Glimpses of our National Parks
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Special Characteristics: Sensationally Beautiful Valley and Spectacular Waterfalls

THE Yosemite National Park lies west of the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in middle eastern California. The famous Yosemite Valley is a small part of this extraordinary holiday garden—a mere crack 7 or 8 miles long by less than 1 mile wide in 1,125 miles of scenic wilderness so beautiful and varied that adequate description reads like romance.

The irregular eastern boundary is the crest of the Sierra, a rampart of tremendous granite peaks buttressed by pinnacled spurs of nature's noblest gothic, spattered by snow fields and mimic glaciers, a mountain barrier uncrossable by road except at one point, lofty Tioga Pass. Westward from the perpetual snows of this stupendous wall flow a million streams, which converge in two river systems watering and beautifying the inimitable pleasure ground. One of these streams passes through that gorge of great celebrity, the Hetch Hetchy Valley; the other flows through that gorge of greatest celebrity, the Yosemite Valley.

Bird's-eye view of Yosemite Valley looking eastward to the crest of the Sierra Nevada.
1. Clouds nest.
2. Half Dome.
3. Mount Watkins.
4. Basket Dome.
5. North Dome.
6. Washington Column.
7. Royal Arches.
8. Mirror Lake and mouth of Tenaya Canyon.
9. Camp Curry.
10. Yosemite Village.
11. Sentinel Bridge.
12. New Camp Yosemite.
13. Head of Yosemite Falls.
14. Eagle Peak (the Three Brothers).
15. El Capitan.
16. Ribbon Falls.
17. Merced River.
18. El Capitan Bridge and Moraine.
19. Big Oak Flat Road.
20. Wawona Road.
21. Bridalveil Falls.
22. Cathedral Rocks.
23. Cathedral Spires.
24. Sentinel Rock.
25. Glacier Point and new Glacier Point Hotel.
26. Glacier Point Road.
27. Sentinel Dome.
28. Liberty Cap.
29. Mount Broderick.
30. Little Yosemite Valley.
31. Tenaya Lake Lodge.
32. Merced Lake Lodge.

The park includes, in John Muir's words, "the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth, silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous canyons and amphitheaters; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges, and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculptures; new-born lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars."

This land of enchantments is a land of enchanted climate. Its summers are warm, but not too warm; dry, but not too dry; its nights cold and marvelously starry.


Most persons, even visitors, know only the Yosemite Valley. And, indeed, were there nothing else, the valley itself, small though it is, would stand in the first rank of national parks. It was discovered in 1851, by mounted volunteers pursuing Indians into their fastnesses. Because of its extraordinary character and quite exceptional beauty it quickly became celebrated; but it was not until 1874 that a road was built into it. Until then it was approached only by trail.

Photograph by Lindley Eddy

No matter what their expectation, most visitors are delightfully astonished upon entering the Yosemite Valley. The sheer immensity of the precipices on either side of the valley's peaceful floor; the loftiness and the romantic suggestion of the numerous waterfalls; the majesty of the granite walls; and the unreal, almost fairy quality of the ever-varying whole can not be successfully foretold.

After the visitor has recovered from his first shock of astonishment—for it is no less—at the supreme beauty of the valley, inevitably he wonders how Nature made it. However did it happen that walls so enormous rose so nearly perpendicular from so level a floor.

It will not lessen wonder to learn that it was water which cut most of this deep valley in the solid granite. Originally the Merced River flowed practically at the level of the canyon top. How long it took its waters, enormous in volume then, no doubt, to scrape with tools of sand and rock carried down from the High Sierra, this valley thousands of feet into the living granite, no man can even guess. And, as it cut the valley, it left the tributary streams sloping even more sharply from their levels until eventually they poured over brinks as giant waterfalls.

The recent investigations of the United States Geological Survey have determined that the river did by far the most of the work, and that the great glaciers which followed the water ages afterwards did not a great deal more than square its corners and steepen its cliffs. It may have increased the depth from 700 to 1,200 feet, scarcely more.

During the uncountable years since the glaciers vanished, erosion has again marvelously used its wonder chisel. With the lessening of the Merced's volume, the effect was no longer to deepen the channel but to amazingly carve and decorate the walls. The manner of its making explains the extreme loftiness of the waterfalls which pour over the rim into the valley.

The Yosemite Falls, for instance, drops 1,430 feet in one sheer fall, a height equal to nine Niagara Falls piled one on top of the other. The Lower Yosemite Fall, immediately below, has a drop of 320 feet, or two Niagaras more. Vernal Fall has the same height, while Illilouette Fall is 50 feet higher. The Nevada Fall drops 594 feet sheer; the celebrated Bridalveil Fall 620 feet, while the Ribbon Fall, highest of all, drops 1,612 feet sheer, a straight fall ten times as great as Niagara. Nowhere else in the world may be had a water spectacle such as this.

Similarly the sheer summits. Cathedral Rocks rise 2,500 feet perpendicular from the valley; El Capitan, 3,604 feet; Sentinel Dome, 4,157 feet; Half Dome, 4,892 feet; Clouds Rest, 5,964 feet.

Among these monsters the Merced sings its winding way.

The falls are at their fullest in May and June while the winter snows are melting. They still have volume in July, but after that they decrease rapidly. But let it not be supposed that their beauty depends upon the amount of water that pours over their brinks. It is true that the rush of water in the Yosemite Falls is even a little appalling in May, that sometimes the ground trembles half a mile away. But it is equally true that in September when, in specially dry seasons, much of the water of the great fall reaches the bottom in the shape of mist, the spectacle still possesses a filmy grandeur not comparable, perhaps, to any sight on earth. The one inspires wonder by its immensity and power; the other uplifts by its intangible spirit of sheer beauty.


The enormous park area above the valley's rim is less celebrated principally because it is less known. The acquisition and repair by the Government in 1915 of the old Tioga Road across the park and over the Sierra through Tioga Pass made it accessible, and now trails lead from public camps into the fastnesses of the High Sierra, making available to the camper-out hundreds of limpid lakes and rushing trout streams set in a land of delight.

And thus is added to the amazing water spectacle for which the valley is famous still another kind of Yosemite waterfall destined to world-wide celebrity. The Tuolumne River, descending sharply to the head of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, becomes, in John Muir's phrase, "one wild, exulting, onrushing mass of snowy purple bloom spreading over glacial waves of granite without any definite channel, gliding in magnificent silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge bowlder dams, leaping high in the air in wheel-like whirls, displaying glorious enthusiasm, tossing from side to side, doubling, glinting, singing in exuberance of mountain energy."

The sloping current, striking projecting rocks, rises 50 feet or more in the air.
Photograph by W. L. Huber.

The crowning feature of this mad spectacle are the water wheels which rise 50 feet or more into the air when the slanting river strikes obstructions.

In addition to its many other attractions, the Yosemite National Park contains three groves of sequoias, the celebrated "Big Trees of California." One of these trees, the Grizzly Giant, has a diameter of 29.6 feet and a height of 204 feet. It is more than 3,000 years old. The automobile road passes through an opening in the trunk of another, the Wawona Tree. Still another living tree is hollow from bottom to top, so that one may step within it and, gazing upward, see the sky as through a tube. A few hours in the red silence of the Mariposa Grove is an experience never to be forgotten.

Living in the Yosemite is extremely comfortable. There are two hotels and several public camps, There are grounds where many persons maintain private camps. The valley is the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail which California has built southward along the crest of the Sierra as a memorial to her famous man of letters.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009