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Yosemite Tales and Trails (1934) by Katherine Ames Taylor

El Capitan, the Chief, guards the entrance to Yosemite Valley. By Ansel Adams. By Ansel Adams
[click to enlarge]
El Capitan, the Chief, guards
the entrance to Yosemite Valley


IF THERE is anything of the discoverer in you, by all means go to Yosemite! For there, in the heart of the Sierras, straddling the top of the world, lies a land of sky and water, green forests and granite domes, waiting for you to discover it.

No matter, of course, how many have preceded you. No matter that almost a century has passed since the first white man looked down into the depths of that valley. Yosemite, like the Grand Canyon, happens individually to everyone.

So buckle on your seven-league boots and be off to the largest single mountain in the world, the Sierra Nevada, one long granite block which piles its peaks four hundred and fifty miles along the eastern boundary of California. In its western flank are tucked two of the great National Parks of the West—Sequoia and Yosemite—all but lost in the magnitude of this mountain, towering so high that even the rain-clouds cannot clear its crests. Greedily the western slopes absorb all the rain, clothing themselves handsomely in forests of fir and pine, while over the ridge to the east lies the parched desert of Mono.

Yosemite, you will discover, is one vast land of such opposites and contrasts. When Nature carved a granite mountain a mile high, at its base she hid wild strawberries and wood-violets. On her heights she planted pigmy pines, clinging like matted moss to the wind-swept cliffs, while in her valleys grow the giant Sequoias, beneath whose lowest branches a cathedral could stand. With her right hand she traced the course of a clear mountain stream, with her left a bubbling soda spring. Humming-birds and eagles soar in this Park, and over her walls water and fire fall!

Even the climate plays tricks in Yosemite. Contrary to the usual laws of Nature the north side of the Valley is the warm and sunny side, and plants and flowers thrive there which are usually found far to the south. Under the southern wall it is cool and shady, because of the deep shadows cast by the cliffs, and naturalists were puzzled to find flowers there which ordinarily grew at a much higher altitude. Taking their cue from the flora, even the people of Yosemite have transplanted themselves, moving their old village with its administration offices from a southern to a northern exposure that they might have sun in winter!

Within the boundaries of the Park, with an elevation ranging from 3,500 feet to 10,000, you can generally find two seasons at a time. When the oaks are budding in the Valley you can still ski in the High Sierras; when it is summer below, up above the aspens have turned to gold, and dogwood flickers like a flame along the river’s edge. Calendar months mean little where you can step from one season to another as you would cross a state boundary line.

And Yosemite is practically a state within a state. About the size of Rhode Island, it has its own administrators who determine its policies. Its capital is Yosemite Valley. Few realize yet, however, that the Valley comprises but eight square miles out of a grand total of one thousand one hundred and twenty-six, leaving something like one thousand one hundred and eighteen square miles still to discover.

Yet without all the rest of the Park the Valley would always remain a rare bargain in scenery. Architecturally it is a masterpiece of beauty and balance. No builder could improve upon it, with El Capitan commanding one end of the Valley and Half Dome the other. An inner and an outer guard, placed with an eye for the greatest effectiveness of either. Rising from flat, open meadows, the strength and massiveness of The Chief is emphasized, while Half Dome is so placed that it catches the afterglow of the setting sun on its dome each day like a valedictory blessing.

Even the waterfalls are nicely distributed. With great impartiality Bridal Veil is festooned over one wall, while Yosemite crashes over another. On the third, and perhaps because there is no fourth wall, Vernal and Nevada are piled capriciously one above the other in a grand gesture, and a scenic climax. To a Californian, to whom water is the breath of life, such prodigality seems almost vulgar!

Each has its own beauty and its own charms, but somehow the glory of Yosemite Falls dominates all the others. Born of snow-fields, high in the shadow of Mount Hoffman, it idles its way over glacial rock, through fragrant forests for eighteen miles, to the very brink of its great plunge. Gathering itself together in a deep cut just above the rim of the Valley, it leaps with amazing suddenness 1,430 feet in the upper falls. That is two hundred feet more than the height of the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building of New York. An elevator going up the face of the cliff would travel more than one hundred and two stories paralleling the upper falls alone.

In a series of foaming cascades, hidden for the most part, it drops another six hundred feet before making its final tumble of 320 feet in the lower falls. Its Big Moment over, it slips unobtrusively away across the floor of the Valley to lose itself in the Merced River, and to end, eventually and prosaically, by watering the prune and pear orchards of the San Joaquin Valley. The booming of these falls fills every hour of the day and night and every day and night of the early season, setting the tempo for the whole Yosemite symphony.

Robert Sterling Yard tells of a woman tourist he encountered once standing transfixed at the foot of Yosemite Falls. She turned and asked him if it were true that these were the highest falls in the world. He assured her that they were. Then he called her attention to the apparent deliberateness of the water’s fall, a trick of the senses resulting from failure to realize height and distance. For everything is so exaggerated in Yosemite nothing seems exaggerated at all. Unimpressed, she mused again:

“To think they are the highest in the world!”

He then went on, in a friendly way, to tell her how the water had carved the valley, and estimated roughly for her the ages since the Merced River flowed at the level of the cataract’s brink. To all of which she replied dreamily: “I have seen the tallest building in the world and the longest railroad, the largest lake and the biggest department store, and now I have seen the highest waterfall! Just think of that!”

And a thoroughly satisfied customer left Yosemite Park that day.

John Muir points out how much Yosemite owes to its “floods of water and floods of light.” The voice of Yosemite is in her rivers and waterfalls; her spirit is in her ever-changing lights and shadows. Without one she would be inarticulate;

Happy Isles, where the waters of the Merced River and Illilouette Creek rush together in perpetual song. By Ansel Adams. By Ansel Adams
[click to enlarge]
Happy Isles, where the waters of the
Merced River and Illilouette Creek
rush together in perpetual song
without the other, inanimate. On a sunless day her walls become bleak and overwhelming, and her forests somber. Then, through a rift in the clouds comes a ray of light and Yosemite changes as a smile illuminates a face.

Once I saw Yosemite clear after a snow-storm, and a gray world give way to one of dazzling blue and white. The blue of that sky, arching above snow cliffs streaked with black shadows, was unbelievable, indescribable. It was the blue of Crater and Como lakes combined. Everywhere beneath it was the glitter and dazzle of ice particles, caught on pine-needles, on rock castles, on furry fences, reflecting like prisms a rainbow of light. With the first glint of sun Yosemite was radiant, quivering with light and with life.

Beyond the walls of Yosemite lie the High Sierras, landscaped on a lavish scale. Up there, waiting for you, is a land of far-flung mountain peaks, of sky meadows and rushing rivers. There is a playground for giants, a home for valkyries. Swooping from pinnacle to peak, how their haunting cry would resound as they bore mortals like you and me from an everyday world to that promised Valhalla!

Up there is a Public Domain you will find strangely private as you wander among its solitudes, with only the sound of the wind and the water to distract you. A Public Domain you will he glad to share with your fellow men at night as you gather about the High Sierra campfires, to exchange tales of prowess which would do justice to the bards of old. Only Yesterday’s dragons have become Today’s trout; Yesterday’s moats, Today’s mountains!

Up there is enough beauty to engulf you for weeks. To the north, in this High Country, is the Tuolumne Meadows, well known to fishermen and mountain climbers of the West. And the Tuolumne Canyon, with its swirling, acrobatic river, which tosses water in huge arcs to make the celebrated waterwheel falls of the Tuolumne, a breath-taking spectacle. Not far away is Hetch-Hetchy, the changeling. Once a valley it was turned, ages ago, into a lake by the melting glaciers. After long centuries it became a valley once more, only to be converted again into a man-made lake that the people of San Francisco, hundreds of miles away, may drink and bathe. There are hundred-mile panoramas in the High Sierras, spattered with snowy peaks, shining lakes, and flowery meadows, where you can lose yourself, skimping well on dollars but not on days.

Up there, somewhere, is a new world to discover, a new frontier to explore. Nobody can describe it to you, for what one person sees, another might miss. What appears most beautiful to you on one trip may be utterly eclipsed on the next. So go and find Yosemite for yourself. With all the zest of its first discoverer explore its canyons and its peaks. Cast out your trout flies in the very streams the Indians once fished, and hike over prehistoric pavement made by crushing tons of glacial ice. Wherever you wander, whatever you see, you will discover, like the multitude before you, and the multitudes to come, that to have lived apart, even for an hour or so, among the Big Trees or on a mountain top, adds a touch of the immortal to the most prosaic of lives.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management