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Next: Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite FallsContentsPrevious: Fort Monroe to Little Yosemite

Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


My sleep that night was certainly broken, but from a different cause. I had noticed what appeared to be a sleeping-place of particular excellence some little distance from camp, where a big Jeffrey pine had laid down a carpet of dead needles, and I had removed my blankets to the spot. I had no sooner lain down than numbers of large black ants, appreciating the increase of caloric, and recognizing me as the author of the friendly warmth, began to swarm upon me. They did not bite, but simply explored, travelling slowly and with evident pleasure over my face and neck, and penetrating in frightened rushes under the clothing when I tried to sweep them off. I lay in misery until past midnight, when I arose, rolled up my blankets, and marched a hundred yards back to camp, where I slept magnificently until six o’clock.

Bidding farewell to Eytel, whom I was to rejoin in the valley, I took the Clouds’ Rest trail with the animals who were to be my sole companions for the remainder of the trip. As we moved quietly along I was free to notice the thousand and one things that make up the silent conversation of the trail, —the sweet tangle of bush and herbage, the wavings of branch and fern-frond, the small, child-like voices of the birds, the changes of the mountain walls from white to purple and from purple again to white as the clouds passed over, even the crackling of twigs underfoot, and the quiet weaving of the shadow tracery across the trail. How superbly silent and uncontaminated the world is, after all!

Coming after a mile or two to the point where the Clouds’ Rest trail turns northward, I took the little travelled track which passes easterly over Sunrise Mountain. The animals were in good trim and humor after their rest, marching steadily along the levels, and taking the steep rises in fine, determined bursts of twenty yards or so at a time.

I note that the centre of intelligence in the burro appears to lie about the middle tract of the back; at least, the first movement of response arises there. A slight, almost imperceptible, elevation of that region is followed by a downward jerk of the head; the ears wag responsively; last of all the legs receive the percussion, and the tough cylinder of the trunk lurches forward. With Adam, a single word or a pebble is sufficient to initiate the operation. In the case of Teddy it requires three sharp words, crescendo, or a like number of admonitions by the rod. The first creates no impression whatever; the second is acknowledged by a slight tremor of the frame, which, however, subsides almost on the moment; at the third the back rises, the head drops, and we all move forward together.

Deer are plentiful in this locality, and I found that they were objects of interest to the burros almost as much as to myself. I was sometimes amused by their intelligent behavior when we came upon these creatures. On one occasion we encountered a doe and a fawn standing together in an opening of the forest. I did not at first see them, and my attention was directed to them by Adam, who was in the lead, stopping abruptly and looking curiously round at me, with as plain an air of asking “Do you see that?” as though he had spoken the words. The deer and we regarded one another respectfully for some ten or fifteen seconds; then, as I tugged to release my camera from an over-tight case, they turned and leaped lightly back into the forest. May no worse harm befall them than would have come from my peaceful gun.

Clarence King truly says that “from every commanding eminence around the Yosemite no distant object rises with more inspiring greatness than the Obelisk of Mount Clark.” From any point of view this is a splendid mountain, but especially from this side, where the bold upward swing of the crest is seen in profile. The heavy belt of forest at its base wavers off into tenuous lines and patches, and ends in scattered dots before the final spring of the grey, razor-like summit begins. As I passed in the early afternoon a shell of delicious shadow was still lying- in the great western curve from which the mountain spires up to its apex, “jutting two thousand feet from a rough-hewn pedestal of rocks and snow-fields.”

To the north Clouds’ Rest still kept me company, showing a much more abrupt peak than any one who has seen the mountain only from the familiar valley side would expect.

At the second crossing of the creek I found a small triangle of meadow, and stopped to lunch. The animals plunged with ardor into the riot of herbage, eating ravenously until they suddenly sighed and ceased for very weariness.

The trail here follows a long ridge bearing steadily northeast. Throughout the Sierra it is always interesting to note how regularly the changes of altitude are registered in the character of the forest. In the Little Yosemite I had left a mixed growth of cedar, yellow pine of two varieties, tamarack, sugar pine, and white fir. The cedars had been the first to disappear, then the common yellow pine (P. ponderosa), then the sugar pine, and last the white fir, while the red fir, first appearing as a straggler, had come into the principal place and was now joined by the mountain pine. This species (P. monticola), like all the other conifers that year, bore an extravagant crop of cones, and the ground under the trees was thickly littered with the fallen burs. The cones are curved and slender, about six inches long by one in diameter before they open, and are borne singly or in clusters at the tips of the upper branches, where they hang like bunches of commas. From bright green they turn to deep purple, and ripen at last to a lively fawn-brown. The foliage is rather short, set in tufts in the manner of the tamarack, but having the fine feathery grace of the sugar pine. It is altogether a handsome tree, robust but airy in habit, and expressing more of lightness and playfulness than any other conifer of the region.

The tamarack is something of a free lance in the matter of habitat, scattering through the forest promiscuously at all altitudes except the actual extremes. The trail-blazer has a natural preference for this tree, on whose thin, smooth bark a good blaze is more easily made than on the rougher stems of the other species of pine, or the firs or spruces. Moreover, the tree when cut quickly exudes a great amount of bright yellow resin, which fills the blaze and marks it as plainly as if it were painted. The tamarack is a brave, hardy tree, more handy than handsome, the useful plebeian of the conifers.

The trail here was particularly attractive. For a considerable distance it followed a high ridge whose easy northern slope carried a forest of unusual variety and perfection, while to the south it fell away steeply to the caņon of the Merced. Beyond rose again the wilderness of mountains, swelling up from darkly forested bases to desolate barrens and heights of uncompromising granite.

As we entered Hopkins Meadow, Adam halted at sight of the good green pasturage and turned upon me an interrogative and appealing eye. It had been my intention to camp a few miles farther on, at the lower end of Long Meadow; but the place was undeniably desirable, and I waived the point and made camp on the edge of the willow-bordered creek under a hospitable looking tamarack of unusual size. At this point a trail takes out southeasterly to Merced Lake, the same by which I had reached this meadow on my return from the High Sierra the previous summer. I had some debate with myself before I could make up my mind to forego revisiting the lake; but I reflected that if I once surrendered to this kind of temptation I should find myself every day confronted with similar appeals of ever-increasing urgency, and might ultimately be dragged to Mount Lyell, or even to Mono Lake, while I should almost certainly be landed in difficulties for provisions.

Mosquitoes were intractable for an hour or two, but the evening chill of 9000 feet of altitude quieted them early. The moon rose with a frosty brightness, accompanied by a court of little silvery clouds, delightfully tender and airy, that drifted dreamily along like sky-fairies. Dead pines stood around the meadow, as smooth and white as the masts of ships. The tamarack more than any other pine appears to seek the neighborhood of swamps and hollows, and yet, strangely, oftenest suffers early decay from the excess of moisture.

I awoke several times during the night and sighed for one more blanket. But at any rate, cold was better than ants. Nature we can stand; we are her children and know her rules. I arose at five o’clock, really too cold to get breakfast, and took a run through the meadow to verify Harvey’s great discovery. The burros were standing as if frozen, and viewed my athletics unsympathetically.

It is in these mountain meadows that the birds congregate whose comparative scarcity in the Sierra forests is remarked upon by casual travellers. From willow-thickets and matted tangles of dwarf ceanothus they emerge in troops as the sun rises, like English sparrows from an ivy-bush. Then begins the morning concert, the jay, you may be sure, taking the part of first violin. As I ate breakfast the din grew till I was quite bewildered. Chee-ings and whee-ings and trillings and chucklings resounded on all sides. Then the woodpeckers brought their power-drills into action, and the woods rang again. Now and then sounded, far away, a haunting, plaintive cry,—surely the voice of the beloved “organ-bird” of my last year’s earlier summer memories. Sweet bird, thou wilt never be forgot.

As I stood quietly beside a big fir, a hawk came flying low among the trees straight toward me. He did not observe me until I suddenly moved, when he almost collapsed with fright. With a tremendous flapping and scurrying he starboarded his helm and bore away on another tack. “Thus conscience does make cowards”: I have never seen other and weaker birds, with cleaner records, behave so.

I packed leisurely and carefully in view of the steep climb which I knew lay ahead, and it was eleven o’clock before I started. Few works of man consume so much time in proportion to apparent result as the operation of loading a pack-animal; but precaution pays many times over, for equally few things are more discomposing than to have packs loosen or slip when one is on some steep grade or other awkward place; and it is of course just where the trail, and consequently the jolting, is worst that trouble is most likely to occur.

Clouds’ Rest now lay to the west, extending northerly in a barren crest that rose in places to odd little nodules formed of weathered slabs of granite, such as occur at the main peak of the mountain. To the direct north was Sunrise Mountain, over which my trail ran. It was a long, trying climb, palliated with expansive glimpses of the fine, open country to the south. At 9700 feet I crossed the divide and descended into a meadow lying between bouldered slopes, with an impressive sweep of snowy mountains on the north.

At this altitude the firs had disappeared, but the tamaracks still held out, and with some monticola made up the bulk of the forest. Here also came in the mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). This tree is strikingly distinctive. In delicate, feminine habit of growth it greatly resembles that favorite of the nurserymen, the Himalayan deodar. The foliage is of the same silvery daintiness, and the branches and the topmost sprays of young trees take the same graceful, drooping curve. The cones are quaint and small, of long oval shape, like olives, and take on also as they ripen the purple color of that fruit. In old trees the smoke-colored bark turns to reddish, the close-growing branches dress the tall shaft with rich but scanty plumes, and the general appearance is much like that of the red fir.

Here appeared also the outposts of the dwarf pine (P. albicaulis). This is the hero that carries forward the flag of the tree kingdoms to timber-line, and I saluted him with respect. The low, straggling growth and grey bark, and the foliage, of a peculiarly clean light green, render this pine easily recognizable when it has once been identified. The staminate blossoms are of the shade of pink which is known in dry-goods circles, I believe, as “crushed strawberry,” and the egg-shaped cone, consisting of a comparatively small number of thick, blunt scales, is unlike that of any other tree of the region. But the seeds happen to be particularly grateful to the palate of the Clarke crow, and he arranges that very few of the ripe cones fall to the ground to attract the observation of the traveller.

One encounters little game in these higher altitudes, but grouse are not uncommon. One of these birds, getting up as is their wont almost from under our feet, startled Teddy into a highly creditable jump, pack and all. There was a sound of tinware in commotion, and for a moment I trembled for my pack; but with a snort which I fancy was partly invented to cover his confusion, he hastened on to overtake his comrade, who was better employed with the bunch-grass.

A slight descent through rocky country opened a magnificent view of the Cathedral, Echo, and Unicorn Peaks. The evening light threw the multitudinous pinnacles of this remarkable group into the strongest relief. It is evident that the glacial action which partly produced the typical rounded outlines of the Yosemite topography was diverted from this small region, where splintered crests and toppling crags remain to illustrate the Titanic shatter of the original upheaval. To-morrow I hoped would find me threading my way among them.

It was nearly sundown when we emerged into Long Meadow. I had covered only four or five miles, having spent a good deal of time in climbing trees and in other small excursions. Passing a mile or two up the meadow I camped at its upper end, where a thin trickle of water ran among the boulders of a rocky creek bed. A chilly wind blew strongly down the valley, and I chose my camping-place with care.

The altitude was 9500 feet. I stretched one of my canvases between two trees to form a wind-break, built a fire that might have alarmed a Swiss canton, and sat listening to the weird outcries of killdeer plovers (Oxyechus vociferus well named), far down the meadow, and noting with not unmixed admiration the frosty twinkling of the stars.

Before I turned in it was intensely cold, and but for my wind-break I should have passed a miserable night. Once or twice when I awoke and sat up for a moment the wind cut like a whip, and I could see the frosted meadow shining like snow in the moonlight. There was no temptation to stay in bed after daybreak, and I sat hugging the fire while I sipped boiling coffee and watched the solemn beauty of the coming of the day.

Straight down the meadow rose Clark and his surrounding mountains, sheeted on this their north side with snow. Slowly the phantasmagoria changed from spectral grey to the first flush of warmth, passed through rose to orange, and so to glistening white painted with broad washes of purple shadow. The thin splinter of granite that is called Columbia Finger shot up a thousand feet into the air to the northeast, while close to camp, for convenient geological contrast, a small isolated dome rose from the very edge of the meadow.

I was again amazed at the abundance of small life that sprang into existence as soon as the sun rose. It was quite a case of boys and girls coming out to play. Birds in troops came flitting about, hopping among the tussocky grass, and pursuing one another in and out among the trees with playful ardor. Marmots frisked about the fallen logs or sat upright eating the grass seeds, holding them neatly to the mouth like “corn-on-the-cob,” but without a trace of the humiliating expression which most of us are conscious of when we venture upon that trying vegetable.

It was the middle of the morning when I started up the valley. The trail at first bore easterly, heading straight toward the spike of granite; then, skirting its southern base, it entered Cathedral Pass at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Reaching the summit of the pass a wild prospect, purely Alpine, spread before me, and involuntarily I stopped, almost staggered at the grandeur and savageness of the scene. Half a mile to the east rose a steep, keen slope on which a few dwarfed pines struggled, almost consciously as it seemed, to maintain a footing. From where they ceased, inaccessible cliffs and aiguilles sprang up sharp and white against the intense blue. In the powerful light every scar and seam was marked with glittering distinctness. The long curving swing of the ridge expressed a terrible strength and austerity, and the grim line of the crest seemed almost to impend ominously. On the other hand, the white obelisk stood close beside me glistening with a vitreous hardness, and in the north again rose spires, turrets, and scarps of granite. It was a maelstrom of mountains, whose crests broke on all sides into the wildest shapes of leaping water.

I felt again there, as I have often before, how deeply the sense of solitude is enhanced by the presence of wind. It is a difficult emotion to analyze, but I suppose that the monotonous sound and pressure may revive in the subconscious mind some memory of early experiences of our race during its migrations. I am often curiously aware at these moments,of a background of Russian steppes and Asian plateaus to my sensations, and the apparent incongruity is not, for some reason, disconcerting.

Even at this elevation the trail was varied with patches of meadow in which grew alpine willows and many flowers. Along the runnels of water bryanthus grew thickly, and I found a few sprays on which the rosy blossoms were still unwithered. The plant, which is, in fact, of the Erica family, is delightfully heathery in character, the stems tough and wiry and the foliage brittle and stiff. The blossoms as they fade take on a heatherish purple, and it is altogether a fine, rough, Scotch-looking highlander.

I never saw the sky of so fervent a blue as it was that morning. I have always hoped to observe in it that appearance of violet darkness which has been remarked by many travellers as occurring at no greater altitudes than some that I have reached; but so far the experience has been denied me. Here, however, the color was so deep as to be very remarkable. It was a pure ultramarine, and I was encouraged to hope that I might yet observe from these mountains the coveted phenomenon.

Crossing another divide among ledges of granite that were thickly studded with protruding crystals of feldspar, the trail passed over a small snow-bank and then descended to a meadow which encircled a little lake with rocky shores and islets. From the eastern margin of the meadow Cathedral Peak towered directly up a thousand feet into the glowing blue. The mountain shows here a very symmetrical double peak, and the white, precipitous face bears a look of unutterable age. The topmost turrets are as fragile and delicate as finely carved masonry that is crumbling to decay, and I could almost fancy that I saw the richly crocketed pinnacles and spires of the abbeys and minsters of my native land. As I passed along the west shoulder of the mountain the two points of the summit merged into a single perfect needle, and from a little farther again, the crest showed a series of even, sharply cleft notches, from which it sloped off to a ridge that terminated in an abrupt cliff.

Half a mile to the west I could see Cathedral Lake, half hidden in deep forest. It was too early to think of camping, or I would willingly have stayed to observe the appearance of this remarkable mountain by moonlight, when its peculiar shape and pallor must produce a night picture equally impressive and ghostly.

Again I entered the forest. In a strip of meadow through which flowed a lively stream a late lily was upholding still a score of ruby chalices. Could anything be prettier, more child-like and innocent, than these green lawns, sown with tall lavender daisies, and with the quiet forest shadows falling athwart them? I trow not, unless it be in heaven, or England. (Forgive, gentle American reader, the Englishman’s fond exception.)

It was verging towards evening, and the birds were busy with their small housekeepings, conversing

[click to enlarge]
abstractedly as they foraged. At the root of a giant hemlock a spring of water issued, as cold as if the earth’s interior were of ice instead of fire. At a turn of the trail I came upon what appeared to be a camp. A considerable volume of smoke was rising from a little clearing which exhibited the usual ugly litter of cans and other rubbish. Some party had camped there and had neglected to extinguish their fire when they left. I was just in time to prevent a serious conflagration. A fallen log was burning in two places, and at every draw of wind blazed up fiercely, while the ground for a considerable distance around was smouldering threateningly. The animals, whom I had allowed to get some distance ahead, fortunately had decided that this was to be our camping-place, and were waiting for me. I hastily tied them, cut through the log with my axe, and hauled the burning end to the creek, into which I tumbled it. Then, stamping out the fire where it was eating its way through the thick matting of pine-needles, I cleared the ground around the smouldering portion, leaving a ring within which the fire, if it should revive, could burn itself out.

No penalty that could be exacted would be too severe for the offence against the public good which is committed by persons who, merely to avoid a few minutes’ work, will expose a tract of forest to the danger of destruction. Carelessness so selfish and so colossal rises to the dimension of crime.

It was by now past sundown, and I hurried the animals down the long descent. I really believe that, as burros go, my good Adam came as near perfection as could well be. He had but one fault, and even that I am willing to believe arose from a physical ailment,—his nose appeared to be afflicted with a chronic itch. Fifty times a day he must stop to rub the sensitive organ upon some convenient object (often myself), and his countenance when thus employed expressed a degree of enjoyment which was highly irritating when I desired to make quick progress; though, after all, that occurred but seldom. I recall that David Copperfield’s Aunt was marked by the same peculiarity, but with her the action seems to have been involuntary, and a symptom of perplexity of mind, while Adam made his infirmity an excuse for securing a pleasurable titillation.

When the timber at last thinned I saw before and below me the wide plain of the Tuolumne Meadows, with the river winding along in peaceful convolutions. In a few minutes the trail ran out on the level, and, a creek converging at the same point, I went into camp, escorted by hordes of the mosquitoes for which, almost as much as for its scenery, this locality is celebrated.

I walked some way down the meadow before turning in, and noticed that the massive clouds which with some apprehension I had seen piling up in the north during the afternoon, had entirely vanished, leaving again that clear and starry firmament which renders the California night, no less than its day, a continual miracle to our visitors. An opening of the forest to the south gave a glimpse of Cathedral Peak rising superbly against an indigo sky, with a snow-field high up on the eastern shoulder shining in the light of the rising moon like a floating cloud.

I had tethered the animals on the farther side of the creek, where the pasturage was better. Some capacity for the feeling of loneliness by which these companions of man have become infected manifested itself as they observed my preparations for the night, and they hailed me with weird sounds, incipient brayings, which died unregretted upon the frosty air.

Next: Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite FallsContentsPrevious: Fort Monroe to Little Yosemite

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