THE first emotion inspired by the sight of Yosemite is surprise. No previous preparation makes the mind ready for the actual revelation. The hardest preliminary reading and the closest study of photographs, even familiarity with other mountains as lofty, or loftier, fail to dull one’s first astonishment.
Hard on the heels of astonishment comes realization of the park’s supreme beauty. It is of its own kind, without comparison, as individual as that of the Grand Canyon or the Glacier National Park. No single visit will begin to reveal its sublimity; one must go away and return to look again with rested eyes. Its devotees grow in appreciative enjoyment with repeated summerings. Even John Muir, life student, interpreter, and apostle of the Sierra, confessed toward the close of his many years that the Valley’s quality of loveliness continued to surprise him at each renewal.
And lastly comes the higher emotion which is born of knowledge. It is only when one reads in these inspired rocks the stirring story of their making that pleasure reaches its fulness. The added joy of the collector upon finding that the unsigned canvas, which he bought only for its beauty, is the lost work of a great master, and was associated with the romance of a famous past is here duplicated. Written history never was more romantic nor more graphically told than that which Nature has inscribed upon the walls of these vast canyons, domes and monoliths in a language which man has learned to read.
The Yosemite National Park lies on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, nearly east of San Francisco. The snowy crest of the Sierra, bellying irregularly eastward to a climax among the jagged granites and gale-swept glaciers of Mount Lyell, forms its eastern boundary. From this the park slopes rapidly thirty miles or more westward to the heart of the warm luxuriant zone of the giant sequoias. This slope includes in its eleven hundred and twenty-five square miles some of the highest scenic examples in the wide gamut of Sierra grandeur. It is impossible to enter it without exaltation of spirit, or describe it without superlative.
A very large proportion of Yosemite’s visitors see nothing more than the Valley, yet no consideration is tenable which conceives the Valley as other than a small part of the national park. The two are inseparable. TOne does not speak of knowing the Louvre who has seen only the Venus de Milo, or St. Mark’s who has looked only upon its horses.
Considered as a whole, the park is a sagging plain of solid granite, hung from Sierra’s saw-toothed crest, broken into divides and transverse mountain ranges, punctured by volcanic summits, gashed and bitten by prehistoric glaciers, dotted near its summits with glacial lakes, furrowed by innumerable cascading streams, which combine in singing rivers, which, in turn, furrow greater canyons, some of majestic depth and grandeur. It is a land of towering spires and ambitious summits, serrated cirques, enormous isolated rock masses, rounded granite domes, polished granite pavements, lofty precipices, and long, shimmering waterfalls.
Bare and gale-ridden near its crest, the park descends in thirty miles through all the zones and gradations of animal and vegetable life through which one would pass in travelling from the ice-bound shores of the Arctic Ocean the continent’s length to Mariposa Grove. Its tree sequence tells the story. Above timber-line there are none but inch-high willows and flat, piney growths, mingled with tiny arctic flowers, which shrink in size with elevation; even the sheltered spots on Lyell’s lofty summit have their colored lichens, and their almost microscopic bloom. At timber-line, low, wiry shrubs interweave their branches to defy the gales, merging lower down into a tangle of many stunted growths, from which spring twisted pines and contorted firs, which the winds curve to leeward or bend at sharp angles, or spread in full development as prostrate upon the ground as the mountain lion’s skin upon the home floor of his slayer.
Descending into the great area of the Canadian zone, with its thousand wild valleys, its shining lakes, its roaring creeks and plunging rivers, the zone of the angler, the hiker, and the camper-out, we enter forests of various pines, of red and white fir, aged hump-backed juniper, and lodgepole pine which many Californians wrongly call tamarack.
This is the paradise of outdoor living; it almost never rains between June and TOctober. The forests fill the valley floors, thinning rapidly as they climb the mountain slopes; they spot with pine green the broad, shining plateaus, rooting where they find the soil, leaving unclothed innumerable glistening areas of polished uncracked granite; a striking characteristic of Yosemite uplands. From an altitude of seven or eight thousand feet, the Canadian zone forests begin gradually to merge into the richer forests of the Transition zone below. The towering sugar pine, the giant yellow pine, the Douglas fir, and a score of deciduous growthslive oaks, bays, poplars, dogwoods, maplesbegin to, appear and become more frequent with descent, until, two thousand feet or more below, they combine into the bright stupendous forests where, in specially favored groves, King Sequoia holds his royal court.
Wild flowers, birds, and animals also run the gamut of the zones. Among the snows and alpine flowerets of the summits are found the ptarmigan and rosy finch of the Arctic circle, and in the summit cirques and on the shores of the glacial lakes whistles the mountain marmot.
The richness and variety of wild flower life in all zones, each of its characteristic kind, astonishes the visitor new to the American wilderness. Every meadow is ablaze with gorgeous coloring, every copse and sunny hollow, river bank and rocky bottom, be-comes painted in turn the hue appropriate to the changing seasons. Now blues prevail in the kaleidoscopic display, now pinks, now reds, now yellows: Experience of other national parks will show that the Yosemite is no exception; all are gardens of wild flowers.
The Yosemite and the Sequoia are, however, the exclusive possessors among the parks of a remarkably showy flowering plant, the brilliant, rare, snow-plant. So luring is the red pillar which the snow-plant lifts a foot or more above the shady mould, and so easily is it destroyed, that, to keep it from extinction, the government fines covetous visitors for every flower picked.
The birds are those of Californiamany, prolific, and songful. Ducks raise their summer broods fearlessly on the lakes. Geese visit from their distant homes. Cranes and herons fish the streams. Every tree has its soloist, every forest its grand chorus. The glades resound with the tapping of woodpeckers. The whirr of startled wings accompanies passage through every wood. To one who has lingered in the forests to watch and to listen, it is hard to account for the wide-spread fable that the Yosemite is birdless. No doubt, happy talkative tourists, in companies and regiments, afoot and mounted, drive bird and beast alike to silent coverand comment on the lifeless forests. “The whole range, from foothill to summit, is shaken into song every summer,” wrote John Muir, to whom birds were the loved companions of a life-time of Sierra summers, “and, though low and thin in winter, the music never ceases.”
There are two birds which the unhurried traveller will soon know well. One is the big, noisy, gaudy Clark crow, whose swift flight and companionable squawk are familiar to all who tour the higher levels. The other is the friendly camp robber, who, with encouragement, not only will share your camp luncheon, but will gobble the lion’s share.
Of the many wild animals, ranging in size from the great, powerful, timid grizzly bear, now almost extinct here, whose Indian name, by the way, is yosemite, to the tiny shrew of the lowlands, the most frequently seen are the black or brown bear, and the deer, both of which, as compared with their kind in neighborhoods where hunting is permitted, are unterrifled if not friendly. Notwithstanding its able protection, the Yosemite will need generations to recover from the hideous slaughter which, in a score or two of years, denuded America of her splendid heritage of wild animal life.
Of the several carnivora, the coyote alone is occasionally seen by visitors. Wolves and mountain lions, prime enemies of the deer and mountain sheep, are hard to find, even when officially hunted in the winter with dogs trained for the purpose.