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The Mountains of California by John Muir

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possesses treasures of beauty all its own.

Having thus in a general way indicated the height, leading features, and
distribution of the principal passes, I will now endeavor to describe
the Mono Pass in particular, which may, I think, be regarded as a fair
example of the higher alpine passes in general.

The main portion of the Mono Pass is formed by Bloody Canon, which
begins at the summit of the range, and runs in a general
east-northeasterly direction to the edge of the Mono Plain.

The first white men who forced a way through its somber depths were, as
we have seen, eager gold-seekers. But the canon was known and traveled
as a pass by the Indians and mountain animals long before its discovery
by white men, as is shown by the numerous tributary trails which come
into it from every direction. Its name accords well with the character
of the "early times" in California, and may perhaps have been suggested
by the predominant color of the metamorphic slates in which it is in
great part eroded; or more probably by blood-stains made by the
unfortunate animals which were compelled to slip and shuffle awkwardly
over its rough, cutting rocks. I have never known an animal, either mule
or horse, to make its way through the canon, either in going up or down,
without losing more or less blood from wounds on the legs. Occasionally
one is killed outright--falling headlong and rolling over precipices
like a boulder. But such accidents are rarer than from the terrible
appearance of the trail one would be led to expect; the more experienced
when driven loose find their way over the dangerous places with a
caution and sagacity that is truly wonderful. During the gold excitement
it was at times a matter of considerable pecuniary importance to force a
way through the canon with pack-trains early in the spring while it was
yet heavily blocked with snow; and then the mules with their loads had
sometimes to be let down over the steepest drifts and avalanche beds by
means of ropes.

A good bridle-path leads from Yosemite through many a grove and meadow
up to the head of the canon, a distance of about thirty miles. Here the
scenery undergoes a sudden and startling condensation. Mountains, red,
gray, and black, rise close at hand on the right, whitened around their
bases with banks of enduring snow; on the left swells the huge red mass
of Mount Gibbs, while in front the eye wanders down the shadowy canon,
and out on the warm plain of Mono, where the lake is seen gleaming like
a burnished metallic disk, with clusters of lofty volcanic cones to the
south of it.

When at length we enter the mountain gateway, the somber rocks seem
aware of our presence, and seem to come thronging closer about us.
Happily the ouzel and the old familiar robin are here to sing us
welcome, and azure daisies beam with trustfulness and sympathy, enabling
us to feel something of Nature's love even here, beneath the gaze of her
coldest rocks.

The effect of this expressive outspokenness on the part of the
canon-rocks is greatly enhanced by the quiet aspect of the alpine
meadows through which we pass just before entering the narrow gateway.
The forests in which they lie, and the mountain-tops rising beyond them,
seem quiet and tranquil. We catch their restful spirit, yield to the
soothing influences of the sunshine, and saunter dreamily on through
flowers and bees, scarce touched by a definite thought; then suddenly we
find ourselves in the shadowy canon, closeted with Nature in one of her
wildest strongholds.

After the first bewildering impression begins to wear off, we perceive
that it is not altogether terrible; for besides the reassuring birds and
flowers we discover a chain of shining lakelets hanging down from the
very summit of the pass, and linked together by a silvery stream. The
highest are set in bleak, rough bowls, scantily fringed with brown and
yellow sedges. Winter storms blow snow through the canon in blinding
drifts, and avalanches shoot from the heights. Then are these sparkling
tarns filled and buried, leaving not a hint of their existence. In June
and July they begin to blink and thaw out like sleepy eyes, the carices
thrust up their short brown spikes, the daisies bloom in turn, and the
most profoundly buried of them all is at length warmed and summered as
if winter were only a dream.

Red Lake is the lowest of the chain, and also the largest. It seems
rather dull and forbidding at first sight, lying motionless in its deep,
dark bed. The canon wall rises sheer from the water's edge on the south,
but on the opposite side there is sufficient space and sunshine for a
sedgy daisy garden, the center of which is brilliantly lighted with
lilies, castilleias, larkspurs, and columbines, sheltered from the wind
by leafy willows, and forming a most joyful outburst of plant-life
keenly emphasized by the chill baldness of the onlooking cliffs.

After indulging here in a dozing, shimmering lake-rest, the happy stream
sets forth again, warbling and trilling like an ouzel, ever delightfully
confiding, no matter how dark the way; leaping, gliding, hither,
thither, clear or foaming: manifesting the beauty of its wildness in
every sound and gesture.

One of its most beautiful developments is the Diamond Cascade, situated
a short distance below Red Lake. Here the tense, crystalline water is
first dashed into coarse, granular spray mixed with dusty foam, and then
divided into a diamond pattern by following the diagonal cleavage-joints
that intersect the face of the precipice over which it pours. Viewed in
front, it resembles a strip of embroidery of definite pattern, varying
through the seasons with the temperature and the volume of water. Scarce
a flower may be seen along its snowy border. A few bent pines look on
from a distance, and small fringes of cassiope and rock-ferns are
growing in fissures near the head, but these are so lowly and
undemonstrative that only the attentive observer will be likely to
notice them.

On the north wall of the canon, a little below the Diamond Cascade, a
glittering side stream makes its appearance, seeming to leap directly
out of the sky. It first resembles a crinkled ribbon of silver hanging
loosely down the wall, but grows wider as it descends, and dashes the
dull rock with foam. A long rough talus curves up against this part of
the cliff, overgrown with snow-pressed willows, in which the fall
disappears with many an eager surge and swirl and plashing leap, finally
beating its way down to its confluence with the main canon stream.

Below this point the climate is no longer arctic. Butterflies become
larger and more abundant, grasses with imposing spread of panicle wave
above your shoulders, and the summery drone of the bumblebee thickens
the air. The Dwarf Pine, the tree-mountaineer that climbs highest and
braves the coldest blasts, is found scattered in storm-beaten clumps from
the summit of the pass about half-way down the canon. Here it is
succeeded by the hardy Two-leaved Pine, which is speedily joined by the
taller Yellow and Mountain Pines. These, with the burly juniper, and
shimmering aspen, rapidly grow larger as the sunshine becomes richer,
forming groves that block the view; or they stand more apart here and
there in picturesque groups, that make beautiful and obvious harmony
with the rocks and with one another. Blooming underbrush becomes
abundant,--azalea, spiraea, and the brier-rose weaving fringes for the
streams, and shaggy rugs to relieve the stern, unflinching rock-bosses.

Through this delightful wilderness, Canon Creek roves without any
constraining channel, throbbing and wavering; now in sunshine, now in
thoughtful shade; falling, swirling, flashing from side to side in
weariless exuberance of energy. A glorious milky way of cascades is thus
developed, of which Bower Cascade, though one of the smallest, is
perhaps the most beautiful of them all. It is situated in the lower
region of the pass, just where the sunshine begins to mellow between the
cold and warm climates. Here the glad creek, grown strong with tribute
gathered from many a snowy fountain on the heights, sings richer
strains, and becomes more human and lovable at every step. Now you may
by its side find the rose and homely yarrow, and small meadows full of
bees and clover. At the head of a low-browed rock, luxuriant dogwood
bushes and willows arch over from bank to bank, embowering the stream
with their leafy branches; and drooping plumes, kept in motion by the
current, fringe the brow of the cascade in front. From this leafy covert
the stream leaps out into the light in a fluted curve thick sown with
sparkling crystals, and falls into a pool filled with brown boulders,
out of which it creeps gray with foam-bells and disappears in a tangle
of verdure like that from which it came.

Hence, to the foot of the canon, the metamorphic slates give place to
granite, whose nobler sculpture calls forth expressions of corresponding
beauty from the stream in passing over it,--bright trills of rapids,
booming notes of falls, solemn hushes of smooth-gliding sheets, all
chanting and blending in glorious harmony. When, at length, its
impetuous alpine life is done, it slips through a meadow with scarce an
audible whisper, and falls asleep in Moraine Lake.

This water-bed is one of the finest I ever saw. Evergreens wave
soothingly about it, and the breath of flowers floats over it like
incense. Here our blessed stream rests from its rocky wanderings, all
its mountaineering done,--no more foaming rock-leaping, no more wild,
exulting song. It falls into a smooth, glassy sleep, stirred only by the
night-wind, which, coming down the canon, makes it croon and mutter in
ripples along its broidered shores.

Leaving the lake, it glides quietly through the rushes, destined never
more to touch the living rock. Henceforth its path lies through ancient
moraines and reaches of ashy sage-plain, which nowhere afford rocks
suitable for the development of cascades or sheer falls. Yet this beauty
of maturity, though less striking, is of a still higher order, enticing
us lovingly on through gentian meadows and groves of rustling aspen to
Lake Mono, where, spirit-like, our happy stream vanishes in vapor, and
floats free again in the sky.

Bloody Canon, like every other in the Sierra, was recently occupied by a
glacier, which derived its fountain snows from the adjacent summits, and
descended into Mono Lake, at a time when its waters stood at a much
higher level than now. The principal characters in which the history of
the ancient glaciers is preserved are displayed here in marvelous
freshness and simplicity, furnishing the student with extraordinary
advantages for the acquisition of knowledge of this sort. The most
striking passages are polished and striated surfaces, which in many
places reflect the rays of the sun like smooth water. The dam of Red
Lake is an elegantly modeled rib of metamorphic slate, brought into
relief because of its superior strength, and because of the greater
intensity of the glacial erosion of the rock immediately above it,
caused by a steeply inclined tributary glacier, which entered the main
trunk with a heavy down-thrust at the head of the lake.

Moraine Lake furnishes an equally interesting example of a basin formed
wholly, or in part, by a terminal moraine dam curved across the path of
a stream between two lateral moraines.

At Moraine Lake the canon proper terminates, although apparently
continued by the two lateral moraines of the vanished glacier. These
moraines are about 300 feet high, and extend unbrokenly from the sides
of the canon into the plain, a distance of about five miles, curving and
tapering in beautiful lines. Their sunward sides are gardens, their
shady sides are groves; the former devoted chiefly to eriogonae,
compositae, and graminae; a square rod containing five or six profusely
flowered eriogonums of several species, about the same number of bahia
and linosyris, and a few grass tufts; each species being planted trimly
apart, with bare gravel between, as if cultivated artificially.

My first visit to Bloody Canon was made in the summer of 1869, under
circumstances well calculated to heighten the impressions that are the
peculiar offspring of mountains. I came from the blooming tangles of
Florida, and waded out into the plant-gold of the great valley of
California, when its flora was as yet untrodden. Never before had I
beheld congregations of social flowers half so extensive or half so
glorious. Golden composite covered all the ground from the Coast Range
to the Sierra like a stratum of curdled sunshine, in which I reveled for
weeks, watching the rising and setting of their innumerable suns; then I
gave myself up to be borne forward on the crest of the summer wave that
sweeps annually up the Sierra and spends itself on the snowy summits.

At the Big Tuolumne Meadows I remained more than a month, sketching,
botanizing, and climbing among the surrounding mountains. The
mountaineer with whom I then happened to be camping was one of those
remarkable men one so frequently meets in California, the hard angles
and bosses of whose characters have been brought into relief by the
grinding excitements of the gold period, until they resemble glacial
landscapes. But at this late day, my friend's activities had subsided,
and his craving for rest caused him to become a gentle shepherd and
literally to lie down with the lamb.

Recognizing the unsatisfiable longings of my Scotch Highland instincts,
he threw out some hints concerning Bloody Canon, and advised me to
explore it. "I have never seen it myself," he said, "for I never was so
unfortunate as to pass that way. But I have heard many a strange story
about it, and I warrant you will at least find it wild enough."

Then of course I made haste to see it. Early next morning I made up a
bundle of bread, tied my note-book to my belt, and strode away in the
bracing air, full of eager, indefinite hope. The plushy lawns that lay
in my path served to soothe my morning haste. The sod in many places was
starred with daisies and blue gentians, over which I lingered. I traced
the paths of the ancient glaciers over many a shining pavement, and
marked the gaps in the upper forests that told the power of the winter
avalanches. Climbing higher, I saw for the first time the gradual
dwarfing of the pines in compliance with climate, and on the summit
discovered creeping mats of the arctic willow overgrown with silky
catkins, and patches of the dwarf vaccinium with its round flowers
sprinkled in the grass like purple hail; while in every direction the
landscape stretched sublimely away in fresh wildness--a manuscript
written by the hand of Nature alone.

At length, as I entered the pass, the huge rocks began to close around
in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness, when suddenly, as I was
gazing eagerly about me, a drove of gray hairy beings came in sight,
lumbering toward me with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like

I never turn back, though often so inclined, and in this particular
instance, amid such surroundings, everything seemed singularly
unfavorable for the calm acceptance of so grim a company. Suppressing my
fears, I soon discovered that although as hairy as bears and as crooked
as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong
to our own species. They proved to be nothing more formidable than Mono
Indians dressed in the skins of sage-rabbits. Both the men and the women
begged persistently for whisky and tobacco, and seemed so accustomed to
denials that I found it impossible to convince them that I had none to
give. Excepting the names of these two products of civilization, they
seemed to understand not a word of English; but I afterward learned that
they were on their way to Yosemite Valley to feast awhile on trout and
procure a load of acorns to carry back through the pass to their huts on
the shore of Mono Lake.

Occasionally a good countenance may be seen among the Mono Indians, but
these, the first specimens I had seen, were mostly ugly, and some of
them altogether hideous. The dirt on their faces was fairly stratified,
and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a
geological significance. The older faces were, moreover, strangely
blurred and divided into sections by furrows that looked like the
cleavage-joints of rocks, suggesting exposure on the mountains in a
castaway condition for ages. Somehow they seemed to have no right place
in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down
the pass.

Then came evening, and the somber cliffs were inspired with the
ineffable beauty of the alpenglow. A solemn calm fell upon everything.
All the lower portion of the canon was in gloaming shadow, and I crept
into a hollow near one of the upper lakelets to smooth the ground in a
sheltered nook for a bed. When the short twilight faded, I kindled a
sunny fire, made a cup of tea, and lay down to rest and look at the
stars. Soon the night-wind began to flow and pour in torrents among the
jagged peaks, mingling strange tones with those of the waterfalls
sounding far below; and as I drifted toward sleep I began to experience
an uncomfortable feeling of nearness to the furred Monos. Then the full
moon looked down over the edge of the canon wall, her countenance
seemingly filled with intense concern, and apparently so near as to
produce a startling effect as if she had entered my bedroom, forgetting
all the world, to gaze on me alone.

The night was full of strange sounds, and I gladly welcomed the morning.
Breakfast was soon done, and I set forth in the exhilarating freshness
of the new day, rejoicing in the abundance of pure wildness so close
about me. The stupendous rocks, hacked and scarred with centuries of
storms, stood sharply out in the thin early light, while down in the
bottom of the canon grooved and polished bosses heaved and glistened
like swelling sea-waves, telling a grand old story of the ancient
glacier that poured its crushing floods above them.

Here for the first time I met the arctic daisies in all their perfection
of purity and spirituality,--gentle mountaineers face to face with the
stormy sky, kept safe and warm by a thousand miracles. I leaped lightly
from rock to rock, glorying in the eternal freshness and sufficiency of
Nature, and in the ineffable tenderness with which she nurtures her
mountain darlings in the very fountains of storms. Fresh beauty appeared
at every step, delicate rock-ferns, and groups of the fairest flowers.
Now another lake came to view, now a waterfall. Never fell light in
brighter spangles, never fell water in whiter foam. I seemed to float
through the canon enchanted, feeling nothing of its roughness, and was
out in the Mono levels before I was aware.

Looking back from the shore of Moraine Lake, my morning ramble seemed
all a dream. There curved Bloody Canon, a mere glacial furrow 2000 feet
deep, with smooth rocks projecting from the sides and braided together
in the middle, like bulging, swelling muscles. Here the lilies were
higher than my head, and the sunshine was warm enough for palms. Yet the
snow around the arctic willows was plainly visible only four miles away,
and between were narrow specimen zones of all the principal climates of
the globe.

On the bank of a small brook that comes gurgling down the side of the
left lateral moraine, I found a camp-fire still burning, which no doubt
belonged to the gray Indians I had met on the summit, and I listened
instinctively and moved cautiously forward, half expecting to see some
of their grim faces peering out of the bushes.

Passing on toward the open plain, I noticed three well-defined terminal
moraines curved gracefully across the canon stream, and joined by long
splices to the two noble laterals. These mark the halting-places of the
vanished glacier when it was retreating into its summit shadows on the
breaking-up of the glacial winter.

Five miles below the foot of Moraine Lake, just where the lateral
moraines lose themselves in the plain, there was a field of wild rye,
growing in magnificent waving bunches six to eight feet high, bearing
heads from six to twelve inches long. Rubbing out some of the grains, I
found them about five eighths of an inch long, dark-colored, and sweet.
Indian women were gathering it in baskets, bending down large handfuls,
beating it out, and fanning it in the wind. They were quite picturesque,
coming through the rye, as one caught glimpses of them here and there,
in winding lanes and openings, with splendid tufts arching above their
heads, while their incessant chat and laughter showed their heedless

Like the rye-field, I found the so-called desert of Mono blooming in a
high state of natural cultivation with the wild rose, cherry, aster, and
the delicate abronia; also innumerable gilias, phloxes, poppies, and
bush-compositae. I observed their gestures and the various expressions
of their corollas, inquiring how they could be so fresh and beautiful
out in this volcanic desert. They told as happy a life as any
plant-company I ever met, and seemed to enjoy even the hot sand and the

But the vegetation of the pass has been in great part destroyed, and the
same may be said of all the more accessible passes throughout the range.
Immense numbers of starving sheep and cattle have been driven through
them into Nevada, trampling the wild gardens and meadows almost out of
existence. The lofty walls are untouched by any foot, and the falls sing
on unchanged; but the sight of crushed flowers and stripped, bitten
bushes goes far toward destroying the charm of wildness.

The canon should be seen in winter. A good, strong traveler, who knows
the way and the weather, might easily make a safe excursion through it
from Yosemite Valley on snow-shoes during some tranquil time, when the
storms are hushed. The lakes and falls would be buried then; but so,
also, would be the traces of destructive feet, while the views of the
mountains in their winter garb, and the ride at lightning speed down the
pass between the snowy walls, would be truly glorious.




Among the many unlooked-for treasures that are bound up and hidden away
in the depths of Sierra solitudes, none more surely charm and surprise
all kinds of travelers than the glacier lakes. The forests and the
glaciers and the snowy fountains of the streams advertise their wealth
in a more or less telling manner even in the distance, but nothing is
seen of the lakes until we have climbed above them. All the upper
branches of the rivers are fairly laden with lakes, like orchard trees
with fruit. They lie embosomed in the deep woods, down in the grovy
bottoms of canons, high on bald tablelands, and around the feet of the
icy peaks, mirroring back their wild beauty over and over again. Some
conception of their lavish abundance may be made from the fact that,
from one standpoint on the summit of Red Mountain, a day's journey to
the east of Yosemite Valley, no fewer than forty-two are displayed
within a radius of ten miles. The whole number in the Sierra can hardly
be less than fifteen hundred, not counting the smaller pools and tarns,
which are innumerable. Perhaps two thirds or more lie on the western
flank of the range, and all are restricted to the alpine and subalpine
regions. At the close of the last glacial period, the middle and
foot-hill regions also abounded in lakes, all of which have long since
vanished as completely as the magnificent ancient glaciers that brought
them into existence.

Though the eastern flank of the range is excessively steep, we find
lakes pretty regularly distributed throughout even the most precipitous
portions. They are mostly found in the upper branches of the canons, and
in the glacial amphitheaters around the peaks.

Occasionally long, narrow specimens occur upon the steep sides of
dividing ridges, their basins swung lengthwise like hammocks, and very
rarely one is found lying so exactly on the summit of the range at the
head of some pass that its waters are discharged down both flanks when
the snow is melting fast. But, however situated, they soon cease to form
surprises to the studious mountaineer; for, like all the love-work of
Nature, they are harmoniously related to one another, and to all the
other features of the mountains. It is easy, therefore, to find the
bright lake-eyes in the roughest and most ungovernable-looking
topography of any landscape countenance. Even in the lower regions,
where they have been closed for many a century, their rocky orbits are
still discernible, filled in with the detritus of flood and avalanche. A
beautiful system of grouping in correspondence with the glacial
fountains is soon perceived; also their extension in the direction of
the trends of the ancient glaciers; and in general their dependence as
to form, size, and position upon the character of the rocks in which
their basins have been eroded, and the quantity and direction of
application of the glacial force expended upon each basin.

In the upper canons we usually find them in pretty regular succession,
strung together like beads on the bright ribbons of their
feeding-streams, which pour, white and gray with foam and spray, from
one to the other, their perfect mirror stillness making impressive
contrasts with the grand blare and glare of the connecting cataracts. In
Lake Hollow, on the north side of the Hoffman spur, immediately above
the great Tuolumne canon, there are ten lovely lakelets lying near
together in one general hollow, like eggs in a nest. Seen from above, in
a general view, feathered with Hemlock Spruce, and fringed with sedge,
they seem to me the most singularly beautiful and interestingly located
lake-cluster I have ever yet discovered.

Lake Tahoe, 22 miles long by about 10 wide, and from 500 to over 1600
feet in depth, is the largest of all the Sierra lakes. It lies just
beyond the northern limit of the higher portion of the range between the
main axis and a spur that puts out on the east side from near the head
of the Carson River. Its forested shores go curving in and out around
many an emerald bay and pine-crowned promontory, and its waters are
everywhere as keenly pure as any to be found among the highest

Donner Lake, rendered memorable by the terrible fate of the Donner
party, is about three miles long, and lies about ten miles to the north
of Tahoe, at the head of one of the tributaries of the Truckee. A few
miles farther north lies Lake Independence, about the same size as
Donner. But far the greater number of the lakes lie much higher and are
quite small, few of them exceeding a mile in length, most of them less
than half a mile.

Along the lower edge of the lake-belt, the smallest have disappeared by
the filling-in of their basins, leaving only those of considerable size.
But all along the upper freshly glaciated margin of the lake-bearing
zone, every hollow, however small, lying within reach of any portion of
the close network of streams, contains a bright, brimming pool; so that
the landscape viewed from the mountain-tops seems to be sown broadcast
with them. Many of the larger lakes are encircled with smaller ones like
central gems girdled with sparkling brilliants. In general, however,
there is no marked dividing line as to size. In order, therefore, to
prevent confusion, I would state here that in giving numbers, I include
none less than 500 yards in circumference.

In the basin of the Merced River, I counted 131, of which 111 are upon
the tributaries that fall so grandly into Yosemite Valley. Pohono Creek,
which forms the fall of that name, takes its rise in a beautiful lake,
lying beneath the shadow of a lofty granite spur that puts out from
Buena Vista peak. This is now the only lake left in the whole Pohono
Basin. The Illilouette has sixteen, the Nevada no fewer than
sixty-seven, the Tenaya eight, Hoffmann Creek five, and Yosemite Creek
fourteen. There are but two other lake-bearing affluents of the Merced,
viz., the South Fork with fifteen, and Cascade Creek with five, both of
which unite with the main trunk below Yosemite.


The Merced River, as a whole, is remarkably like an elm-tree, and it
requires but little effort on the part of the imagination to picture it
standing upright, with all its lakes hanging upon its spreading
branches, the topmost eighty miles in height. Now add all the other
lake-bearing rivers of the Sierra, each in its place, and you will have
a truly glorious spectacle,--an avenue the length and width of the
range; the long, slender, gray shafts of the main trunks, the milky way
of arching branches, and the silvery lakes, all clearly defined and
shining on the sky. How excitedly such an addition to the scenery would
be gazed at! Yet these lakeful rivers are still more excitingly
beautiful and impressive in their natural positions to those who have
the eyes to see them as they lie imbedded in their meadows and forests
and glacier-sculptured rocks.

When a mountain lake is born,--when, like a young eye, it first opens to
the light,--it is an irregular, expressionless crescent, inclosed in
banks of rock and ice,--bare, glaciated rock on the lower side, the
rugged snout of a glacier on the upper. In this condition it remains for
many a year, until at length, toward the end of some auspicious cluster
of seasons, the glacier recedes beyond the upper margin of the basin,
leaving it open from shore to shore for the first time, thousands of
years after its conception beneath the glacier that excavated its basin.
The landscape, cold and bare, is reflected in its pure depths; the winds
ruffle its glassy surface, and the sun fills it with throbbing spangles,
while its waves begin to lap and murmur around its leafless
shores,--sun-spangles during the day and reflected stars at night its
only flowers, the winds and the snow its only visitors. Meanwhile, the
glacier continues to recede, and numerous rills, still younger than the
lake itself, bring down glacier-mud, sand-grains, and pebbles, giving
rise to margin-rings and plats of soil. To these fresh soil-beds come
many a waiting plant. First, a hardy carex with arching leaves and a
spike of brown flowers; then, as the seasons grow warmer, and the
soil-beds deeper and wider, other sedges take their appointed places,
and these are joined by blue gentians, daisies, dodecatheons, violets,
honeyworts, and many a lowly moss. Shrubs also hasten in time to the new
gardens,--kalmia with its glossy leaves and purple flowers, the arctic
willow, making soft woven carpets, together with the heathy bryanthus
and cassiope, the fairest and dearest of them all. Insects now enrich
the air, frogs pipe cheerily in the shallows, soon followed by the
ouzel, which is the first bird to visit a glacier lake, as the sedge is
the first of plants.

So the young lake grows in beauty, becoming more and more humanly
lovable from century to century. Groves of aspen spring up, and hardy
pines, and the Hemlock Spruce, until it is richly overshadowed and
embowered. But while its shores are being enriched, the soil-beds creep
out with incessant growth, contracting its area, while the lighter
mud-particles deposited on the bottom cause it to grow constantly
shallower, until at length the last remnant of the lake
vanishes,--closed forever in ripe and natural old age. And now its
feeding-stream goes winding on without halting through the new gardens
and groves that have taken its place.

The length of the life of any lake depends ordinarily upon the capacity
of its basin, as compared with the carrying power of the streams that
flow into it, the character of the rocks over which these streams flow,
and the relative position of the lake toward other lakes. In a series
whose basins lie in the same canon, and are fed by one and the same main
stream, the uppermost will, of course, vanish first unless some other
lake-filling agent comes in to modify the result; because at first it
receives nearly all of the sediments that the stream brings down, only
the finest of the mud-particles being carried through the highest of the
series to the next below. Then the next higher, and the next would be
successively filled, and the lowest would be the last to vanish. But
this simplicity as to duration is broken in upon in various ways,
chiefly through the action of side-streams that enter the lower lakes
direct. For, notwithstanding many of these side tributaries are quite
short, and, during late summer, feeble, they all become powerful
torrents in springtime when the snow is melting, and carry not only sand
and pine-needles, but large trunks and boulders tons in weight, sweeping
them down their steeply inclined channels and into the lake basins with
astounding energy. Many of these side affluents also have the advantage
of access to the main lateral moraines of the vanished glacier that
occupied the canon, and upon these they draw for lake-filling material,
while the main trunk stream flows mostly over clean glacier pavements,
where but little moraine matter is ever left for them to carry. Thus a
small rapid stream with abundance of loose transportable material within
its reach may fill up an extensive basin in a few centuries, while a
large perennial trunk stream, flowing over clean, enduring pavements,
though ordinarily a hundred times larger, may not fill a smaller basin
in thousands of years.

The comparative influence of great and small streams as lake-fillers is
strikingly illustrated in Yosemite Valley, through which the Merced
flows. The bottom of the valley is now composed of level meadow-lands
and dry, sloping soil-beds planted with oak and pine, but it was once a
lake stretching from wall to wall and nearly from one end of the valley
to the other, forming one of the most beautiful cliff-bound sheets of
water that ever existed in the Sierra. And though never perhaps seen by
human eye, it was but yesterday, geologically speaking, since it
disappeared, and the traces of its existence are still so fresh, it may
easily be restored to the eye of imagination and viewed in all its
grandeur, about as truly and vividly as if actually before us. Now we
find that the detritus which fills this magnificent basin was not
brought down from the distant mountains by the main streams that
converge here to form the river, however powerful and available for the
purpose at first sight they appear; but almost wholly by the small local
tributaries, such as those of Indian Canon, the Sentinel, and the Three
Brothers, and by a few small residual glaciers which lingered in the
shadows of the walls long after the main trunk glacier had receded
beyond the head of the valley.

Had the glaciers that once covered the range been melted at once,
leaving the entire surface bare from top to bottom simultaneously, then
of course all the lakes would have come into existence at the same time,
and the highest, other circumstances being equal, would, as we have
seen, be the first to vanish. But because they melted gradually from the
foot of the range upward, the lower lakes were the first to see the
light and the first to be obliterated. Therefore, instead of finding the
lakes of the present day at the foot of the range, we find them at the
top. Most of the lower lakes vanished thousands of years before those
now brightening the alpine landscapes were born. And in general, owing
to the deliberation of the upward retreat of the glaciers, the lowest of
the existing lakes are also the oldest, a gradual transition being
apparent throughout the entire belt, from the older, forested,
meadow-rimmed and contracted forms all the way up to those that are new
born, lying bare and meadowless among the highest peaks.

[Illustration: THE DEATH OF A LAKE.]

A few small lakes unfortunately situated are extinguished suddenly by a
single swoop of an avalanche, carrying down immense numbers of trees,
together with the soil they were growing upon. Others are obliterated by
land-slips, earthquake taluses, etc., but these lake-deaths compared
with those resulting from the deliberate and incessant deposition of
sediments, may be termed accidental. Their fate is like that of trees
struck by lightning.

The lake-line is of course still rising, its present elevation being
about 8000 feet above sea-level; somewhat higher than this toward the
southern extremity of the range, lower toward the northern, on account
of the difference in time of the withdrawal of the glaciers, due to
difference in climate. Specimens occur here and there considerably below
this limit, in basins specially protected from inwashing detritus, or
exceptional in size. These, however, are not sufficiently numerous to
make any marked irregularity in the line. The highest I have yet found
lies at an elevation of about 12,000 feet, in a glacier womb, at the
foot of one of the highest of the summit peaks, a few miles to the north
of Mount Hitter. The basins of perhaps twenty-five or thirty are still
in process of formation beneath the few lingering glaciers, but by the
time they are born, an equal or greater number will probably have died.
Since the beginning of the close of the ice-period the whole number in
the range has perhaps never been greater than at present.

A rough approximation to the average duration of these mountain lakes
may be made from data already suggested, but I cannot stop here to
present the subject in detail. I must also forego, in the mean time, the
pleasure of a full discussion of the interesting question of lake-basin
formation, for which fine, clear, demonstrative material abounds in
these mountains. In addition to what has been already given on the
subject, I will only make this one statement. Every lake in the Sierra
is a glacier lake. Their basins were not merely remodeled and scoured
out by this mighty agent, but in the first place were eroded from the

I must now make haste to give some nearer views of representative
specimens lying at different elevations on the main lake-belt, confining
myself to descriptions of the features most characteristic of each.


This is a fine specimen of the oldest and lowest of the existing lakes.
It lies about eight miles above Yosemite Valley, on the main branch of
the Merced, at an elevation of about 7350 feet above the sea; and is
everywhere so securely cliff-bound that without artificial trails only
wild animals can get down to its rocky shores from any direction. Its
original length was about a mile and a half; now it is only half a mile
in length by about a fourth of a mile in width, and over the lowest
portion of the basin ninety-eight feet deep. Its crystal waters are
clasped around on the north and south by majestic granite walls
sculptured in true Yosemitic style into domes, gables, and battlemented
headlands, which on the south come plunging down sheer into deep water,
from a height of from 1500 to 2000 feet. The South Lyell glacier eroded
this magnificent basin out of solid porphyritic granite while forcing
its way westward from the summit fountains toward Yosemite, and the
exposed rocks around the shores, and the projecting bosses of the walls,
ground and burnished beneath the vast ice-flood, still glow with silvery
radiance, notwithstanding the innumerable corroding storms that have
fallen upon them. The general conformation of the basin, as well as the
moraines laid along the top of the walls, and the grooves and scratches
on the bottom and sides, indicate in the most unmistakable manner the
direction pursued by this mighty ice-river, its great depth, and the
tremendous energy it exerted in thrusting itself into and out of the
basin; bearing down with superior pressure upon this portion of its
channel, because of the greater declivity, consequently eroding it
deeper than the other portions about it, and producing the lake-bowl as
the necessary result.

With these magnificent ice-characters so vividly before us it is not
easy to realize that the old glacier that made them vanished tens of
centuries ago; for, excepting the vegetation that has sprung up, and the
changes effected by an earthquake that hurled rock-avalanches from the
weaker headlands, the basin as a whole presents the same appearance that
it did when first brought to light. The lake itself, however, has
undergone marked changes; one sees at a glance that it is growing old.
More than two thirds of its original area is now dry land, covered with
meadow-grasses and groves of pine and fir, and the level bed of alluvium
stretching across from wall to wall at the head is evidently growing out
all along its lakeward margin, and will at length close the lake

Every lover of fine wildness would delight to saunter on a summer day
through the flowery groves now occupying the filled-up portion of the
basin. The curving shore is clearly traced by a ribbon of white sand
upon which the ripples play; then comes a belt of broad-leafed sedges,
interrupted here and there by impenetrable tangles of willows; beyond
this there are groves of trembling aspen; then a dark, shadowy belt of
Two-leaved Pine, with here and there a round carex meadow ensconced
nest-like in its midst; and lastly, a narrow outer margin of majestic
Silver Fir 200 feet high. The ground beneath the trees is covered with a
luxuriant crop of grasses, chiefly triticum, bromus, and calamagrostis,
with purple spikes and panicles arching to one's shoulders; while the
open meadow patches glow throughout the summer with showy
flowers,--heleniums, goldenrods, erigerons, lupines, castilleias, and
lilies, and form favorite hiding and feeding-grounds for bears and deer.

The rugged south wall is feathered darkly along the top with an imposing
array of spirey Silver Firs, while the rifted precipices all the way
down to the water's edge are adorned with picturesque old junipers,
their cinnamon-colored bark showing finely upon the neutral gray of the
granite. These, with a few venturesome Dwarf Pines and Spruces, lean out
over fissured ribs and tablets, or stand erect back in shadowy niches,
in an indescribably wild and fearless manner. Moreover, the
white-flowered Douglas spiraea and dwarf evergreen oak form graceful
fringes along the narrower seams, wherever the slightest hold can be
effected. Rock-ferns, too, are here, such as allosorus, pellaea, and
cheilanthes, making handsome rosettes on the drier fissures; and the
delicate maidenhair, cistoperis, and woodsia hide back in mossy
grottoes, moistened by some trickling rill; and then the orange
wall-flower holds up its showy panicles here and there in the sunshine,
and bahia makes bosses of gold. But, notwithstanding all this plant
beauty, the general impression in looking across the lake is of stern,
unflinching rockiness; the ferns and flowers are scarcely seen, and not
one fiftieth of the whole surface is screened with plant life.

The sunnier north wall is more varied in sculpture, but the general tone
is the same. A few headlands, flat-topped and soil-covered, support
clumps of cedar and pine; and up-curving tangles of chinquapin and
live-oak, growing on rough earthquake taluses, girdle their bases. Small
streams come cascading down between them, their foaming margins
brightened with gay primulas, gilias, and mimuluses. And close along the
shore on this side there is a strip of rocky meadow enameled with
buttercups, daisies, and white violets, and the purple-topped grasses
out on its beveled border dip their leaves into the water.

The lower edge of the basin is a dam-like swell of solid granite,
heavily abraded by the old glacier, but scarce at all cut into as yet by
the outflowing stream, though it has flowed on unceasingly since the
lake came into existence.

As soon as the stream is fairly over the lake-lip it breaks into
cascades, never for a moment halting, and scarce abating one jot of its
glad energy, until it reaches the next filled-up basin, a mile below.
Then swirling and curving drowsily through meadow and grove, it breaks
forth anew into gray rapids and falls, leaping and gliding in glorious
exuberance of wild bound and dance down into another and yet another
filled-up lake basin. Then, after a long rest in the levels of Little
Yosemite, it makes its grandest display in the famous Nevada Fall. Out
of the clouds of spray at the foot of the fall the battered, roaring
river gropes its way, makes another mile of cascades and rapids, rests a
moment in Emerald Pool, then plunges over the grand cliff of the Vernal
Fall, and goes thundering and chafing down a boulder-choked gorge of
tremendous depth and wildness into the tranquil reaches of the old
Yosemite lake basin.

The color-beauty about Shadow Lake during the Indian summer is much
richer than one could hope to find in so young and so glacial a
wilderness. Almost every leaf is tinted then, and the golden-rods are in
bloom; but most of the color is given by the ripe grasses, willows, and
aspens. At the foot of the lake you stand in a trembling aspen grove,
every leaf painted like a butterfly, and away to right and left round
the shores sweeps a curving ribbon of meadow, red and brown dotted with
pale yellow, shading off here and there into hazy purple. The walls,
too, are dashed with bits of bright color that gleam out on the neutral
granite gray. But neither the walls, nor the margin meadow, nor yet the
gay, fluttering grove in which you stand, nor the lake itself, flashing
with spangles, can long hold your attention; for at the head of the lake
there is a gorgeous mass of orange-yellow, belonging to the main aspen
belt of the basin, which seems the very fountain whence all the color
below it had flowed, and here your eye is filled and fixed. This
glorious mass is about thirty feet high, and extends across the basin
nearly from wall to wall. Rich bosses of willow flame in front of it,
and from the base of these the brown meadow comes forward to the water's
edge, the whole being relieved against the unyielding green of the
coniferae, while thick sun-gold is poured over all.

During these blessed color-days no cloud darkens the sky, the winds are
gentle, and the landscape rests, hushed everywhere, and indescribably
impressive. A few ducks are usually seen sailing on the lake, apparently
more for pleasure than anything else, and the ouzels at the head of the
rapids sing always; while robins, grosbeaks, and the Douglas squirrels
are busy in the groves, making delightful company, and intensifying the
feeling of grateful sequestration without ruffling the deep, hushed calm
and peace.

This autumnal mellowness usually lasts until the end of November. Then
come days of quite another kind. The winter clouds grow, and bloom, and
shed their starry crystals on every leaf and rock, and all the colors
vanish like a sunset. The deer gather and hasten down their well-known
trails, fearful of being snow-bound. Storm succeeds storm, heaping snow
on the cliffs and meadows, and bending the slender pines to the ground
in wide arches, one over the other, clustering and interlacing like
lodged wheat. Avalanches rush and boom from the shelving heights, piling
immense heaps upon the frozen lake, and all the summer glory is buried
and lost. Yet in the midst of this hearty winter the sun shines warm at
times, calling the Douglas squirrel to frisk in the snowy pines and seek
out his hidden stores; and the weather is never so severe as to drive
away the grouse and little nut-hatches and chickadees.

Toward May, the lake begins to open. The hot sun sends down innumerable
streams over the cliffs, streaking them round and round with foam. The
snow slowly vanishes, and the meadows show tintings of green. Then
spring comes on apace; flowers and flies enrich the air and the sod, and
the deer come back to the upper groves like birds to an old nest.

I first discovered this charming lake in the autumn of 1872, while on my
way to the glaciers at the head of the river. It was rejoicing then in
its gayest colors, untrodden, hidden in the glorious wildness like
unmined gold. Year after year I walked its shores without discovering
any other trace of humanity than the remains of an Indian camp-fire, and
the thigh-bones of a deer that had been broken to get at the marrow. It
lies out of the regular ways of Indians, who love to hunt in more
accessible fields adjacent to trails. Their knowledge of deer-haunts had
probably enticed them here some hunger-time when they wished to make
sure of a feast; for hunting in this lake-hollow is like hunting in a
fenced park. I had told the beauty of Shadow Lake only to a few friends,
fearing it might come to be trampled and "improved" like Yosemite. On my
last visit, as I was sauntering along the shore on the strip of sand
between the water and sod, reading the tracks of the wild animals that
live here, I was startled by a human track, which I at once saw belonged
to some shepherd; for each step was turned out 35 deg. or 40 deg. from the
general course pursued, and was also run over in an uncertain sprawling
fashion at the heel, while a row of round dots on the right indicated
the staff that shepherds carry. None but a shepherd could make such a
track, and after tracing it a few minutes I began to fear that he might
be seeking pasturage; for what else could he be seeking? Returning from
the glaciers shortly afterward, nay worst fears were realized. A trail
had been made down the mountain-side from the north, and all the gardens
and meadows were destroyed by a horde of hoofed locusts, as if swept by
a fire. The money-changers were in the temple.


Besides these larger canon lakes, fed by the main canon streams, there
are many smaller ones lying aloft on the top of rock benches, entirely
independent of the general drainage channels, and of course drawing
their supplies from a very limited area. Notwithstanding they are mostly
small and shallow, owing to their immunity from avalanche detritus and
the inwashings of powerful streams, they often endure longer than others
many times larger but less favorably situated. When very shallow they
become dry toward the end of summer; but because their basins are ground
out of seamless stone they suffer no loss save from evaporation alone;
and the great depth of snow that falls, lasting into June, makes their
dry season short in any case.

Orange Lake is a fair illustration of this bench form. It lies in the
middle of a beautiful glacial pavement near the lower margin of the
lake-line, about a mile and a half to the northwest of Shadow Lake. It
is only about 100 yards in circumference. Next the water there is a
girdle of carices with wide overarching leaves, then in regular order a
shaggy ruff of huckleberry bushes, a zone of willows with here and there
a bush of the Mountain Ash, then a zone of aspens with a few pines
around the outside. These zones are of course concentric, and together
form a wall beyond which the naked ice-burnished granite stretches away
in every direction, leaving it conspicuously relieved, like a bunch of
palms in a desert.

In autumn, when the colors are ripe, the whole circular grove, at a
little distance, looks like a big handful of flowers set in a cup to be
kept fresh--a tuft of goldenrods. Its feeding-streams are exceedingly
beautiful, notwithstanding their inconstancy and extreme shallowness.
They have no channel whatever, and consequently are left free to spread
in thin sheets upon the shining granite and wander at will. In many
places the current is less than a fourth of an inch deep, and flows with
so little friction it is scarcely visible. Sometimes there is not a
single foam-bell, or drifting pine-needle, or irregularity of any sort
to manifest its motion. Yet when observed narrowly it is seen to form a
web of gliding lacework exquisitely woven, giving beautiful reflections
from its minute curving ripples and eddies, and differing from the
water-laces of large cascades in being everywhere transparent. In
spring, when the snow is melting, the lake-bowl is brimming full, and
sends forth quite a large stream that slips glassily for 200 yards or
so, until it comes to an almost vertical precipice 800 feet high, down
which it plunges in a fine cataract; then it gathers its scattered
waters and goes smoothly over folds of gently dipping granite to its
confluence with the main canon stream. During the greater portion of the
year, however, not a single water sound will you hear either at head or
foot of the lake, not oven the whispered lappings of ripple-waves along
the shore; for the winds are fenced out. But the deep mountain silence
is sweetened now and then by birds that stop here to rest and drink on
their way across the canon.


A beautiful variety of the bench-top lakes occurs just where the great
lateral moraines of the main glaciers have been shoved forward in
outswelling concentric rings by small residual tributary glaciers.
Instead of being encompassed by a narrow ring of trees like Orange Lake,
these lie embosomed in dense moraine woods, so dense that in seeking
them you may pass them by again and again, although you may know nearly
where they lie concealed.

[Illustration: LAKE STARR KING.]

Lake Starr King, lying to the north of the cone of that name, above the
Little Yosemite Valley, is a fine specimen of this variety. The ouzels
pass it by, and so do the ducks; they could hardly get into it if they
would, without plumping straight down inside the circling trees.

Yet these isolated gems, lying like fallen fruit detached from the
branches, are not altogether without inhabitants and joyous, animating
visitors. Of course fishes cannot get into them, and this is generally
true of nearly every glacier lake in the range, but they are all well
stocked with happy frogs. How did the frogs get into them in the first
place? Perhaps their sticky spawn was carried in on the feet of ducks or
other birds, else their progenitors must have made some exciting
excursions through the woods and up the sides of the canons. Down in the
still, pure depths of these hidden lakelets you may also find the larvae
of innumerable insects and a great variety of beetles, while the air
above them is thick with humming wings, through the midst of which
fly-catchers are constantly darting. And in autumn, when the
huckleberries are ripe, bands of robins and grosbeaks come to feast,
forming altogether delightful little byworlds for the naturalist.

Pushing our way upward toward the axis of the range, we find lakes in
greater and greater abundance, and more youthful in aspect. At an
elevation of about 9000 feet above sea-level they seem to have arrived
at middle age,--that is, their basins seem to be about half filled with
alluvium. Broad sheets of meadow-land are seen extending into them,
imperfect and boggy in many places and more nearly level than those of
the older lakes below them, and the vegetation of their shores is of
course more alpine. Kalmia, lodum, and cassiope fringe the meadow rocks,
while the luxuriant, waving groves, so characteristic of the lower
lakes, are represented only by clumps of the Dwarf Pine and Hemlock
Spruce. These, however, are oftentimes very picturesquely grouped on
rocky headlands around the outer rim of the meadows, or with still more
striking effect crown some rocky islet.

Moreover, from causes that we cannot stop here to explain, the cliffs
about these middle-aged lakes are seldom of the massive Yosemite type,
but are more broken, and less sheer, and they usually stand back,
leaving the shores comparatively free; while the few precipitous rocks
that do come forward and plunge directly into deep water are seldom more
than three or four hundred feet high.

I have never yet met ducks in any of the lakes of this kind, but the
ouzel is never wanting where the feeding-streams are perennial. Wild
sheep and deer may occasionally be seen on the meadows, and very rarely
a bear. One might camp on the rugged shores of these bright fountains
for weeks, without meeting any animal larger than the marmots that
burrow beneath glacier boulders along the edges of the meadows.

The highest and youngest of all the lakes lie nestled in glacier wombs.
At first sight, they seem pictures of pure bloodless desolation,
miniature arctic seas, bound in perpetual ice and snow, and overshadowed
by harsh, gloomy, crumbling precipices. Their waters are keen
ultramarine blue in the deepest parts, lively grass-green toward the
shore shallows and around the edges of the small bergs usually floating
about in them. A few hardy sedges, frost-pinched every night, are
occasionally found making soft sods along the sun-touched portions of
their shores, and when their northern banks slope openly to the south,
and are soil-covered, no matter how coarsely, they are sure to be
brightened with flowers. One lake in particular now comes to mind which
illustrates the floweriness of the sun-touched banks of these icy gems.
Close up under the shadow of the Sierra Matterhorn, on the eastern slope
of the range, lies one of the iciest of these glacier lakes at an
elevation of about 12,000 feet. A short, ragged-edged glacier crawls
into it from the south, and on the opposite side it is embanked and
dammed by a series of concentric terminal moraines, made by the glacier
when it entirely filled the basin. Half a mile below lies a second lake,
at a height of 11,500 feet, about as cold and as pure as a snow-crystal.
The waters of the first come gurgling down into it over and through the
moraine dam, while a second stream pours into it direct from a glacier
that lies to the southeast. Sheer precipices of crystalline snow rise
out of deep water on the south, keeping perpetual winter on that side,
but there is a fine summery spot on the other, notwithstanding the lake
is only about 300 yards wide. Here, on August 25, 1873, I found a
charming company of flowers, not pinched, crouching dwarfs, scarce able
to look up, but warm and juicy, standing erect in rich cheery color and
bloom. On a narrow strip of shingle, close to the water's edge, there
were a few tufts of carex gone to seed; and a little way back up the
rocky bank at the foot of a crumbling wall so inclined as to absorb and
radiate as well as reflect a considerable quantity of sun-heat, was the
garden, containing a thrifty thicket of Cowania covered with large
yellow flowers; several bushes of the alpine ribes with berries nearly
ripe and wildly acid; a few handsome grasses belonging to two distinct
species, and one goldenrod; a few hairy lupines and radiant spragueas,
whose blue and rose-colored flowers were set off to fine advantage amid
green carices; and along a narrow seam in the very warmest angle of the
wall a perfectly gorgeous fringe of _Epilobium obcordatum_ with
flowers an inch wide, crowded together in lavish profusion, and colored
as royal a purple as ever was worn by any high-bred plant of the
tropics; and best of all, and greatest of all, a noble thistle in full
bloom, standing erect, head and shoulders above his companions, and
thrusting out his lances in sturdy vigor as if growing on a Scottish
brae. All this brave warm bloom among the raw stones, right in the face
of the onlooking glaciers.

As far as I have been able to find out, these upper lakes are
snow-buried in winter to a depth of about thirty-five or forty feet, and
those most exposed to avalanches, to a depth of even a hundred feet or
more. These last are, of course, nearly lost to the landscape. Some
remain buried for years, when the snowfall is exceptionally great, and
many open only on one side late in the season. The snow of the closed
side is composed of coarse granules compacted and frozen into a firm,
faintly stratified mass, like the _neve_ of a glacier. The lapping
waves of the open portion gradually undermine and cause it to break off
in large masses like icebergs, which gives rise to a precipitous front
like the discharging wall of a glacier entering the sea. The play of the
lights among the crystal angles of these snow-cliffs, the pearly white
of the outswelling bosses, the bergs drifting in front, aglow in the sun
and edged with green water, and the deep blue disk of the lake itself
extending to your feet,--this forms a picture that enriches all your
afterlife, and is never forgotten. But however perfect the season and
the day, the cold incompleteness of these young lakes is always keenly
felt. We approach them with a kind of mean caution, and steal
unconfidingly around their crystal shores, dashed and ill at ease, as if
expecting to hear some forbidding voice. But the love-songs of the
ouzels and the love-looks of the daisies gradually reassure us, and
manifest the warm fountain humanity that pervades the coldest and most
solitary of them all.



After the lakes on the High Sierra come the glacier meadows. They are
smooth, level, silky lawns, lying embedded in the upper forests, on the
floors of the valleys, and along the broad backs of the main dividing
ridges, at a height of about 8000 to 9500 feet above the sea.

They are nearly as level as the lakes whose places they have taken, and
present a dry, even surface free from rock-heaps, mossy bogginess, and
the frowsy roughness of rank, coarse-leaved, weedy, and shrubby
vegetation. The sod is close and fine, and so complete that you cannot
see the ground; and at the same time so brightly enameled with flowers
and butterflies that it may well be called a garden-meadow, or
meadow-garden; for the plushy sod is in many places so crowded with
gentians, daisies, ivesias, and various species of orthocarpus that the
grass is scarcely noticeable, while in others the flowers are only
pricked in here and there singly, or in small ornamental rosettes.

The most influential of the grasses composing the sod is a delicate
calamagrostis with fine filiform leaves, and loose, airy panicles that
seem to float above the flowery lawn like a purple mist. But, write as I
may, I cannot give anything like an adequate idea of the exquisite
beauty of these mountain carpets as they lie smoothly outspread in the
savage wilderness. What words are fine enough to picture them I to what
shall we liken them? The flowery levels of the prairies of the old West,
the luxuriant savannahs of the South, and the finest of cultivated
meadows are coarse in comparison. One may at first sight compare them
with the carefully tended lawns of pleasure-grounds; for they are as
free from weeds as they, and as smooth, but here the likeness ends; for
these wild lawns, with all their exquisite fineness, have no trace of
that painful, licked, snipped, repressed appearance that pleasure-ground
lawns are apt to have even when viewed at a distance. And, not to
mention the flowers with which they are brightened, their grasses are
very much finer both in color and texture, and instead of lying flat and
motionless, matted together like a dead green cloth, they respond to the
touches of every breeze, rejoicing in pure wildness, blooming and
fruiting in the vital light.

Glacier meadows abound throughout all the alpine and subalpine regions
of the Sierra in still greater numbers than the lakes. Probably from
2500 to 3000 exist between latitude 36 deg. 30' and 39 deg., distributed, of
course, like the lakes, in concordance with all the other glacial
features of the landscape.

On the head waters of the rivers there are what are called "Big
Meadows," usually about from five to ten miles long. These occupy the
basins of the ancient ice-seas, where many tributary glaciers came
together to form the grand trunks. Most, however, are quite small,
averaging perhaps but little more than three fourths of a mile in

One of the very finest of the thousands I have enjoyed lies hidden in an
extensive forest of the Two-leaved Pine, on the edge of the basin of the
ancient Tuolumne Mer de Glace, about eight miles to the west of Mount

Imagine yourself at the Tuolumne Soda Springs on the bank of the river,
a day's journey above Yosemite Valley. You set off northward through a
forest that stretches away indefinitely before you, seemingly unbroken
by openings of any kind. As soon as you are fairly into the woods, the
gray mountain-peaks, with their snowy gorges and hollows, are lost to
view. The ground is littered with fallen trunks that lie crossed and
recrossed like storm-lodged wheat; and besides this close forest of
pines, the rich moraine soil supports a luxuriant growth of
ribbon-leaved grasses--bromus, triticum, calamagrostis, agrostis, etc.,
which rear their handsome spikes and panicles above your waist. Making
your way through the fertile wilderness,--finding lively bits of
interest now and then in the squirrels and Clark crows, and perchance in
a deer or bear,--after the lapse of an hour or two vertical bars of
sunshine are seen ahead between the brown shafts of the pines, showing
that you are approaching an open space, and then you suddenly emerge
from the forest shadows upon a delightful purple lawn lying smooth and
free in the light like a lake. This is a glacier meadow. It is about a
mile and a half long by a quarter of a mile wide. The trees come
pressing forward all around in close serried ranks, planting their feet
exactly on its margin, and holding themselves erect, strict and orderly
like soldiers on parade; thus bounding the meadow with exquisite
precision, yet with free curving lines such as Nature alone can draw.
With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake,
feeling yourself contained in one of Nature's most sacred chambers,
withdrawn from the sterner influences of the mountains, secure from all
intrusion, secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And
notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem
dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm,
terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar.
The resiny pines are types of health and steadfastness; the robins
feeding on the sod belong to the same species you have known since
childhood; and surely these daisies, larkspurs, and goldenrods are the
very friend-flowers of the old home garden. Bees hum as in a harvest
noon, butterflies waver above the flowers, and like them you lave in the
vital sunshine, too richly and homogeneously joy-filled to be capable of
partial thought. You are all eye, sifted through and through with light
and beauty. Sauntering along the brook that meanders silently through
the meadow from the east, special flowers call you back to
discriminating consciousness. The sod comes curving down to the water's
edge, forming bossy outswelling banks, and in some places overlapping
countersunk boulders and forming bridges. Here you find mats of the
curious dwarf willow scarce an inch high, yet sending up a multitude of
gray silky catkins, illumined here and there with, the purple cups and
bells of bryanthus and vaccinium.

Go where you may, you everywhere find the lawn divinely beautiful, as if
Nature had fingered and adjusted every plant this very day. The floating
grass panicles are scarcely felt in brushing through their midst, so
flue are they, and none of the flowers have tall or rigid stalks. In the
brightest places you find three species of gentians with different
shades of blue, daisies pure as the sky, silky leaved ivesias with warm
yellow flowers, several species of orthocarpus with blunt, bossy spikes,
red and purple and yellow; the alpine goldenrod, pentstemon, and clover,
fragrant and honeyful, with their colors massed and blended. Parting the
grasses and looking more closely you may trace the branching of their
shining stems, and note the marvelous beauty of their mist of flowers,
the glumes and pales exquisitely penciled, the yellow dangling stamens,
and feathery pistils. Beneath the lowest leaves you discover a fairy
realm of mosses,--hypnum, dicranum, polytriclium, and many
others,--their precious spore-cups poised daintily on polished shafts,
curiously hooded, or open, showing the richly ornate peristomas worn
like royal crowns. Creeping liverworts are here also in abundance, and
several rare species of fungi, exceedingly small, and frail, and
delicate, as if made only for beauty. Caterpillars, black beetles, and
ants roam the wilds of this lower world, making their way through
miniature groves and thickets like bears in a thick wood.

And how rich, too, is the life of the sunny air! Every leaf and flower
seems to have its winged representative overhead. Dragon-flies shoot in
vigorous zigzags through the dancing swarms, and a rich profusion of
butterflies--the leguminosae of insects--make a fine addition to the
general show. Many of these last are comparatively small at this
elevation, and as yet almost unknown to science; but every now and then
a familiar vanessa or papilio comes sailing past. Humming-birds, too,
are quite common here, and the robin is always found along the margin of
the stream, or out in the shallowest portions of the sod, and sometimes
the grouse and mountain quail, with their broods of precious fluffy
chickens. Swallows skim the grassy lake from end to end, fly-catchers
come and go in fitful flights from the tops of dead spars, while
woodpeckers swing across from side to side in graceful festoon
curves,--birds, insects, and flowers all in their own way telling a deep
summer joy.

The influences of pure nature seem to be so little known as yet, that it
is generally supposed that complete pleasure of this kind, permeating
one's very flesh and bones, unfits the student for scientific pursuits
in which cool judgment and observation are required. But the effect is
just the opposite. Instead of producing a dissipated condition, the mind
is fertilized and stimulated and developed like sun-fed plants. All that
we have seen here enables us to see with surer vision the fountains
among the summit-peaks to the east whence flowed the glaciers that
ground soil for the surrounding forest; and down at the foot of the
meadow the moraine which formed the dam which gave rise to the lake that
occupied this basin before the meadow was made; and around the margin
the stones that were shoved back and piled up into a rude wall by the
expansion of the lake ice during long bygone winters; and along the
sides of the streams the slight hollows of the meadow which mark those
portions of the old lake that were the last to vanish.

I would fain ask my readers to linger awhile in this fertile wilderness,
to trace its history from its earliest glacial beginnings, and learn
what we may of its wild inhabitants and visitors. How happy the birds
are all summer and some of them all winter; how the pouched marmots
drive tunnels under the snow, and how fine and brave a life the
slandered coyote lives here, and the deer and bears! But, knowing well
the difference between reading and seeing, I will only ask attention to
some brief sketches of its varying aspects as they are presented
throughout the more marked seasons of the year.

The summer life we have been depicting lasts with but little abatement
until October, when the night frosts begin to sting, bronzing the
grasses, and ripening the leaves of the creeping heathworts along the
banks of the stream to reddish purple and crimson; while the flowers
disappear, all save the goldenrods and a few daisies, that continue to
bloom on unscathed until the beginning of snowy winter. In still nights
the grass panicles and every leaf and stalk are laden with frost
crystals, through which the morning sunbeams sift in ravishing splendor,
transforming each to a precious diamond radiating the colors of the
rainbow. The brook shallows are plaited across and across with slender
lances of ice, but both these and the grass crystals are melted before
midday, and, notwithstanding the great elevation of the meadow, the
afternoons are still warm enough to revive the chilled butterflies and
call them out to enjoy the late-flowering goldenrods. The divine
alpenglow flushes the surrounding forest every evening, followed by a
crystal night with hosts of lily stars, whose size and brilliancy cannot
be conceived by those who have never risen above the lowlands.

Thus come and go the bright sun-days of autumn, not a cloud in the sky,
week after week until near December. Then comes a sudden change. Clouds
of a peculiar aspect with a slow, crawling gait gather and grow in the
azure, throwing out satiny fringes, and becoming gradually darker until
every lake-like rift and opening is closed and the whole bent firmament
is obscured in equal structureless gloom. Then comes the snow, for the
clouds are ripe, the meadows of the sky are in bloom, and shed their
radiant blossoms like an orchard in the spring. Lightly, lightly they
lodge in the brown grasses and in the tasseled needles of the pines,
falling hour after hour, day after day, silently, lovingly,--all the
winds hushed,--glancing and circling hither, thither, glinting against
one another, rays interlocking in flakes as large as daisies; and then
the dry grasses, and the trees, and the stones are all equally abloom
again. Thunder-showers occur here during the summer months, and
impressive it is to watch the coming of the big transparent drops, each
a small world in itself,--one unbroken ocean without islands hurling
free through the air like planets through space. But still more
impressive to me is the coming of the snow-flowers,--falling stars,
winter daisies,--giving bloom to all the ground alike. Raindrops blossom
brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow
comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.

The later snow-storms are oftentimes accompanied by winds that break up
the crystals, when the temperature is low, into single petals and
irregular dusty fragments; but there is comparatively little drifting on
the meadow, so securely is it embosomed in the woods. From December to
May, storm succeeds storm, until the snow is about fifteen or twenty
feet deep, but the surface is always as smooth as the breast of a bird.

Hushed now is the life that so late was beating warmly. Most of the
birds have gone down below the snow-line, the plants sleep, and all the
fly-wings are folded. Yet the sun beams gloriously many a cloudless day
in midwinter, casting long lance shadows athwart the dazzling expanse.
In June small flecks of the dead, decaying sod begin to appear,
gradually widening and uniting with one another, covered with creeping
rags of water during the day, and ice by night, looking as hopeless and
unvital as crushed rocks just emerging from the darkness of the glacial
period. Walk the meadow now! Scarce the memory of a flower will you
find. The ground seems twice dead. Nevertheless, the annual resurrection
is drawing near. The life-giving sun pours his floods, the last
snow-wreath melts, myriads of growing points push eagerly through the
steaming mold, the birds come back, new wings fill the air, and fervid
summer life comes surging on, seemingly yet more glorious than before.

This is a perfect meadow, and under favorable circumstances exists
without manifesting any marked changes for centuries. Nevertheless, soon
or late it must inevitably grow old and vanish. During the calm Indian
summer, scarce a sand-grain moves around its banks, but in flood-times
and storm-times, soil is washed forward upon it and laid in successive
sheets around its gently sloping rim, and is gradually extended to the
center, making it dryer. Through a considerable period the meadow
vegetation is not greatly affected thereby, for it gradually rises with
the rising ground, keeping on the surface like water-plants rising on
the swell of waves. But at length the elevation of the meadow-land goes
on so far as to produce too dry a soil for the specific meadow-plants,
when, of course, they have to give up their places to others fitted for
the new conditions. The most characteristic of the newcomers at this
elevation above the sea are principally sun-loving gilias, eriogonae,
and compositae, and finally forest-trees. Henceforward the obscuring
changes are so manifold that the original lake-meadow can be unveiled
and seen only by the geologist.

Generally speaking, glacier lakes vanish more slowly than the meadows
that succeed them, because, unless very shallow, a greater quantity of
material is required to fill up their basins and obliterate them than is
required to render the surface of the meadow too high and dry for meadow
vegetation. Furthermore, owing to the weathering to which the adjacent
rocks are subjected, material of the finer sort, susceptible of
transportation by rains and ordinary floods, is more abundant during the
meadow period than during the lake period. Yet doubtless many a fine
meadow favorably situated exists in almost prime beauty for thousands of
years, the process of extinction being exceedingly slow, as we reckon
time. This is especially the case with meadows circumstanced like the
one we have described--embosomed in deep woods, with the ground rising
gently away from it all around, the network of tree-roots in which all
the ground is clasped preventing any rapid torrential washing. But, in
exceptional cases, beautiful lawns formed with great deliberation are
overwhelmed and obliterated at once by the action of land-slips,
earthquake avalanches, or extraordinary floods, just as lakes are.

In those glacier meadows that take the places of shallow lakes which
have been fed by feeble streams, glacier mud and fine vegetable humus
enter largely into the composition of the soil; and on account of the
shallowness of this soil, and the seamless, water-tight, undrained
condition of the rock-basins, they are usually wet, and therefore
occupied by tall grasses and sedges, whose coarse appearance offers a
striking contrast to that of the delicate lawn-making kind described
above. These shallow-soiled meadows are oftentimes still further
roughened and diversified by partially buried moraines and swelling
bosses of the bed-rock, which, with the trees and shrubs growing upon
them, produce a striking effect as they stand in relief like islands in
the grassy level, or sweep across in rugged curves from one forest wall
to the other.

Throughout the upper meadow region, wherever water is sufficiently
abundant and low in temperature, in basins secure from flood-washing,
handsome bogs are formed with a deep growth of brown and yellow sphagnum
picturesquely ruined with patches of kalmia and ledum which ripen masses
of beautiful color in the autumn. Between these cool, spongy bogs and
the dry, flowery meadows there are many interesting varieties which are
graduated into one another by the varied conditions already alluded to,
forming a series of delightful studies.


Another, very well-marked and interesting kind of meadow, differing
greatly both in origin and appearance from the lake-meadows, is found
lying aslant upon moraine-covered hillsides trending in the direction of
greatest declivity, waving up and down over rock heaps and ledges, like
rich green ribbons brilliantly illumined with tall flowers. They occur
both in the alpine and subalpine regions in considerable numbers, and
never fail to make telling features in the landscape. They are often a
mile or more in length, but never very wide--usually from thirty to
fifty yards. When the mountain or canon side on which, they lie dips at
the required angle, and other conditions are at the same time favorable,
they extend from above the timber line to the bottom of a canon or lake
basin, descending in fine, fluent lines like cascades, breaking here and
there into a kind of spray on large boulders, or dividing and flowing
around on either side of some projecting islet. Sometimes a noisy stream
goes brawling down through them, and again, scarcely a drop of water is
in sight. They owe their existence, however, to streams, whether visible
or invisible, the wildest specimens being found where some perennial
fountain, as a glacier or snowbank or moraine spring sends down its
waters across a rough sheet of soil in a dissipated web of feeble,
oozing rivulets. These conditions give rise to a meadowy vegetation,
whose extending roots still more obstruct the free flow of the waters,
and tend to dissipate them out over a yet wider area. Thus the moraine
soil and the necessary moisture requisite for the better class of meadow
plants are at times combined about as perfectly as if smoothly outspread
on a level surface. Where the soil happens to be composed of the finer
qualities of glacial detritus and the water is not in excess, the
nearest approach is made by the vegetation to that of the lake-meadow.
But where, as is more commonly the case, the soil is coarse and
bouldery, the vegetation is correspondingly rank. Tall, wide-leaved
grasses take their places along the sides, and rushes and nodding
carices in the wetter portions, mingled with the most beautiful and
imposing flowers,--orange lilies and larkspurs seven or eight feet high,
lupines, senecios, aliums, painted-cups, many species of mimulus and
pentstemon, the ample boat-leaved _veratrum alba_, and the
magnificent alpine columbine, with spurs an inch and a half long. At an
elevation of from seven to nine thousand feet showy flowers frequently
form the bulk of the vegetation; then the hanging meadows become hanging

In rare instances we find an alpine basin the bottom of which is a
perfect meadow, and the sides nearly all the way round, rising in gentle
curves, are covered with moraine soil, which, being saturated with
melting snow from encircling fountains, gives rise to an almost
continuous girdle of down-curving meadow vegetation that blends
gracefully into the level meadow at the bottom, thus forming a grand,
smooth, soft, meadow-lined mountain nest. It is in meadows of this sort
that the mountain beaver (_Haplodon_) loves to make his home,
excavating snug chambers beneath the sod, digging canals, turning the
underground waters from channel to channel to suit his convenience, and
feeding the vegetation.

Another kind of meadow or bog occurs on densely timbered hillsides where
small perennial streams have been dammed at short intervals by fallen
trees. Still another kind is found hanging down smooth, flat precipices,
while corresponding leaning meadows rise to meet them.

There are also three kinds of small pot-hole meadows one of which is
found along the banks of the main streams, another on the summits of
rocky ridges, and the third on glacier pavements, all of them
interesting in origin and brimful of plant beauty.



The coniferous forests of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful
in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting
and accessible of mountain-ranges, yet strange to say they are not well
known. More than sixty years ago David Douglas, an enthusiastic botanist
and tree lover, wandered alone through fine sections of the Sugar Pine
and Silver Fir woods wild with delight. A few years later, other
botanists made short journeys from the coast into the lower woods. Then
came the wonderful multitude of miners into the foot-hill zone, mostly
blind with gold-dust, soon followed by "sheepmen," who, with wool over
their eyes, chased their flocks through all the forest belts from one
end of the range to the other. Then the Yosemite Valley was discovered,
and thousands of admiring tourists passed through sections of the lower
and middle zones on their way to that wonderful park, and gained fine
glimpses of the Sugar Pines and Silver Firs along the edges of dusty
trails and roads. But few indeed, strong and free with eyes undimmed
with care, have gone far enough and lived long enough with the trees to
gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and
significance as manifested in the harmonies of their distribution and
varying aspects throughout the seasons, as they stand arrayed in their
winter garb rejoicing in storms, putting forth their fresh leaves in the
spring while steaming with resiny fragrance, receiving the
thunder-showers of summer, or reposing heavy-laden with ripe cones in
the rich sungold of autumn. For knowledge of this kind one must dwell
with the trees and grow with them, without any reference to time in the
almanac sense.

The distribution of the general forest in belts is readily perceived.
These, as we have seen, extend in regular order from one extremity of
the range to the other; and however dense and somber they may appear in
general views, neither on the rocky heights nor down in the leafiest
hollows will you find anything to remind you of the dank, malarial
selvas of the Amazon and Orinoco, with, their "boundless contiguity of
shade," the monotonous uniformity of the Deodar forests of the Himalaya,
the Black Forest of Europe, or the dense dark woods of Douglas Spruce
where rolls the Oregon. The giant pines, and firs, and Sequoias hold
their arms open to the sunlight, rising above one another on the
mountain benches, marshaled in glorious array, giving forth the utmost
expression of grandeur and beauty with inexhaustible variety and


The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most
distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more
or less apart in groves, or in small, irregular groups, enabling one to
find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through
openings that have a smooth, park-like surface, strewn with brown
needles and burs. Now you cross a wild garden, now a meadow, now a
ferny, willowy stream; and ever and anon you emerge from all the groves
and flowers upon some granite pavement or high, bare ridge commanding
superb views above the waving sea of evergreens far and near.

One would experience but little difficulty in riding on horseback
through the successive belts all the way up to the storm-beaten fringes
of the icy peaks. The deep canons, however, that extend from the axis of
the range, cut the belts more or less completely into sections, and
prevent the mounted traveler from tracing them lengthwise.

This simple arrangement in zones and sections brings the forest, as a
whole, within the comprehension of every observer. The different species
are ever found occupying the same relative positions to one another, as
controlled by soil, climate, and the comparative vigor of each species
in taking and holding the ground; and so appreciable are these
relations, one need never be at a loss in determining, within a few
hundred feet, the elevation above sea-level by the trees alone; for,
notwithstanding some of the species range upward for several thousand
feet, and all pass one another more or less, yet even those possessing
the greatest vertical range are available in this connection, in as much
as they take on new forms corresponding with the variations in altitude.

Crossing the treeless plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin from the
west and reaching the Sierra foot-hills, you enter the lower fringe of
the forest, composed of small oaks and pines, growing so far apart that
not one twentieth of the surface of the ground is in shade at clear
noonday. After advancing fifteen or twenty miles, and making an ascent
of from two to three thousand feet, you reach the lower margin of the
main pine belt, composed of the gigantic Sugar Pine, Yellow Pine,
Incense Cedar, and Sequoia. Next you come to the magnificent Silver Fir
belt, and lastly to the upper pine belt, which sweeps up the rocky
acclivities of the summit peaks in a dwarfed, wavering fringe to a
height of from ten to twelve thousand feet.


This general order of distribution, with reference to climate dependent
on elevation, is perceived at once, but there are other harmonies, as
far-reaching in this connection, that become manifest only after patient
observation and study. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the
arrangement of the forests in long, curving bands, braided together into
lace-like patterns, and outspread in charming variety. The key to this
beautiful harmony is the ancient glaciers; where they flowed the trees
followed, tracing their wavering courses along canons, over ridges, and
over high, rolling plateaus. The Cedars of Lebanon, says Hooker, are
growing upon one of the moraines of an ancient glacier. All the forests
of the Sierra are growing upon moraines. But moraines vanish like the
glaciers that make them. Every storm that falls upon them wastes them,
cutting gaps, disintegrating boulders, and carrying away their decaying
material into new formations, until at length they are no longer
recognizable by any save students, who trace their transitional forms
down from the fresh moraines still in process of formation, through
those that are more and more ancient, and more and more obscured by
vegetation and all kinds of post-glacial weathering.

Had the ice-sheet that once covered all the range been melted
simultaneously from the foot-hills to the summits, the flanks would, of
course, have been left almost bare of soil, and these noble forests
would be wanting. Many groves and thickets would undoubtedly have grown
up on lake and avalanche beds, and many a fair flower and shrub would
have found food and a dwelling-place in weathered nooks and crevices,
but the Sierra as a whole would have been a bare, rocky desert.


It appears, therefore, that the Sierra forests in general indicate the
extent and positions of the ancient moraines as well as they do lines of
climate. For forests, properly speaking, cannot exist without soil; and,
since the moraines have been deposited upon the solid rock, and only
upon elected places, leaving a considerable portion of the old glacial
surface bare, we find luxuriant forests of pine and fir abruptly
terminated by scored and polished pavements on which not even a moss is
growing, though soil alone is required to fit them for the growth of
trees 200 feet in height.

(_Pinus Sabiniana_)

The Nut Pine, the first conifer met in ascending the range from the
west, grows only on the torrid foothills, seeming to delight in the most
ardent sun-heat, like a palm; springing up here and there singly, or in
scattered groups of five or six, among scrubby White Oaks and thickets
of ceanothus and manzanita; its extreme upper limit being about 4000
feet above the sea, its lower about from 500 to 800 feet.

This tree is remarkable for its airy, widespread, tropical appearance,
which suggests a region of palms, rather than cool, resiny pine woods.
No one would take it at first sight to be a conifer of any kind, it is
so loose in habit and so widely branched, and its foliage is so thin and
gray. Full-grown specimens are from forty to fifty feet in height, and
from two to three feet in diameter. The trunk usually divides into three
or four main branches, about fifteen and twenty feet from the ground,
which, after bearing away from one another, shoot straight up and form
separate summits; while the crooked subordinate branches aspire, and
radiate, and droop in ornamental sprays. The slender, grayish-green
needles are from eight to twelve inches long, loosely tasseled, and
inclined to droop in handsome curves, contrasting with the stiff,
dark-colored trunk and branches in a very striking manner. No other tree
of my acquaintance, so substantial in body, is in its foliage so thin
and so pervious to the light. The sunbeams sift through even the
leafiest trees with scarcely any interruption, and the weary, heated
traveler finds but little protection in their shade.


The generous crop of nutritious nuts which the Nut Pine yields makes it
a favorite with Indians, bears, and squirrels. The cones are most
beautiful, measuring from five to eight inches in length, and not much
less in thickness, rich chocolate-brown in color, and protected by
strong, down-curving hooks Which terminate the scales. Nevertheless, the
little Douglas squirrel can open them. Indians gathering the ripe nuts
make a striking picture. The men climb the trees like bears and beat off
the cones with sticks, or recklessly cut off the more fruitful branches
with hatchets, while the squaws gather the big, generous cones, and
roast them until the scales open sufficiently to allow the hard-shelled
seeds to be beaten out. Then, in the cool evenings, men, women, and
children, with their capacity for dirt greatly increased by the soft
resin with which they are all bedraggled, form circles around
camp-fires, on the bank of the nearest stream, and lie in easy
independence cracking nuts and laughing and chattering, as heedless of
the future as the squirrels.

_Pinus tuberculata_

This curious little pine is found at an elevation of from 1500 to 3000
feet, growing in close, willowy groves. It is exceedingly slender and
graceful in habit, although trees that chance to stand alone outside the
groves sweep forth long, curved branches, producing a striking contrast
to the ordinary grove form. The foliage is of the same peculiar
gray-green color as that of the Nut Pine, and is worn about as loosely,
so that the body of the tree is scarcely obscured by it.


At the age of seven or eight years it begins to bear cones, not on
branches, but on the main axis, and, as they never fall off, the trunk
is soon picturesquely dotted with them. The branches also become
fruitful after they attain sufficient size. The average size of the
older trees is about thirty or forty feet in height, and twelve to
fourteen inches in diameter. The cones are about four inches long,
exceedingly hard, and covered with a sort of silicious varnish and gum,
rendering them impervious to moisture, evidently with a view to the
careful preservation of the seeds.

No other conifer in the range is so closely restricted to special
localities. It is usually found apart, standing deep in chaparral on
sunny hill-and canon-sides where there is but little depth of soil, and,
where found at all, it is quite plentiful; but the ordinary traveler,
following carriage-roads and trails, may ascend the range many times
without meeting it.

While exploring the lower portion of the Merced Canon I found a lonely
miner seeking his fortune in a quartz vein on a wild mountain-side
planted with this singular tree. He told me that he called it the
Hickory Pine, because of the whiteness and toughness of the wood. It is
so little known, however, that it can hardly be said to have a common
name. Most mountaineers refer to it as "that queer little pine-tree
covered all over with burs." In my studies of this species I found a
very interesting and significant group of facts, whose relations will be
seen almost as soon as stated:

1st. All the trees in the groves I examined, however unequal in size,
are of the same age.

2d. Those groves are all planted on dry hillsides covered with
chaparral, and therefore are liable to be swept by fire.

3d. There are no seedlings or saplings in or about the living groves,
but there is always a fine, hopeful crop springing up on the ground once
occupied by any grove that has been destroyed by the burning of the

4th. The cones never fall off and never discharge their seeds until the
tree or branch to which they belong dies.


A full discussion of the bearing of these facts upon one another would
perhaps be out of place here, but I may at least call attention to the
admirable adaptation of the tree to the fire-swept regions where alone
it is found. After a grove has been destroyed, the ground is at once
sown lavishly with all the seeds ripened during its whole life, which
seem to have been carefully held in store with reference to such a
calamity. Then a young grove immediately springs up, giving beauty for

(_Pinus Lambertiana_)

This is the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not
merely in size but also in kingly beauty and majesty.

It towers sublimely from every ridge and canon of the range, at an
elevation of from three to seven thousand feet above the sea, attaining
most perfect development at a height of about 5000 feet.

Full-grown specimens are commonly about 220 feet high, and from six to
eight feet in diameter near the ground, though some grand old patriarch
is occasionally met that has enjoyed five or six centuries of storms,
and attained a thickness of ten or even twelve feet, living on
undecayed, sweet and fresh in every fiber.

In southern Oregon, where it was first discovered by David Douglas, on
the head waters of the Umpqua, it attains still grander dimensions, one
specimen having been measured that was 245 feet high, and over eighteen
feet in diameter three feet from the ground. The discoverer was the
Douglas for whom the noble Douglas Spruce is named, and many other
plants which will keep his memory sweet and fresh as long as trees and
flowers are loved. His first visit to the Pacific Coast was made in the
year 1825. The Oregon Indians watched him with curiosity as he wandered
in the woods collecting specimens, and, unlike the fur-gathering
strangers they had hitherto known, caring nothing about trade. And when
at length they came to know him better, and saw that from year to year
the growing things of the woods and prairies were his only objects of
pursuit, they called him "The Man of Grass," a title of which he was
proud. During his first summer on the waters of the Columbia he made
Fort Vancouver his headquarters, making excursions from this Hudson Bay
post in every direction. On one of his long trips he saw in an Indian's
pouch some of the seeds of a new species of pine which he learned were
obtained from a very large tree far to the southward of the Columbia. At
the end of the next summer, returning to Fort Vancouver after the
setting in of the winter rains, bearing in mind the big pine he had
heard of, he set out on an excursion up the Willamette Valley in search
of it; and how he fared, and what dangers and hardships he endured, are
best told in his own journal, from which I quote as follows:

_October_ 26, 1826. Weather dull. Cold and cloudy. When my
friends in England are made acquainted with my travels I fear they
will think I have told them nothing but my miseries.... I quitted
my camp early in the morning to survey the neighboring country,
leaving my guide to take charge of the horses until my return in
the evening. About an hour's walk from the camp I met an Indian,
who on perceiving me instantly strung his bow, placed on his left
arm a sleeve of raccoon skin and stood on the defensive. Being
quite sure that conduct was prompted by fear and not by hostile
intentions, the poor fellow having probably never seen such a being
as myself before, I laid my gun at my feet on the ground and waved
my hand for him to come to me, which he did slowly and with great
caution. I then made him place his bow and quiver of arrows beside
my gun, and striking a light gave him a smoke out of my own pipe
and a present of a few beads. With my pencil I made a rough sketch
of the cone and pine tree which I wanted to obtain, and drew his
attention to it, when he instantly pointed with his hand to the
hills fifteen or twenty miles distant towards the south; and when I
expressed my intention of going thither, cheerfully set out to
accompany me. At midday I reached my long-wished-for pines, and
lost no time in examining them and endeavoring to collect specimens
and seeds. New and strange things seldom fail to make strong
impressions, and are therefore frequently over-rated; so that, lest
I should never see my friends in England to inform them verbally of
this most beautiful and immensely grand tree, I shall here state
the dimensions of the largest I could find among several that had
been blown down by the wind. At 3 feet from the ground its
circumference is 57 feet 9 inches; at 134 feet, 17 feet 5 inches;
the extreme length 245 feet.... As it was impossible either to
climb the tree or hew it down, I endeavored to knock off the cones
by firing at them with ball, when the report of my gun brought
eight Indians, all of them painted with red earth, armed with bows,
arrows, bone-tipped spears, and flint-knives. They appeared
anything but friendly. I explained to them what I wanted, and they
seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke; but presently I saw one of
them string his bow, and another sharpen his flint knife with a
pair of wooden pincers and suspend it off the wrist of his right
hand. Further testimony of their intentions was unnecessary. To
save myself by flight was impossible, so without hesitation I
stepped back about five paces, cocked my gun, drew one of the
pistols out of my belt, and holding it in my left hand and the gun
in my right, showed myself determined to fight for my life. As much
as possible I endeavored to preserve my coolness, and thus we stood
looking at one another without making any movement or uttering a
word for perhaps ten minutes, when one at last, who seemed to be
the leader, gave a sign that they wished for some tobacco; this I
signified that they should have if they fetched a quantity of
cones. They went off immediately in search of them, and no sooner
were they all out of sight than I picked up my three cones and some
twigs of the trees and made the quickest possible retreat, hurrying
back to the camp, which I reached before dusk.... I now write lying
on the grass with my gun cocked beside me, and penning these lines
by the light of my Columbian candle, namely, an ignited piece of

This grand pine discovered under such, exciting circumstances Douglas
named in honor of his friend Dr. Lambert of London.

The trunk is a smooth, round, delicately tapered shaft, mostly without
limbs, and colored rich purplish-brown, usually enlivened with tufts of
yellow lichen. At the top of this magnificent bole, long, curving
branches sweep gracefully outward and downward, sometimes forming a
palm-like crown, but far more nobly impressive than any palm crown I
ever beheld. The needles are about three inches long, finely tempered
and arranged in rather close tassels at the ends of slender branchlets
that clothe the long, outsweeping limbs. How well they sing in the wind,
and how strikingly harmonious an effect is made by the immense
cylindrical cones that depend loosely from the ends of the main
branches! No one knows what Nature can do in the way of pine-burs until
he has seen those of the Sugar Pine. They are commonly from fifteen to
eighteen inches long, and three in diameter; green, shaded with dark
purple on their sunward sides. They are ripe in September and October.
Then the flat scales open and the seeds take wing, but the empty cones
become still more beautiful and effective, for their diameter is nearly
doubled by the spreading of the scales, and their color changes to a
warm yellowish-brown; while they remain swinging on the tree all the
following winter and summer, and continue effectively beautiful even on
the ground many years after they fall. The wood is deliciously fragrant,
and fine in grain and texture; it is of a rich cream-yellow, as if
formed of condensed sunbeams. _Retinospora obtusa, Siebold_, the
glory of Eastern forests, is called "Fu-si-no-ki" (tree of the sun) by
the Japanese; the Sugar Pine is the sun-tree of the Sierra.
Unfortunately it is greatly prized by the lumbermen, and in accessible
places is always the first tree in the woods to feel their steel. But
the regular lumbermen, with their saw-mills, have been, less generally
destructive thus far than the shingle-makers. The wood splits freely,
and there is a constant demand for the shingles. And because an ax, and
saw, and frow are all the capital required for the business, many of
that drifting, unsteady class of men so large in California engage in it
for a few months in the year. When prospectors, hunters, ranch hands,
etc., touch their "bottom dollar" and find themselves out of employment,
they say, "Well, I can at least go to the Sugar Pines and make
shingles." A few posts are set in the ground, and a single length cut
from the first tree felled produces boards enough for the walls and roof
of a cabin; all the rest the lumberman makes is for sale, and he is
speedily independent. No gardener or haymaker is more sweetly perfumed
than these rough mountaineers while engaged in this business, but the
havoc they make is most deplorable.


The sugar, from which the common name is derived, is to my taste the
best of sweets--better than maple sugar. It exudes from the heart-wood,
where wounds have been made, either by forest fires, or the ax, in the
shape of irregular, crisp, candy-like kernels, which are crowded
together in masses of considerable size, like clusters of resin-beads.
When fresh, it is perfectly white and delicious, but, because most of
the wounds on which it is found have been made by fire, the exuding sap
is stained on the charred surface, and the hardened sugar becomes brown.
Indians are fond of it, but on account of its laxative properties only
small quantities may be eaten. Bears, so fond of sweet things in
general, seem never to taste it; at least I have failed to find any
trace of their teeth in this connection.

No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with the Sugar
Pine, nor will he afterward need a poet to call him to "listen what the
pine-tree saith." In most pine-trees there is a sameness of expression,
which, to most people, is apt to become monotonous; for the typical
spiry form, however beautiful, affords but little scope for appreciable
individual character. The Sugar Pine is as free from conventionalities
of form and motion as any oak. No two are alike, even to the most
inattentive observer; and, notwithstanding they are ever tossing out
their immense arms in what might seem most extravagant gestures, there
is a majesty and repose about them that precludes all possibility of the
grotesque, or even picturesque, in their general expression. They are
the priests of pines, and seem ever to be addressing the surrounding
forest. The Yellow Pine is found growing with them on warm hillsides,
and the White Silver Fir on cool northern slopes; but, noble as these
are, the Sugar Pine is easily king, and spreads his arms above them in
blessing while they rock and wave in sign of recognition. The main
branches are sometimes found to be forty feet in length, yet
persistently simple, seldom dividing at all, excepting near the end; but
anything like a bare cable appearance is prevented by the small,
tasseled branchlets that extend all around them; and when these superb
limbs sweep out symmetrically on all sides, a crown sixty or seventy
feet wide is formed, which, gracefully poised on the summit of the noble
shaft, and filled with sunshine, is one of the most glorious forest
objects conceivable. Commonly, however, there is a great preponderance
of limbs toward the east, away from the direction of the prevailing

No other pine seems to me so unfamiliar and self-contained. In
approaching it, we feel as if in the presence of a superior being, and
begin to walk with a light step, holding our breath. Then, perchance,
while we gaze awe-stricken, along comes a merry squirrel, chattering and
laughing, to break the spell, running up the trunk with no ceremony, and
gnawing off the cones as if they were made only for him; while the
carpenter-woodpecker hammers away at the bark, drilling holes in which
to store his winter supply of acorns.


Although so wild and unconventional when full-grown, the Sugar Pine is a
remarkably proper tree in youth. The old is the most original and
independent in appearance of all the Sierra evergreens; the young is the
most regular,--a strict follower of coniferous fashions,--slim, erect,
with leafy, supple branches kept exactly in place, each tapering in
outline and terminating in a spiry point. The successive transitional
forms presented between the cautious neatness of youth and bold freedom
of maturity offer a delightful study. At the age of fifty or sixty
years, the shy, fashionable form begins to be broken up. Specialized
branches push out in the most unthought-of places, and bend with the
great cones, at once marking individual character, and this being
constantly augmented from year to year by the varying action of the
sunlight, winds, snow-storms, etc., the individuality of the tree is
never again lost in the general forest.

The most constant companion of this species is the Yellow Pine, and a
worthy companion it is.


The Douglas Spruce, Libocedrus, Sequoia, and the White Silver Fir are
also more or less associated with it; but on many deep-soiled
mountain-sides, at an elevation of about 5000 feet above the sea, it
forms the bulk of the forest, filling every swell and hollow and
down-plunging ravine. The majestic crowns, approaching each other in
bold curves, make a glorious canopy through which the tempered sunbeams
pour, silvering the needles, and gilding the massive boles, and flowery,
park-like ground, into a scene of enchantment.

On the most sunny slopes the white-flowered fragrant chamoebatia is
spread like a carpet, brightened during early summer with the crimson
Sarcodes, the wild rose, and innumerable violets and gilias. Not even in
the shadiest nooks will you find any rank, untidy weeds or unwholesome
darkness. On the north sides of ridges the boles are more slender, and
the ground is mostly occupied by an underbrush of hazel, ceanothus, and
flowering dogwood, but never so densely as to prevent the traveler from
sauntering where he will; while the crowning branches are never
impenetrable to the rays of the sun, and never so interblended as to
lose their individuality.

View the forest from beneath or from some commanding ridge-top; each
tree presents a study in itself, and proclaims the surpassing grandeur
of the species.

(_Pinus ponderosa_)

The Silver, or Yellow, Pine, as it is commonly called, ranks second
among the pines of the Sierra as a lumber tree, and almost rivals the
Sugar Pine in stature and nobleness of port. Because of its superior
powers of enduring variations of climate and soil, it has a more
extensive range than any other conifer growing on the Sierra. On the
western slope it is first met at an elevation of about 2000 feet, and
extends nearly to the upper limit of the timber line. Thence, crossing
the range by the lowest passes, it descends to the eastern base, and
pushes out for a considerable distance into the hot volcanic plains,
growing bravely upon well-watered moraines, gravelly lake basins, arctic
ridges, and torrid lava-beds; planting itself upon the lips of craters,
flourishing vigorously even there, and tossing ripe cones among the
ashes and cinders of Nature's hearths.

The average size of full-grown trees on the western slope, where it is
associated with the Sugar Pine, is a little less than 200 feet in height
and from five to six feet in diameter, though specimens may easily be
found that are considerably larger. I measured one, growing at an
elevation of 4000 feet in the valley of the Merced, that is a few inches
over eight feet in diameter, and 220 feet high.

Where there is plenty of free sunshine and other conditions are
favorable, it presents a striking contrast in form to the Sugar Pine,
being a symmetrical spire, formed of a straight round trunk, clad with
innumerable branches that are divided over and over again. About one
half of the trunk is commonly branchless, but where it grows at all
close, three fourths or more become naked; the tree presenting then a
more slender and elegant shaft than any other tree in the woods. The
bark is mostly arranged in massive plates, some of them measuring four
or five feet in length by eighteen inches in width, with a thickness of
three or four inches, forming a quite marked and distinguishing feature.
The needles are of a fine, warm, yellow-green color, six to eight inches
long, firm and elastic, and crowded in handsome, radiant tassels on the
upturning ends of the branches. The cones are about three or four inches
long, and two and a half wide, growing in close, sessile clusters among
the leaves.

[Illustration: PINUS PONDEROSA.]

The species attains its noblest form in filled-up lake basins,
especially in those of the older yosemites, and so prominent a part does
it form of their groves that it may well be called the Yosemite Pine.
Ripe specimens favorably situated are almost always 200 feet or more in
height, and the branches clothe the trunk nearly to the ground, as seen
in the illustration.

The Jeffrey variety attains its finest development in the northern
portion of the range, in the wide basins of the McCloud and Pitt rivers,
where it forms magnificent forests scarcely invaded by any other tree.
It differs from the ordinary form in size, being only about half as
tall, and in its redder and more closely furrowed bark, grayish-green
foliage, less divided branches, and larger cones; but intermediate forms
come in which make a clear separation impossible, although some
botanists regard it as a distinct species. It is this variety that
climbs storm-swept ridges, and wanders out among the volcanoes of the
Great Basin. Whether exposed to extremes of heat or cold, it is dwarfed
like every other tree, and becomes all knots and angles, wholly unlike
the majestic forms we have been sketching. Old specimens, bearing cones
about as big as pineapples, may sometimes be found clinging to rifted
rocks at an elevation of seven or eight thousand feet, whose highest
branches scarce reach above one's shoulders.


I have oftentimes feasted on the beauty of these noble trees when they
were towering in all their winter grandeur, laden with snow--one mass of
bloom; in summer, too, when the brown, staminate clusters hang thick
among the shimmering needles, and the big purple burs are ripening in
the mellow light; but it is during cloudless wind-storms that these
colossal pines are most impressively beautiful. Then they bow like
willows, their leaves streaming forward all in one direction, and, when
the sun shines upon them at the required angle, entire groves glow as if
every leaf were burnished silver. The fall of tropic light on the royal
crown of a palm is a truly glorious spectacle, the fervid sun-flood
breaking upon the glossy leaves in long lance-rays, like mountain water
among boulders. But to me there is something more impressive in the fall
of light upon these Silver Pines. It seems beaten to the finest dust,
and is shed off in myriads of minute sparkles that seem to come from the
very heart of the trees, as if, like rain falling upon fertile soil, it
had been absorbed, to reappear in flowers of light.

This species also gives forth the finest music to the wind. After
listening to it in all kinds of winds, night and day, season after
season, I think I could approximate to my position on the mountains by
this pine-music alone. If you would catch the tones of separate needles,
climb a tree. They are well tempered, and give forth no uncertain sound,
each standing out, with no interference excepting during heavy gales;
then you may detect the click of one needle upon another, readily
distinguishable from their free, wing-like hum. Some idea of their
temper may be drawn from the fact that, notwithstanding they are so
long, the vibrations that give rise to the peculiar shimmering of the
light are made at the rate of about two hundred and fifty per minute.

When a Sugar Pine and one of this species equal in size are observed
together, the latter is seen to be far more simple in manners, more
lithely graceful, and its beauty is of a kind more easily appreciated;
but then, it is, on the other hand, much less dignified and original in
demeanor. The Silver Pine seems eager to shoot aloft. Even while it is
drowsing in autumn sun-gold, you may still detect a skyward aspiration.
But the Sugar Pine seems too unconsciously noble, and too complete in
every way, to leave room for even a heavenward care.

(_Pseudotsuga Douglasii_)

This tree is the king of the spruces, as the Sugar Pine is king of
pines. It is by far the most majestic spruce I ever beheld in any
forest, and one of the largest and longest lived of the giants that
flourish throughout the main pine belt, often attaining a height of
nearly 200 feet, and a diameter of six or seven. Where the growth is not
too close, the strong, spreading branches come more than halfway down
the trunk, and these are hung with innumerable slender, swaying sprays,
that are handsomely feathered with the short leaves which radiate at
right angles all around them. This vigorous spruce is ever beautiful,
welcoming the mountain winds and the snow as well as the mellow summer
light, and maintaining its youthful freshness undiminished from century
to century through a thousand storms.

It makes its finest appearance in the months of June and July. The rich
brown buds with which its sprays are tipped swell and break about this
time, revealing the young leaves, which at first are bright yellow,
making the tree appear as if covered with gay blossoms; while the
pendulous bracted cones with their shell-like scales are a constant

The young trees are mostly gathered into beautiful family groups, each
sapling exquisitely symmetrical. The primary branches are whorled
regularly around the axis, generally in fives, while each is draped with
long, feathery sprays, that descend in curves as free and as finely
drawn as those of falling water.

In Oregon and Washington it grows in dense forests, growing tall and
mast-like to a height of 300 feet, and is greatly prized as a lumber
tree. But in the Sierra it is scattered among other trees, or forms
small groves, seldom ascending higher than 5500 feet, and never making
what would be called a forest. It is not particular in its choice of
soil--wet or dry, smooth or rocky, it makes out to live well on them
all. Two of the largest specimens I have measured are in Yosemite
Valley, one of which is more than eight feet in diameter, and is growing
upon the terminal moraine of the residual glacier that occupied the
South Fork Canon; the other is nearly as large, growing upon angular
blocks of granite that have been shaken from the precipitous front of
the Liberty Cap near the Nevada Fall. No other tree seems so capable of
adapting itself to earthquake taluses, and many of these rough
boulder-slopes are occupied by it almost exclusively, especially in
yosemite gorges moistened by the spray of waterfalls.

(_Libocedrus decurrens_)

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