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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King

Letter Eight

SAN FRANCISCO, January, 1861.


Dear Transcript: I have already told your readers that the Yo-Semite gorge is a huge trench in the Sierras, eight or ten miles long, leading at the upper or eastern end into three narrower passes, each of which is several miles in extent. Through the long and principal furrow, the Merced river winds among rich meadows, which are overhung by the precipitous granite that sometimes reaches a height of more than four thousand feet from the base. Into this main valley the Pohono, or “Bridal Veil” fall, and six miles above it, on the opposite cliff, the great Yo-Semite cataract, pour their splendor,—the first from a height of nine hundred feet, the second, in three leaps all visible at once, of fifteen hundred, four hundred, and five hundred feet. These walls and cataracts, with the noble river flowing through meadows that bear grasses seven feet high, and clover six feet tall, and skirted with the stateliest trees in the world, would seem to be enough to repay a visit.

But now we must say a word of the three upper passes, or notches, whose streams combine to form the Merced.

The North Fork, as it is called, rushes down a wild and desolate chasm, and just before it bursts into the larger valley, sobers itself into a placid lake of a few acres in extent, between two bare mountains of granite, called the North and South Domes. 110 A ride of three or four miles from the shanty-hotel conducts us to this rift, where the awful walls and their barren crowns are mirrored in a little basin but little larger than Profile Lake, in Franconia. The North Dome, called by the Indians To-coy-ar, is 3700 feet above the water. Tis-sa-ack, the South Dome, which, however, is only half a dome, soars 4967 feet over its image in the Lake Ah-wi-yah. A lake in front of the Glen House, in which the cap-stone of Mount Washington might take a peep at itself, would reflect a height of only 4685 feet. But to make that spot resemble the surroundings of Ah-wi-yah, Mount Washington would require to be hewn so as to show a smooth wall of twenty-five hundred feet, springing over the lake, and supporting, a little back of it, the summit with a smooth face again of two thousand feet. And then Mt. Carter would have to be pushed up to the line of the Glen House itself, stripped of its verdure, and split down into a sheer precipice of two or three thousand feet, to front its frightful antagonist.

The whole ride from the hotel to the lake is under ramparts and battlements ranging from two thousand to thirty-five hundred feet high, that would exhaust all the adjectives appropriate to rock majesty which the new “Worcester” could supply, in their description. Indeed, I was most agreeably disappointed by the variety of form and grandeur in the whole Yo-Semite gorge. The descriptions and lithographs I had read and seen gave me the impression of monotonous and gloomy majesty in the walls, and of an Egyptian heaviness and grotesqueness of build and shape in the chief cliffs, which, I supposed, would be dispiriting, and soon, perhaps, wearisome. But no portraiture by pen or pencil has done justice to the “infinite variety” in the forms of the rocks, and their inspiring livingness of aspect,—if such an expression means anything. What the valley is worth to a geologist I do not know; but an artist who loves rocks might revel in it for a dozen life-times.

The walls, as I have said, bend and are set at such angles that the visitor does not look up several miles of a furrow at once, but studies and enjoys the granite casing in divisions of a quarter or a half mile at a time. They vary in barrenness and in texture. Here is a patch without a tree or a vine on it, but it is crinkled with cracks. Opposite, perhaps, is a sheer front of three thousand feet, on whose bald surface the frost would try in vain to insert the tiniest of its destructive needles. And the walls support all sorts of crowning figures and ornaments. Cones are set on them; domes swell from them; turrets and towers overhang them; aiguilles and spires shoot above them; pyramids are based on them; and the raggedest splinters, a thousand feet in height, start up from them, and drop a few hundred tons of granite, every winter, to adorn the base of the rampart with picturesque ruin.

The variety of colors, too, on the walls and cliffs, is rich and charming. Some of the heights are of dark bluish tint; some are ashy grey; some are striped and stained with lichens, seemingly; some are creamy; others almost white; while here and there black stripes and orange stains give grimness or cheerfulness to a few thousand square feet. The texture and cleavage of the rocks are equally various and attractive. One buttress will have folds on it like a rhinoceros’s hide. Another has narrowing lines that run up aslant and end in a spire. A third has straight lines marking it. Then a front of a quarter of a mile is broken with portions of majestic arches. Soon conic sections are illustrated in a score of experiments which earthquakes and frosts have tried. And here and there is a cliff, higher than either wall of the White Mountain Notch, which seems to have been smitten by a Titanic battle-axe, and split smooth for a thousand feet, and then the axe, finding a granite knot which couldn’t be cloven, was wrenched sideways, tearing off the remainder of the covering as the fibre of wood is wrenched off, flowing over the knot which bulges stubborn and invincible. I say nothing of the heads, and quaint figures and features, and queer looking animals that are seen, with more or less help from the fancy, on the heights; but certainly the rock sculpturing and hues on the Yo-Semite are various and strange enough, sublime and grotesque and lovely enough to make a week too short even for a superficial acquaintance with them.

Imagine that all this talk about rocks has been made while we were in the boat on the lake at the outlook of the North Fork, and under the frown of the two domes which we have described. The second pass or notch I wish to refer to is that of the South Fork of the Merced River. To make an excursion into this from the hotel, which is itself in the upper part of the main valley, would require a day. Horseback-riding is practicable only to the portals of the pass, about three miles from the hotel. Then we must scramble between the cliffs for three miles more, and be repaid by the wildness and splendor of the great cataract, Too-lu-lu-wack, which pours over a sheer precipice 500 feet. 111 But I must not stop to give any details of this excursion.

The central of the three subordinate notches, the pass of the Middle Fork of the Merced, demands all the space we can devote to it. An exploration of this also requires a day; and the hours we devoted to it remain, with our party, the most delightful reminiscence of the Yo-Semite tour. On the way to it, we passed an immense face of rock three thousand feet high, down which streams were singing merrily. We were exultant over its wildness and splendor; but landlord Peck, who went as guide with us, told us that the view was nothing to what it is in Spring. “Then” said he, “the streams come slipping down them steep stripes, and I tell ye it’s beautiful, jest like calico!”

Leaving our horses about four miles from the hotel, in a charming grove, we climbed along the track of the Middle Fork, which is the main feeder of the noble Merced, for some five miles, all the way overhung by walls as high as those of the White Mountain Notch, but much closer, and as rocky as the front of Mt. Willard. 112 This pass is so much narrower than the main Yo-Semite valley, that the effect of height is as great as under the loftiest of the cliffs below. We found, in fact, that when a battlement or crag is perpendicular, so that you have to hold your head nearly at a right angle with the spine to look up to the summit, it makes little difference whether it is 2500 feet or 4000 in elevation; 2500 feet sheer is about as much as the eye can appreciate when looking up.

The first great reward in this Notch, after three miles or so of tramping and scrambling by the side of the raging stream, is the fall of Pi-wy-ack, abused by Yankees with the name of “Vernal,” and of which it is said the true Indian title means “Shower of Sparkling Crystals.” A tide sixty feet broad pours here some three hundred feet over a perpendicular and crescent rampart that joins the two sides of the Notch. 113 All of our readers who have seen that beautiful jet on Boston Common, which falls over as from a wide vase in separate drops, will know how this river is broken in making its dead pitch into a dell of rainbows over this glorious precipice. We climbed the face of the rock by ladders, (which is the next thing to walking Blondin’s rope over Niagara) stood by the fall, leaned over a natural parapet and watched for half an hour the sheet, sixty feet wide, falling three hundred feet without a tint of color on it, and seemingly with no fleck of foam. It was a sheet not of “Sparkling Crystals” begging the Indians’ pardon, but of dead white pearls.

All day one might linger there looking off down the Notch, and beneath at the cascade. But once turn round and look further up the Notch, and you will leave the prospect and hurry on. What for? See that stream of light on another wall that joins the sides of the Notch, still a mile beyond. Ah yes, the river takes a more formidable leap there. We must hasten to that; and, in walking along the easy slope that leads to it, we have first a lake, in which the stream spreads and suns itself; then a flat granite race-way, over which, for a quarter of a mile, it rushes like a swift tide of thin molten glass; and then a flume down which it roars with fury. Passing this flume, we stand at the base of the great Nevada fall, called by the Indians “Yo-wi-ye” Seven hundred feet, they tell us, the river jumps and slides in this passage of its history. I doubt the figures a little, but the fall is of marvellous majesty. 114 Of course the height will not compare with the Yo-Semite cataract, but there is ten times the quantity of water, and the power of the fall as from “the head-long height it cleaves the wave-worn precipice” seems as great as any portion of the American fall at Niagara. Truly,

“The flashing mass foams shaking the abyss,

*     *     *

As if to sweep down all things in its track,
Charming the eye with dread—a matchless cataract!”

Just about the time we made our visit, Mr. [Nathaniel Parker] Willis was publishing in the Home Journal his criticism on the defects of Niagara—not of the cataract, but of its surroundings. Its lack of a mountain, he says, makes the natural sovereignty of the spot unrecognizable at any distance. “How much more properly Niagara would catch the eye, if quotation-marked with the Hudson Highlands on either side of the Fall, and emphasized with one high mountain peak for a note of admiration!” The great Nevada cataract is arranged on Mr. Willis’s principles. The Sierras have put their exclamation point at precisely the right spot. For on the northwest, immediately over it, springs an obelisk of bare granite two thousand feet high, utterly unscaleable on the front, and on its back-line, repeating with surprising exactness the contour of the Matterhorn on its longer side, as drawn in the fourth volume of Ruskin’s “Modern Painters” and in Hinchdiff’s “Summer Among the Alps.” 115 I do not know what splendors of cascade or sublimities of rock the Himalayas hide; but I would venture something on the faith that nowhere on the globe is there a mile of river scenery that will compare with this Sierra glen, through which the Middle Fork of the Merced makes its two glorious plunges under the shadow of granite walls and soaring pinnacles.

Tourists generally are content with the toil and the views that are gained when they reach the foot of the “Nevada.” I climbed with one of our party above it, and on a mountain behind it, up and up, till we overtopped the obelisk that shoots from the side of the cataract. And still up we climbed in the hope of seeing a line of the kingly summits of the Sierra chain. My companion killed a rattlesnake that buzzed generously near our legs before making us acquainted with his fangs. And dangling his seven rattles as a trophy, without fear of any others, we still mounted, till we stood on a ridge that showed other obelisks of naked granite shooting up at the east, and very near us on the north, the great “Castle Peaks” which stand guard over the Mono silver region,—themselves frosted with silver on their summits that are bome up nearly 14,000 feet above the sea. 116 With this picture of the taller “exclamation notes” of California in our mind, we hastened down to the base of the Nevada fall; then to the parapet of the beautiful Piwyack where we rejoined our companions; then down the frightful ladders, and through the notch, to our horses in the larger gorge of the Yo-Semite;—and around our camp-fire in the evening, in front of the hotel, I, for one, believed what travellers from Europe, from Sinai, from the wildest passes of the Peruvian Andes, told us, while the music of the highest cataract was in our ears,—that nowhere had they seen such rocks and such waterfalls as those among which we had passed three glorious summer days. But I am sure our readers will be glad to see a party of five riding out of the Yo-Semite, and to know that one of them is


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