A Splendid Wilderness Where Shining Waterfalls Plunge Down Massive Cliffs Of Polished Granite
One of the tallest unbroken cliffs in the world, El Capitan (The Chief) towers above the gentle, wooded shores of the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley. It rises a sheer 3000ft (900m) near the valley entrance, just one of Yosemite’s incomparable splendours. Yosemite Falls, the sixth highest in the world, plummet 2425ft (739m) down the neighbouring cliff in three giant leaps. At the other end of the valley rises the granite bulk of Half Dome – so named because it has a rounded back and a vertical rock wall 2200ft (670m) high on the valley side.
Several of the highest waterfalls in North America are found within the Yosemite National Park, an area slightly bigger than Luxembourg in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada range.
Rivers roar among giant boulders and wooded, flower-filled meadows lie below the park’s massive granite cliffs, with the snow-capped peaks of the High Sierras as a glittering backdrop. Of all this outstanding scenery, the most impressive is the Yosemite Valley. Yosemite, pronounced ‘Yohsemittee’ is derived from a Native American word for grizzly bear, the tribal totem of the people who lived there. Until 1851, they had the whole of the Yosemite wilderness to themselves. Then a troop of cavalry, California Volunteers of the Mariposa Battalion, pursued a band of braves into the valley, and set eyes on its scenic glories – such as Bridalveil Falls, opposite El Captain, plunging 620ft (190m) and then hanging in the air like a misty veil.
The soldiers were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the valley. Their stories of its beauty led to the region being opened up to tourists and to its established as a national park. This was created in 1890, largely at the inspiration of John Muir, a Scottish-born naturalist who worked tirelessly for its walls seems to glow with life..as if into this mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures.’
About 10 million years ago Yosemite was a land of low rolling hills, but then earth movements pushed the hills higher and rivers carved their valleys deeper. Many of the white or blue-grey granite domes are the cores left when the rocks above expanded and cracked as the erosion of surface rocks relieved the pressure on them.
About 3 million years ago, the Ice Ages began. Slow-moving glaciers plucked the jointed rock walls and scoured the valleys even deeper, cutting off side canyons to create hanging valleys. When the ice finally melted some 10,000 years ago, a large lake filled the deep Yosemite Valley.
Slowly the lake silted up until it became a fertile valley floor amid the granite cliffs. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, which lies to the north of the Yosemite Valley, also cuts through the park from east to west and was shaped in the same way.
Among more than 1000 kinds of wildflowers are the Californian poppies that light up the lower grasslands in spring and the fragrant western azaleas that brighten the valley meadows in summer. California lilac and purple-barked manzanita cover the hillsides.
Yosemite in autumn is ablaze with the reds and yellows of turning leaves. Trees found there include the black oak, incense cedar and ponderosa pine, and the king of them all, the giant sequoia – the world’s largest living tree. Although not as tall as the related giant redwood of the California Coast Sequoia’s height and girth combined give it more bulk than any other tree.
Today Yosemite attracts 3 million visitors a year. In summer, Glacier Point offers a stupendous bird’s eye view of the Yosemite Valley 3300ft (1000m) below, with the Yosemite Falls seen opposite in their full glory. It is a sight never to be forgotten, most magical at sunset or by moonlight.