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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


For some time I had wished to make the complete circuit of the upper levels adjacent to the Yosemite Valley when the opportunity at last came to do so, partly in the company of a congenial friend. This was Mr. Carl Eytel, an artist whom the heats of summer had driven from his beloved Colorado Desert, where I had last encountered him among the palms and alkali of that sun-blistered region.

I had frequently, in argument with him, urged the (Preëminence of the pine over the palm, if only on the ground of the greater amount of drawing in it. But Eytel is a colorist, and when he takes the argument on to that ground there is no following him; for you cannot argue about color, which every man perceives differently according to his spiritual composition.

We left the valley on a fine morning of mid-August, with the two burros who were to carry our necessities for the trip, —Adam, a sedate old grey, and Teddy, a young black with no marked characteristics other than a striking appetite. I always feel that I owe a special debt to nature for providing this humble beast of burden, for in many expeditions into the mountains I have found him better suited to my needs than either the lordly horse or that durable hybrid which occupies the middle place in the equine scale. My purposes usually require a slow pace and frequent stoppages, and the constitution of the burro is such that he is naturally disposed to conform to my wishes in this regard, and often, indeed, to exceed them.

Our plan was to ascend to the south rim of the valley by way of the Wawona stage-road, and then, taking the Pohono trail which leaves the road at Fort Monroe, to proceed east to Glacier Point. Thence we would follow the so-called Long trail to the head of the Nevada Fall, and instead of descending to the valley and climbing to the north side by the Eagle Peak trail, I (alone from this point) intended to take the Sunrise trail northeasterly to the Tuolumne Meadows, and thence to double back westwards by way of the old Tioga “road.” Leaving that relic of adventurous engineering before it turns northerly at Porcupine Flat, I proposed to take the southwesterly trail to the head of the Yosemite Falls, and then to continue westwards, passing Eagle Peak, to the summit of El Capitan. From there I hoped to be able to follow the old trail out to Gentry’s Saw-Mill, and so to return to the valley by the Big Oak Flat road, thus making a complete circumambulation.

The road to Fort Monroe was hot and dusty, but mitigated with cool streams and intervals of grateful forest and enlivened by many tracks of deer and bear. The afternoon sunlight was streaming full into the valley as we reached Artists’ Point. The narrowness of the gateway as it is seen from this point brings out strongly the gorge-like character of the depression, and in my opinion renders this the most striking of all the comprehensive views of the wonderful valley. When we reached Inspiration Point it lacked only an hour of sunset. The vast shadow of El Capitan lay already far across the valley, and a long purple promontory ran out from the foot of Three Brothers. I was reminded of the line of Virgil, by which, it is said, Millet was always deeply affected,—

“Majoresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.”1

1“And the great shadows fall from the high mountains.”

Certainly it harmonizes well with his sombre and sensitive genius.

We camped at Fort Monroe, and ate our supper between exclamations at the sunset color on the pines and cedars on the opposite hillside. The level light illuminated the forest with a radiance that was indescribably royal and august, and the great trees stood thoughtful and reverent, ripening their harvest in the golden air.

From just beyond our camp there opened a wonderful outlook to the west. The land here falls away almost precipitously two thousand feet to the cañon of the Merced, where it forms a sweeping amphitheatre at the point where Tamarack Creek enters from the north. Opposite, the unbroken forest rises to the high ridge that is held by the Merced Grove of Sequoias, and which here forms the watershed between the Merced and Tuolumne systems.

In the gathering dusk the myriad pinnacles of the forest rose into a pale, clear sky, down which the new moon passed musingly to sink behind the western mountains.

I awoke several times during the night, noting the changes of the stars. Toward morning the sky became covered with fleecy clouds, through which now and then a star gleamed for a moment and was quickly obscured. By morning the sky cleared somewhat, and when, after breakfast, we walked back down the road to Inspiration Point, the sun shone intermittently through cloud openings of spiritual grey, and touched the white foot of El Capitan with pale, shifting gleams.

By the middle of the morning we weighed anchor, and leaving the road took the Pohono trail. The animals rebelled a little at the first steep rise, as implying harder times in store, but when we got fairly under way Adam went well in the lead, while Teddy —somewhat strangely, as we remarked—seemed well content with the second place. The peculiar beauty of the Pohono trail lies in the forest through which it passes. At this western end the timber is mixed of cedar, sugar pine, yellow pine, white fir and Douglas spruce, with a scattering of small oaks; but when at about 7000 feet the main level is reached, the red fir (Abies magnifica) takes possession. This superb tree here often attains a height of two hundred feet, and even more. The stem is a fine shaft of dusky purple, and the broad curving fans of dark blue-green foliage, edged as if with an effervescent spray or froth by the silver-grey of the young growth, give the tree a special richness and nobility of color. Imposing as are all the conifers of this forest, to me none other of them quite equals in distinction and stateliness this magnificent fir.

The previous winter had been unusually severe, and the five feet of snow which had lain on the floor of the valley must have been more than trebled on the upper levels. The result was a profusion of cones on all the full-grown trees which was remarkable. Here and there a sugar pine could be seen which flowed gracefully over at the head like the top of a fountain under the weight of its fruitage, and the barrel-like cones of the firs were piled on the upper branches until the last inch of room was taken.

We sauntered easily along, noting these and a thousand other things, until we emerged unexpectedly at the brink. Looking down into the valley from that dizzy precipice, and over to the savage wilderness of grey and wrinkled granite that sweeps round to north and east, we agreed that the prospect surpassed any other that we had seen. The outer semicircle was a billowy expanse of peaks swimming in summer haze, but with dark clouds banked heavily above them. “Terrible, terrible!” said Eytel; and so it was. Three times, at Crocker, Stanford, and Dewey Points, the trail opens upon these amazing landscapes which are enhanced, if that is possible, by the suddenness with which they break upon the obscurity of the forest.

The trail is crossed by many small streams, and varied with oases of verdure. Epilobium was still in flower though it was long past midsummer, and the azalea blossom was only lately dead, and hung in shrivelled clusters of grey among the glossy leaves. Hazels grew plentifully, and we gathered nuts like schoolboys, though as they were hardly ripe the satisfaction lay principally in the sentimental and retrospective aspect of the feast.

Five hours’ easy travel brought us to Bridal Veil Creek, and crossing it we went into camp by early evening. The stream was low, and half an hour ’s fishing resulted only in fingerlings, which were returned to the water to grow into fish of nobler degree.

Tracks of bear and mountain-lion had been fairly plentiful along the trail, and before turning in we picketed our animals securely in anticipation of a scare. But only the humpiness of a badly chosen sleeping-place disturbed our slumbers. We arose at dawn, and before the sun reached us were well on the trail.

The early morning hours are always the cream of time, but most of all is it so in the forest. It is then, even more than at evening, that the profoundest peacefulness that is possible to us on this earth is realized, so long as one is not in a hurry. The nerves, which at evening are settling into rest in a long decrescendo, in the morning are at zero. We for our part had plenty of time, for we had determined beforehand that we would not attempt to cover more than ten miles or so a day. Our animals stopped every minute to refresh themselves with seductive grasses, while we, far from rebuking them, lounged gently along, listening to the heavenly voices of the birds and delighting ourselves with the flowers. In the meadows hidden rills ran tinkling among delicate carices mixed with purple epilobium, lavender geranium, and sultry yellow goldenrod; while at one spot a few blossoms, and even buds, of late wild-rose gave us the sweetest greeting of all.

Squirrels, jays, and woodpeckers were loquacious with table-talk. As the sun rose and the shadows of the great tree-stems fell purple on mats of dwarf ceanothus and manzanita, the leaves of the aspens, which had hung languid and unmoving since the dawn-wind stirred them three hours before, began to swing and dangle lazily, and then as the breeze came tip started off as if driven by an engine at full pressure.

Turning north after two or three miles, the trail ran out again to the rim of the valley at The Fissures. The fissures themselves are sufficiently remarkable,—vertical clefts in the west face of a deep side cañon which opens on the valley opposite Eagle Peak. These clefts, so narrow at the top that boulders of no large size which have fallen into them are caught and held in the jaws of the fracture, are of great depth, apparently reaching almost to the bottom of the cliff. But the great precipice of the abutment of the side-cañon itself is still more impressive The bench-mark of the Geological Survey gives the height of this point as 7503 feet. The cliff is therefore thirty-five hundred feet in height above the valley floor, three hundred feet higher than Glacier Point, and on a level with Eagle Peak and El Capitan, which it faces. The top, stained with lichens in vivid yellow, Indian red, and purple, overhangs considerably, projecting a magnificent profile against the opposite wall of the valley.

The cañon of the Yosemite Creek presents from this point an interesting appearance. Its whole course lies open to the eye as if drawn on a map, from the thin line of falling water which marks the top of the cataract back to Mount Hoffman and the crest of the southern wall of the Tuolumne Cañon, which bounds the watershed.

There is no mountain in the immediate Yosemite region that surpasses Mount Hoffman in grandeur of outline. Its isolated position on the great plateau of granite which stretches northward from the rim of the valley renders it a commanding object. From this point it rises in imposing bulk in the northeast. Trending up in long slopes from a base of great extent, it sweeps up to a height of nearly 11,000 feet by grades which are nowhere sharp or precipitous, and conveys a remarkable impression of massiveness by the simplicity of its lines.

A short distance further brought us within sight of Sentinel Dome, and soon we emerged upon the stage-road. There is a little emerald meadow hereabouts which I had noticed the previous year, and had made an engagement with myself to camp there when the opportunity offered. I have a liking for making these engagements. They cannot often be kept, and I have always many outstanding; but there is an additional satisfaction in camping where one of them can be fulfilled. Turning off from the road, with its diurnal stages and humiliating tokens of the chewing-gum age, we crossed the plushy oasis enclosed among firs and tamaracks, and camped on the farther side among mint, cyclamens, and lupines, and under a superb red fir whose branches swept almost to the ground.

A tranquil Sunday was ushered in by a pageant at sunrise. A hundred yards to the south the ground rose to a fine view with Half-Dome almost in the foreground, and Hoffman, Clark, and Red Mountain the prominent peaks of the middle distance. The sun rose flashing immediately at the head of the Little Yosemite, and sent long, tremulous beams searching down into the cañon of the Illilouette and up into gulfs of cloud that glowed with volcanic fires above the sullen horizon of the south. As the day went on the sky attained its cloudless California blue, and the distant line of the Sierra shimmered under a powerful sun, while the snow-banks that enamelled the northern slopes glistened with a pearly softness.

On Monday we stayed still in camp, sketching and photographing the trees, tamarack, the two firs, and the Jeffrey variety of yellow pine, all which here offer excellent specimens for observation. Some climbing also had to be done to secure unopened cones of the fir, and when I finally descended after several of these expeditions I was well plastered with pitch and balsam and altogether in a highly inflammable condition.

I do not know of any vegetable object that is more poetic and generous in appearance than the cone of the red fir. The great velvety cylinders take on as they ripen a rich, peach-like bloom, and an almost spirituous perfume exhales from the balsam with which they are saturated. As the cones grow only on the upper branches, and do not fall but dissipate upon the tree, they are by no means as well-known objects as are the cones of the pines and spruces, which everywhere litter the forest floor, and any one is well repaid who climbs into the fragrant world where they grow. He will receive a revelation of the profusion and affluence of nature that will fill him with admiration, and moreover will refresh himself with recollections of the bird’s-nesting exploits of youth.

In the afternoon I climbed the southern shoulder of Sentinel Dome, enjoying the march over the clean, wholesome pavement that stretches like an apron around the swell of the dome, and relishing the bite of the good hob-nails into the crumbling granite. The surface of the rock has weathered into a coarse grit, a kind of granite hail. In the cleavage joints pines have taken root and form a scanty forest. I was amused by the grotesqueness of the shapes of these unconquerable trees, which have undertaken not only to sustain, but to propagate themselves under almost impossible conditions. I came upon aged firs seven or eight feet high, knotted and battered of body and leaning on their elbows, whose shivering branches grimly held up a score or two of cones and seemed to flourish them at the wind in scornful defiance. I could not refrain from crying “Go it!” to these heroes.

On the precise summit of the round a Jeffrey pine has established itself, the trunk a shapeless, rooty mass and the limbs blown away horizontally to the east. Its branches are like iron, its twigs like whip-cord, and its needles like steel. It is a small tree, but I judge its age must be numbered in hundreds of years.

Leaving camp early the next morning we followed the stage-road as far as Glacier Point. Mount Hoffman rose again grandly on our left, and Half-Dome, Clark, and Starr King more easterly. Now and again a white gleam among the trees revealed the position of the Vernal and Nevada Falls, and their distant roar rose continuously to our ears like the incessant beating of surf on the shore. It was even possible to see the great cloud of spray that streams out from the foot of Vernal.

The granite ocean to north and east was veiled in a thin, milky blue (the blue that milk so often is though it should not be). The forest lay in well-defined folds and creases, rising here and there to the sky-line; but the main ridge of the crests stood barren, sharp and clearly cut against a pale cerulean sky. The voices of the birds, plaintively sweet, seemed like a fine embroidery upon the background of silence and space.

Doubling southward at Glacier Point we began the long descent to the bed of the Illilouette Creek. As part of the so-called Long trail this route is travelled every year by thousands of tourists from the valley, under the convoy of realistic guides whose bear-skin “chaps” are artfully designed to thrill the Easterner with a touch of genuine Western life. We stumbled rapidly down this well-worn trail, while the dust rose in clouds and the animals complained loudly as we urged them to persevere.

Near the bottom we emerged at the edge of the cliff over which the Illilouette Creek plunges to join the Merced. The fall is broken a hundred feet or so below the lip by ledges on which the water breaks, and spreads like a film over the face of the cliff. The lower half of the descent is a smooth wall, all but vertical, down which the water spurts, hissing with enormous velocity, gathering at the bottom into a rapid stream, and rushing among huge boulders through a wild and sunless cañon to its junction with the main river. The amount of water flowing was small, but the energy and beauty of the fall surpassed my expectations.

The Illilouette Creek itself in its upper course is of an attractive and stimulating appearance, flowing in a wide bed that shows interesting glacial characteristics. I booked it for exploration at some future time back to its sources among the cluster of peaks known as the Merced group.

After crossing the creek the trail bears northeasterly, climbing to a height of 6700 feet, where it skirts the edge of the cliff which forces the river into the gorge of Vernal Fall. Fine views opened now and again of the upper end of the valley, and I observed, what I had not before been aware of, that at the eastern end of the Royal Arches the rock ends in an impressive vertical fracture, falling to a deeply curved recess. Basket Dome I found to be cut away on its eastern face in the same manner; both fractures possibly having occurred at the same time that Half-Dome suffered his frightful amputation.

As the trail begins to round the extreme eastern end of the valley the eye takes in at a glance the majestic nature of the Yosemite sculpture. To the left rises for three thousand feet the huge rock which forms the abutment between the valley proper and the Illilouette Cañon. Opposite, the profile of Mount Broderick sweeps up steeply to a hardly less height; and between lies the green and level valley, the product of the enormous grinding energy of the ice-river.

A steep descent through heavy timber brought us to the open plateau at the head of the Nevada Fall. The river here flows smooth and silent to the edge of the cliff over which it goes thundering down in a broad torrent of snowy foam.

No other of the Yosemite waterfalls conveys so sublime an expression of dynamic power and irresistible energy as does Nevada. Seen from below, the water seems to be hurled in masses over the polished brink, to burst wildly on the ledges and fly out in whirling water-smoke, like storm-waves crashing upon a rocky coast. In the berserk fury of its rush it might embody some stalwart young god of Norse mythology, and its voice might be the death-song of a Jötun.

Crossing by the bridge just above the fall, we turned eastward toward the Little Yosemite, following the stream while we sought an eligible camp-site. This we found about half a mile up, and went into camp on the bank of the river among white firs and the ubiquitous tamaracks. The sun had set for us although it was only four o’clock. After supper I fished for half an hour with indifferent success, and closed the day by fighting a merry bout in the twilight with a handsome fish, losing him honorably in a tight place of sunken snags and boulders.

We were not to move camp the next day, and I lay an extra hour in bed, watching the eastern grey turn to lilac, and conjuring to myself with the cryptic word “values” as if I understood it, while I noted the relative tones of trunk, branch, and foliage against the brightening sky. A squirrel in the fir overhead barked quarrelsomely at me, insisting that I get up and leave the valley immediately, as if the whole place were the possessions of the house of Douglas. Not so loud, my peppery young friend; I admit your prior claim, but all the same “J’y suis, j’y reste.”

I suppose we all in our turn come into the debt of the inventor of bacon. For myself, when I am in the city I never touch the thing; but here twice a day I eat it with relish, and find even the etymology of the word interesting. I never knew that Bacon was an Irish name; yet I understand that Ireland has given this valuable product to the world.

There are two small lakes (so marked on the map), that lie just at the base of the “helmet” curve of the Half-Dome, and about a mile from where we were camped. We walked over to see them, and found them to be excellent examples of the evolution of the mountain meadow. By the gradual filling up of the lake-beds by detritus from the mountain at whose base they lie, they had already become marshes rather than lakes. Trunks of fallen trees lay rotting in the swampy soil, and a rank vegetation had grown up that all but obliterated them. The transformation was nearly complete, and a few years, I imagine, will suffice to give them the full meadow character. The place was exuberantly flowery with the blossoms of a tall weedy plant, and, enclosed within a ring of forest, was windless and silent as a vision.

While we stood enjoying the perfect stillness, and ourselves silent, I saw not forty yards away the wagging ears of a fawn that stood in the shade on the edge of the meadow, persecuted by flies. He was submerged, all but his ears, in the green and white sea, but now and then lifted his head and showed his delicate muzzle and spiritual, innocent eyes. He had not seen us, but soon there was a warning whistle from an older deer behind the thicket, and the fawn turned and walked quietly out of sight. Coming by a detour to the place where he had stood, we came upon a handsome buck, the same, no doubt, that had whistled. We were within twenty feet of him before he saw us, but then in a few great curving leaps he reached the opposite side of the meadow, and the congenial forest instantly absorbed him.

The designation of “Little Yosemite” well enough describes this valley to any one who knows the larger original. It lies at approximately two thousand feet greater elevation, but in general features it is simply a narrower and smaller Yosemite. Its walls, though not so high nor so precipitous, are imposing enough in boldness of outline and severity of polished granite. It has the same level meadows, and the river, though in places rapid and broken, flows generally with a valley quietness. Even the timber and underbrush are the same, except for a larger admixture of firs and tamaracks among the prevailing yellow pines and cedars; and though it lacks the waterfalls that grace the lower valley, there is a noticeably fine cascade at the upper end, where the river debouches from its narrow cañon. The water is broken at the head of the cascade into coarse grains, like the heavy spray that is stripped by the wind from the crests of ocean waves in a storm, and races in a broad band at frightful velocity over an ice-planed slide into a rocking pool of emerald.

Eytel was to return to the valley from this point, and I was to make the remainder of my circuit of the Yosemite rim alone. We sat long that night by a noble fire. The moon shone down on us between black shafts of fir and pine, like— as Eytel, the artist lost for the moment in the “camper,” remarked —“like the lid of a lard-pail.” The river rushed and murmured, now loud, now quiet, and gleamed white where the moonlight fell on the hurrying water. The soliloquy of the fire drew us inevitably into reminiscence. Vague recollections were warmed up into full remembrance; details and trifles came to mind in manner and number that astonished ourselves. From reminiscences we came to plans; old enthusiasms awakened. By George, what things we would do! New York, London, and Paris should marvel at our pictures and eagerly discuss our books. Buy them too. And if they would n’t, who cared? All the world could not prevent our painting and writing them, and how fine that was! Careless heroes, we defied fate. Art was long, we knew, but “the thoughts of youth”—we still say we are young—“are long, long thoughts.” In our enthusiasm we forgot that we had an audience and commentator. The solemn, unchanging forest stood quietly around; the sparks flew up like dancing stars and came down in feathers of ash that powdered us over like grey snow; and moth after moth came flitting from the outer gloom into the firelight, circled twice or thrice around the fire, and plunged madly into it like Empedocles on Etna or gilded youths at Monte Carlo.

Walking a short distance up the valley in the moonlight, I was charmed by a new appearance of Half-Dome. The sky was partly overcast, and as the moon passed from behind a cloud and shone full upon the great southern round of the mountain, it was as if a vast hall, dim, grey, and unsubstantial, had come suddenly into being by enchantment. It hung glimmering, high and close above me, in the northern sky, spectral, weird, visionary, its half-mile height multiplied into an incomprehensible vastness in which terms of size had no meaning. De Quincey might have dreamed it. It completed my mental subjugation by this strange mountain, and I half feared that I might be visited by a nightmare recurrence of it in my sleep.

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