Tag Archives: Yosemite


I found myself in an interesting conversation the other day, one that almost turned into a spirited argument. The question: where exactly is the “Southern Sierra?”

Since the 19th century, it has been common practice to divide the Sierra Nevada into three regions – northern, central, and southern. This makes sense because of the linear nature of the range. It is nearly 400 miles from one end of the Sierra to the other, and the various segments of the mountains possess strikingly different characters.

Past practice guides much of this thought. The first sightings of the Sierra Nevada by Euro-Americans in the eighteenth century took place from the hilltops immediately east of San Francisco Bay. The California Gold Rush that began in 1849 focused attention on the same region.

As a result, the Sierra Nevada was initially defined as being the snowy mountains visible to the east of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. And by default, what was north of that region became the “Northern Sierra,” while the region out of sight to the south became the “Southern Sierra.” No formal definitions were required.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the definitions remain vague. All agree that it is useful to break the range into regions, but defining the frontiers that separate the three zones is largely a matter of personal opinion.

If one accepts the traditional definition of the Sierra Nevada as a whole – that it runs from Lassen Peak in the north to Tehachapi Pass in the south — the mathematical midpoint of the range falls almost exactly upon Yosemite Valley. Continuing with this same mathematical logic, the southern third of the Sierra begins at the Kings River while the northern third starts near Echo Summit, where US 50 crosses the Sierra Crest just west of South Lake Tahoe.

These divisions make logical sense, but few recognize them. The National Weather Service, for example, includes all of Yosemite National Park in its forecasts for the Southern Sierra. By this logic the Southern Sierra is larger than the central and northern portions of the range put together.

Popular usage also suggests that nothing south of Interstate 80 (Donner Pass) falls within the Northern Sierra, although this makes the northern “third” of the range notably smaller than the other two sections.

Looking closer to home, the Kings River is not a bad dividing line between the central and southern portions of the range. This major watercourse is the southernmost Sierra river to flow directly westward from the Sierra Crest to the Great Central Valley.

To the south of the Kings River, the Sierra takes on a significantly different form with a double crest and a very different drainage pattern. The Kaweah and Tule Rivers originate on the peaks of the Great Western Divide, the more westerly of the two ridges, while the Kern River comes to lire behind that ridge and flows southward some 60 miles to Lake Isabella before it finally heads for Bakersfield and the floor of the Central Valley.

Following this logic, the natural dividing line between the central and southern Sierra ought to be Kings-Kaweah and Kings-Kern divides, which, as the names suggest, separate the headwaters of the Kings River from the watersheds to the south.

This makes perfect topographic sense, but we humans are not particularly famous for our consistent logic. All the Sierra Nevada people that I know place the Kings River within the Southern Sierra.

So, seeking some form of resolution here: what if we define the “Southern Sierra” as including all the territory drained by the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers? North of that, the “Central Sierra” runs to Donner Pass, which coincides with the northern end of the continuous high alpine zone with its barren peaks. Beyond that is the “Northern Sierra.”

These definitions work on the ground and reflect visible differences between the three regions. But are they likely to be universally adopted any time soon? Don’t hold your breath.

But just maybe, if we stop describing Yosemite as being part of the Southern Sierra, we will have a more accurate sense of just where we live within the topographic complexity that defines the Golden State.

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People And Places: FRANÇOIS MATTHES

To study the high country of Sequoia and Kings Canyon is inevitably to ponder the effects of glaciers, for the huge Pleistocene ice sheets that covered the Sierra had a profound impact on the landscape. Over time many have studied the resulting questions, but one man stands pre-eminent in this group, Dutch-born geologist François Matthes. 

Matthes (born 1874) began his education by studying engineering in Germany but then was recruited by an American professor and shifted his studies in 1891 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Following his graduation there in 1895, Matthes took a position in the city engineering department at Rutland, Vermont, where he perfected his mapping skills. A year later, he joined the United States Geological Survey as a topographer.  

By 1898, he was in charge of a survey party mapping the Bighorn Mountains of Montana. There, in the evenings, he drafted an additional product, a report detailing how the terrain he was mapping had been shaped by glacial ice. He had found the specialized field of study to which he would return over and over again. 

In 1900 and 1901, he continued his glacial studies as he produced the first detailed topographic maps of what later became Glacier National Park. Then he turned his attention to mapping the Grand Canyon of Arizona. Matthes had now established himself as one of the Geological Survey’s premiere field men when it came to mapping wilderness terrain, and further assignments saw him map both Yosemite and Mt. Rainier. His charts of these places, and particularly his maps of Yosemite Valley and the heart of the Grand Canyon, are still considered classics. 

In 1913, the Geological Survey, recognizing Matthes’s analytical skills, shifted him from the Topographic Branch to the Geological Branch and sent him back to the Sierra Nevada to study glacial erosion. Although other projects would periodically interrupt this work, it remained his primary focus for the remainder of his life. 

Matthes became a well-known fixture at Yosemite and the reigning expert on the valley’s morphological evolution. This work culminated in the 1930 publication of what remains the single most influential work ever published on the glacial geology of Sierra: Matthes’s Geologic History of Yosemite Valley, USGS Professional Paper 160. 

Meanwhile, even as he continued to study the Yosemite region, Matthes broadened his work to look at the southern Sierra. Repeatedly during the 1920s and 1930s Matthes organized backcountry field trips into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon regions, including a series of geologically themed over-flights in 1936, apparently the first of their kind over the high country of the southern Sierra. 

Out of this work emerged a number of publications that still define our understanding of the southern Sierra.  Matthes had largely completed work on these publications before he retired from the USGS in 1947 (after 51 years of service!), but publication of these important works lagged after his death in 1948. 

Finally, in 1956, from the University of California Press, came Sequoia National Park: A Geological Album. Diverging spectacularly from his earlier technical work, this book relied primarily on photographs to tell the Southern Sierra’s geological story to laymen. Even today, it is a fascinating read.

And in 1965, almost twenty years after Matthes had retired, the USGS issued Professional Paper 540-A, Glacial Reconnaissance of Sequoia National Park, California. Here, at last, was the detailed fruit of all the fieldwork Matthes had done in the region – detailed maps of glacial activity. 

Today, the remnant glaciers on shady side of the ridge that forms the northernmost boundary of Kings Canyon National Park are known as the Matthes Glaciers and climbers have unofficially named a “Matthes Peak” (elevation 12,989+) along the park’s boundary.  This is one unofficial name, at least, that deserves to be made permanent. 

© Wm. Tweed

Historic People and Places: THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL

Aside from Mt. Whitney and the giant sequoias, the John Muir Trail may well be the best-known feature in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Hikers today come from all over the world to hike this alpine thoroughfare along the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

Less known is the trail’s early history. John Muir, the famous naturalist and writer, died in December 1914. For the previous dozen years he had served as president of the Sierra Club, which he had helped to create in 1892. Muir died relatively suddenly, and as word spread among his many friends and admirers, the question of an appropriate memorial arose.

Quickly, the question of a Muir memorial merged with a conversation that had begun the previous summer on the club’s annual outing. While on the trail, a decision had been made to seek funding from the State of California for trail improvements in the Sierra Nevada. These ideas came together in the spring of 1915 in the form of a bill before the California legislature to create a John Muir Trail that would connect Yosemite Valley with Mt. Whitney. The route was to follow as closely as practicable the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

The bill passed, along with an initial state appropriation for $10,000 (about $225,000 in 2011 dollars). Responsibility for the construction of the new trail fell to Wilbur McClure, California State Engineer, and McClure began what would be a several-year-long effort to define the trail’s exact route.

Working with information collected by early Sierra Club members Theodore Solomons, Joseph N. Le Conte, Bolton Coit Brown and James Hutchinson, McClure eventually settled on a preferred route. In the area that is now within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, McClure proposed that the trail would ascend Evolution Creek to Muir Pass, then follow the Middle Fork of the Kings River down to its confluence with Cartridge Creek.

From that point the trail would climb Cartridge Creek, cross Cartridge Pass, and drop into the headwaters of the South Fork of the Kings at the south end of Upper Basin. Continuing southward, the trail would reach Pinchot Pass and then pass through the Woods Creek and Rae Lakes country before traversing Glen Pass to upper Bubbs Creek.

To access the Kern watershed, McClure chose a route that climbed over both Junction and Shepherd passes before arriving at Tyndall Creek. After that, the route up the west side to the summit of Mt. Whitney was easy to define.

McClure made another big decision as the project began. All state funding would be turned over to the U. S. Forest Service, which would do the actual construction. This made sense because almost 90% of the proposed route initially fell within areas administered by the USFS.

Eventually, the State of California invested a total of $50,000 in the project, with the money coming in $10,000 increments in 1917, 1925, 1927, and 1929. (Appropriations in 1919 and 1921 were vetoed by the governor.)

The National Park Service did not become involved with the southern part of the trail until after the 1926 enlargement of Sequoia National Park that extended that park into the Kern and Whitney regions. This led to NPS trail work on Whitney and on Forester Pass. The completion in 1931 of the work at Forester Pass obviated the need for the Muir Trail to cross Junction and Shepherd passes.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service continued trail improvements in the Kings Canyon region. Finally, in 1938, that agency completed the Muir Trail when it built the Golden Staircase (Palisade Creek) and Mather Pass trail segments. This reroute further shortened the JMT, which no longer needed to detour west to Cartridge Pass. In 1940, when Congress created Kings Canyon National Park, the Muir Trail through that region was already essentially complete.

In 1968, Congress authorized the construction of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, and most of the Muir Trail became a part of the longer PCT. Today, only the north and south ends of the 200-mile-long JMT diverge from the route of the much longer PCT.

© Wm. Tweed