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

Next: 5. High SierraContentsPrevious: 3. Cataracts of Yosemite

Yosemite: Where to Go and What to Do (1888) by George G. MacKenzie


Peaks, Points and Domes.

Although the great fame of Yosemite is largely due to its unrivalled collocation of waterfalls, still if those torrents were altogether absent, the place would be without a peer as a soul-moving example of nature’s handicraft. The walls of the Valley are a succession of granite forms so stupendous in their magnitude, so varied and eloquent in design, and endowed with such exquisite harmony in their general composition, that the beholder is inspired with a sense of being in the abode of supernal majesty.

As has been elsewhere said, the walls of the Valley are not evenly continuous, but are broken by deep recesses and enormous jutting points. Thus are formed distinctive divisions, each having its peculiarly characteristic kind of magnificence. The more prominent of these divisions have been named with greater or less degrees of fitness and originality. Supposing that one is entering the Valley from the lower end, where the stage and other roads enter, the order in which these grand divisions will be passed, are as follows:

On the northern, or left-hand side, El Capitan, The Three Brothers (of which the highest is called Eagle Peak), the caņon of the Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point, Indian Caņon, the Royal Arches, the Washington Tower and the North Dome, the latter rounding upwards immediately over the Royal Arches and Tower.

On the southern, or right-hand side, Inspiration Point, the Cathedral Rocks, the Cathedral Spires, the Sentinel Rock (with the Sentinel Dome above it), Glacier Point, and the wall of the Tooloolaweack Caņon.

At the eastern end, and divided from the lateral walls by the caņons of the Merced River and Tenayah Creek, are Grizzly Peak and the Half or South Dome.

Not actually forming parts of the walls proper, but in apparently close relationship, are Cloud’s Rest and Mt. Watkins, the first on the southern and the other on the northern side of Tenayah Caņon.

Inspiration Point.—Here is where the first sight of the Valley is had by visitors approaching by the Wawona road. The Point is more than 1500 feet above the Valley floor, and affords one of the finest (many persons say quite the finest) of the views in the vicinity of the Valley. The rock El Capitan is at one’s left, the Bridal Veil Fall at the right, with the peaks known as the Three Graces above the fall. Higher up on the

El Capitan
[click to enlarge]
same side are the Sentinel Rock and, above it, the Sentinel Dome. The Half Dome, the North Dome, and Cloud’s Rest are at the upper end of the scene. Paintings and photographs beyond number have been made of the view from this place, showing that to the artistic perception the spot is worthy of its renown.

El Capitan (The Captain)—not badly named considering the dominating grandeur of its presence—is one vast segment or block of granite, thrusting, itself out towards the centre of the Valley, and having two faces nearly at right angles to each other. Either of these faces is almost vertical. The upper point of the angle is 3300 feet above the level of the Valley. There are few signs of vegetation anywhere on these immense perpendicular cliffs. On the face looking to the south, however, there is, at a short distance above the broken rock from which the upright wall arises, a seemingly small hollow. In this indentation grows a pine tree. The stage drivers point out this tree to travelers, and tell them that it is 125 feet high, although it appears like a mere shrub, so insignificant is its height in contrast with the tremendous elevation of the wall to which it adheres. Seen from a distance, the sloping heaps of debris, which are piled at the base of either side of El Capitan, look quite diminutive as compared with the vast bulk above them. As Professor Whitney suggested, let the traveler begin to climb up one of these piles, and he will soon have his ideas enlarged concerning their magnitude. He will also get much nearer to a comprehension of the greatness of the solid block itself, than he will be able to attain while viewing El Capitan from the level of the Valley. Mr. Hutchings recommends that the visitor should mount the debris to the foot of the southern perpendicular, place his back against the wall and look upward. Part of the southern face protrudes from the exactly vertical to the extent, it is said, of 100 feet, and certainly enough to be quite apparent to the eye.

To reach the summit of El Capitan involves an arduous, roundabout journey, which the ordinary visitor to the Valley does not care to undertake, especially as there are other points more easily accessible, and from which may be had views differing but little from those at the top of the great cliff.

Cathedral Rocks.—On the southern side of the Valley, and directly opposite El Capitan, stand the cluster of irregularly composed walls, peaks and towers known as the Cathedral Rocks. They form a striking part of the foreground in the scene that is exhibited to travelers descending by either of the stage roads. The Bridal Veil Fall pours down the western

Cathedral Rocks
[click to enlarge]
side of one of the lower parts of these rocks.

Seen from the roads at points considerably higher than the Valley floor, the Rocks have three great divisions of different vertical elevations. These are sometimes, without apparent fitness, called The Three Graces. The characteristic shapes whence came the hint for the name of Cathedral Rocks are not seen until the angle east of the Bridal Veil Fall has been passed. Then presently a nearly perpendicular facade, not a little suggestive of that of a Gothic cathedral, rears itself towards the sky. The upper part of this edifice is 2660 feet above the floor. The whole mass of the Cathedral Rocks is about half a mile in diameter from east to west. It projects for a somewhat greater distance from the general line of the Valley walls. All along the upper side of the Rocks, and along the wall trending eastward from the rear of that projection, is a serried array of architectural ornamentation, infinitely varied, but having generally a flamboyant Gothic effect. The contrast between this nobly ornate stretch and the grandiose simplicity of El Capitan and the adjoining cliffs on the opposite side of the Valley, is wonderfully fine. The Cathedral side, being on the south, is in the shade during a large part of the day, but when the sun’s rays strike directly towards it the ceaseless play of lights and shadows among the crags is a study of ever fresh and delightful interest. In close companionship with the rear of the Cathedral Rocks, on their upper or eastern side, are the

Cathedral Spires.—These are two granite shafts having a close resemblance to each other, and whose summits are respectively 2678 and 2579 feet (Lieutenant Wheeler’s measurements) above the level of the Valley. They do not rise from the edge of the wall (which has here a considerable slope), but shoot up from a lower part, and in some lights appear in bold relief. Their distinctly columnar forms are about 600 or 700 feet in height. The aptness of the name which has attached to these peaks is obvious at a glance.

The Three Brothers are on the northern side of the Valley, being the grand division adjoining and above El Capitan. These are three enormous peaks springing from a common base, and rising one above and behind the other. To one approaching them on the western side these three elevations appear to be leaning forward over the Valley. Their general outline in that aspect has an imaginable likeness to three frogs’ heads, and the Indian name Pompompasa (or pasus) is said to contain some reference to that similitude. The highest of the Three Brothers is also known as Eagle Peak. Its summit is 3830 feet (Whitney) or 3818 (Wheeler) above the Valley floor. From it is obtainable one of the most extensive and indescribably majestic views in the whole Yosemite region. This point is reached by the Eagle Peak trail, which passes up by the Yosemite Fall. (See Route No. 10, in Itinerary.) The Merced River runs close to the pile of broken rock below the Three Brothers. The road on that side of the Valley is there built through and of the granite debris that forms part of the river bank. The place is called Rocky Point. Looking eastward from this point the visitor sees the upper end of the Valley, including both the North and South Domes, in an aspect which by many persons is judged to be without a rival among the views from the Valley floor.

Sentinel Rock (called Loya by the Indians) faces the Three Brothers, and is to the right of the traveler when driving up the Valley. It is the most conspicuous eminence of the southern wall, and has a dominant influence in the scenery of the middle part of the Valley, just as El Capitan and the South Dome have in the lower and upper parts, although each of the three is of a character wholly distinct from that of the others. The shape of Sentinel Rock, is from many points of view, not unlike a broad-based obelisk. Its tip is 3069 (Wheeler) or 3043 (Whitney) feet above the river. The side fronting over the Valley is pyramidical in general outline and nearly perpendicular for at least 1500 feet below the apex. From the bottom of this imposing tower down to the level of the Valley the wall has a little greater slope, and is composed of masses of fallen rock. The direct trail to Glacier Point ascends among this heap of debris, and at one place runs not far from the vertical face of the Sentinel. (See Route No. 3.) The summit of the Sentinel is accessible, but the feat of climbing to it is so difficult and dangerous that it has been rarely attempted. At one time there was a small flag flying from a staff planted on the highest point by a lady.

Sentinel Dome.—This rock does not spring immediately from the Valley wall. It begins to define itself about half a mile to the rear and southeast of the Sentinel Rock. It is a great, roughly hemispherical protuberance with very little vegetation on the upper part. The vertex is 4160 feet above

Sentinel Rock
[click to enlarge]
the Valley. From the crown of the dome the view includes a vast scope of the high Sierra, and is spoken of by all visitors in terms of unlimited admiration. The dome is reached from the Valley by taking the trail to Glacier Point, from which place to ascend the dome calls for an easy walk or ride, the distance from and back to Glacier Point being less than 2.50 miles. Several of the routes in the Itinerary herewith are laid out so as to include this dome. (Routes Nos. 3, 12, 14, and others.) The road between Glacier Point and Wawona passes at no great distance from the dome on its eastern side.

Yosemite Point.—From the road underneath the Sentinel one looks straight across the Valley to the Yosemite Falls. The projection of the wall on the eastward side of this cataract is called Yosemite Point. Whitney gives its height as 3030 feet, and Wheeler says 3220. A matter of 100 or 200 feet, however, is of no consequence in comparison with the tremendous whole. On the western side of the outer extremity of this projecting mass, and close to the top, is a spur of granite separated, except at its base, from the main body, and which is known as the Giant’s Thumb. The view from the summit of Yosemite Point is one of distinguished grandeur, even among so many others of signal fame. The lower as well as the upper end of the Valley is overlooked from the Point, a comprehensive panorama of the floor, as well as of all the higher eminences surrounding the Valley, being spread before the eye. The trip to and from this place may easily be accomplished in a day, with plenty of time to linger on the trail, or to rest at the summit or elsewhere. (See Route 10, Second Day, and succeeding Routes in Itinerary.)

Indian Caņon is the name of the deep ravine or cleft in the wall eastward of Yosemite Point. Formerly there was a trail, whose construction was due to Mr. J. W. Hutchings, leading up to Yosemite Point by way of this caņon. When the Eagle Peak trail was made, that by Indian Caņon was neglected, and it is now impassable for horses, and difficult to follow by mountaineers afoot, large masses of fragmentary rock having slipped over it. But persons with a fondness for scrambling in uncertain places may find in the caņon an opportunity to gratify their taste for such excursions. The Indians used this caņon as a means of exit and ingress to the Valley at the time of the discovery by white men: hence the name it bears.

Glacier Point is the first prominent head-land or angle of the southern wall after passing Sentinel Rock, on the way up the Valley. For about a mile eastward from the Sentinel the wall runs in a generally straight line. Nearly the whole front here, from bottom to top, is a vast pile of debris or talus. The slope of this talus is considerable in the vicinity of the Sentinel, but it becomes more perpendicular as the wall extends to the east. At the angle called Glacier Point the talus, is comparatively small. Here are bare upright faces of rock rising to thousands of feet above the floor. As the space between this and the northern wall is narrower than in many other parts of the Valley, the effect of height and verticality is intensified to the spectator from below. Looking up from the level (say on the camp ground or by the hotel which stands near the foot of the Point) the upper line of the wall around Glacier Point seems to be very sharply defined. Along the verge of this great precipice clusters of pine trees can be seen, but the distance is such that they appear no larger than small clumps of bushes. At one of the highest corners there is a tall staff, with a white flag several yards in length attached to it, but the flag looks like a handkerchief fluttering in the air. Indeed, when not extended by the breeze and not touched by the sun, this illustrious and illusive banner is often invisible to ordinary eyes. The exalted place where this flag waves is the one which of all the points looking down on the Valley has perhaps the most renown for the unspeakable glory of its scenic environment. It is 3250 feet above the Valley floor. It is reached by the Glacier Point trail, winding up under and by the side of the Sentinel Rock. Or, as a longer route, one can go by the trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, and thence by the head of the latter and by Echo Wall to the point. There is at Glacier a comfortable hotel, whose owner, James McCauley, is an authority in all that regards mountain travel in this region, and who is able and willing to impart his information to others in an intelligible manner. The finest view around Glacier Point is from the porch of the hotel. It encompasses a broad scope of the High Sierra, reaching back as far as Mt. Lyell, and including Tenayah Peak, Mts. McClure, Florence, Ritter, Clark, the Gray and the Red Mountains and Mt. Starr King, besides many less well known or unnamed eminences. Throughout the year the ridges and summits of the high Sierra are draped with canopies or curtains of snow. These, of course, lessen in extent during the late Summer, but there is always enough of the lustrous decoration to add sparkling beauty to the unearthly grandeur of this unsurpassable vision. In the centre of the picture is the Nevada Fall, and below it the Vernal Fall, with bits of the cascades between them. Most prominent of all the features of this rare landscape is the great Half Dome. From no other place does the appearance of this marvellous rock—“so utterly unlike anything else in the world,” as Professor Whitney says—force itself on one’s mind with an equal impressiveness.

The place where the flag waves is only a few yards from the hotel, but the view is quite different. Here on the extreme edge of the precipice are two great boulders, with an open space between them. Metal bars have been fastened from boulder to boulder at the front of the gap, so that people may lean against them and look straight down to the floor of the Valley, more than 3000 feet below. So stupendous is the abyss that numbers of persons are timorous about approaching the bars, but there is no actual danger whatever in doing so. Other people sit down on the rock and let their feet hang over the edge, but this practice, although frequently occurring here and at other high places around the Valley, is extremely foolhardy, and is a most dangerous example to set or to follow.

With the exception of some of the trips planned for one afternoon around the Valley, all the routes laid out in the Itinerary in this book include Glacier Point. As some visitors to the Valley are unable either to ride on horseback or to walk up the trails, it is noted that such persons can reach Glacier Point either by the Wawona stages or by carriages to be hired in the Valley. The round trip that way will occupy two days.

The name Glacier Point seems to have been given to this angle because in front of it was the junction between the great glaciers that once came down the Tenayah Caņon and those of the main Merced and Tooloolaweack. On the floor of the Valley, between the Merced River and Tenayah Creek, the carriage road crosses a ridge, which is an old moraine deposited by those glaciers.

Royal Arches.—On the northern side of the Valley, looking down on the ground set apart for camping parties, and directly opposite Glacier Point, is the curiously graven wall known as the Royal Arches. It extends from Indian Caņon eastward as far as the entrance to Tenayah Creek Caņon, but the sculptured arches occur on the easterly half of this space. The arches are great semi-circling cavities, of varying depth, but very regular in their curving line of fracture. They spread out for something like a quarter of a mile, and the vertex of the highest is not far from the top of the wall, which exceeds 2000 feet in perpendicular height. The wall here is also illuminated with broad streaks of color, due to the water trickling down in the Spring and early Summer. Black, a tawny yellow, and some purplish hues prevail among the coloring. The arches are perhaps most effective as a spectacle under the light of a well-grown moon. Indeed, it may be said of the Valley as a whole that one who has never studied it by moonlight has but an unfamiliar acquaintance with the variety of its beauties.

Washington Tower.—At the angle formed by the Royal Arches and the wall of Tenayah Caņon is the great pillar of granite called by the foregoing name. It stands out prominently from the main body of rock, being separated therefrom by a deep slash extending down the wall from near the base of the North Dome.

North Dome.—This is a splendid instance of the peculiar rounding formation to which the name of dome has been given by popular usage, and which is so common among the granitic elevations of the High Sierra. It is an appropriate and harmonious superstructure for the edifice of which the Royal Arch wall and the Washington Tower form the southern front. The measurements of the height of the top of the dome above the Valley vary from 3568 up to 3700 feet. The summit is accessible from the rear, for the dome-like curvature is incomplete on the northern side, a long ridge sloping back nearly from the vertex and furnishing an easy line of travel. The place, however, is seldom visited as there is no regularly maintained trail leading to or near it. In referring to the North Dome, Professor Whitney says that these dome-shaped masses are somewhat characteristic of all granitic regions, but are nowhere else developed on so grand a scale as in the Sierra. He notes the fact (visible indeed to all observers) that this

North Dome and Washington Dome
[click to enlarge]
dome is made up of huge concentric plates of rock. This peculiarity of structure, he indicates, pervades the mass of rock underlying the dome itself, and is well exhibited on the Royal Arch wall, the cavities of which have been formed by the slipping down of immense plates of granite.

The Half Dome (or South Dome, of which the Indian name was Tissaack).—Monarch of all rocks is this (with due respect for Mont Blanc) and the ultimate perfection of splendor in granite. Both in its individual form and in its relative position among the other mural glories of the Valley, the South Dome seems to have been planned for the express purpose of filling the mind of man with utter contempt for his own finite and finikin efforts at architecture. From nearly all parts of the Valley floor and all points of the surrounding heights the South Dome is the great predominant landmark. Its supreme presence continually suggests the Miltonic line: “It was a rock piled up to the clouds, conspicuous afar.”

The position of the South Dome is above the angle at the

Half or South Dome (Half Dome)
[click to enlarge]
head of the Valley between the gorges of the Merced River and Tenayah Creek. This name was suggested by the fact that one side of the dome forms part of the southern wall of Tenayah Caņon, the North Dome rising over the other side. (Relatively to each other these domes are nearly northwest and southeast). But the alternate name of Half Dome is much more characteristic. The towering mass has all the appearance of having originally been a complete dome which was afterwards cleft in two, the now missing half having seemingly tumbled into the Tenayah Caņon. Whether or not this is a correct scientific view does not much matter. The men of science themselves have not yet begun to approach an agreement about the methods of nature by which the character of the Valley was determined. The average visitor regularly thinks and frequently speaks of the dome as having at some time had another half which was suddenly disrupted, and he is apt to wish that he had been there to see.

The extreme height of the Half Dome above the Valley is nearly 5000 feet. Lieut. Wheeler’s measurement was 4804 feet and Prof. Whitney’s 4737. For many years the summit was inaccessible, although efforts to scale its rounding back were frequently made. On the side overlooking Tenayah Creek the face of the Half Dome is absolutely perpendicular for at least 2000 feet from the apex down. On this face are no ledges or fractures to offer a place for hand or foot. Below that, before coming to the talus, is another 2000 feet of solid rock with a very slight inclination. The only imaginable way of getting to the top was on the curving side to the southeast. The feat of gaining the summit was first accomplished by a man named Geo. G. Anderson (the same who built the fine trail from the Valley to Vernal Fall) in October, 1875. Anderson found by repeated trials that there was no natural access to the peak. Selecting the highest place he could conveniently reach, he drilled holes in the unclimbable rock and drove in wooden bolts to which iron eyes were attached. One above the other he placed the pins, using each in its turn as a fresh hold for foot or hand until, after months of labor, he reached the top. As he had mounted he had used the assistance of a rope attached to the eye-bolts. When the work of placing the bolts was finished, he rove a more suitable rope through the eyes. From that time on, the ascent of this unique ladder was made by many visitors, ladies as well as men. The distance surmounted by this means is said to be 975 feet. All who have ever made the ascent describe it as extremely trying to the nerves, although less so than was the coming down. Anderson is now dead, and his famous ladder is a ruin. The rope has rotted and is broken, and some of the pegs are missing, so that the Half Dome is again inaccessible for men. The State of California, to which the Valley and the adjoining heights were given as a free gift by the United States, has not cared enough about the matter to preserve and improve Anderson’s singular provision for the attainment of one of the most sublime spots on the face of the globe. The top of the dome is said to comprise ten acres of fairly level rock, and to bear some slight vegetation, including seven pine trees. Mr. Hutchings also says, in “The Heart of the Sierras,” that about seventy feet from the edge of the vertical face there is a fissure several hundred feet in depth, suggesting that another falling away of a part of the dome may occur at any time.

Grizzly Peak.—Although not nearly so lofty as many other parts of the Valley walls, this mountain is very observable on account of its prominent position. It rises in the angle between the caņons of the Merced River and Tenayah Creek, directly at the head of the Valley, and immediately below the Half Dome, in a southwesterly direction. It is a rough, wooded and dark-looking peak, the summit of which is extremely difficult of attainment, only one person, so far as is known, having made the ascent. Its base is washed by the leaping cascades of the Merced River below the Vernal Falls, to which point the Anderson trail from the Valley is hewed out or built up along the side of the Peak. To one on the opposite side of the caņon the mountain appears to overhang the chasm. There are numerous great angular cavities in the rock, with beetling masses that seem ready to come crashing down. From the Tooloolaweack Caņon (which from the Anderson trail is seen throughout its length, with the Falls at the head,) Grizzly Peak presents a savagely picturesque spectacle.

Cloud’s Rest.—Strictly speaking, this noted crest is not a part of the Valley wall. It is, however, visible from so many parts of the floor of the Valley as well as from most of the investing heights, and is to the very summit so easy of access by a safe and not difficult trail, that it may rightly be considered as belonging to a catalogue of Yosemite’s matchless collection. Looking up the Valley, one sees Cloud’s Rest a little to the left of the Half Dome. The summits of the two are nearly three miles apart by an air-line, their relative directions being about northeast and southwest. The base of Cloud’s Rest forms part of the Tenayah Caņon wall, and the mountain is well seen from the banks of Mirror Lake which rests in that caņon. It may also be noted that from El Capitan bridge, over the Merced River in the lower part of the Valley, there is a beautiful picture to be seen with Cloud’s Rest forming an effective central back-ground. The summit is about 5780 feet above the Valley’s level, the altitude above the sea being 9772 feet, thus topping the Half Dome by something like 1000 feet. From this height the far-sweeping view extends over an infinitude of dazzling splendor. One looks down on the Yosemite itself with the entire array of embattled domes and points. Tenayah Caņon cleaves its way underneath, with Mt. Watkins, compeer of El Capitan himself fronting on the other side. To the north and south and east the High Sierra reveals its snow-decked majesty. There are in clear sight at least a dozen named peaks of which only two (Mt. Hoffmann, almost due north, and Mt. Starr King, to the south) are less than 11,000 feet high. As many or more others of less celebrity, but of nearly or quite equal height, crowd the scene. The highest peak in view, and the highest in the neighborhood of the Valley, is Dana (13,227 feet) in a northerly direction. Between Hoffmann and Dana are seen Tenayah Peak (with that exquisite sheet of water, Tenayah Lake, at its foot) and the great Cathedral, one of the most noble rock formations in the Sierra. Gibbs connects with Dana on the south. Lyell and Clark and Starr King follow around the circle.

Concerning trips to this summit, see directions for second day of Route No. 9, and in many of the succeeding Routes as laid out in the Itinerary.

Mount Watkins.—From the upper end of the Valley, wherever one can look up Tenayah Creek Caņon, one sees. Mt. Watkins, with its 4000 feet or more of vertical elevation on the left side of the gorge. It is a stupendous bluff, sloping but little, with a spheroidical upper front, and an elevated plateau stretching back from that dome-like part. It is easy of ascent from the rear, but is rarely visited in that direction. By walking up the caņon above Mirror Lake one obtains a very impressive acquaintance with Mt. Watkins, as well as with the straight up-and-down side of the Half Dome, and with Cloud’s Rest as seen from its base. The somewhat retired situation of Mt. Watkins tends to keep its fame in more shade than is its due. It was called after a photographer who was among the first to make pictures around the Valley, thereby aiding to spread information concerning the region.

Cap of Liberty (Liberty Cap)
[click to enlarge]

Cap of Liberty.—Like the two preceding eminences, this gigantic monolith is slightly removed from the Valley proper. It is, however, one of the chief attractions on whichever route the traveler may follow around the Valley’s upper end. In approaching the Vernal Fall by the Anderson trail one sees the Cap rising up behind that delightful cataract. The Nevada Fall pours over a cliff running out from the southern side of the cap, which is best seen in its full grandeur from the neighborhood of the Casa Nevada, or Snow’s Hotel, below the fall. Its summit is said to be about 1800 feet above the site of that building, and is accessible, but hard to climb. Although there is but little vegetation on the precipitous sides of the cap there are several trees of considerable size growing on the summit. The name was given on account of a fancied resemblance between the outline of the rock and the Cap of Liberty on an old-fashioned coin.

Next: 5. High SierraContentsPrevious: 3. Cataracts of Yosemite

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