Sea, have been and still are by some geographers designated as “The Cordilleras,”* [*See Humboldt’s Aspects of Nature, Eng. Edition, Vol. 1, p. 56.] a Spanish word signifying chains of mountains. The South American portion of the series was distinguished as the Cordilleras of the Andes, those of North America having no special designatory word corresponding to Andes, but being somewhat vaguely known as the Cordilleras of Mexico or of North America. As, in the progress of time, the name Andes has become firmly established in use as a general one for all the South American chains bordering the Pacific, without the additional word Cordilleras, I propose to use this exclusively for the North American chains and, hereafter, to designate the great mass of mountains occupying the western side of the American Continent as The Cordilleras, and trust that other geographers will see the propriety of the suggestion and concur with me in adopting it. There is a greater propriety in using the word Cordilleras for the mass of North American mountains than for those of South America, for the latter are far more simple in their structure, being made up of a few great ranges, and not of a great number of smaller ones (Cordilleras) as on the northern division of the Continent.

The great region of the Cordilleras was pretty much a terra incognita only a quarter of a century ago. The explorations of Bonneville (1832-6) shed the first light on the region known as the Great Basin, and those of Fremont, a few years later (1842-5) made that generally known which had previously only been surmised, and laid a foundation, by an approximate determination of the latitude and longitude of a considerable number of important points, for a map of the central portion of the Cordilleras. Lewis and Clarke had previously (1805-7) made known the outlines of the geography of the country about the Upper Missouri and the Columbia rivers, at the same time that Pike was exploring the head of the Arkansas river.

But little progress was made, however, towards anything like a reliable or complete map of the region west of the Rocky Mountains, until after the annexation of California to the United States and the discovery of gold in that region had given so prodigious an impetus to emigration to the Pacific coast and led to a universal desire for railroad communication across the Continent, in place of the long and dangerous route by the Isthmus of Panama, or the tedious ride over the plains. The work of exploring a route for a Pacific rail-road along several parallels of latitude, between Oregon on the north and Arizona on the south, was begun in 1853, and continued through that and the succeeding year by a considerable number of surveying parties, in charge of U. S. Engineer officers. The geographical results of these expeditions, with all the other material of this kind which could be collected from every possible source, were compiled into one general map by the U. S. Engineer Bureau, under the direction of Lieutenant (now General) Warren. This map, which has been altered and corrected so many times at the Engineer Office since its first appearance, in 1857, as to have become almost a new one, is the principal source from which compilers and publishers draw their material for maps of the Pacific States and Territories; but the study of it, by those familiar with the topography of portions of the region which it covers, will not fail to convince such persons that it can only be considered as a first rough sketch, nearly the whole of which must eventually give way to more reliable and accurate materials. The topographical work of the Central Pacific railroad, done for the purpose of getting information for definitely locating its road, and the labors of the California Geological Survey have already brought together a large amount of valuable material which can be made available for improving the official map of the Engineer Bureau, and the results of the expedition now in the field under the direction of Mr. Clarence King will add still further of reliable information in regard to the geography of a considerable portion of the region in question.

The necessity of a good map of the Cordilleras will become more and more evident after the completion of the Pacific railroad, which event will, no doubt, be followed by a great increase of travel, and especially of pleasure travel, across the Continent. Four or five days from New York, or three from Chicago, will bring travellers into the high mountain region, and thousands who have already visited the Alps will seek for new impressions and a new revelation of nature among the Cordilleras, rather than go over the old European ground a second or third time. Many English travellers for pleasure, among whom some, no doubt, of the renowned climbers of the Alpine Club will be found, will try their wind and muscle in a new field, and seek health and excitement in climbing peaks which are yet unscaled, and in exploring regions where no foot of white man has ever been set. The inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley will seek refuge from the intense heat of summer among the lofty ranges of the no longer remote Pacific States; the invalid from the Eastern slope will exchange the cold, damp east wind for the invigorating mountain breeze, and will obtain a new lease of life while acquiring a knowledge of nature’s sublimest handiwork. For re-establishing the wornout constitution, bracing up the shattered nerves and bringing relief to the wearied soul, there is no panacea equal to mountain life and mountain scenery, taken in large doses, on the spot; and it is pleasant to think that we shall have the medicine at our own door hereafter, and not be obliged to cross the water in search of it. Besides, as a means of mental development, there is nothing which will compare with the study of nature as manifested in her mountain handiwork. Nothing so refines the ideas, purifies the heart and exalts the imagination of the dweller on the plains, as an occasional visit to the mountains. It is not good to dwell always among them, for “familiarity breeds contempt.” The greatest peoples have not been those who lived on the mountains, but near them. One must carry something of culture to them, to receive all the benefits they can bestow in return.

But it is especially to California mountains and mountain scenery that this volume is dedicated, and to a small portion of these that it is to be more exclusively devoted, so that we must not tarry longer on the way to them.

Everyone, be his acquaintance with the geography of our western border ever so slight, has at least some indistinct idea of the existence in California of two great masses of mountains, one called the Coast Ranges, the other the Sierra Nevada. The traveller, passing up the valley of the Sacramento or the San Joaquin, observes at a distance of twenty or thirty miles, on either hand, a continuous wall of mountains, which may appear in the dim distance, to the inexperienced eye, as a simple narrow uplift; both of these apparent walls are, in reality, broad belts of elevated ranges, the one averaging forty the other seventy miles in width, of which the detailed structure is exceedingly complicated and whose grand dimensions can only be appreciated by those who have penetrated to their deepest recesses. On the east, we have the Sierra Nevada; on the west, the Coast Ranges the one not inaptly to be parallelized, in general extent and average elevation, with the Alps; the other but little inferior, in the same respects, to the Appalachian chain—two grand features of the earth’s surface which have for so many years occupied the attention of scientific observers and lovers of natural scenery. Of the eastern series of ranges, the most distant and loftiest elevations are never entirely bare of snow and, for a large portion of the year, are extensively covered with it; the western ones, on the other hand, in the central portion of the State at least, have their highest peaks whitened for a few days only during the coldest and stormiest winters. Hence the eastern heights were, long since, known to the Spaniards as the Sierra Nevada, or Snowy Range, Sierra being [the] almost exact equivalent of our word range, or mountain chain. The group of mountains on the western side and nearer the ocean naturally received the designation of Coast Ranges or Coast Mountains, the many subordinate ranges of which it is made up having received from the early Mexican-Spanish settlers the names of different saints, nearly exhausting the calendar.

The coast line of California, extending over ten degrees of latitude, or from near 32° to 42°, has a regular northwestern trend between the parallels of 35° and 40°, and the same regularity is found repeated in the interior features of the country between the same parallels. And in order to bring vividly before the mind the grand simplicity of the topographical features of this part of the State, we may draw on the map five equi-distant parallel lines, having a direction of N. 31°W., and 55 miles apart. Let the middle one of these be drawn at the western base of the Sierra Nevada; it will touch the edge of the foot-hills all along from Visalia to Red Bluff, a distance of nearly 400 miles. The first parallel east of this, drawn at 55 miles distance, will pass through, or very near, the highest points of the Sierra Nevada from Mt. Shasta on the north to Mount Whitney on the south. This line, running through the dominating peaks of the Sierra, and which is a very nearly straight one for 500 miles in length, we have called, in the California Geological Report, the main axial line of the State. Again, parallel to this on the east and at about the same constant distance of 55 miles from the summit of the Sierra, we find our line crossing a series of depressions, mostly occupied by lakes, which we may consider as representing the eastern base of the range. West of the great central valley, the fourth of our imaginary lines touches the eastern base of the Coast Ranges, and the fifth will approximately indicate the position of the edge of the Pacific which is, of course, the western base of the same mountains.

This arrangement of lines indicates a division of the central portion of the State into four belts of nearly equal width, and which are indeed the best recognized features of its geography; they are known to all, mentioning them in their order from east to west, as the Eastern Slope, the Sierra, the Great Valley (or the Valley of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin,) and the Coast Ranges. The indicated arrangement holds good for a distance of 400 miles through the centre of the State, and through that portion of California which is by far the most important, both from an agricultural and mining point of view. Central California, as the division may properly be called, does not embrace over one-third of the area of the State; but it holds at least 95 per cent. of its population. The regions or divisions on each side of this central one are extremely mountainous and thinly inhabited. The southern portion is traversed by numerous broken ranges as yet but little explored, but characterized by extreme sterility, owing to the want of water, so that a large part can only be considered as an unmitigated desert. A narrow belt along the ocean, however, is more favored by climatic causes and contains some tracts which are of unrivalled beauty and fertility. The northern division, again, is even more mountainous than the southern; portions of it being almost inaccessible. Along the coast and in much of the interior it is very heavily timbered; while, towards the eastern boundary of the State, it begins to exhibit the dryness and sterility characteristic of the Great Basin. It is a wild, rough region; and no small portion of it is pretty much given up to its aboriginal inhabitants, who have thus far held their own against the encroachments of the whites with pertinacity and no little success.

The Coast Ranges inosculate with the Sierra Nevada both north and south. In the neighborhood of the Tejon Pass, which is in about latitude 35°, the ridges of the two systems become topographically undistinguishable from each other; and it was only by careful examination of the position of the strata that we could discover where one system began and the other ended. So too, on the north, above Shasta City (latitude 40° 35’), the ranges close in on all sides, and to the traveller threading the innumerable cañons, there seems to be no clue to the labyrinth of chains, and no possibility of preserving the distinction between Coast Range and Sierra. But passing north into Oregon, we come, in latitude 44°, to the Willamette Valley, which here forms as marked a separation between the two systems of mountains as do the Sacramento or San Joaquin in California. Geologically, the Coast Ranges are made up of newer formations than the Sierra, and they have been subjected to great disturbances up to a very recent (geological) period. There are no rocks in the Coast Ranges older than the Cretaceous; strata of this and the Tertiary age making up nearly their whole body, with some masses of volcanic and granitic materials, neither, however, forming anything like a central nucleus or core.

The Coast Ranges do not exhibit any very lofty dominating peaks. The highest point in sight from San Francisco is Mount Hamilton, about 15 miles east of San Jose; this is 4,440 feet high, or just 10,000 feet less than Mount Shasta. Still it does not rise conspicuously above the range in its vicinity, and it needs a sharp eye to pick it out at a little distance. Monte Diablo, although 584 feet lower (its elevation being 3,856 feet) is a much more conspicuous object, since it is quite isolated on the north side, owing to the great break in the range, which extends from the Golden Gate entirely across the chain. Indeed, the peculiar position of this mountain makes its graceful, double-pointed summit a very conspicuous land-mark over a large portion of the State. North and south of the central portion, the Coast Ranges rise higher as they approach the Sierra in each direction, and the highest points attain as much as 8,000 feet.

The scenery of the Coast Ranges is rarely more than picturesque, but always peculiar, especially to those coming from the East. It is not so much the summits or ridges, as the valleys which nestle between them, and the remarkable vegetation of both valleys and slopes, which give character to the landscape. Besides, we must allow its share in producing the general impression to the peculiar erosion of the mountain masses, made conspicuous by the absence of forest vegetation, and, especially, to the peculiar atmosphere, which invests them with an indescribable charm.

The vegetation of these valleys and ranges is not remarkable for variety, for the number of forest trees exhibited is small. It is rather the distribution of the trees which makes them impressive. They are the most park-like valleys in the world. By far the largest number of trees in these valleys are oaks, and they grow, not uniformly distributed over the surface, but in graceful clumps, just as if arranged by the most skillful landscape gardener. The burr oak, (Quercus lobata,) is the one which gives, in the central Californian Valley, the most character to the landscape; it grows to a great size and has the peculiar, gracefully-drooping branches of the American elm; some of the noblest specimens of it are to be found in Napa Valley. Other conspicuous oaks are the live oak (Q. agrifolia), a puzzle to botanists from the variability of its foliage; the white (Q. Garryana), the black (Q. Sonomensis) and the chestnut (Q. densiflora).

As we rise above the valleys, and especially in the vicinity of the ocean, and in the deep shaded cañons which intersect the mountains, and where the moisture brought by the winds from the sea is not too rapidly evaporated, we find a more considerable growth of forest trees in the Coast Ranges, and especially as we proceed towards the northwest. Pines and oaks, however, everywhere greatly predominate. Of the pines, Pinus Coulteri, is remarkable as having the longest and most beautiful cones of all the pines; P. Sabiniana, the digger pine, or silver pine, a very characteristic tree of the foot-hills, especially of the Sierra Nevada, up to 2,000 feet elevation, and also on the dry southerly hill-sides of the Coast Ranges; P. insignis, the well known ornamental monterey pine quite limited in its distribution to some thousands of acres about Monterey and Carmelo; P. muricata is another Coast Range species, and P. ponderosa (the yellow pine) and P. Lambertiana (the sugar pine) are found in both Sierra and Coast Ranges. The redwood, (Sequoia sempervirens,) is also one of the grand characteristic trees of the Californian Coast Ranges, to which it is exclusively confined; with it grows frequently the well known Douglas fir (Abies Douglasii) . Besides these there are the laurel (Tetranthera Californica), of which the wood is now coming into use for ornamental cabinet work; the madrona,* [*Properly the mandroño, but everywhere called as written above.] a very characteristic and beautiful tree with its red bark and glossy leaves. The monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) is another magnificent tree, greatly resembling the cedar of Lebanon; but strictly confined to one locality at Cypress Point, near Monterey. Of the shrubby undergrowth, the chamiso (Adenostema fasiculata), the manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) and different species of the Ceanothus, called “California lilac” by settlers from the Eastern States, on account of the resemblance of its perfume to that of the eastern lilac, are the most prominent. These shrubs, separate or mingled together and associated with a variety of shrubby oaks, each furnished with as many thorns as there are points to leaves or branches, make what is universally known in California as “chaparral;” and large regions, especially near the summits of the mountains in the Coast Ranges, are often densely covered with this abominable undergrowth, utterly preventing free circulation, and rendering parts of the State quite inaccessible, as, for instance, the mountains along the coast south of Monterey for a distance of a hundred miles, into whose recesses not even the explorer or the hunter has ever penetrated.

There are many points of interest in the Coast Ranges which the tourist may visit; among them the Geysers, Clear and Borax lakes, the New Almaden Mines, and, in general, all the valleys which connect with the Bay of San Francisco or are adjacent to it.† [†See Map of the vicinity of the Bay of San Francisco, published by the California Geological Survey, from which, at a glance, a better idea of the topography of the region may be obtained than could be given in a whole chapter of verbal description.] One gets a fine idea of the coast mountains and valleys by riding over the Santa Cruz Range to the town of that name; and a trip to the Geysers, coupled with the ascent of Sulphur, or Geyser Peak, a very easy climb from the stage road, will show the traveller some of the most interesting features of the lower Californian ranges.

The most interesting short excursion, however, which can be made from San Francisco, is the ascent of Monte Diablo, 3,856 feet high, and distant from the city, in a north-northeast direction, twenty-eight miles. The route to the foot of the mountain, which is usually ascended from the north side, is either by carriage or public conveyance from Oakland, by Walnut Creek and San Ramon Valley to Clayton, at the base of the mountain; or, else, by steamboat to Benicia, ferry to Martinez and carriage or stage to Clayton, via Pacheco. In either case Clayton is the point from which the ascent may be made, the distance to the summit being about six miles and the excursion from Clayton to the summit and back being easily made, on horseback, in a day, with time in the afternoon, if one should desire it, to return to Martinez the same night.* [*There should be a good hotel at Clayton; if there were, no doubt pleasure travel to the mountain would be much increased.] From the summit the view is panoramic and perhaps unsurpassed in extent. Owing to the peculiar distribution of the mountain ranges of California and the position of Monte Diablo in the centre of a great elliptic basin, the eye has full sweep over the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to its crest, from Lassen’s Peak on the north to Mount Whitney on the south, a distance of fully 325 miles. It is only in the clearest weather that the details of the “Snowy Range” can be made out; but the nearer masses of the Coast Ranges with their innumerable waves of mountains, and wavelets of spurs, are visible from Mount Hamilton and Mount Oso on the south to Mount Helena on the north. The great interior valley of California, the plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, are spread out under the observer’s feet like a map, and they seem illimitable in extent. The whole area thus embraced within the field of vision, as limited by the extreme points in the distance is little less than 40,000 square miles, or almost as large as the whole State of New York. Mount Hamilton, fifteen miles east of San Jose, also commands a grand view, exclusively of the Coast Ranges; parties making a visit to this mountain, however, should be prepared to camp at its base, where there are all possible facilities of wood and water. The excursion from San Jose to the summit and back was made by our party in one day; but it is much better to take two for the trip, and it would not be easy to find a pleasanter camping-ground than presents itself on the banks of the Arroyo Hondo at the base of the mountain.

What gives its peculiar character to the Coast Range scenery is, the delicate and beautiful carving of their masses by the aqueous erosion of the soft material of which they are composed, and which is made conspicuous by the general absence of forest and shrubby vegetation, except in the cañons and along the crests of the ranges. The bareness of the slopes gives full play to the effects of light and shade caused by the varying and intricate contour of the surface. In the early spring these slopes are of the most vivid green, the awakening to life of the vegetation of this region beginning just when the hills and valleys of the Eastern States are most deeply covered by snow. Spring here, in fact, commences with the end of summer; winter there is none. Summer, blazing summer, tempered by the ocean fogs and ocean breezes, is followed by a long and delightful six months spring, which in its turn passes almost instantaneously away, at the approach of another summer. As soon as the dry season sets in, the herbage withers under the sun’s rays, except in the deep cañons, the surface becomes first of a pale green, then of a light straw yellow, and finally, of a rich russet brown color, against which the dark green foliage of the oaks and pines, unchanging during the summer, is deeply contrasted.

One need not go beyond the boundaries of the city of San Francisco to obtain fine panoramic views of Coast Range scenery; let the traveller, an hour before sunset, ascend Telegraph or Russian Hill of a clear day in the rainy season, and such days are far from uncommon, and he will have spread out before him the Golden Gate and the Bay of San Francisco, and the mountains which surround them, from Mount Bache and Mount Hamilton on the south to Mount Helena on the north. Looking in a northwesterly direction, he will see the ranges of Marin County coming down to meet the ocean, forming the northern side of the Golden Gate and presenting at their termination a broken but precipitous wall of dark reddish rock, from six to eight hundred feet high, which contrasts finely with the rounded, green slopes above. Beyond these, the steep and graceful form of Tamal Pais is seen rising to the height of 2,597 feet, and forming the most prominent land-mark of the region. This mountain lies six miles southwest of San Rafael, from which place the trip to its summit may easily be made on horseback in a day; and, although the view from it is not as extensive as that from Monte Diablo, it is one well worthy of being seen, as being both attractive and characteristic of the Coast Ranges, while the forest vegetation in the cañons on the north slope of the mountain is thoroughly Californian, consisting of noble specimens of the redwood, laurel, madrona and other trees noticed above as occurring in this portion of the State. Facing the north, our observer from Telegraph Hill will have directly before him, at a distance of a mile, Alcatraz Island, with its fortifications, and beyond it, three miles farther on in the same direction, Angel Island, 771 feet high, intercepting the view up the Bay of San Francisco and into San Pablo Bay, beyond which rise the numerous ranges which border Napa and Sonoma valleys, the farthest visible point in this direction being Mount Helena, 4,343 feet high, and about sixty miles distant. Facing the east, the view extends across the Bay, here about five miles wide, to the Contra Costa hills, which rise rapidly from a gently sloping plain, two miles in width, to an average height of about 1,500 feet. Along the base of the Contra Costa hills, the population is rapidly increasing in density, the towns of Oakland, San Antonio, Alameda and San Leandro forming almost a continuous row of houses along a line some ten or twelve miles in length. Behind the Contra Costa range rises the conical mass of Monte Diablo, apparently near at hand, but in reality belonging to a distant range, and separated from the Contra Costa hills by the San Ramon Valley. To obtain within the City itself, a clear view to the south, one must ascend the highest point of Clay Street Hill, or the elevation on which the reservoir is situated, just beyond Russian Hill; from these points the eye may range over the San Bruno hills down the bay into the San Jose Valley, and as far as the great mass of mountain near and west of Mount Hamilton and Mount Oso, a wild waste of chaparral-covered ridges, into which few persons have ever penetrated. This portion of the Coast Ranges sometimes remains covered with snow for days or even weeks together, during the stormiest winters, and at such times presents an almost Alpine appearance. On the other side of the San Jose Valley we look along the hills covered with redwood forests, now, alas, fast disappearing before the chopper’s axe, as far as Mounts Bache, Chual and Umunhum, which rise directly above the village and mines of New Almaden, the highest of these, named in honor of the late eminent chief of the Coast Survey, being just sixty feet lower than Monte Diablo. From some points between the city and the ocean, in certain states of the atmosphere, the Farallones are distinctly visible, forty miles out at sea, their precipitous granite masses gleaming white in the sun.

But we linger too long among the Coast Ranges and must turn to the grander Sierra, in which the localities more particularly the theme of this volume are situated.

The Sierra Nevada, or “Snowy Range,” forms the western edge of the great continental upheaval, or plateau, on which the Cordilleras are built up. It corresponds in position to the Rocky Mountains, the one being the western, the other the eastern edge of the central portion of the mass. The base of the Rocky Mountains, however, is 4,000 feet above the sea-level, and the slope from it eastward is almost imperceptible, but continuous for 600 miles to the Mississippi; while from the crest of the Sierra Nevada we descend rapidly, in less than a hundred miles, to very near the level of the sea. The plateau between the two ranges is nearly a thousand miles wide, having here its greatest development and its maximum altitude, while the subordinate ranges piled upon it here exhibit their greatest regularity of trend and structure.

No range among all the mountain chains which make up the Cordilleras of North America surpasses, if any one equals, the Sierra Nevada, in extent or altitude, and certainly no one on the continent can be compared with it in the general features of interest which characterize it—its scenery, vegetation, mines, the energy and skill with which its resources have been developed and the impetus which this development has given to commerce and civilization.

The Sierra Nevada, as the term is popularly understood, is strictly limited to California, and it extends from the Tejon Pass to Mount Shasta, a distance of over 550 miles. Some, however, and with propriety, would consider the Sierra as terminating at Lassen’s Peak, a grand volcanic mass in latitude 40° 30’, where the metamorphic rocks of the Sierra system sink down in a great transverse break, and a volcanic plateau takes their place and stretches north to Mount Shasta. Beyond this last-named volcanic mass, the range is prolonged to the north through Oregon and Washington Territory, with much the same character as in California, although with greatly dimished average elevation; but it is there everywhere known by the name of the Cascade Range. In its southern termination, as previously remarked, the Sierra Nevada inosculates with the Coast Ranges and the two systems are so linked together from the Tejon Pass south, that there is no longer any geographical, but only a geological, distinction to be made between the two systems.

Considering the Sierra to terminate on the north at Lassen’s Peak, its length will be about 450 miles, and its breadth, taking the valleys of Walker’s, Mono and Honey Lakes as its eastern, and the base of the foot hills as its western limit, may be set down as averaging 80 miles. This width, however, is very unequally distributed between the two slopes; the western is much more gradual, and of course longer, especially as the elevation to be gained is much greater; for the western descent is to the level of the sea, or nearly to that; while the eastern is to the level of the Great Basin, some 4,000 feet above tide-water. The western slope of the Sierra rises, in the central portion of the State, opposite Sacramento, at the average rate of about 100 feet to a mile, the elevation of the passes being about 7,000 feet and the horizontal distance seventy miles. As we go south from here the elevation of the passes increases rapidly and the breadth of the range diminishes, until the grade reaches its maximum opposite Visalia, where the average rise from the plain of the San Joaquin to the summit of the passes is over 240 feet to the mile, and to the summit of the highest peaks 300 feet. North of the Donner Lake Pass, or that by which the Central Pacific railroad crosses the Sierra, the branches of the Feather river head around and to the east of an elevated range on which Spanish Peak and Lassen’s Peak are situated, while the real divide or water-shed is forty miles farther east, and crowned with numerous peaks, few of which are named and none known to geographers. The intermediate space between these two dominating ranges is filled with a labyrinth of ridges and valleys, defying all attempts at classification. The average slope from Oroville to the summit of Beckworth’s Pass is not over seventy feet to the mile; but, owing to the peculiar character of the country indicated above, this more moderate elevation and grade could not be made available for railroad purposes, as the summit could not be reached, except by a circuitous and difficult route up one of the branches of the Feather river.

The height of the dominating peaks, as well as of the passes, sinks as we go northward from latitude 36° 30’, which is nearly that of the north end of Owen’s Lake. This condition of things will be easily understood on examination of the annexed tabular statement:

table of the elevations of peaks and passes in the sierra nevada.

Latitude. Name and Elevation of Pass. Name and Elevation of Adjacent
Dominating Peak,
No. of Feet. No. of Feet.
36° 32' Pass without name 12,057 Mount Whitney 15,000
37° 28'     “        “        ” 12,400 Red Slate Peak 13,400
37° 55' Mono Pass 10,765 Mount Dana 13,227
38° 10' Sonora Pass 10,115 Castle Peak 12,500
38° 30' Silver Mountain Pass 8,793 Silver Mountain 10 934
38° 45' Carson Pass 8,759 Wood’s Peak 10,552
38° 50' Johnson Pass 7,339 Pyramid Peak 10,120
39° 10' Georgetown, or Squaw
Valley Pass
7,119 No very marked domi-
  nating peaks; the crest
  of the range from 500
  to 1,000 feet above the
39° 20' Donner Pass 7,056
39° 30' Henness Pass 6,996
39° 38' Yuba Gap 6,642 Downieville Buttes 8,400
39° 45' Beckworth’s Pass 5,327 Onjumi 8,378

From Beckworth’s north, the passes gain a little in elevation, and the adjacent peaks are from 8,000 to 9,000 feet high. The above table shows, that from latitude 36° 32’ to 39° 45’ the peaks sink from 15,000 to 8,400; and the passes from 12,000 to 5,400 feet.

The central mass, or core, of the Sierra Nevada, as of most high mountains, is chiefly granite: this is flanked on both sides by metamorphic slates, and capped irregularly by vast masses of basaltic and other kinds of lava, and heavy beds of ashes and breccia, bearing witness to a former prodigious activity of the subterranean volcanic forces, now dormant or only made sensible by occasional earthquake shocks. The granitic belt widens as we go south, and, in the highest portion of the Sierra, has a breadth of nearly forty miles. Northwards, the amount of volcanic material increases, and, after we pass Lassen’s Peak, as before remarked, it covers the whole width of the range, forming one vast elevated plateau, crowned with a series of cones, many of which have well formed craters still existing on their summits. These craters, however, now exhibit no indications of present activity. The only remnants of the forces by which they were built up are the hot springs, which are plentifully distributed along the line of former volcanic action.

While the southern highest points of the Sierra are of granite, and those north of Lake Tahoe are chiefly volcanic, or, at least, capped with volcanic materials, there are a number of very elevated peaks in the central part of the State, including Mount Dana, which are made up of slates and metamorphic rocks, as will be noticed in the next chapter.

In so elevated a range as the Sierra Nevada, we should expect to find a number of belts of forest vegetation, corresponding to the different zones of altitude above the sea-level. As in the Coast Ranges, the general character is given to the landscape by coniferous trees and oaks, all other families being usually quite subordinate in importance, and the number of the conifers as compared with that of the oaks increasing rapidly as we ascend.

There are four pretty well marked belts of forest vegetation on the west slope of the Sierra, and that of the eastern slope would make a fifth for the whole range. These belts, however, pass gradually into each other, and are not so defined that lines can be drawn separating or distinctly limiting them, and the division into groups or belts here proposed will only be found to hold good in the central portion of the State; as we go north, all the groups of species gradually descend in elevation, especially in approaching the coast.

Of the four belts on the western slope of the Sierra the lowest is that of the foot-hills, extending up to about 3,000 feet in elevation; its most characteristic species are the digger pine (P. Sabiniana) and the black oak (Q. Sonomensis); these stand sparsely scattered over the hill sides, or in graceful groups, no where forming what can be called a forest. The pale bluish tint of the pine leaves contrasts finely with the dark green of the oak foliage, and both pines and oaks are strongly relieved, in summer, against the amber and straw-colored ground. The small side valleys, gulches or cañons, as they are called in California, according to their dimensions, are lined with flowering shrubs, of which the California “buck-eye” (Aesculus Californica), is, at this altitude, by far the most conspicuous, gradually giving place, as we ascend, to the various species of the delightfully fragrant Ceanothus, or California lilac. Manzanita and chamiso are of course abundant everywhere, and especially on the driest hill-sides and summits.

The next belt is that of the pitch pine, or Pinus ponderosa, the sugar pine (P. Lambertiana), the white or bastard cedar (Libocedrus decurrens), and the Douglas spruce (Abies Douglasii); this is peculiarly the forest belt of the Sierra Nevada, or that in which the trees have their finest development. The pitch pine replaces the digger pine first, and more and more of the sugar pine is seen from about 4,000 feet on to 5,000, at which altitude the last-named noble and peculiarly Californian tree is most abundant. The sugar pine is remarkable for the size of its cones, which hang in bunches of two or more from the ends of the long branches, like ornamental tassels. The timber of this tree is the best that California furnishes and its size gigantic, being not unfrequently 300 feet in height and from seven to ten feet in diameter. It is also in this belt that the Big Trees belong.

The third zone of forest vegetation is that of the firs (Picea grandis and amabilis), with the tamarack pine (P. contorta), taking to a considerable extent the place of the pitch and sugar pines. This belt extends from 7,000 to 9,000 feet above the sea, in the central part of the State. The traveller to the Yosemite will see it well developed about Westfall’s meadows and from there to the edge of the Valley. These firs, especially the amabilis, which is distinguished by the geometrical regularity with which its branches are divided, are most superb trees; they attain a large size, are very symmetrical in their growth and have a dark green brilliant foliage which is very fragrant. A pine called Pinus Jeffreyi, by some considered a variety of the ponderosa, is also a characteristic tree of the upper part of this belt, and above this sets in the Pinus monticola, which takes the place of the Piceas at a high elevation.

The highest belt of all is that of the Pinus albicaulis, or flexilis of some botanists, which marks the limit of vegetation in the middle and northern Sierra, Pinus aristata taking its place in the more southern region about the head of King’s and Kern rivers. The albicaulis generally shows itself at the line just where vegetation is going to give out altogether, as around the base of Mount Clark, Mount Dana and Mount Shasta. On the last-named mountain, it was seen growing, as a shrub, in favorable places, up to 9,000 feet; and small trees were so compacted by the pressure of the snow on them in the winter, that a man could easily walk over the flat surface formed by their foliage. A little clump of this species just at the edge of the snow, on Lassen’s Peak, shows the aspiring character of this tree, which is one widely distributed over the high mountain tops of the Cordilleras. The aristata is also found in the Rocky Mountains, as well as along a limited part of the highest region of the Sierra Nevada.

More details of the distribution of the forest trees in and about the Yosemite will be found in the two following chapters; the above very general and brief remarks seemed necessary to our hasty sketch of the general features of the Sierra Nevada.

The climate of the Sierra Nevada varies, of course, with the altitude; but not as much, or as rapidly, as one would expect. Indeed, the traveller, leaving San Francisco, will have to rise several thousand feet on the flank of the Sierra, before he will come to a region where the mean temperature of summer is as low as in that city. As high up as 8,000 or 10,000 feet, even, the days are quite comfortably warm. On the very highest peaks, at elevations of 12,000 or 13,000 feet, we rarely felt the want of an overcoat at midday. An examination of our thermometrical observations shows, that we had the mercury almost always over 80°, in the Yosemite Valley, at an elevation of 4,000 feet above the sea, during the six midday hours, in June and July, although the nights were, almost without exception, cool enough to make a pair of heavy blankets desirable. At our camp in the Tuolumne Valley, during the same months, at an elevation of 8,700 feet, the mercury stood at a little over 60°, usually, during the hours from 11 to 3; but fell rapidly after sunset; and, in one case, solid ice an inch thick was formed during the night. At the summit of Mount Dana, 13,227 feet high, the temperature marked at noon was 43°; and, on Red Mountain, at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, the thermometer stood at 58°. At high altitudes, all through the mountains, the weather during the summer is almost always the finest possible for travelling, whether for scientific purposes or for pleasure. The nights indeed are cold; but fuel is abundant and the system becomes braced up to endure what, in lower regions, would seem unbearable. There are occasional storms in the high mountains; but, in ordinary seasons, these are quite rare, and one of the greatest drawbacks to the pleasure of travelling in the Alps, the uncertainty of the weather, is here almost entirely wanting. One may be reasonably sure, in starting to climb a mountain peak, of a clear sky, and a temperature which will make walking and riding a pleasure.

In the mountains there is almost always a breeze during the day; but this rarely in summer rises to a gale. In the day-time the air draws up the mountain slopes, and in the night blows down. Hence travellers always have the dust with them, in ascending, until they get above roads and wheeled vehicles—a great annoyance, and a serious drawback to the pleasure of travelling, the only compensation for which is to be found in the fact, that in going down the mountains and towards the Bay of San Francisco, whether approaching it from north or south, you have the breeze in your face and the dust behind you.

The high mountains of California receive, probably, their whole precipitation of moisture in the form of snow, and of this an enormous amount falls, and during the winter months almost exclusively. In the central portion of the State snow is not frequent, neither does it lie long on the ground, at localities below 3,000 feet in altitude. As we go higher than this, the snow-fall increases rapidly, and it accumulates in immense bodies on the mountain slopes and especially in the cañons. Nearly one hundred inches of rain fell in the Sierra, during the stormy winter of 1867-8, along a belt 2,000 feet above the sea-level, and we can easily believe the statement that over sixty feet of snow fell during that season at Donner Lake, not quite 6,000 feet in altitude. The variation in the fall of rain or snow, from winter to winter, is very great all through California. During ordinary years, however, the flanks of the Sierra are well covered down to 4,000 feet above the sea, during the mid-winter months, and a heavy body of snow lies on the passes until May, or even June.

The crest of the Sierra is never entirely denuded of its snow; although, at the end of a long and dry summer following an unusually dry winter, there are no heavy bodies of it except in the cañons on the northern slopes of the very highest peaks. There is ordinarily but little if any snow left, at the end of summer, along the crest of the mountains between Henness Pass and Lassen’s Peak. One or two of the other highest points in Plumas county showed, here and there, a spot of snow on their northern slopes, in 1866, until nearly the end of the summer; but in Lassen’s Peak quite large bodies of snow remain permanently, as far down as 2,000 feet below the summit. From here north to Mount Shasta there is no lasting accumulation of snow; but on that peak there are always, throughout the season, great masses in the ravines or cañons on all sides, extending down to 6,000 or 7,000 feet below the summit. It is here, and here only, that a pretty well defined “line of perpetual snow” may be said to exist. Seen from a great distance Mount Shasta appears as a dazzlingly white cone of snow; but, from a point only a few miles off, it is evident enough that the ridges and crests between the ravines furrowing its sides are bare, and that these form a large portion of the whole surface.

It is the melting in summer of the snow accumulated during the winter which keeps the streams full of water, high up in the mountains, and these, in turn, furnish the canals or ditches which convey the indispensable supply to the miners. These ditches are deep in proportion to their width and have a rapid fall, so as to lessen the evaporation, which so rapidly diminishes the quantity of water in the streams flowing naturally down the Sierra, the smaller of which usually become quite dry before the summer is half over. Thus the store of snow laid by in the Sierra is a most precious treasure to the State; for, if all the precipitation was in the form of rain, it would run off at once, causing devastating floods, and in the summer it would be impossible to carry on agricultural or mining operations. Indeed, without the supply of snow, the whole country would become a perfect desert. All through the Great Basin it is the melting of the winters stock of snow which gives what little there is of verdure and fertility to the slopes of the mountains. When the ranges are lofty enough and wide enough to collect and store away a large supply, which as it melts will furnish water to irrigate the slopes and valleys, these may be made to bear abundant crops; where, on the other hand, the ridges are low, they are, as well as the valleys at their bases, absolutely sterile.

The snow seems to disappear from the summits of the higher peaks, by evaporation, rather than by actual melting. On the top of Mount Shasta, for instance, there was no indication of dampness; indeed, pieces of paper, with the names of visitors written on them, and laid in uncorked bottles or on the rocks themselves, were found by us to have remained for years as fresh and free from mould or discoloration, as when first left there. It is owing to this peculiar dryness of the air, probably, that there are no indications of the present existence of glaciers on Mount Shasta; and, if not occuring there, they could not be expected to be found anywhere else in California. [Footnote in 1871 edition: Since the above a written, several small glaciers have been discovered high up on the north side of Mount Shasta by Mr. King. This is to be accounted for by the fact that the atmosphere is moister on the north side of the mountain, the dry current striking it from the south and southwest.] Masses of snow several miles long, and hundreds of feet in thickness, remain all summer without showing any indication of becoming glacier ice. They freeze and thaw on the surface and gradually waste away, without giving rise to considerable streams, remaining always snow and nothing but snow.

At a former and not very remote geological period, however, there were immense glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, and the traces of their past existence are among the most interesting phenomena to be observed there now. The same beautifully striated and polished surfaces of rock, resulting from the pressure and sliding of great masses of ice over them the same peculiar accumulations of gravel and boulders, called “moraines” in the Alps, and which are always formed where glaciers exist, are found in the Sierra over a great extent of surface. These manifestations of former glacial agencies are limited to the higher part of the range, and are most abundant and well-defined about the heads of Kern and King’s rivers, and in the region above the Yosemite, in the valleys in which the Merced, San Joaquin and Tuolumne head, as will be more fully noticed in a succeeding chapter. The facts observed prove clearly that the climate of California was once considerably moister than it now is. There must have been a pretty abundant precipitation of snow along the Sierra, during the summer, as there now is in the Alps; but it is not necessary to suppose that the country, at the base of the mountains at least, was uninhabitable. The glaciers did not extend, in the central portion of the State down below 6,000 to 8,000 feet above the sea-level, unless in a few exceptional localities. In these the configuration of the mountain valleys at the head of the glaciers was such as to give occasion for the accumulation of exceptionally great masses of snow. Such cirques, or amphitheatres, exist now at the head of the largest Alpine glaciers. Of these former low-descending ice-masses in California, one of the most striking was that which came down the valley of the Tuolumne, and which must have been over thirty miles in length.

That there was formerly a much greater precipitation of moisture on the eastern side of the Sierra than there now is, seems proved by the former greater extension of the lakes on the eastern slope. Mono Lake, for instance, is surrounded by terraces or benches, which show that its surface once stood 600 feet higher than it now does, and the same is true of Walker, Pyramid and the other lakes on that side of the Sierra. No doubt, at that time, the now arid valleys of Nevada were beautiful inland seas, which filled the spaces between the lofty parallel ridges by which that State is traversed. Perhaps the slopes of those ridges were then clothed with dense forests, offering a wonderful contrast to the present barrenness of the ranges and the monotony and desolation of the alkaline plains at their bases.

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