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

CalHotels.US--online reservations now CalHotels.US Lowest Hotel Rates Guaranteed. Click Here For Yours!
Hotel photos, maps, reviews, & discount rates.

U.S. Hotels in California (Yosemite, L. A., San Francisco ), AL, AK, AR, AS, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, FM, GA, GU, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OK, NV, MH, MP, NM, NC, ND, OH, OR, PA, PR, PW, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, VI WA, WV, WI, WY

Next: Chapter 4ContentsPrevious: Chapter 2

Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 4, Chapter 3
THE BIG TREES—YOSEMITE—TUOLUMNE MEADOWS

Columbia—The Calaveras Grove—Big Tree Statistics—Sonora—Big Oak Flat—Bower Cave—Crane Flat—Descending into the Yosemite—Features of the Valley—Measuring Yosemite Falls—To the High Sierra—Mount Hoffmann—Lake Tenaya—Tuolumne Soda Springs—Mount Dana—Vegetation of the Sierra—Attempt on Mount Lyell—Fourth of July at Tuolumne Meadows.

Yosemite Valley.
June 21, 1863.

Saturday, May 30, I rode to Knight’s Ferry, thirty-eight miles, crossing the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, both streams muddy from mining operations. Knight’s Ferry is quite a pretty mining town, on the Stanislaus, and there is a fine bridge over the river. Sunday, May 31, I rode to Columbia, most of the way near Table Mountain, which forms the great feature of the landscape, its crest level, or with a low slope toward the plain, its top of bare rock, its sides steep, often in cliffs near the top.

Monday, June 1, I stayed all day at the quiet little place of Columbia, a very pretty mining town, entirely unlike anything in the East. It grew up at a rich placer region. Ditches sixty miles long bring water to wash the gold and irrigate the gardens. The gold has been mostly washed out, many miners have left, so many houses are empty of inhabitants. Many of the houses are embowered with climbing roses, now in full bloom, and the place is lovely. The underlying rock is limestone, which is worn very rough—knobs, poles, pinnacles, thirty feet high—once all filled in with soil, making a level flat. Here were rich placers, and much of the soil has been removed, leaving these ragged rocks bare. The effect is very peculiar.

Here our plans were formed for a trip across the mountains to Aurora, via Yosemite. Hoffmann is sent to Clayton for more animals, and in the meantime Professor Whitney and I will visit certain silver mines three days’ ride distant. Accordingly, on June 2, we left Columbia and went to Murphy’s by a very picturesque road, crossing the Stanislaus where it flows in a valley a thousand feet deep. At Murphy’s we met Mrs. Whitney, and Professor Whitney heard of the severe sickness of a sister in San Francisco, so he dared not go on—so I rode to the Big Trees, the celebrated Calaveras Grove, fifteen miles from Murphy’s.

There is a fine stage road over the hills, abounding in rather picturesque views. The way is mostly through an open forest and there is nothing to indicate the near presence of any such vegetable wonders—one is even inclined to doubt the truth of the guideboard which proclaims “1/4 mile to the Big Trees.” One sees nothing to indicate any such thing, until crossing a little hill, one enters the valley and the grove. The first two trees, “The Sentinels,” stand one on each side of the road, like two faithful sentinels, truly, and huge ones they are.

There are about ninety trees of this species in this grove, which is in a valley, sheltered from the winds. The prevailing trees are sugar pine, pitch pine, false cedar (called here arbor vitae,1 Douglas spruce, and silver fir—all of which grow to a large size, often over two hundred feet high and ten feet in diameter, so the “big trees” always disappoint the visitor. They do not seem as large as they really are, but on acquaintance they grow on the mind, so that in a day or two they can be appreciated in all of their gigantic proportions. I measured over a dozen and found that the measurements popularly given are about correct. I will give the circumferences at three feet from the ground of some that I measured: Pride of the Forest, 60 feet: another, 65; Pioneer’s Cabin, 74; General Scott, 51; Mother and Son, 82; Old Bachelor, 62; Empire State, 67; and so on. Many of them are over three hundred feet high.

The largest trees have fallen. The “Father of the Forest” is prostrate—it is said to be 116 feet around it—it was probably 400 feet high, although it is generally estimated that it was 450 feet high. It is burned in two, affording a fine opportunity to measure it in places. At 195 feet from the base the wood is 9 feet 9 inches in diameter inside of the bark! These measurements I made myself.

One gets the best idea from a prostrate tree. It lies like a wall fifteen to twenty feet high—a carriage might be driven on the trunk. One prostrate tree was hollow; it had burned out and the cavity was large enough for a man to ride through eighty feet of the trunk on horseback! This was called “The Horseback Ride.” Only three days before I arrived it split in pieces and caved in. No one will ride through it again. A man rode through three days before and his horse tracks were fresh on the inside when I arrived.

A tree was felled a few years ago. It took four men twenty-seven days to get it down. It was cut off by boring into it with long augurs. This tree lies there still. The stump is six feet high and about twenty-four feet in diameter inside of the bark. A house is built over the stump to protect it. Stairs of twenty-seven steps carry one up on the prostrate trunk. At thirty feet from the base the diameter is considerably less, or only some thirteen and a half feet. The wood is perfectly sound to the very center. Professor Whitney carefully counted the annual rings four times over at this place (thirty feet from the base) and found the tree there 1,255 years old. It is remarkable that the wood should be sound that was already over eight hundred years old when Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery. The wood is much like red cedar in color and texture, only coarser, and is very brittle.

There is a fine hotel there, well-kept, and it is a most charming place to visit.2 I stayed two days, with barometer, and found the height to be 4,800 feet above the sea. The bark of some of the larger trees is two feet thick, it has been measured over two feet. There has been much error written about these trees—that there were no young trees, etc. There are trees of all ages and sizes. Six or seven groves are now known, all large, all in valleys at altitudes of 4,500 to 6,000 feet. Large quantities of seeds have been sent to Europe, and one nursery in England has over 200,000 young trees. Probably more groves will be found in this state.

I returned to Murphy’s, rejoined Professor Whitney, and examined the immediate vicinity. Murphy’s is a pretty and thriving little mining village, with sluices and ditches on every side—everything telling of the only interest there.

Saturday, June 6, we rode to Cave City, over a very rough trail, visited a cave there and returned again to Murphy’s. The cave is in limestone and is quite extensive, running at least half a mile underground. It was like all limestone caverns, with chambers and galleries, and stalactites, etc., but all was very dirty. Cave City is a dilapidated little village, the placers worked out, and decay is on every side.

I spent a quiet Sunday at Murphy’s, and Monday, June 8, we rode to Sonora, returning through Columbia, killing a big rattlesnake on the way. At Sonora I found a tremendous pile of letters, the accumulation since April 1.

Sonora, like Columbia, is a mining town, but is a large village, having perhaps three or four thousand inhabitants. It is but three miles from Columbia, and there are several other mining villages very near—all owing to the rich placers of the region. Water for washing this dirt is brought from the Stanislaus River, over and through a very rough country, in a ditch over sixty miles long! And here is a Californian history. A ditch supplied water, but the miners thought the water rates entirely too high, so they would build an opposition ditch. It was estimated to cost $300,000; they built it, but it cost over one and a half millions, or over five times the estimated cost. It was scarcely finished before it was sold at mortgage sale for $150,000, and bought in by the old company, the one that this was to run opposition to, so both fell into the same hands. It was destroyed the winter of 1861-62 by the high water.

Hoffmann was to meet us at Sonora with extra animals, with which to cross the mountains. Leaving a letter for him with instructions for him to join us, we went on to Big Oak Flat, twenty miles, between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers—a rough but picturesque road, the last part running up a hill over three miles long.

Big Oak Flat is a little mining village, on a little flat. The “big oak” which gave name to the place has been undermined and killed, although attempts were made to protect it by town ordinance. It was nearly ten feet in diameter, and in the days of its glory must have been a grand tree.

Thursday, June 11, we spent in that neighborhood. From a hill north of the town I had a fine view—the surrounding mountains, steep, rugged, and covered with scattered trees, the distant higher Sierra capped with snow, Table Mountain for thirty or forty miles of its course, its top a gentle slope and apparently as regular as if graded by a race of Titans. The great plain, and even the coast mountains, were in view. We took tea with Mr. St. John, a lawyer of the place, and to our disgust received a letter from Hoffmann that his letter and instructions had been sent off by mistake in the express. To hasten matters I returned for him to Sonora, which took two days, getting back Saturday night.

Our plans were to cross the Sierra via Yosemite Valley, by the Coulterville Trail, and return by another, the Sonora Trail. This was expected to take us five weeks. Our party consists of four: Professor Whitney, Hoffmann, and myself, and John, a hired man. Besides our riding-horses, we have two pack-mules, which carry provisions and such blankets as we cannot carry behind our saddles. Of course our personal baggage is cut down to the very lowest figure—only what little we can carry in our saddlebags. So, too, our cooking arrangements must be primitive—four knives and forks, four tin cups, a coffeepot, a tin pail to cook beans in, a pan to wash dishes in, and a frying pan in which we fry meat and bake bread—no tent, no shelter, fewer blankets than we used to have in our wagon, compass, two barometers, and other instruments.

We left Big Oak Flat on June 14 and struck east by the trail into the mountains. We passed the flume of a ditch which brings water for the miners from the river forty miles above. This crosses a valley in a flume that is really stupendous, being 2,200 feet long and 280 feet high. Twenty-two wooden towers, the highest 288 feet, support the wire cables which suspend the flume. These towers, built of timbers, are wonders in themselves.

We camped that night on the North Fork of the Merced River, where there is a remarkable cave.3 I have seen a number of caves, but this is the prettiest—a cave in the limestone, where there has been a large chamber, and the top has caved in, leaving it open to the sky. Trees grow in there, and there is a pool of very clear blue water. It is 109 feet down to this water. The effect is charming—the clear sky overhead, the trees in there, the ferns on the walls, the clear waters below, the dark chambers running from the main portion far back into the limestone.

Although the day had been hot, ice froze on our blankets that night. The lady owner of the cave and the house near, a French peasant woman, young, whose clear blue eyes did not look “spunky,” was heroine of a tragedy some months ago. She had a brutal husband, much older than herself, who, when drunk, often threatened to kill her, and one day attempted it, when she took his pistol from him and shot him. He lived two or three days, while she, womanlike, carefully nursed him.

Unicorn Peak, from Tuolumne Meadows
UNICORN PEAK, FROM TUOLUMNE MEADOWS
From a sketch by Charles F. Hoffmann
Cathedral Peak and Fairview Dome, from Tuolumne Meadows
CATHEDRAL PEAK AND FAIRVIEW DOME, FROM
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS
From a sketch by Charles F. Hoffmann

June 15 we came on to Crane Flat, on the Yosemite Trail, a very rough country, through open forests of enormous trees, with some grand views of the mountains. In crossing a mountain over seven thousand feet high, we had a grand view of Castle Peak, and the higher, snowy Sierra. After crossing the summit we struck a pretty, little, grassy flat, called Crane Flat, where we camped—a pretty place, a grassy meadow surrounded by forests, and lying at an altitude of over six thousand feet.

June 16 Hoffmann and I visited another grove4 of big trees, which is near—grand old trees, but not equal to the Calaveras trees—we saw no tree over twenty feet in diameter, but a stump was twenty-three feet inside the bark.

The trail grew rougher, across canyons, over hills. At last we crossed a hill, and a view of a portion of the valley burst upon us in all its beauty—the valley far below us, its peaks rising still higher than we were. We descended into the valley, passed the Bridal Veil Fall, and camped beneath the enormous precipice called Tu-tuc-a-nu-la.5 The next day we crossed the river and went up the valley about three miles, and camped directly in front of the great Yosemite Fall. We see it continually when we are in camp; it is the first thing we see in the gray dawn of morning, the last thing at night.

I will give a general description of the valley, without following the order in which the points were visited. Yosemite (pronounced Yo-sem´-i-tee) Valley is not only the greatest natural curiosity in this state, but one of the most remarkable in the world. It is on the Merced River, about sixty miles from the plain. (It is on a branch and marked Yohamite on your maps.)6 The stream is so large that it cannot be forded here. I tried it two days ago, but although in the best place, my horse was carried off his feet. We had to swim, and got a good wetting, so you can see that there is plenty of water. Below, the river runs in a narrow canyon; here, it widens out and is the Yosemite Valley proper—six or seven miles long, and about a mile wide, and over four thousand feet above the sea. The trails to it lead over the mountains.

We descend into the valley by a terribly steep hill—we have to descend nearly three thousand feet within four or five miles. We strike the level bottom, green and grassy, and pass up. The Bridal Veil Fall is in front (called also Pů-hono). It is a stream larger than Fall Creek at Ithaca, and falls clear at one leap over eight hundred feet! Some measurements make it 950 feet. The stream entirely dissolves in spray, which sways back and forth with the breeze, like a huge veil. It is vastly finer than any waterfall in Switzerland, in fact finer than any in Europe.

Now the valley begins to assume its characteristic and grand features. By the Pohono Fall rises the Cathedral Rock, a huge mass of granite nearly 4,000 feet high; while opposite is Tutucanula, a bluff of granite, rising from this plain perpendicularly 3,600 feet (we made it over 3,500 by our measurements). It rises from the green valley to this enormous height without any talus at the foot. You cannot conceive the true sublimity of such a cliff. It is equivalent to piling up nine such cliffs as the entire height of the walls of the ravine at Taughannock Falls.

We pass up the valley to our camp. South of us rises the Sentinel Rock, like a spire, 3,100 feet above us. There are the Three Brothers, the highest 3,443 feet above the valley, and in front the great Yosemite Fall, of which more anon.

As we pass up, the grandeur actually increases. The valley divides into three branches. We pass up the north, with the North Dome on one side, a huge dome 3,700 feet above the valley, and on the other the Half Dome, entirely inaccessible, like a huge dome split in two and only one-half remaining, its broken side rising in precipices 2,000 feet or more high, the whole rock being some 4,000 feet above the valley, or 8,000 feet above the sea. Here, in this valley, between these, is a lovely little lake, perhaps a quarter of a mile across.

The Merced River, however, comes down the central canyon. Here, between precipices of at least two thousand feet, nearly perpendicular, are two falls—the Vernal Fall, or Piwyac, and the Nevada, or Yowiye—the former four hundred feet high, the latter over six hundred feet. The quantity of water is large, so you may well imagine that they are sublime. The lower fall, Piwyac, is easily reached by a trail, and by ladders which carry us up to the top. Not so the Nevada Fall—that is more difficult—but we went up to measure it, to see if the heights previously given were exaggerated. We had a rough climb, but were amply repaid by the fine views. But few visitors ever attempt it.

But the crowning glory of the valley is the Yosemite Fall, before which I write this. The stream, fed by melting snows back, is a large sized millstream, say fifteen feet wide and two or three deep at the top of the fall. It comes over the wall on the north side of the valley, and drops 1,542 feet the first leap, then falls 1,100 more in two or three more cascades, the entire height being over 2,600 feet! We measured it yesterday.7 I question if the world furnishes a parallel—certainly there is none known.

It was desirable to measure this, so yesterday morning Hoffmann and I started very early to climb the cliffs by a ravine a short distance up the valley. He wanted to get bearings for a map of the region. For six hours we had a terribly hard climb, and exciting from its danger. We climbed up cliffs that seemed almost perpendicular, but we measured the falls, and a cliff by its side, which is over three thousand feet high, the upper half of which is perpendicular. A large stone hurled over brought no echoes, it struck too far down for us to hear it. The view from the top was magnificent. The valley, over half a mile—in fact over three thousand feet—below us, its green plain spotted with trees which seemed flat bushes, the river winding through it, the granite domes around, and last of all, the snowy peaks of the higher Sierra just beyond, rising several thousand feet higher—all conspired to form a scene of grandeur seldom met with. I have seen some of the finest scenery of Switzerland, the Tyrol, and the Bavarian Alps, but I never saw any grander than this.

Well, we got back after fourteen and a half hours of severe fatigue, which makes my hand tremble today so that I can write only slowly and crabbedly.

There are two or three parties of visitors here, perhaps a dozen persons in all. There is a house where one gets pretty good fare at three dollars per day, but it is by no means a fashionable hotel with all of the modern improvements. The difficulty of access and the expense deter most of those who would wish to visit this place, yet a photographer8 packed in his apparatus on mules and took a series of the finest photographs I have ever seen. A gentleman from New York, with three ladies and as many gentlemen, is here. We dined with him once. His expenses must amount to seventy-five dollars per day for animals, guides, packers, etc. But he enjoys the trip.

There is another fall in the south branch, said to be 1,100 feet, but we have not visited it. By Tutucanula is a little fall called 3,000 feet, but it does not drop clear much over 2,000 feet; then it runs over broken rocks. The stream is very small—it looks like a thread dangling from the high rocks.9

Soda Springs, on the upper Tuolumne River.
Sunday, July 5.

It is a beautiful Sunday, and we are surrounded by the grandest scenery. Two of us are here alone now. I have attended to my botanical specimens, baked two loaves of bread, washed my clothes, and am at last ready for writing. My last was written in Yosemite Valley, two weeks ago.

June 23 we were on the trail very early, bade adieu to the valley, came up the terrible hill that leads out, where we rose about three thousand feet in less than six hours, and struck east. In crossing some of the ridges the views of the Sierra were sublime. We camped at Porcupine Flat, a pretty, grassy flat, at an elevation of 8,550 feet, surrounded by scrubby pines, and tormented by myriads of mosquitoes. The grand Sierra was in sight, a cluster of rugged peaks that Professor Whitney thought over fourteen thousand feet, and he became excited—could hardly sleep that night—a group of mountains so high, of which absolutely nothing is known! Subsequent measurements, however, prove that we overestimated their height.

June 24 we climbed a peak over eleven thousand feet high,10 about five miles from camp, which we named Mount Hoffmann, after our topographer. It commanded a sublime view. Perhaps over fifty peaks are in sight which are over twelve thousand feet, the highest rising over thirteen thousand feet. Many of these are mere pinnacles of granite, streaked with snow, abounding in enormous precipices. The scene has none of the picturesque beauty of the Swiss Alps, but it is sublimely grand—its desolation is its great feature. Several little lakes are in sight. The scene is one to be remembered for a lifetime.

We returned to camp, took a hearty dinner, then fought mosquitoes with industry and built smokes beside our blankets before we could sleep.

June 25 we came on to Lake Tenaya, a most picturesque alpine lake, about a mile long and half a mile wide, of clear, cold, ice water, lying 8,250 feet above the sea. Its clear waters are very blue and very deep, no fish live in it, it is too high for the water to have air enough in it to support them.11 Scattered pines are around the lake, or grow in the crevices of the granite. Above rise domes of granite, many of them naked, while patches of snow lie around on every side. Of course it freezes every night.

June 26 we came on to this camp, the Soda Springs, on the upper Tuolumne River, at the altitude of 8,700 feet. The river valley here forms a flat nearly a mile wide, green and grassy, while around is the grandest alpine scenery. It is a most lovely spot. Several mineral springs are here—cold water, charged with carbonic acid gas, giving it the name of “soda” springs. The waters are charged with iron and various other metallic salts, are highly tonic, pleasant to the taste, and would be worth a fortune anywhere in the old states.

A small party exploring for a road camped near us and brought us papers, with the bad news of the invasion of Pennsylvania. The night, as all our nights are here, was perfectly cloudless and clear, the moonlight on the snowy peaks around us forming a beautiful scene. The frost, as usual, settled heavily on our blankets that night.

June 27 we moved on and camped about three miles from the summit of Mono Pass, at an altitude of 9,800 feet—like the other camps, picturesque enough. I went on the summit of the pass to measure it—it is over 10,700 feet.12 The night was cold and everything froze up hard, but a bright camp fire cheered the evening.

A high mountain rose on the east, from which we hoped to get important bearings, so on June 28 we were up early and Hoffmann and I started for it—over rocks, ice, and snow.13 It is over thirteen thousand feet high and afforded a yet grander view than any we had had. The air was very clear, and we remained on the summit over four hours, taking bearings and barometrical observations. Hundreds of peaks were in sight, probably over fifty that are over twelve thousand feet. All north, west, and south was a scene of the wildest mountain desolation. On the east, at our feet, lay Mono Lake, an inland sea surrounded by deserts. A chain of extinct volcanic cones lay to the south of it, while alternate barren mountains and more barren desert plains stretched east to the distant horizon. It is not often that a man has the opportunity of attaining that height, or of beholding such a scene.

Professor Whitney was not well, so he did not go up, but on our return we gave him such a glowing description, and as we had found the climb so easy, he resolved to make the ascent. So on June 29 I returned with him, thus making the ascent on two successive days. He thought the view the grandest he had ever beheld, although he has seen nearly the whole of Europe. Hoffmann measured another pass, through which it is desirable to get a trail.14

Here let me say that thus far we are on a trail that crosses the mountains, over which supplies are packed on mules during the summer to Esmeralda, freight being eight or nine cents per pound from Mariposa, Coulterville, or Big Oak Flat, all of which places pack over this trail. Trains of animals thus pass nearly every week.

We have found so much of interest here, among the rest finding the traces of enormous glaciers here in earlier times, the first found on the Pacific slope, that we have been detained much longer than we expected. Professor Whitney found that he would not have time to get around the whole trip with us, and as our provisions were nearly exhausted, he resolved to return and leave us to finish it alone.

Accordingly, June 30, we returned again to Soda Springs and made preparations for the “change of base.” Our huge camp fire this night burned down three large trees, starting us from our beds. But the night was lovely indeed, the bright moon lending its charm to the scene.

Here let me make a digression and speak of the vegetation. In ascending the chain from the west the vegetation continually changes. You know that the Sierra Nevada is a very broad chain, being from fifty to one hundred miles wide, here perhaps about eighty miles. As we leave the plain, where there are but few trees, the grass is already dry and withered. In the foothills, to the height of four thousand feet, there are scattered oaks and pines. Above this come the fine forests of gigantic trees, all evergreen; the oaks have disappeared, and in their places are pitch pine, sugar pine, false cedar, and some Douglas spruce. Above this, at six thousand to seven thousand feet, are the noble fir and silver fir; we get above this, and at eight thousand to nine thousand feet a scrubby pine (Pinus contorta)15 is almost the only tree—to the height of about 9,700 feet. Then, at about nine thousand feet, a low scrubby pine comes in, which extends up to eleven thousand feet or more but is a mere shrub. Its branches are very tough, and it will grow where fifty feet of snow falls on it every winter and lies on it for seven months in the year—in fact, never leaves the vicinity. Such is the Pinus flexilis of botanists.16

Above this, peculiar alpine plants come in, all very small, which extend to the summits of the highest peaks here, a little over thirteen thousand feet. Snow still lies in patches as low as 8,500 feet and is abundant above 10,000 feet. I have collected over a hundred species of mountain plants since I left Big Oak Flat.

July 1, early, Professor Whitney started for Big Oak Flat, taking John and one pack-mule for supplies, while Hoffmann and I packed the other mule and started up the Tuolumne River to see more of that mass of high mountains observed there and explore the country generally. No trail led up the valley, but we made our way up about ten and a half miles, and camped at the head of the valley,17 at the altitude of about 9,200 feet. Here there is a grassy flat half a mile wide, which terminates just above in a grand rocky amphitheater. Sharp granite peaks rise behind to about thirteen thousand feet, with great slopes of snow, and pinnacles of granite coming up through, projected sharply against the deep blue sky. It was most picturesque, wild, and grand. And what an experience! Two of us alone, at least sixty miles from civilization on either side, among the grandest chain of mountains in the United States, whose peaks tower above us—we sleeping in the open air, although a thousand feet higher than the celebrated Hospice of the Great St. Bernard, the frost falling white and thick on our blankets every night. The high granite walls of the valley, the alpine aspect of the vegetation, all conspired to make an impressive scene. Just opposite camp a large stream of snow water came over the rocks—a series of cascades for 1,000 or 1,500 feet in height—a line of spray and foam. By our side a little rill supplied us with the purest of cold water. Such was our camp—picturesque, romantic; but prosy truth bids me to say that mosquitoes swarmed in myriads, with not one-tenth the fear but with twice the ferocity of a southern Secessionist. We “turned in” early; the bright moon lit up the snowy peaks grandly above the great rocky amphitheater, while the music of waterfalls lulled us to sleep.

July 2 we are up early. First, a hasty and substantial breakfast, then we prepare to climb the highest peak back. The frost lies heavy on the grass, and we are some distance before the sun peeps over the hill. Over rocks and snow, the last trees are passed, we get on bravely, and think to be up by eleven o’clock. We cross great slopes all polished like glass by former glaciers. Striking the last great slope of snow, we have only one thousand feet more to climb. In places the snow is soft and we sink two or three feet in it. We toil on for hours; it seems at times as if our breath refuses to strengthen us, we puff and blow so in the thin air.

After over seven hours of hard climbing we struck the last pinnacle of rock that rises through the snow and forms the summit—only to find it inaccessible, at least from that side. We had to stop at 125 or 150 feet below the top, being something over 13,000 feet above the sea, the barometer standing 18.7 inches. As we had named the other mountain Mount Dana, after the most eminent of American geologists, we named this Mount Lyell, after the most eminent of English geologists.18

The view from our point was the most desolate we had yet seen. All my adjectives are exhausted in my former descriptions, yet this surpassed them all for sublimity. A high precipice, perhaps one thousand feet nearly vertical, lies on the south side of the dome, forming part of a great amphitheater a mile across, of which two other similar granite needles form part of the sides.

We got back nearly used up, and were not long out of our blankets. July 3 we were in no hurry to rise after our yesterday’s labors, so we lay “in bed” until the bright sun shone into the valley and melted the heavy frost from our blankets. It was a lovely morning—the sky of the deepest blue—at this great height—not a cloud in sight. We botanized, etc., during the morning, and in the afternoon returned here to Soda Springs. On our way we saw a large wolf, the only wild animal of any considerable size that we have seen here.

July 4 we celebrated by riding down the river a few miles and climbing a smooth granite dome for bearings, for we hope to work up a map of this region, of which no map has ever been made. The one you have is entirely incorrect, being made by guess. The view from this granite dome would be a grand one for a painter, although not so grand as those farther south that I have described. We are eight hundred feet above the river—for a foreground we have a series of smooth, low, granite domes, with the grassy flats by them, with a cascade of the Tuolumne in front, a dark pine forest beyond stretching up against the slopes, while beyond and above are sharp granite pinnacles destitute of trees and streaked with snow. Two peaks were especially fine—Unicorn Peak, a sharp needle over eleven thousand feet high, and Cathedral Peak, about the same height—the latter something the shape of a huge cathedral.

A great glacier once formed far back in the mountains and passed down the valley, polishing and grooving the rocks for more than a thousand feet up on each side, rounding the granite hills into domes. It must have been as grand in its day as any that are now in Switzerland. But the climate has changed, and it has entirely passed away. There is now no glacier in this state—the climatic conditions do not exist under which any could be formed.19

We rode back early, ate a tremendous dinner of preserved chicken, in regard to the day we celebrate. In the evening we built a tremendous bonfire of dead trees, but there were only the two of us to enjoy it. Today John returned with an ample supply of provisions.

NOTES

1. Incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens).

2. This hotel is still being operated.
[Editor’s note: The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1943.]

3. Bower Cave.

4. The Tuolumne Grove.

5. El Capitan.

6. For origin of this and other names in the Yosemite region see Francis P. Farquhar, Place Names of the High Sierra (Sierra Club, 1926).

7. The figures of the United States Geological Survey are: upper fall, 1,430 feet; total falls, 2,565 feet.

8. This was C. E. Watkins, whose views of Yosemite still stand among the finest ever taken.

9. These heights are exaggerated. Illilouette Fall is less than 400 feet, while Ribbon Fall, near El Capitan, is 1,612 feet in sheer drop.

10. The United States Geological Survey map shows 10,921, minus 85 feet correction.

11. This has been disproved.

12. The Whitney Survey measurements in this region are from one hundred to several hundred feet too high.

13. Mount Dana, 13,050 feet (U.S.G.S.).

14. Probably the present Tioga Pass.

15. Locally called tamarack pine, but similar to, if not identical with, the lodgepole pine of wide range in the West—Pinus contorta; Pinus murrayana; or Pinus contorta var. Murrayana.

16. This is the white bark pine (Pinus albicaulis). Pinus flexilis is seldom found west of the Sierra crest.

17. Lyell Fork.

18. It is strange that they found it so difficult, for hundreds of people have since made the ascent without trouble. Perhaps they tried to scale the rock too far to the east. The altitude is 13,090 feet (U.S.G.S.).

19. Members of the Whitney Survey, led by Professor Whitney himself, were altogether too dogmatic about this. John Muir discovered glaciers in the Sierra in 1870, and later conducted experiments on the Mount Lyell glacial system. King discovered the Shasta glaciers the same year. There have since been found a number of glaciers of unmistakable character, such as those on Mount Ritter, Mount Darwin, and the Palisades.


Next: Chapter 4ContentsPrevious: Chapter 2

CalHotels.US--online reservations now CalHotels.US Lowest Hotel Rates Guaranteed. Click Here For Yours!
Hotel photos, maps, reviews, & discount rates.

U.S. Hotels in California (Yosemite, L. A., San Francisco ), AL, AK, AR, AS, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, FM, GA, GU, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OK, NV, MH, MP, NM, NC, ND, OH, OR, PA, PR, PW, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, VI WA, WV, WI, WY

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

http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/up_and_down_california/4-3.html