The July 2008 issue of the The Smithsonian magazine features the article “John Muir’s Yosemite,” about the man widely recognized as the greatest champion of that precious U.S. national park. Muir was famous even in his own day, for when the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s tenth edition needed someone to write an article about the park, Muir was the obvious go-to guy. That article appears below.
John Muir knew Yosemite as perhaps no one before or since. He first came to the valley in 1868, and three years later he hosted a visit by no less a luminary than Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was still the preserve’s most ardent and eloquent defender 30 years later, when he wrote this piece for the Tenth Edition (1902-03). (In the latter year one of his disciples in the conservationist ethic, President Theodore Roosevelt, joined him for a Yosemite campout.) By the way, the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, mentioned in the last paragraph as being nearly the equal in beauty of Yosemite, is also mentioned in the current Britannica–as the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tenth Edition
YOSEMITE,a famous valley on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada of California, about 150 miles east of San Francisco and 4000 feet above the sea. It is 7 miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and nearly a mile deep, eroded out of hard massive granite by glacial action. Its precipitous walls present a great variety of forms and sculpture, determined by the grain or cleavage of the rock–domes, gables, towers, battlements, and majestic mountain cliffs, partially separated and individualized by recesses and side cañons. The bottom, a filled-up lake basin, is level and park-like, diversified with groves of oak and pine, clumps of flowering shrubs, and spacious ferny meadows and wild gardens through which the river Merced meanders in tranquil beauty; while the whole valley resounds with the booming of its unrivalled waterfalls. The most notable of the wall rocks are: El Capitan, 3300 feet high, a sheer, plain mass of granite, the end of one of the most enduring of the mountain ridges, which stands forward beyond the general line of the north wall in imposing grandeur; the Three Brothers, North Dome, Glacier Point, the Sentinel, Cathedral, Sentinel Dome and Cloud’s Rest, from 2800 to nearly 6000 feet high; and Half Dome, the noblest of all, which rises at the head of the valley from a broad, richly-sculptured base to the height of 4740 feet. These rocks are majestic glacial monuments, illustrating on a grand scale the action of ice in mountain sculpture. For here five large glaciers united to form the grand trunk glacier that eroded the valley and occupied it as its channel. Its moraines, though mostly obscured by vegetation and weathering, may still be traced; while on the snowy peaks at the headwaters of the Merced a considerable number of small glaciers, once tributary to the main Yosemite glacier, still exist. The Bridal Veil Fall, 900 feet high, is one of the most interesting features of the lower end of the valley. Towards the upper end the great Yosemite Fall pours its white floods from a height of 2600 feet, bathing the mighty cliffs with clouds of spray and making them tremble with its thunder-tones. The valley divides at the head into three branches, the Tenaya, Merced, and South Fork cañons. In the main (Merced) branch are the Vernal and Nevada Falls, 400 and 600 feet high, in the midst of most novel and sublime scenery. The Nevada is usually ranked next to the Yosemite among the five main falls of the valley. Its waters are chafed and dashed to foam in a rough channel before they arrive at the head of the fall, and are beaten yet finer by impinging on a sloping portion of the cliff about halfway down, thus making it the whitest of all the falls. The Vernal, about half a mile below the Nevada, famous for its afternoon rainbows, is staid and orderly, with scarce a hint of the passionate enthusiasm of its neighbour. Nevertheless it is a favourite with visitors, because it is better seen than any other. One may safely saunter along the edge of the river above it, and stand beside it at the top, as it calmly bends over the brow of the precipice. At flood time it is a nearly regular sheet about 80 feet wide, changing as it descends from green to purplish grey and white, and is dashed into clouds of irised foam on a rugged boulder talus that fills the gorge below. In the south branch, a mile from the head of the main valley, is the Illilouette Fall, 600 feet high, one of the most beautiful of the Yosemite choir. It is not nearly as grand a fall as the Yosemite, as symmetrical as the Vernal, or as airily graceful as the Bridal Veil; nor does it ever display as tremendous an outgush of snowy magnificence as the Nevada; but in fineness and beauty of colour and texture it surpasses them all.
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