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May 7, 1862: Mount Diablo

May 7, 2012

Mt Diablo 03

North Peak and the Sierra Nevada from Mount Diablo; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr


Camp 70

[Today] dawned and all bid fair. We were off in due season. I doubt if there are half a dozen days in the year so favorable—everything was just right, neither too hot nor too cold, a gentle breeze, the atmosphere of matchless purity and transparency.

Mitchell Canyon 01

Mitchell Canyon; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Five of our party, Professor Whitney, Averill, Gabb, Rémond, and I, accompanied our visitors. They rode mules or horses; we (save Averill, who was to see to the ladies) went on foot. First, up a wild rocky canyon, the air sweet with the perfume of the abundant flowers, the sides rocky and picturesque, the sky above of the intensest blue; then, up a steep slope to the height of 2,200 feet, where we halted by a spring, rested, filled our canteens, and then went onward.1.

The summit was reached, and we spent two and a half hours there. The view was one never to be forgotten.2 It had nothing of grandeur in it, save the almost unlimited extent of the field of view. The air was clear to the horizon on every side, and although the mountain is only 3,890 feet high, from the peculiar figure of the country probably but few views in North America are more extensive—certainly nothing in Europe.

To the west, thirty miles, lies San Francisco; we see out the Golden Gate, and a great expanse of the blue Pacific stretches beyond. The bay, with its fantastic outline, is all in sight, and the ridges byond to the west and northwest. Mount St. Helena, fifty or sixty miles, is almost lost in the mountains that surround it, but the snows of Mount Ripley (northeast of Clear Lake), near a hundred miles, seem but a few miles off. South and southwest the view is less extensive, extending only fifty or sixty miles south, and to Mount Bache, seventy or eighty miles southwest.

The great features of the view lie to the east of the meridian passing through the peak. First, the great central valley of California, as level as the sea, stretches to the horizon both on the north and to the southeast. It lies beneath us in all its great expanse for near or quite three hundred miles of its length! But there is nothing cheering in it—all things seem blended soon in the great, vast expanse. Multitudes of streams and bayous wind and ramify through the hundreds of square miles—yes, I should say thousands of square miles—about the mouths of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, and then away up both of these rivers in opposite directions, until nothing can be seen but the straight line on the horizon. On the north are the Marysville Buttes, rising like black masses from the plain, over a hundred miles distant; while still beyond, rising in sharp clear outline against the sky, stand the snow-covered Lassen’s Buttes, over two hundred miles in air line distant from us—the longest distance I have ever seen.

Rising from this great plain, and forming the horizon for three hundred miles in extent, possibly more, were the snowy crests of the Sierra Nevada. What a grand sight! The peaks of that mighty chain glittering in the purest white under the bright sun, their icy crests seeming a fitting helmet for their black and furrowed sides! There stood in the northeast Pyramid Peak (near Lake Bigler), 125 miles distant, and Castle Peak (near Lake Mono), 160 miles distant, and hundreds of other peaks without names but vieing with the Alps themselves in height and sublimity—all marshaled before us in that grand panorama! I had carried up a barometer, but I could scarcely observe it, so enchanting and enrapturing was the scene.

Figures are dull, I admit, yet in no other way can we convey accurate ideas. I made an estimate from the map, based on the distances to known peaks, and found that the extent of land and sea embraced between the extreme limits of vision amounted to eighty thousand square miles, and that forty thousand square miles, or more, were spread out in tolerably plain view—over 300 miles from north to south, and 260 to 280 miles from east to west, between the extreme points.

Globe Lily 01

Calochortus pulchellus; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

We got our observations, ate our lunch, and lounged on the rocks for two and a half hours, and then were loath to leave. We made the descent easily and without mishap or accident—a horse falling once, a girth becoming loose and a lady tumbling off at another time, were the only incidents. The shadows were deep in the canyon as we passed down it, but we were back at sunset. Our friends were tired, some of them nearly used up. With us, the day was not a hard one.

The party sat rather silent by the cheerful camp fire that evening, some through fatigue, others from thought, but all seemed happy. Tompkins was the most fatigued, in fact, nearly used up.

Specimens collected: Ptelea crenulata; Delphinium nudicaule; Ericameria linearifolia; Claytonia exigua subsp. exigua Phacelia divaricata; Phacelia breweri; Allium falcifolium; Calochortus pulchellus.


1Thomas Starr King: “After enjoying the untiring sweetness of the landscape around Clayton in the morning light, we join the party for the ascent of Mt. Diablo. How clear the air is! Not a wisp of vapor rests on the summit….You can ride on a horse or a mule, unless you prefer better company on foot. I advise you not to ride. Keep near Professor Whitney and learn the age of those steep metamorphic rocks that cast ragged and wild shadows down into the Western ravines….

Canyon Larkspur 01

Scarlet Larkspur; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

“And do not lag behind Professor Brewer either. You will need all the suppleness of limb which a Mount Washington experience has developed to keep pace with him. But how can you else get ‘posted’ in the strange botany of the upward track? He is our
California Solomon. He will tell you the name of every shrub along the first three miles of our rolling and gently rising road. He will tell you how few of them have any representatives East….What do you think of patches all aflame with scarlet larkspur, and open acres glowing with the orange splendor of squadrons of the Eschscholtzia, while other acres are bedecked with the nodding grace of the ‘Columbine with horn of honey?

“But harder climbing begins, and as we are shut in by the walls of a ravine and lose the breeze, the heat increases….

“But don’t let your enthusiasm…swamp your prudence. Look out how you swing your arms carelessly among these shrubs with dark green crimped and sherry leaves — especially if your gloves are off. That is the ‘poison oak‘ as it is absurdly named….Admire its color, converse with Professor Brewer about the probable cause of its antipathy to our race, but keep clear of it as if each of its glossy twigs warned you by a rattle.” (Thomas Starr King, Patriot and Preacher, Charles William Wendte)


2Thomas Starr King: “No near mountains impede our vision. We turn slowly round and sweep an immense horizon. And what a spectacle! We stand 3881 feet…above the Pacific — and there is its level azure on the West. We look…down upon the bay of San Francisco, and out through the cleft of the Golden Gate….The tops of the streets of San Francisco, here and there, are visible…The whole extent of the bay itself, whose shore line…runs up towards the centre of the State, and measures more than a hundred miles before it begins to return, lies below us. Tamalpais lifts its sculptured gracefulness directly on the West….Below the southerly limit of the bay we see the noble Bache mountain, named in honor of the accomplished chief of the Coast Survey, which overtops the region of the Almaden quick-silver mines.

“Turning now to the north we see above the glorious Napa valley…the pyramid of Mt. St. Helena, twelve hundred feet higher than we stand. Beyond that is the Sulphur Peak…Still farther back, and thirty miles more distant, are the rocky ridges that wall the Clear Lake region, one or two of them seven thousand feet high, tipped with snow.

“Directly beneath us are the two great rivers of Central California, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin….nowhere do we see a stripe of pure color in these tides. Far as we can trace
them they are turbid with the burden of the washings for gold in the interior, — the mountains they are moving into the Bay of San Francisco and the sea.

“It takes some time to become accustomed to the immense scale of these plains. Out of the smooth exposure, ninety miles by air-line on the north, the beautiful Yuba Buttes leave their outline, and still the plains stretch far beyond them….

“But what guards them on the east? Look at the magnificent barrier; what majesty, what splendor! There you see the wonderful wall of the Sierra….For two hundred and fifty miles the mighty breastwork is in view, and along the whole line crowned with
blazing snow!….

“Nowhere in Europe can such a vast mountain line be seen as Diablo showed us on that clear day. And what a vast extent of territory! Our scientific companions of the Survey by their instruments and sober reckoning discovered that within the range of our vision lay an expanse of 46,000 square miles! An area as large as the State of New York! And this but little more than a quarter of California.” (ibid.)

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