Clarence King's Description of Yosemite Valley, 1864


This recounts Clarence King's trip with the California Geological Survey to Yosemite Valley during October, 1864. Despite his propensity for exaggeration, King recognized the signs of the work of glaciers, and supported John Muir's theory than the valley had been created by glacial action. The excerpt is from Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, published in 1872. This title is available for purchase from the Yosemite Store.


By night we had climbed to the top of the northern wall, camping at the head-waters of a small brook, named by emotional Mr. Hutchings, I believe, the Virgin's Tears, because from time to time from under the brow of a cliff just south of El Capitan there may be seen a feeble waterfall. I suspect this sentimental pleasantry is intended to bear some relation to the Bridal Veil Fall opposite. If it has any such force at all, it is a melancholy one, given by unusual gauntness and an aged aspect, and by the few evanescent tears which this old virgin sheds.

A charming camp-ground was formed by bands of russet meadow wandering in vistas through a stately forest of dark green fir-trees unusually feathered to the base. Little mahogany-colored pools surrounded with sphagnum lay in the meadows, offering pleasant contrast of color. Our camp-ground was among clumps of thick firs, which completely walled in the fire, and made close overhanging shelters for table and beds.

Gardner, Cotter, and I felt thankful to our thermometer for owning up frankly the chill of the next morning, as we left a generous camp-fire and marched off through fir forest and among brown meadows and bare ridges of rock toward El Capitan. This grandest of granite precipices is capped by a sort of forehead of stone sweeping down to level, severe brows, which jut out a few feet over the edge. A few weather-beaten, battle-twisted, and black pines cling in clefts, contrasting in force with the solid white stone.

We hung our barometer upon a stunted tree quite near the brink, and, climbing cautiously down, stretched ourselves out upon an overhanging block of granite, and looked over into the Yosemite Valley.

The rock fell under us in one sheer sweep thirty-two hundred feet; upon its face we could trace the lines of fracture and all prominent lithological changes. Directly beneath, outspread like a delicately tinted chart, lay the lovely park of Yosemite, winding in and out about the solid white feet of precipices which sunk into it on either side; its sunlit surface invaded by the shadow of the south wall; its spires of pine, open expanses of buff and drab meadow, and families of umber oaks rising as background for the vivid green river-margin and flaming orange masses of frosted cottonwood foliage.

Deep in front the Bridal Veil brook made its way through the bottom of an open gorge and plunged off the edge of a thousand-foot cliff, falling in white water-dust and drifting in pale translucent clouds out over the treetops of the valley.

Directly opposite us, and forming the other gate-post of the valley's entrance, rose the great mass of Cathedral Rocks,a group quite suggestive of the Florence Duomo. But our grandest view was eastward, above the deep sheltered valley and over the tops of those terrible granite walls, out upon rolling ridges of stone and wonderful granite domes. Nothing in the whole list of irruptive products, except volcanoes themselves, is so wonderful as these domed mountains. They are of every variety of conoidal form, having horizontal sections accurately elliptical, ovoid, or circular, and profiles varying from such semicircles as the cap behind the Sentinel to the graceful infinite curves of the North Dome. Above and beyond these stretch back long bare ridges connecting with sunny summit peaks.

The whole region is one solid granite mass, with here and there shallow soil layers, and a thin variable forest which grows in picturesque mode, defining the leading lines of erosion as an artist deepens here and there a line to hint at some structural peculiarity.

A complete physical exposure of the range, from summit to base, lay before us. At one extreme stand sharpened peaks, white in fretwork of glistening ice-bank, or black where tower straight bolts of snowless rock; at the other stretch away plains smiling with a broad honest brown under autumn sunlight. They are not quite lovable even in distant tranquillity of hue, and just escape being interesting in spite of their familiar rivers and associated belts of oaks. Nothing can ever render them quite charming, for in the startling splendor of flower-clad April you are surfeited with an embarrassment of beauty, at all other times stunned by their poverty. Not so the summits; forever new, full of individuality, rich in detail, and coloring themselves anew under every cloud change or hue of heaven, they lay you under their spell.

 
 
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