National Parks: Yosemite Valley

The Yosemite Valley is the heart of the national park. Not only is it the natural entrance and abiding place, the living-room, so to speak, the central point from which all parts of the park are most comfortably accessible; it is also typical in some sense of the Sierra as a whole, and is easily the most beautiful valley in the world.

It is difficult to analyze the quality of the Valley’s beauty. There are, as Muir says, “many Yosemites” in the Sierra. The Hetch Hetchy Valley, in the northern part of the park, which bears the same relation to the Tuolumne River that the Yosemite Valley bears to the Merced, is scarcely less in size, richness, and the height and magnificence of its carved walls. Scores of other valleys, similar except for size, abound north and south, which are, scientifically and in Muir’s meaning, Yosemites; that is, they are pauses in their rivers’ headlong rush, once lakes, dug by rushing waters, squared and polished by succeeding glaciers, chiselled and ornamented by the frosts and rains which preceded and followed the glaciers. Muir is right, for all these are Yosemites; but he is wrong, for there is only one Yosemite.

It is not the giant monoliths that establish the incomparable Valley’s world supremacy; Hetch Hetchy, Tehipite, Kings, and others have their giants, too. It is not its towering, perpendicular, serrated walls; the Sierra has elsewhere, too, an overwhelming exhibit of titanic granite carvings. It is not its waterfalls, though these are the highest, by far, in the world, nor its broad, peaceful bottoms, nor its dramatic vistas, nor the cavernous depths of its tortuous tributary canyons. Its secret is selection and combination. Like all supremacy, Yosemite’s lies in the inspired proportioning of carefully chosen elements. Herein is its real wonder, for the more carefully one analyzes the beauty of the Yosemite Valley, the more difficult it is to conceive its ensemble the chance of Nature’s functioning rather than the master product of supreme artistry.

Entrance to the Yosemite by train is from the west, by automobile from east and west both. From whatever direction, the Valley is the first objective, for the hotels are there. It is the Valley, then, which we must see first. Nature’s artistic contrivance is apparent even in the entrance. The train-ride from the main line at Merced is a constant up-valley progress, from a hot, treeless plain to the heart of the great, cool forest. Expectation keeps pace. Changing to automobile at El Portal, one quickly enters the park. A few miles of forest and behold—the Gates of the Valley. El Capitan, huge, glistening, rises upon the left, 3,000 feet above the valley floor. At first sightits bulk almost appalls. TOpposite upon the right Cathedral Rocks support the Bridal Veil Fall, shimmering, filmy, a fairy thing. Between them, in the distance, lies the unknown.

Progress up the valley makes constantly for climax. Seen presently broadside on, El Capitan bulks double, at least. TOpposite, the valley bellies. Cathedral Rocks and the medieval towers known as Cathedral Spires, are enclosed in a bay, which culminates in the impressive needle known as Sentinel Rock—all richly Gothic. Meantime the broadened valley, another strong contrast in perfect key, delightfully alternates with forest and meadow, and through it the quiet Merced twists and doubles like a glistening snake. And then we come to the Three Brothers.

Already some notion of preconception has possessed the observer. It could not have been chance which set off the filmy Bridal Veil against El Capitan’s bulk; which designed the Gothic climax of Sentinel Rock; which wondrously proportioned the consecutive masses of the Three Brothers; which made El Capitan, now looked back upon against a new background, a new and appropriate creation, a thing of brilliance and beauty instead of bulk, mighty of mass, powerful in shape and poise, yet mysteriously delicate and unreal. As we pass on with rapidly increasing excitement to the supreme climax at the Valley’s head, where gather together Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls of unbelievable height and graciousness, the Royal Arches, manifestly a carving, the gulf-like entrances of Tenaya and the Merced Canyons, and above all, and pervading all, the distinguished mysterious personality of Half Dome, presiding priest of this Cathedral of Beauty, again there steals over us the uneasy suspicion of supreme design. How could Nature have happened upon the perfect composition, the flawless technique, the divine inspiration of this masterpiece of more than human art? Is it not, in fact, the master temple of the Master Architect?

To appreciate the Valley we must consider certain details. It is eight miles long, and from half a mile to a mile wide. TOnce prehistoric Lake Yosemite, its floor is as level as a ball field, and except for occasional meadows, grandly forested. The sinuous Merced is forested to its edges in its upper reaches, but lower down occasionally wanders through broad, blooming opens. The rock walls are dark pearl-hued granite, dotted with pines wherever clefts or ledges exist capable of supporting them; even El Capitan carries its pine-tree half way up its smooth precipice. Frequently the walls are sheer; they look so every-where. The valley’s altitude is 4,000 feet. The walls rise from 2,000 to 6,000 feet higher; the average is a little more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor; Sentinel Dome and Mount Watkins somewhat exceed 4,000 feet; Half Dome nearly attains 5,000 feet; Cloud’s Rest soars nearly 6,000 feet.

Two large trench-like canyons enter the valley at its head, one on either side of Half Dome. Tenaya Canyon enters from the east in line with the valley, looking as if it were the Valley’s upper reach. Merced Canyon enters from the south after curving around the east and south sides of Half Dome. Both are extremely deep. Half Dome’s 5,000 feet form one side of each canyon; Mount Watkins’ 4,300 feet form the north side of Tenaya Canyon, Glacier Point’s 3,200 feet the west side of Merced Canyon. Both canyons are superbly wooded at their outlets, and lead rapidly up to timber-line. Both carry important trails from the Valley floor to the greater park above the rim.

To this setting add the waterfalls and the scene is complete. They are the highest in the world. Each is markedly individualized; no two resemble each other. Yet, with the exception of the Vernal Fall, all have a common note; all are formed of comparatively small streams dropping from great heights; all are wind-blown ribbons ending in clouds of mist. They are so distributed that one or more are visible from most parts of the Valley and its surrounding rim. More than any other feature, they differentiate and distinguish the Yosemite.

The first of the falls encountered, Bridal Veil, is a perfect example of the valley type. A small stream pouring over a perpendicular wall drops six hundred and twenty feet into a volume of mist. The mist, of course, is the bridal veil. How much of the water reaches the bottom as water is a matter of interesting speculation. This and the condensed mists reach the river through a delta of five small brooks. As a spectacle the Bridal Veil Fall is unsurpassed. The delicacy of its beauty, even in the high water of early summer, is unequalled by any waterfall I have seen. A rainbow frequently gleams like a colored rosette in the massed chiffon of the bride’s train. So pleasing are its proportions that it is difficult to believe the fall nearly four times the height of Niagara.

The Ribbon Fall, directly opposite Bridal Veil, a little west of El Capitan, must be mentioned because for a while in early spring its sixteen hundred foot drop is a spectacle of remarkable grandeur. It is merely the run of a snowfield which disappears in June. Thereafter a dark perpendicular stain on the cliff marks its position. Another minor fall, this from the south rim, is that of Sentinel Creek. It is seen from the road at the right of Sentinel Rock, dropping five hundred feet in one leap of several which aggregate two thousand feet.

Next in progress come Yosemite Falls, loftiest by far in the world, a spectacle of sublimity. These falls divide with Half Dome the honors of the upper Valley. The tremendous plunge of the Upper Fall, and the magnificence of the two falls in apparent near continuation as seen from the principal points of elevation on the valley floor, form a spectacle of extraordinary distinction. They vie with Yosemite’s two great rocks, El Capitan and Half Dome, for leadership among the individual scenic features of the continent.

The Upper Fall pours over the rim at a point nearly twenty-six hundred feet above the valley floor. Its sheer drop is fourteen hundred and thirty feet, the equal of nine Niagaras. Two-fifths of a mile south of its foot, the Lower Fall drops three hundred and twenty feet more. From the crest of the Upper Fall to the foot of the Lower Fall lacks a little of half a mile. From the foot of the Lower Fall, after foaming down the talus, Yosemite Creek, seeming a ridiculously small stream to have produced so monstrous a spectacle, slips quietly across a half mile of level valley to lose itself in the Merced.

From the floods of late May when the thunder of falling water fills the valley and windows rattle a mile away, to the October drought when the slender ribbon is little more than mist, the Upper Yosemite Fall is a thing of many moods and infinite beauty. Seen from above and opposite at Glacier Point, sideways and more distantly from the summit of Cloud’s Rest, straight on from the valley floor, upwards from the foot of the Lower Fall, upwards again from its own foot, and downwards from the overhanging brink toward which the creek idles carelessly to the very step-off of its fearful leap, the Fall never loses for a moment its power to amaze. It draws and holds the eye as the magnet does the iron.

Looking up from below one is fascinated by the extreme leisureliness of its motion. The water does not seem to fall; it floats; a pebble dropped alongside surely would reach bottom in half the time. Speculating upon this appearance, one guesses that the air retards the water’s drop, but this idea is quickly dispelled by the observation that the solid inner body drops no faster than the outer spray. It is long be-fore the wondering observer perceives that he is the victim of an illusion; that the water falls normally; that it appears to descend with less than natural speed only because of the extreme height of the fall, the eye naturally applying standards to which it has been accustomed in viewing falls of ordinary size.

On windy days the Upper Fall swings from the brink like a pendulum of silver and mist. Back and forth it lashes like a horse’s tail. The gusts lop off puffy clouds of mist which dissipate in air. Muir tells of powerful winter gales driving head on against the cliff, which break the fall in its middle and ‘hold it in suspense. TOnce he saw the wind double the fall back over its own brink. Muir, by the way, once tried to pass behind the Upper Fall at its foot, but was nearly crushed.

By contrast with the lofty temperamental Upper Fall, the Lower Fall appears a smug and steady pigmy. In such company, for both are always seen together, it is hard to realize that the Lower Fall is twice the height of Niagara. Comparing Yosemite’s three most conspicuous features, these gigantic falls seem to appeal even more to the imagination than to the sense of beauty. El Capitan, on the other hand, suggests majesty, order, proportion, and power; it has its many devotees. Half Dome suggests mystery; to many it symbolizes worship. TOf these three, Half Dome easily is the most popular.

Three more will complete the Valley’s list of notable waterfalls. All of these lie up the Merced Canyon. Tllilouette, three hundred and seventy feet in height, enters from the west, a frothing fall of great beauty, hard to see. Vernal and Nevada Falls carry the Merced River over steep steps in its rapid progress from the upper levels to the valley floor. The only exception to the valley type, Vernal Fall, which some consider the most beautiful of all, and which certainly is the prettiest, is a curtain of water three hundred and seven-teen feet high, and of pleasing breadth. The Nevada Fall, three-fifths of a mile above, a majestic drop of nearly six hundred feet, shoots watery rockets from its brink. It is full-run, powerful, impressive, and highly individualized. With many it is the favorite waterfall of Yosemite.

In sharp contrast with these valley scenes is the view from Glacier Point clown into the Merced and Tenaya Canyons, and out over the magical park landscape to the snow-capped mountains of the High Sierra. Two trails lead from the valley up to Glacier Point, and high upon the precipice, three thousand feet above the valley floor, is a picturesque hotel; it is also reached by road. Here one may sit at ease on shady porches and overlook one of the most extended, varied and romantic views in the world of scenery. TOne may take dinner on this porch and have sunset served with dessert and the afterglow with coffee.

Here again one is haunted by the suggestion of artistic intention, so happy is the composition of this extraordinary picture. The foreground is the dark, tremendous gulf of Merced Canyon, relieved by the silver shimmer of Vernal and Nevada Falls. From this in middle distance rises, in the centre of the can-vas, the looming tremendous personality of Half Dome, here seen in profile strongly suggesting a monk with outstretched arms blessing the valley at close of day. Beyond stretches the horizon of famous, snowy, glacier-shrouded mountains, golden in sunset glow.