Chapter 1. The Approach to the Valley
The views developed in a walk up the zigzags of the trail leading to the foot of the Upper Fall are about as varied and impressive as those displayed along the favorite Glacier Point Trail. One rises as if on wings. The groves, meadows, fern-flats and reaches of the river gain new interest, as if never seen before; all the views changing in a most striking manner as we go higher from point to point. The foreground also changes every few rods in the most surprising manner, although the earthquake talus and the level bench on the face of the wall over which the trail passes seem monotonous and commonplace as seen from the bottom of the Valley. Up we climb with glad exhilaration, through shaggy fringes of laurel, ceanothus, glossy-leaved manzanita and live-oak, from shadow to shadow across bars and patches of sunshine, the leafy openings making charming frames for the Valley pictures beheld through gem, and for the glimpses of the high peaks that appear in the distance. The higher we go the farther we seem to be from the summit of the vast granite wall. Here we pass a projecting buttress hose grooved and rounded surface tells a plain story of the time when the Valley, now filled with sunshine, was filled with ice, when the grand old Yosemite Glacier, flowing river-like from its distant fountains, swept through it, crushing, grinding, wearing its way ever deeper, developing and fashioning these sublime rocks. Again we cross a white, battered gully, the pathway of rock avalanches or snow avalanches. Farther on we come to a gentle stream slipping down the face of the Cliff in lace-like strips, and dropping from ledge to ledge - too small to be called a fall - trickling, dripping, oozing, a pathless wanderer from one of the upland meadow lying a little way back of the Valley rim, seeking a way century after century to the depths of the Valley without any appreciable channel. Every morning after a cool night, evaporation being checked, it gathers strength and sings like a bird, but as the day advances and the sun strikes its thin currents outspread on the heated precipices, most of its waters vanish ere the bottom of the Valley is reached. Many a fine, hanging-garden aloft on breezy inaccessible heights awes to it its freshness and fullness of beauty; ferneries in shady nooks, filled with Adiantum, Woodwardia, Woodsia, Aspidium, Pellaea, and Cheilanthes, rosetted and tufted and ranged in lines, daintily overlapping, thatching the stupendous cliffs with softest beauty, some of the delicate fronds seeming to float on the warm moist air, without any connection with rock or stream. Nor is there any lack of colored plants wherever they can find a place to cling to; lilies and mints, the showy cardinal mimulus, and glowing cushions of the golden bahia, enlivened with butterflies and bees and all the other small, happy humming creatures that belong to them.
After the highest point on the lower division of the trail is gained it leads up into the deep recess occupied by the great fall, the noblest display of falling water to be found in the Valley, or perhaps in the world. When it first comes in sight it seems almost within reach of one's hand, so great in the spring is its volume and velocity, yet it is still nearly a third of a mile away and appears to recede as we advance. The sculpture of the walls about it is on a scale of grandeur, according nobly with the fall plain and massive, though elaborately finished, like all the other cliffs about the Valley.
In the afternoon an immense shadow is cast athwart the plateau in front of the fall, and over the chaparral bushes that clothe the slopes and benches of the walls to the eastward, creeping upward until the fall is wholly overcast, the contrast between the shaded and illumined sections being very striking in these near views.
Under this shadow, during the cool centuries immediately following the breaking-up of the Glacial Period, dwelt a small residual glacier, one of the few that lingered on this sun-beaten side of the Valley after the main trunk glacier had vanished. It sent down a long winding current through the narrow canyon on the west side of the fall, and must have formed a striking feature of the ancient scenery of the Valley; the lofty fall of ice and fall of water side by side, yet separate and distinct.
The coolness of the afternoon shadow and the abundant dewy spray make a fine climate for the plateau ferns and grasses, and for the beautiful azalea bushes that grow here in profusion and bloom in September, long after the warmer thickets down on the floor of the Valley have withered and gone to seed. Even close to the fall, and behind it at the base of the cliff, a few venturesome plants may be found undisturbed by the rock-shaking torrent.
The basin at the foot of the fall into which the current directly pours, when it is not swayed by the wind, is about ten feet deep and fifteen to twenty feet in diameter. That it is not much deeper is surprising, when the great height and force of the fall is considered. But the rock where the water strikes probably suffers less erosion than it would were the descent less than half as great, since the current is outspread, and much of its force is spent ere it reaches the bottom - being received on the air as upon an elastic cushion, and borne outward and dissipated over a surface more than fifty yards wide.