THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
"The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley - light as gossamer - and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and, as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."
From "Discovery of the Yosemite" by Lafayette Bunnell (1880).
The world now recognizes that Abraham Lincoln set an extraordinary precedent when he signed the bill in 1864 establishing Yosemite as the nation's and the world's first state park. Twenty six years later it became a National Park, and so was established the precedent for a great American invention. Yet the magnificence of this place was recognized before the white man ever set foot in this land of spectacular natural beauty. The Yosemite Indians who lived on the floor of the valley not only revered the awesome monuments around them but used them to protect themselves from those who would hurt them.
Not many years before Lincoln set his signature on that bill, a less enlightened government had sent its troops to eliminate the native inhabitants of Yosemite Valley. During the second military expedition against the Yosemites in 1851, a force under Captain Boling camped in the valley for an extended period and, from there, they launched many sorties in search of the elusive Yosemites. One of those sorties took them up Indian Canyon to the high tableland where they suspected that the remnants of Chief Tenaya's band were hiding. The chief himself was a prisoner of Captain Boling's troop and was required to go along on the sortie. In his "Discovery of the Yosemite" (1880) one of the participants, Lafayette Bunnell, describes how the wily old chief, who continually tried to mislead his captors, attempted to dissuade them from the Indian Canyon climb, claiming that "the ravine was a bad one to ascend". They also severely underestimated the height of the climb. Indeed, Captain Boling, who had been ill, was unable to make it all the way and Bunnell was delegated to lead a small group to the top. Bunnell does not describe the canyon as presenting any major obstacles other than "wet mossy rocks". Elsewhere in his book, Bunnell expounds: "The ravine called Indian Canyon is less than a mile above Yosemite Fall; between the two is the rocky peak called the "Lost Arrow," which, although not perpendicular, runs up boldly to a height of 3030 feet above the level of the Merced. The Indian name for the ravine ... was Le-Hamite, and the cliff extending into the valley from the east side of the canyon is known as the "Arrow-wood Rocks". This grand wall extends almost at a right angle towards the east, and continues up the Ten-ie-ya Canyon, forming the base of the North Dome.."
It seems strange that just eighteen years later, in 1869, John Muir spent "My First Summer in the Sierra" in Yosemite. He used Indian Canyon as a way to get down into the valley from the high country to the north. On the first occasion he was motivated to meet Professor Butler and "I made my way through the gap discovered last evening, which proved to be Indian Canyon. There was no trail in it, and the rocks and brush were so rough that Carlo [his dog] frequently called me back to help him down precipitous places."
I had always wanted to explore this storied yet deserted canyon so close to the teeming crowds of Yosemite Village. It happened that, in June 2004, I had a day to myself in the park. I decided to hike up the established trail beside the great Yosemite Falls and return to the valley by descending Indian Canyon. After parking amid the hordes in the Daytime Parking Area at Yosemite Village (parking elsewhere was not permissable) I made my way to the Sunnyside Campground. There I followed the signs for the Upper Yosemite Falls trail that switches back and forth in the shade of trees as it climbs to a wooded ledge about 1000ft above the valley floor. There I reached an overlook that provides a great view of the valley, with El Capitan off to the right and Half Dome to the left. I lingered to watch hang gliders swoop soundlessly beneath me on their way to a landing on the valley floor. Beyond the overlook one gets a brief reprieve from the tough climb for the trail contours east along the loose wooded ledge. Turning a corner about an hour from the start, I was greeted by a spectacular view of Upper Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Creek drops more than 1400ft from the valley rim to a ledge above the Lower Falls. During its descent the water splinters into ballistic watery fingers, billowing curtains and wispy eddies. It is a magnificent and enchanted sight, one of endless fascination and delight.
From this vantage point you can see what was hidden to those in the valley below, namely that there is a broad ledge with many smaller falls in between the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. There are a number of different viewpoints along the trail, each of which seem to demand a few minutes of wonderment. Too soon, however, the trail contours into a corner high above this ledge before resuming the climb toward the rim high overhead. Here the switchbacks seem endless and one climbs into a steep valley hidden in a cleft to the west of the falls. The last set of switchbacks is most exposed to the sun and represented the toughest challenge of the day. With some relief I came to the top of the climb about 1.5hr and 3.6mi from the morning start. There I forked right at a trail junction and, following the signs, soon approached Yosemite Falls Overlook, the first of several marvellous viewpoints on the rim high above the valley. At the edge a steep and airy stairway leads over the rim to where you can peer straight down the Upper Falls. It is an awesome spectacle, one which will make even the most experienced climber cling to the handrail. It was here that John Muir challenged himself to edge closer and closer to the vertical in order to witness as much of the falls as he possibly could.
Along the main trail east of the overlook, an elegant wooden bridge spans Yosemite Creek just before it plunges over the edge. The creek here is a beautiful High Sierra river that invites you to tarry and enjoy its cool waters. So refreshed, I continued eastward along the trail as it switchbacked up the side of a low slickrock ridge and then contoured out to where the ridgetop meets the rim at another fantastic overlook called Yosemite Point, some 3000 vertical feet above the valley floor. Half Dome, previously hidden behind the ridge, is now revealed, adding its spectacular profile to the awesome view. And, in the distance, the endless peaks of the Sierra Nevada decorate the horizon. John Muir wrote of this vista: "Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty." (from "My First Summer in the Sierra").
From Yosemite Point the last ascent of the day took me up and over the top of the ridge (elevation 7240ft) from where the trail begins a gentle descent down through forest into the upper reaches of Indian Canyon. A little under 4hrs and 6mi from the start, I arrived at the stream crossing of Indian Canyon Creek (elevation 6910ft), a bucolic spot in a shallow wooded valley. I sat down by the stream to collect my thoughts and, as always at such moments, remind myself of the special care needed when I venture beyond the boundaries of normal human travel. Ahead of me were nearly 3000ft of steep descent and I knew I could not afford a single slip.
Looking down Indian Canyon Indian Canyon from Glacier Point
Leaving the trail, the gradient in Indian Canyon was initially quite modest. The easiest going was some distance up the bank from the stream among the trees where there were some faint signs of previous passage. But about 25min into the descent the canyon suddenly became much steeper and narrower. Ahead I got my first glimpse of the valley far below. Crossing to the right side, I worked my way slowly down the steep rock and earth slopes beside the rocky streambank. At one point I followed a long detour on the right along and old, dry and somewhat overgrown streambed that may have bypassed some tricky downclimbing in the main channel. Eventually this old streamcourse rejoined the main stream at a place where the canyon narrowed to about 30ft. Here the descent required the negotiation of a steep slope of large boulders.
Standing by the stream on one of these large boulders, I could see about 70yds of the boulder-strewn canyon below me. Pausing to get my breath, I was treated to one of those wonderful moments that make the wilderness so special for me. A large, cinnamon bear ambled into view and crossed the stream on a log about 70yds below me. He or she had not yet suspected my presence and was making his way up canyon confident that he ruled this domain. The thrill I felt was soon tempered by the need to prepare myself for our imminent encounter in this narrow passage. First I grabbed a large stick that lay nearby, not so much in the belief that it would be any protection but rather to bolster my own resolve. Then I devised a plan. The bear was following a rocky route on the right side of the canyon. The left side was lined with bushes and there was a narrow passage between the bushes and the canyon wall. This passage seemed to provide the best way for me to pass the bear without provoking a confrontation.
Moments later the bear again came into view, casually ascending by the right side of the stream about 40yds below me. I blew my whistle as loudly as I could. The bear looked up, startled and immediately scurried behind some boulders on the right. This was, in fact, the last that I saw of him. Reassured that he was on the right, I loudly and with much whistle blowing made my way down the passage on the left, continuing until I was well downstream of where I had last seen him. I reached a place where the canyon opened up a little and I could be fairly sure that the bear was now above me. But I hastened on for another 20min or so to be sure that we were well separated.
There I sat to get my breath and to reflect on this experience, both delightful and thrilling. I guessed that this was one of those bears that regularly visit the valley during darkness and take refuge in the high country during daylight. Indeed, it should have occurred to me that Indian Canyon is one of the few safe routes by which a bear could commute between the valley and the high country without encountering humans. The reaction of this bear strongly suggested that he was accustomed to avoiding humans whenever he encountered them.
Whatever the reasons for the encounter, it had been a very special moment and, despite my apprehension, I relished the opportunity to come so close to such a magnificent animal in its natural habitat. I will never forget the easy insouciance with which he ambled across the log bridge and sauntered up canyon toward me. At one and the same time I felt an interloper in his kingdom and yet also, with him, a part of a remote and special wilderness. Of course, I also felt some pride in negotiating the crossing of our paths with minimal trauma.
The thrill of this encounter colored the rest of the descent. At an elevation of around 5600ft the canyon became less brushy with more trees and larger boulders. A little route finding was needed in places. At 5350ft the gradient began to decrease though there were still downclimbing challenges. The stream disappeared underground at about 5150ft though it reappeared about 600ft further down the canyon. Then at 4680ft I came to the only significant downclimbing challenge in Indian Canyon. A row of huge boulders blocked the canyon so as to create a drop of about 25ft in the streambed. To descend I had to find the gap on the far left and climb down through a slot onto a broad flat ledge. The ledge had a 15ft drop all around it but by following a narrow ledge on the left out to a small but stout tree growing horizontally out of the rockface, I was able to downclimb a small arete with footholds.
Downstream of this challenge, the going eased, the canyon broadened and I found an easy route through the forest on the left. At 4130ft an asphalt path appeared and within minutes I was standing beside a very busy Yosemite Valley road. Trouble was, I was not entirely sure whether to go left or right in order to get back to the parking lot. My mind was still set in the mode of the unselfish human cooperation one finds in the wilderness and I began to signal vehicles to slow down so that I could ask the way to the parking area. But they all studiously ignored my signals and drove on. Awakening to my naivety, I looked down at myself and recognized that my dishevelled and dirty clothing made me look like a homeless person. I stopped signalling vehicles. A jogger happened by and she had no choice but to respond to my question. I set off for the parking area depressed by my re-entrance to what passes for civilization. Then my mind returned to the image of that beautiful animal gliding over the log bridge and I smiled again.
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Last updated 6/28/04.
Christopher E. Brennen