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A carriage-road has been constructed through the Sonora Pass, the summit of which is 10, feet above the level of the sea feet higher than the highest carriage-pass in Switzerland--the Stelvio Pass. In a distance of miles between lat. Substantial carriage-roads lead through the Carson and Johnson Passes near the head of Lake Tahoe, over which immense quantities of freight were hauled from California to the mining regions of Nevada prior to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad through the Donner Pass. Miles of mules and ponderous wagons might then be seen slowly crawling beneath a cloud of dust through the majestic forest aisles, the drivers shouting in every language, and making a din and disorder strangely out of keeping with the solemn grandeur of the mountains about them.

To the northward of the memorable Donner Pass, 7, feet in height, a number of lower passes occur, through whose rugged defiles long emigrant trains, with footsore cattle and sun-cracked wagons a hundred times mended, wearily toiled during the early years of the Gold Period. Coming from far, through a thousand dangers, making a way over trackless wastes, the snowy Sierra at length loomed in sight, to them the eastern wall of the Land of Gold. And as they gazed through the tremulous haze of the desert, with what joy must they have descried the gateway through which they were so soon to pass to the better land of all their golden hopes and dreams!

Between the Sonora Pass and the southern extremity of the High Sierra, a distance of a miles, there is not a single carriage-road conducting from one side of the range to the other, and only five passes with trails of the roughest description. These are barely practicable for animals, a pass in this region meaning simply any notch with its connecting canyon and ridges through which one may, by the exercise of unlimited patience, make out to lead a surefooted mule or mustang, one that can not only step well among loose stones, but also jump well down rugged stairways, and slide with limbs firmly braced down smooth inclines of rock and snow.

Only three of the five may be said to be in use--the Kearsarge, Mono, and Virginia Creek passes--the tracks leading through the others being only obscure Indian trails not graded in the least, and scarce at all traceable by white men. Much of the way lies over solid pavements where the unshod ponies of the Indians leave no appreciable sign, and across loose taluses where only a slight displacement is visible here and there, and through thickets of weeds and bushes, leaving marks that only skilled mountaineers can follow, while a general knowledge of the topography must be looked to as the main guide.

One of these Indian trails leads through a nameless pass between the head waters of the south and middle forks of the San Joaquin, another between the north and middle forks of the same river, to the south of the Minarets, this last being about 9, feet high, and the lowest of the five. The Kearsarge is the highest. It crosses the summit of the range near the head of the south fork of Kings River, about eight miles to the north of Mount Tyndall, through the midst of the grandest scenery. The highest point on the trail is upward of 12, feet above the sea.

Nevertheless it is one of the safest of the five, and is traveled every summer from July to October or November by hunters, prospectors, and stock-owners, and also to some extent by enterprising pleasure-seekers. For besides the surpassing grandeur of the scenery about the summit, the trail in ascending the western flank of the range leads through a forest of the giant Sequoias, and through the magnificent Kings River Valley, that rivals Yosemite in the varied beauty and grandeur of its granite masonry and falling waters. This, as far as I know, is probably the highest traveled pass on the American continent.

The Mono Pass lies to the east of Yosemite Valley, at the head of one of the tributaries of the South Fork of the Tuolumne, and is the best known of all the High Sierra passes. A rough trail, invisible mostly, was made through it about the time of the Mono and Aurora gold excitements, in the year , and it has been in use ever since by mountaineers of every description.

Though more than a thousand feet lower than the Kearsarge it is scarcely inferior in sublimity of rock-scenery, while in snowy, loud-sounding water it far surpasses the Kearsarge. The Virginia Creek Pass, situated a few miles to the northward, at the head of the southmost tributary of Walker River, is somewhat lower, but less traveled than the Mono. It is used chiefly by "Sheep-men" who drive their flocks through it on the way to Nevada, and roaming bands of Pah Ute Indians, who may be seen occasionally in long straggling files, strangely attired, making their way to the hunting grounds of the western slope, or returning laden with game of startling variety.

These are all the traveled passes of the high portion of the range of which I have any knowledge. But leaving wheels and pack-animals out of the question, the free mountaineer, carrying only a little light dry food strapped firmly on his shoulders, and an axe for ice-work, can make his way across the Sierra almost everywhere, and at any time of year when the weather is calm.


To him nearly every notch between the peaks is a pass, though much patient step-cuffing is in some cases required up and down steeply inclined glaciers and ice-walls, and cautious scrambling over precipices that at first sight appear hopelessly inaccessible to the inexperienced lowlander. All the passes make their steepest ascents on the east flank of the range, where the average rise is nearly a thousand feet to the mile, while on the west it is about two hundred feet.

Another marked difference between the east and west portions of the passes is that the former begin between high moraine embankments at the very foot of the range, and follow the canyons, while the latter can hardly be said to begin until an elevation of from seven to ten thousand feet or more is reached by following the ridges, the canyons on the west slope being accessible only to the birds and the roaring falling rivers.

Approaching the range from the grey levels of Mono and Owens Valley the steep short passes are in full view between the peaks, their feet in hot sand, their heads in snow, the courses of the more direct being disclosed nearly all the way from top to bottom. But from the west side one sees nothing of the pass sought for until nearing the summit, after spending days in threading the forests on the main dividing ridges between the canyons of the rivers, most of the way even the highest peaks being hidden. The more rugged and inaccessible the general character of the topography of any particular region, the more surely will the trails of white men, Indians, bears, deer, wild sheep, etc.

The Indians of the west slope venture cautiously across the range in settled weather to attend dances and obtain loads of pine-nuts and the larvae of a small fly that breeds in Mono and Owens lakes, while the desert Indians cross to the west for acorns and to hunt, fight, etc. The women carry the heavy burdens with marvelous endurance over the sharpest stones barefooted, while the men stride on erect a little in advance, stooping occasionally to pile up stepping-stones for them against steep rock-fronts, just as they would prepare the way in difficult places for their ponies.

Sometimes, delaying their journeys until too late in the season, they are overtaken by heavy snowstorms and perish miserably, not all their skill in mountain-craft being sufficient to save them under the fierce onsets of the most violent of autumn storms when caught unprepared. Bears evince great sagacity as mountaineers, but they seldom cross the range. I have several times tracked them through the Mono Pass, but only in late years, after cattle and sheep had passed that way, when they doubtless were following to feed on the stragglers and those that had fallen over the precipices.

Even the wild sheep, the best mountaineers of all, choose regular passes in crossing the summits on their way to their summer or winter pastures. Deer seldom cross over from one side of the range to the other. I have never seen the Mule-deer of the Great Basin west of the summit, and rarely the Black-tailed species on the eastern slopes, notwithstanding many of the latter ascend the range nearly to the head of the canyons among the peaks every summer to hide and feed in the wild gardens, and bring forth their young. Having thus indicated in a general way the height, geographical position, and leading features of the main passes, we will now endeavor to see the Mono Pass more in detail, since it may, I think, be regarded as a good example of the higher passes accessible to the ordinary traveler in search of exhilarating scenery and adventure.

Traveling Across The USA: American Discovery (Part 1/5)

The greater portion of it is formed by Bloody Canyon, which heads on the summit of the range, and extends in a general east-northeasterly direction to the edge of the Mono Plain. Long before its discovery by the whites, this wonderful canyon was known as a pass by the Indians of the neighborhood, as is shown by their many old trails leading into it from every direction.

But little have they marked the grand canyon itself, hardly more than the birds have in flying through its shadows.

June, 1846

No stone tells a word of wild foray or raid. Storm-winds and avalanches keep it swept fresh and clean. The first white men that forced a way through its sombre depths with pack-animals were companies of eager adventurous miners, men who would build a trail down the throat of the darkest inferno on their way to gold.

The name Bloody Canyon may have been derived from the red color of the metamorphic slates in which it is in great part eroded, or more probably from the blood stains made by the unfortunate animals that were compelled to slide and shuffle awkwardly over the rough cutting edges of the rocks, in which case it is too well named, for I have never known mules or horses, however sure-footed, to make their way either up or down the canyon, without leaving a trail more or less marked with blood.

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Occasionally one is killed outright by falling over some precipice like a boulder. But such instances are less common than the appearance of the place would lead one to expect, the more experienced, when driven loose, picking their way with wonderful sagacity. During the exciting times that followed the discovery of gold near Mono Lake it frequently became a matter of considerable pecuniary importance to force a way through the canyon with pack trains early in the spring, while it was yet heavily choked with winter snow.

Then, though the way was smooth, it was steep and slippery, and the footing of the animals giving way, they sometimes rolled over sidewise with their loads, or end over end, compelling the use of ropes in sliding them down the steepest slopes where it was impossible to walk. A good bridle-path leads from Yosemite through the Big Tuolumne Meadows to the head of the canyon. Here the scenery shows a sudden and startling condensation. Mountains red, black, and grey rise close at hand on the right, white in the shadows with banks of enduring snow.

On the left swells the huge red mass of Mt.

Gibbs, while in front the eye wanders down the tremendous gorge, and out on the warm plain of Mono, where the lake is seen in its setting of grey light like a burnished disc of metal, volcanic cones to the south of it, and the smooth mountain ranges of Nevada beyond fading in the purple distance. Entering the mountain gateway the sombre rocks seem to come close about us, as if conscious of our presence. Happily the ouzel and old familiar robin are here to sing us welcome, and azure daisies beaming with sympathy, enabling us to feel something of Nature's love even here, beneath the gaze of her coldest rocks.

The peculiar impressiveness of the huge rocks is enhanced by the quiet aspect of the wide Alpine meadows through which the trail meanders just before entering the narrow pass. The forests in which they lie, and the mountaintops rising beyond them, seem hushed and tranquil. Yielding to their soothing influences, we saunter on among flowers and bees scarce conscious of any definite thought; then suddenly we find ourselves in the huge, dark jaws of the canyon, closeted with nature in one of her wildest strongholds.

After the first bewildering impression begins to wear off, and we become reassured by the glad birds and flowers, a chain of small lakes is seen, extending from the very summit of the pass, linked together by a silvery stream, that seems to lead the way and invite us on. Those near the summit are set in bleak rough rock-bowls, scantily fringed with sedges. Winter storms drive snow through the canyon in blinding drifts, and avalanches shoot from the heights rushing and booming like waterfalls. Then are these sparkling tams filled and buried leaving no sign of their existence.

In June and July they begin to blink and thaw out like sleepy eyes; sedges thrust up their short brown spikes about their shores, the daisies bloom in turn, and the most profoundly snow-buried of them all is at length warmed and dressed as if winter were only the dream of a night. 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, seldom stiffed during the day by any wind strong enough to make a wave.

The canyon wall rises sheer from the water's edge on the south, but on the opposite side there is sufficient space and sunshine for a fine garden. Daisies star the sod about the margin of it, and the center is lighted with tall lilies, castilleias, larkspurs and columbines, while leafy willows make a fine protecting hedge; the whole forming a joyful outburst of warm, rosy plantlife keenly emphasized by the raw, flinty baldness of the onlooking cliffs. After resting in the lake the happy stream sets forth again on its travels warbling and trilling like an ouzel, ever delightfully confiding, no matter how rough the way; leaping, gliding, hither, thither, foaming or clear, and displaying the beauty of its virgin wildness at every bound.

One of its most beautiful developments is the Diamond Cascade, situated a short distance below Red Lake. The crisp water is first dashed into coarse granular spray that sheds off the light in quick flashing lances, mixed farther down with loose dusty foam; then it is divided into a diamond pattern by tracing the diagonal cleavage joints that intersect the face of the precipice over which it pours.

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Viewed in front, it resembles a wide sheet of embroidery of definite pattern, with an outer covering of fine mist, the whole varying with the temperature and the volume of water. Scarce a flower may be seen along its snowy border. A few bent pines took on from a distance, and small fringes of cassiope and rock-ferns grow in fissures near the head, but these are so lowly and undemonstrative only the attentive observer will be likely to notice them.

A little below the Diamond Cascade, on the north wall of the canyon, there is a long, narrow fall about two thousand feet in height that makes a fine, telling show of itself in contrast with the dull, red rocks over which it hangs.

A ragged talus curves up against the cliff in front of it, overgrown with a tangle of snow-pressed willows, in which it disappears with many a surge, and swirl, and plashing leap, and finally wins its way, still grey with foam, to a confluence with the main canyon stream. Below this point the climate is no longer arctic. Butterflies become more abundant, grasses with showy purple panicles wave above your shoulders, and the deep summery drone of the bumble-bee thickens the air. Pinus Albicaulis , the tree mountaineer that climbs highest and braves the coldest blasts, is found in dwarfed, wind-bent clumps throughout the upper half of the canyon, gradually becoming more erect, until it is joined by the two-leafed pine, which again is succeeded by the taller yellow and mountain pines.

These, with the burly juniper and trembling aspen, rapidly grow larger as they descend into the richer sunshine, forming groves that block the view; or they stand more apart in picturesque groups here and there, making beautiful and obvious harmony with each other, and with the rocks. Blooming underbrush also becomes abundant,--azalea, spiraea, and dogwood weaving rich fringes for the stream, and shaggy rugs for the stem unflinching rock-bosses, adding beauty to their strength, and fragrance to the winds and the breath of the waterfalls.

Through this blessed wilderness the canyon stream roams free, without any restraining channel, stirring the bushes like a rustling breeze, throbbing and wavering in wide swirls and zigzags, now in the sunshine, now in the shade; dancing, falling, flashing from side to side beneath the lofty walls in weariless exuberance of energy.

Gathering the Dispersed Nauvoo Saints, 1847–1852

A glorious milky way of cascades is thus developed whose individual beauties might well call forth volumes of description. Bower Cascade is among the smallest, yet it is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. It is situated in the lower region of the pass where the sunshine begins to mellow between the cold and warm climates. Here the glad stream, grown strong with tribute gathered from many a snowy fountain, sings richer strains, and becomes more human and lovable at every step. Now you may see the rose and homely yarrow by its side, and bits of meadow with clover, and bees.

At the head of a low-browed rock, luxuriant cornel and willow bushes arch over from side to side, embowering the stream with their leafy branches; and waving plumes, kept in motion by the current, make a graceful fringe in front. From so fine a bower as this, after all its dashing among bare rocks on the heights, the stream leaps out into the light in a fluted curve, thick-sown with sparkling crystals, and falls into a pool among brown boulders, out of which it creeps grey with foam, and disappears beneath a roof of verdure like that from which it came. Hence to the foot of the canyon the metamorphic slates give place to granite, whose nobler sculpture calls forth corresponding expressions of beauty from the stream in passing over it--bright trills of rapids, booming notes of falls, and the solemn hushing tones of smooth gliding sheets, all chanting and blending in pure wild harmony.

And when at length its impetuous alpine life is done, it slips through a meadow at the foot of the canyon, and rests in Moraine Lake. This lake, about a mile long, lying between massive moraines piled up centuries ago by the grand old canyon glacier, is the last of the beautiful beds of the stream.

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Bit by bit, the Murphy children picked apart the oxhide rug that lay in front of their fireplace, roasted it in the fire, and ate it. Graves was in charge of eight, and Levinah Murphy and Eleanor Eddy together took care of nine. Many of the people at Truckee Lake were soon weakened and spent most of their time in bed.