1902 Encyclopedia > Yosemite


YOSEMITE, a famous valley on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada of California, about 150 miles east of San Francisco and 4000 feet above the sea. It is 7 miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and nearly a mile deep, eroded out of hard massive granite by glacial action. Its precipitous walls present a great variety of forms and sculpture, determined by the grain or cleavage of the rock -- domes, gables, towers, battlements, and majestic mountain cliffs, partially separated and individualized by recesses and side cañons [canyons].

Cathedral Rock, Yosemite National Park

The bottom, a filled-up lake basin, is level and park-like, diversified with groves of oak and pine, clumps of flowering shrubs, and spacious ferny meadows and wild gardens through which the river Merced meanders in tranquil beauty; while the whole valley resounds with the booming of its unrivalled waterfalls.

The most notable of the wall rocks are: El Capitan, 3300 feet high, a sheer, plain mass of granite, the end of one of the most enduring of the mountain ridges, which stands forward beyond the general line of the north wall in imposing grandeur; the Three Brothers, North Dome, Glacier Point, the Sentinel, Cathedral, Sentinel Dome and Cloud's Rest, from 2800 to nearly 6000 feet high; and Half Dome, the noblest of all, which rises at the head of the valley from a broad, richly-sculptured base to the height of 4740 feet.

These rocks are majestic glacial monuments, illustrating on a grand scale the action of ice in mountain sculpture. For here five large glaciers united to form the grand trunk glacier that eroded the valley and occupied it as its channel. Its moraines, though mostly obscured by vegetation and weathering, may still be traced; while on the snowy peaks at the headwaters of the Merced a considerable number of small glaciers, once tributary to the main Yosemite glacier, still exist.

The Bridal Veil Fall, 900 feet high, is one of the most interesting features of the lower end of the valley. Towards the upper end the great Yosemite Fall pours its white floods from a height of 2600 feet, bathing the mighty cliffs with clouds of spray and making them tremble with its thunder-tones.

The valley divides at the head into three branches, the Tenaya, Merced, and South Fork cañons [canyons] . In the main (Merced) branch are the Vernal and Nevada Falls, 400 and 600 feet high, in the midst of most novel and sublime scenery.

The Nevada is usually ranked next to the Yosemite among the five main falls of the valley. Its waters are chafed and dashed to foam in a rough channel before they arrive at the head of the fall, and are beaten yet finer by impinging on a sloping portion of the cliff about halfway down, thus making it the whitest of all the falls.

The Vernal, about half a mile below the Nevada, famous for its afternoon rainbows, is staid and orderly, with scarce a hint of the passionate enthusiasm of its neighbour. Nevertheless it is a favourite with visitors, because it is better seen than any other. One may safely saunter along the edge of the river above it, and stand beside it at the top, as it calmly bends over the brow of the precipice. At flood time it is a nearly regular sheet about 80 feet wide, changing as it descends from green to purplish grey and white, and is dashed into clouds of irised foam on a rugged boulder talus that fills the gorge below.

In the south branch, a mile from the head of the main valley, is the Illilouette Fall, 600 feet high, one of the most beautiful of the Yosemite choir. It is not nearly as grand a fall as the Yosemite, as symmetrical as the Vernal, or as airily graceful as the Bridal Veil; nor does it ever display as tremendous an outgush of snowy magnificence as the Nevada; but in fineness and beauty of colour and texture it surpasses them all.

Considering the great height of the snowy mountains about the valley, the climate of the Yosemite is remarkably mild. The vegetation is rich and luxuriant. The tallest pines are over 200 feet high; the trunks of some of the oaks are from 6 to 8 feet in diameter; violets, lilies, goldenrods, ceanothus, manzanita, wild rose, and azalea make broad beds and banks of bloom in the spring; and on the warmest parts of the walls flowers are in blossom every month of the year.

The valley was discovered in 1851 by a military company in pursuit of marauding Indians; regular tourist travel began in 1856. The first permanent settler in the valley was Mr J. C. Lamon, who built a cabin in the upper end of it in 1860 and planted gardens and orchards. In 1864 the valley was granted to the State of California by Act of Congress on condition that it should be held as a place of public use, resort, and recreation inalienable for all time.

In the number and height of its vertical falls and in the massive grandeur of El Capitan and Half Dome rocks Yosemite is unrivalled. But there are many other valleys of the same kind. The most noted of those in the Sierra, visited every summer by tourists, hunters, and mountaineers, are the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a wonderful counterpart of Yosemite in the Tuolumne cañon; Tehipitee, Valley, in the Middle Fork cañon of King's river; and the King's river Yosemite in the South Fork cañon, the latter being larger and deeper than the Merced Yosemite. All are similar in their trends, forms, sculpture, and vegetation, and are plainly and harmoniously related to the ancient glaciers. The Romsdal and Naerödal of Norway and Lauterbrunnen of the Alps are well characterized glacial valleys of the Yosemite type, and in southeastern Alaska many may be observed in process of formation.
(J. Mu.)

The above article was written by John Muir, A.M., LL.D., U.S. explorer and naturalist; discoverer of the Muir glacier, Alaska; author of Our Natural Parks and The Mountains of California.

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