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June 30, 1863: Tuolumne Meadows

June 30, 2013

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 117

We have found so much of interest here, among the rest finding the traces of enormous glaciers here in earlier times, the first found on the Pacific slope, that we have been detained much longer than we expected. Professor Whitney found that he would not have time to get around the whole trip with us, and as our provisions were nearly exhausted, he resolved to return and leave us to finish it alone.

Accordingly, [today] we returned again to Soda Springs and made preparations for the “change of base.” Our huge camp fire this night burned down three large trees, starting us from our beds. But the night was lovely indeed, the bright moon lending its charm to the scene.

Here let me make a digression and speak of the vegetation. In ascending the chain from the west the vegetation continually changes. You know that the Sierra Nevada is a very broad chain, being from fifty to one hundred miles wide, here perhaps about eighty miles. As we leave the plain, where there are but few trees, the grass is already dry and withered. In the foothills, to the height of four thousand feet, there are scattered oaks and pines. Above this come the fine forests of gigantic trees, all evergreen; the oaks have disappeared, and in their places are pitch pine, sugar pine, false cedar, and some Douglas spruce. Above this, at six thousand to seven thousand feet, are the noble fir and silver fir; we get above this, and at eight thousand to nine thousand feet a scrubby pine (Pinus contorta) is almost the only tree—to the height of about 9,700 feet. Then, at about nine thousand feet, a low scrubby pine comes in, which extends up to eleven thousand feet or more but is a mere shrub. Its branches are very tough, and it will grow where fifty feet of snow falls on it every winter and lies on it for seven months in the year—in fact, never leaves the vicinity. Such is the Pinus flexilis of botanists.

Above this, peculiar alpine plants come in, all very small, which extend to the summits of the highest peaks here, a little over thirteen thousand feet. Snow still lies in patches as low as 8,500 feet and is abundant above 10,000 feet. I have collected over a hundred species of mountain plants since I left Big Oak Flat.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2013 8:48 am

    Love his descriptions of limber pine and the alpine plants.

  2. William H. Brewer permalink*
    July 9, 2013 4:28 pm

    Yeah…I also love his overview of Sierra life zones. Still pretty apt.

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