John Muir on Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy is one of a magnificent brotherhood of Yosemite Valleys, distant from Yosemite Valley, so-called, eighteen or twenty miles in a northwesterly direction, but by the only trail the distance is not less than forty miles.

In the first week of last November, I set out from here on an excursion of this wonderful valley. My "proper route" was by the Big Oak Flat road as far as Hardin's Mills, thence by a trail which mazes among rocks and chaparral, past "Wade's and the Hog Ranch," but as I never follow trails when I may walk the living granite, and as I was moreover anxious to see as much as possible of the canyons of Cascade Creek on my way, I set out straight across the mountains leaving Yosemite by Indian canyon. There was some little danger of being caught in snow thus late in the season, but as I was afoot and had no companion to fear for, I felt confident that I could force my way out of any common storm. I carried one pair of woolen blankets and three loaves of bread - I reckoned that two loaves would be sufficient for the trip, provided all went sunnily, the third was a big round extra that I called my storm loaf. In case of being snowed in, it would last me three days, or, if necessary, six days. Besides those "breads," I carried their complementary coffee and a two-ounce mug of the Fray Bentos Extractum Carnis of Baron Liebig. Thus grandly allowanced, I was ready to enjoy my ten days' journey of any kind of calm or storm.

On reaching the top of Indian Canyon I bore off to the left, crossed Yosemite Creek about a mile back of the falls, and slanted up the side of El Capitan Mountain towards the gap, through which the mono trail passes. By the time I reached the summit it was sundown, and as I found an old friend of a brooklet still living, and plenty of dry logs, I concluded to camp, that is, to set fire to a log and cut an armful of pine or fir branches for a bed.

Most of the next day was spent in crossing parallel rows of ice-polished canyons belonging to the basin of Cascade Creek. Night overtook me in a magnificent grove of silver fir, in which I camped.

Next morning, after climbing a long timbered slope and crossing a few groove-shaped valleys I came upon the precipitous rim of the great Tuolumne Canyon, a mile or two above Hetch Hetchy. I had explored a few miles of the central portion of this stupendous canyon in one of my former excursions. It is a Yosemite Valley in depth and in width, and is over twenty miles in length, abounding in falls and cascades, and glacial rock forms. Hetch Hetchy is only an expanded lower portion of this vast Yosemite. The view from my first standpoint is one of the very grandest I ever beheld. From the great canyon as a sort of base line, extends a most sublime map of mountains rising gradually higher, dome over dome, crest over crest, to the summit of the range, and the whole glorious engraving is reposed at such an angle that you look full upon its surface near and far. To one unacquainted with the hidden life and tenderness of the high sierra, the first impression is one of intense soul-crushing desolation. Robert Burns described the Scottish Highlands as "a country where savage streams tumble over savage mountains," and nothing but the same (outside) savageness and confusion is apparent here. Castaway heaps of dead, broken mountains outspread, cold and gray, like a storm sky of winter. But, venture to the midst of these bleached mountain bones -- dwell with them, and every death taint will disappear, you will find them living joyously, with lakes, and forests, and a thousand flowers, their hardest domes pulsing with life, breathing in atmospheres of beauty and love.

After I had carefully scanned a mile or two of the canyon wall I discovered a curve that seemed climbable all the way to the bottom, which I concluded to test. After I had descended two or three hundred yards, I struck a well-worn trail that mazed down to the canyon just where I wished to go. At first I took it to be an Indian trail, but after following it a short distance, I discovered certain hieroglyphics which suggested the possibility of its belonging to the bears. It was plain that a broadfooted mother and a family of cubs had been the last to pass over it.

It is dangerous to come suddenly upon an affectionate family of bears, but this seldom happens, if one walks noisily, for bears have excellent ears, and they are acquainted with caves and thickets, to which they gladly retire for the sake of peace.

A little below this discovery of paws, I was startled by a noise close in front. Of course in so grizzly a place, the noise was speedily clothed upon by a bear skin, but it was only the bounding of a frightened deer which I had cornered, and compelled to make a desperate leap in order to pass me. In its hurried flight up the mountain, it started several heavy boulders, that came crashing and thumping uncomfortably near.

A little further on, I came to a most interesting group of glacial records, which led me away from the trail to the edge of a sheer precipice, which, by comparison with my recollections of those of Yosemite, must be betwixt two and three thousand feet in depth. Peering cautiously over the wall, I noticed a narrow ledge fringed with dwarf live oaks, which I made out to reach; my hope was, that by following this ledge along the face of the wall I would strike my neighbor's highway, in which I had full confidence, believing that I could climb any rock that a bear could. But it soon proved that this was not unconditionally true, for in scrambling through the brush fringe of my narrow way, I observed a solitary bear track; the rugged author of those broad prints had gone in the same direction as I was going, and there was no return track. This made me more hopeful than before of being able to creep along the wall to the main traveled road, but the track appeared fresh, and the possibility of meeting long claws upon so conquer-or-die a place made me uneasy. I moved forward with great caution until I came to a recess where a few trees were anchored. Here I found that my pioneer had climbed to a sloping place on the wall above, by a dead pine that leaned against it like a ladder. Had I been empty handed like him I would have followed by the same way, but my blankets encumbered my limbs and kept them out of balance. A little farther on I was positively halted by a sheer wall, and my hour's scramble in this direction, so far as getting to the bottom was concerned, was worse than useless. Escaping from this rigid bench by the same way as I found it, I made out to zigzag down a fissured portion of the wall to another bushy seam, still hoping to reach the bear road by creeping along the face of the rock, but this second shelf terminated like the first. I was now tired of cut-offs, and decided to seek my way back up the mountain to where I first wandered from the trail. In groping through brush and fissures I found a rock cup which contained a few quarts of water, and as it was now past noon, and there was a flat place close by where I could unroll my blankets, I made a fire with chaparral twigs, and boiled a tin cupful of coffee. After dining and resting upon this lofty rock table, I continued my return climb up the rocks at a slow pace, careful to avoid thirst, in case I might be compelled to pass the night on the mountain without water. However, I encountered no extraordinary difficulties, and by two or three o'clock was safe in Bear Canyon, with fair prospects of reaching the bottom before dark. I was not on a good road and I made fast time, careful always to make abundance of admonitory noise for the benefit of Mother Bruin and her muffy cubs.

They followed the windings of the trail, in Indian file, with great fidelity, scraping it clear of sticks and pine needles, at steep places, where they had been compelled to adopt a shuffling gait to keep from rolling head over heels. Thin crumbs of dirt, around the edges of their tracks, were still moist. I could not help thinking, at times, that so remarkably well worn and well directed a trail must formerly have belonged to the Indians; but on reaching a long slope of debris, near the bottom of the canyon, it suddenly branched and melted out in all directions into densest thickets of chaparral, as Indian trails never do, and when at length I touched bottom on the level canyon floor, so good a highway was easily accounted for. Here are fine groves of black oak, and the ground was brown with acorns. At the upper end of the road are extensive fields of manzanita bushes, which yield the berried of which they are so fond; a manzanita orchard at one terminus, an acorn orchard at the other. It was plain that I had near neighbors, but they caused no alarm, as they never choose to eat men where acorns are plentiful.

I selected a camping ground near the river, in the middle of a close group of cedars, whose lower boughs drooped to the ground. I cut off some of their flat, spicy plumes for a bed, gathered a store of wood, and made a cordial fire, and was at home in this vast unhandselled Yosemite. Night gathered, in most impressive repose; my blazing fire illumined the grand brown columns of my compassing cedars and a few withered briers and goldenrods that leaned forward between them, as if eager to drink the light. Stars glinted here and there through the rich plumes of my ceiling, and in front I could see a portion of the mighty canyon walls, dark against the sky, making me feel as if at the bottom of a sea. Few sounds reached me, excepting a few broken scraps of song from distant cascades. My weariness and the near soothing hush of the river made me drowsy. The breath of my cedar pillow was delicious, and I quickly drifted deep into the land of sleep.

Next morning I was up betimes, ate my usual crust, and stared down the river bank to Hetch Hetchy, which I reached in about an hour. Hetch Hetchy bears are early risers, for they had been out in the open valley printing the hoar frost before I arrived.

This valley is situated on the main Tuolumne River, just as Yosemite is on the Merced. It is about three miles in length, with a width varying from an eighth to half a mile; most of its surface is level as a lake, and lies at an elevation of 3800 feet above the sea. Its course is mostly from east to west, but it is bent northward in the middle like Yosemite. At the end of the valley the river enters a narrow canyon which cannot devour spring floods sufficiently fast to prevent the lower half of the valley from becoming a lake. Beginning at the west end of the valley where the Hardin trail comes in, the first conspicuous rocks on the right are a group like the Cathedral Rocks of Yosemite, and occupying the same relative position to the valley. The lowest member of the group which stands out well isolated above, exactly like the corresponding rock of the Yosemite group, is, according to the State geological survey, about 2270 feet in height. The two higher members are not so separate as those of Yosemite. They are best seen from the top of the wall a mile or two farther east. On the north side of the valley there is a vast perpendicular rock front 1800 feet high, which resembles El Capitan of Yosemite. In spring a large stream pours over its brow with a clear fall of at least one thousand feet. East of this, on the same side, is the Hetch Hetchy Fall, occupying a position relative to the valley like that of Yosemite Fall. It is about seventeen hundred feet in height, but not in one unbroken fall. It is said to have a much larger body of water than the Yosemite Fall, but at the time of my visit (November), it was nearly dry. The wall of the valley above this fall has two benches fringed with live oak, which correspond with astonishing minuteness to the benches of the same relative portion of the Yosemite wall.

At the upper end of the valley a stream comes in from the northwest which is large enough to be considered a fork of the river. Its canyon is exceedingly rich in rock forms, of which a good view may be had from the south side of the valley. The surface of Hetch Hetchy is diversified with groves and meadows in the same manner as Yosemite, and the trees are identical in species. The dryer and warmer portions have fine groves of the black oak (Quercus sonomensis) with a few sugar pines (P. lambertiania). The Sabine pine (P. sabiniana) which grows on the north side of the valley in sun-beaten rocks, is not found in Yosemite. Upon the debris slopes, and in the small side canyons of the south wall, dwell the two silver firs (Picea amabilis and grandis). The white cedar (Libocedrus decurrens) and Douglas spruce (Abies douglasii) are noble trees and pretty generally distributed throughout the valley. Thickets of azalea and the brier rose are common and extensive tracts along the edges of the meadows are covered with the common bracken (Pteris aquilina). I measured several specimens of this fern that exceeded eight feet in height, and the fissured walls of the valley, from top to bottom, abound in tufted rock ferns of rare beauty, which we have not space to enumerate. The crystal river glides between sheltering groves of alder and poplar and flowering dogwood. Where there is a few inches of fall it ripples and sparkles songfully, but it flows gently in most places, often with a lingering expression, as if half inclined to become a lake. Many of these river nooks are gloriously bordered with ferns and sedges and drooping willows; some were enlivened with ducks that blended charmingly into the picture, only it seemed wonderful that mountain water, so pure and so light like, could be sufficiently substantial to float a duck.

It is estimated that about 7000 persons have seen Yosemite. If this multitude were to be gathered again, and set down in Hetch Hetchy perhaps less than one percent of the whole number would doubt their being in Yosemite. They would see rocks and waterfalls, meadows and groves, of Yosemite size and kind, and grouped in Yosemite style. Amid so vast an assemblage of sublime mountain forms, only the more calm and careful observers would be able to fix upon special differences.

The trail from Hardin's enters the valley on the south side, upon a slope which corresponds to that upon which the Mariposa trail enters Yosemite. It was made by the well-known hunter "Joe Screech" for the purpose of driving stock into the meadow. The whole valley is at present claimed by the "Smith brothers" as a summer sheep range. Sheep are driven into Hetch Hetchy every spring, about the same time that a nearly equal number of tourists are driven into Yosemite; another coincidence which is remarkably suggestive.

We have no room here to discuss the formation of this valley; we will only state as our opinion that it is an inseparable portion of the great Glacier Canyon of the Tuolumne, and that its level bottom is one of a chain of lake basins extending throughout the canyon, which have been no great time ago filled up with glacial drift. The Yosemite Valley is a canyon of exactly the same origin.

Mr. Screech first visited this valley in the year 1850, one year before Yosemite was entered by Captain Boling and his party. At present there are a couple of shepherds' cabins and a group of Indian huts in the valley, which I believe is all that will come under the head of improvements.

In returning to Yosemite, I left the valley by the trail, which I followed a few miles, then turned southward, intending to cross the head canyons of the south and middle forks of the Tuolumne to Tamarac, thence to drift along the north side of Yosemite and dive to the lower world of home by some one of the side canyons.

Shortly after I had gained the summit of the divide between the main river and the middle fork, the sky, which had been growing dark and opaque all the forenoon, began to yield snowflakes. I at once hastened to a sheltered hollow which was groved with firs and watered by a tiny brook. I searched until I found a place where a number of large trees had fallen, which in case the storm should be severe would afford abundance of fire. At the stump of one of these trees, which had splintered in falling, I found plenty of laths from two to ten feet long, with which I could make a hut, but I had not sufficient time, as the snow began to fall fast. Beneath one of my fire logs I hastily burrowed a sort of bear's nest, and lined it with branchlets of fir -- that was home. Then I gathered up a large pile of dry limbs in my front yard, and made a fire before the door, and boiled a cup of coffee, and went into the house. The storm was earnest, and I most intensely enjoyed its growing magnificence.

Towards night the wind, which had been making grand songs in the fir tops and upon the edges of the hollow, began to slacken, the flakes came softly, in a sauntering mood. It seemed as if snow dust were falling from the forest ceiling, and that I had crept beneath a straw on the floor.

It was delightful to lie and look out from my ample windows to the forest. Scores of firs in my front yard were over 200 feet in height. How nobly and unreservedly they gave themselves to the storm. Heart and voice, soul and body, sang to the flowering sky, each frond tip seemed to bestow a separate welcome to every ward of the wind, and to every snowflake as they arrived. How perfectly would the pure soul of Thoreau have mingled with those glorious trees, and he would have been content with my log house. I did not expect company in such unfavorable weather; nevertheless I was visited towards evening by a brown nugget of a wren. He came in, without knocking, by the back door, which, happily, he found high enough for his upslanted tail. He nodded, mannerly enough, when he reached the middle of the floor, and I invited him to stay overnight. He made no direct reply; but judging from his fussy gestures around my boots, I thought he intended lodging beneath them, or in one of the legs. I crumbled bread for him, but he had already dined in his own home, and required none of my clumsy cares.

The night became cold, and I had frequently to rise to mend my fire. Towards midnight the stars shone out, and I no longer planned concerning a snowbound. Only a few inches of snow had fallen, just sufficient to droop the whorled branches of the firs, and felt a smooth cloth for the ground.

Morning came to the snow-blossomed mountains in most surpassing splendor. The forest was one dazzling field of snow-flowers, and the ground was silvered and printed like a photographer's plate, with trees and groves and all their life. Before I had gone a hundred and fifty yards from my fire I came upon the tracks of a herd of deer that had been feeding on the branches of the ceanothus. Deer were exceedingly abundant all the way to Tamarac. In many places the ground was broidered with the footprints of foxes, squirrels, coyotes, etc.

I found that the canyons of the middle and south forks of the Tuolumne were very deep and numerous, and by the time I reached Tamarac I was glad to camp. On the sixth day of this excursion I rambled along the edge of Yosemite, and at night swooped to the bottom and home. Thus easily and safely may we mingle ourselves with the so-called frightful rocks and bears of the two Yosemites of Tuolumne and Merced.

Tourists who can afford the time ought to visit Hetch Hetchy on their way to or from Yosemite. The trail from Hardin's will be found as good as mountain trails usually are, and it certainly is worth while riding a few miles out of a direct course to assure one's self that the world is so rich as to possess at least two Yosemites instead of one.

John Muir, Boston Weekly, March 25, 1873. This is an account of Muir's first visit into Hetch Hetchy Valley during the fall of 1872..

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