Muir’s account of a visit to the San Gabriel Mountains…
After saying so much for human culture in my last, perhaps I may now be allowed a word for wildness — the wildness of this southland, pure and untamable as the sea.
In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage. Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible. The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot of the explorer, however great his strength or skill may be, but thorny chaparral constitutes their chief defense. With the exception of little park and garden spots not visible in comprehensive views, the entire surface is covered with it, from the highest peaks to the plain. It swoops into every hollow and swells over every ridge, gracefully complying with the varied topography, in shaggy, ungovernable exuberance, fairly dwarfing the utmost efforts of human culture out of sight and mind.
But in the very heart of this thorny wilderness, down in the dells, you may find gardens filled with the fairest flowers, that any child would love, and unapproachable linns lined with lilies and ferns, where the ousel builds its mossy hut and sings in chorus with the white falling water. Bears, also, and panthers, wolves, wildcats; wood rats, squirrels, foxes, snakes, and innumerable birds, all find grateful homes here, adding wildness to wildness in glorious profusion and variety.
Where the coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada come together we find a very complicated system of short ranges, the geology and topography of which is yet hidden, and many years of laborious study must be given for anything like a complete interpretation of them. The San Gabriel is one or more of these ranges, forty or fifty miles long, and half as broad, extending from the Cajon Pass on the east, to the Santa Monica and Santa Susanna ranges on the west. San Antonio, the dominating peak, rises towards the eastern extremity of the range to a height of about six thousand feet, forming a sure landmark throughout the valley and all the way down to the coast, without, however, possessing much striking individuality. The whole range, seen from the plain, with the hot sun beating upon its southern slopes, wears a terribly forbidding aspect. There is nothing of the grandeur of snow, or glaciers, or deep forests, to excite curiosity or adventure; no trace of gardens or waterfalls. From base to summit all seems gray, barren, silent — dead, bleached bones of mountains, overgrown with scrubby bushes, like gray moss. But all mountains are full of hidden beauty, and the next day after my arrival at Pasadena I supplied myself with bread and eagerly set out to give myself to their keeping.
On the first day of my excursion I went only as far as the mouth of Eaton Canyon, because the heat was oppressive, and a pair of new shoes were chafing my feet to such an extent that walking began to be painful. While looking for a camping ground among the boulder beds of the canyon, I came upon a strange, dark man of doubtful parentage. He kindly invited me to camp with him, and led me to his little hut. All my conjectures as to his nationality failed, and no wonder, since his father was Irish and mother Spanish, a mixture not often met even in California. He happened to be out of candles, so we sat in the dark while he gave me a sketch of his life, which was exceedingly picturesque. Then he showed me his plans for the future. He was going to settle among these canyon boulders, and make money, and marry a Spanish woman. People mine for irrigating water along the foothills as for gold. He is now driving a prospecting tunnel into a spur of the mountains back of his cabin. “My prospect is good,” he said, “and if I strike a strong flow, I shall soon be worth five or ten thousand dollars. That flat out there, ” he continued, referring to a small, irregular patch of gravelly detritus that had been sorted out and deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season, “is large enough for a nice orange grove, and, after watering my own trees, I can sell water down the valley; and then the hillside back of the cabin will do for vines, and I can keep bees, for the white sage and black sage up the mountains is full of honey. You see, I’ve got a good thing.” All this prospective affluence in the sunken, boulder-choked flood-bed of Eaton Creek! Most home-seekers would as soon think of settling on the summit of San Antonio.
Half an hour’s easy rambling up the canyon brought me to the foot of “The Fall,” famous throughout the valley settlements as the finest yet discovered in the range. It is a charming little thing, with a voice sweet as a songbird’s, leaping some thirty-five or forty feet into a round, mirror pool. The cliff back of it and on both sides is completely covered with thick, furry mosses, and the white fall shines against the green like a silver instrument in a velvet case. Here come the Gabriel lads and lassies from the commonplace orange groves, to make love and gather ferns and dabble away their hot holidays in the cool pool. They are fortunate in finding so fresh a retreat so near their homes. It is the Yosemite of San Gabriel. The walls, though not of the true Yosemite type either in form or sculpture, rise to a height of nearly two thousand feet. Ferns are abundant on all the rocks within reach of the spray, and picturesque maples and sycamores spread a grateful shade over a rich profusion of wild flowers that grow among the boulders, from the edge of the pool a mile or more down the dell-like bottom of the valley, the whole forming a charming little poem of wildness — the vestibule of these shaggy mountain temples.
The foot of the fall is about a thousand feet above the level of the sea, and here climbing begins. I made my way out of the valley on the west side, followed the ridge that forms the western rim of the Eaton Basin to the summit of one of the principal peaks, thence crossed the middle of the basin, forcing a way over its many subordinate ridges, and out over the eastern rim, and from first to last during three days spent in this excursion, I had to contend with the richest, most self-possessed and uncompromising chaparral I have every enjoyed since first my mountaineering began.
For a hundred feet or so the ascent was practicable only by means of bosses of the club moss that clings to the rock. Above this the ridge is weathered away to a slender knife-edge for a distance of two or three hundred yards, and thence to the summit it is a bristly mane of chaparral. Here and there small openings occur, commanding grand views of the valley and beyond to the ocean. These are favorite outlooks and resting places for bears, wolves, and wildcats. In the densest places I came upon woodrat villages whose huts were from four to eight feet high, built in the same style of architecture as those of the muskrats.
The day was nearly done. I reached the summit and I had time to make only a hasty survey of the topography of the wild basin now outspread maplike beneath, and to drink in the rare loveliness of the sunlight before hastening down in search of water. Pushing through another mile of chaparral, I emerged into one of the most beautiful parklike groves of live oak I ever saw. The ground beneath was planted only with aspidiums and brier roses. At the foot of the grove I came to the dry channel of one of the tributary streams, but, following it down a short distance, I descried a few specimens of the scarlet mimulus; and I was assured that water was near. I found about a bucketful in a granite bowl, but it was full of leaves and beetles, making a sort of brown coffee that could be rendered available only by filtering it through sand and charcoal. This I resolved to do in case the night came on before I found better. Following the channel a mile farther down to its confluence with another, larger tributary, I found a lot of boulder pools, clear as crystal, and brimming full, linked together by little glistening currents just strong enough to sing. Flowers in full bloom adorned the banks, lilies ten feet high, and luxuriant ferns arching over one another in lavish abundance, while a noble old live oak spread its rugged boughs over all, forming one of the most perfect and most secluded of Nature’s gardens. Here I camped, making my bed on smooth cobblestones.
Next morning, pushing up the channel of a tributary that takes its rise on Mount San Antonio, I passed many lovely gardens watered by oozing currentlets, every one of which had lilies in them in the full pomp of bloom, and a rich growth of ferns, chiefly woodwardias and aspidiums and maidenhairs; but toward the base of the mountain the channel was dry, and the chaparral closed over from bank to bank, so that I was compelled to creep more than a mile on hands and knees.
In one spot I found an opening in the thorny sky where I could stand erect, and on the further side of the opening discovered a small pool. “Now, HERE,” I said, “I must be careful in creeping, for the birds of the neighborhood come here to drink, and the rattlesnakes come here to catch them.” I then began to cast my eye along the channel, perhaps instinctively feeling a snaky atmosphere, and finally discovered one rattler between my feet. But there was a bashful look in his eye, and a withdrawing, deprecating kink in his neck that showed plainly as words could tell that he would not strike, and only wished to be let alone. I therefore passed on, lifting my foot a little higher than usual, and left him to enjoy his life in this his own home.
My next camp was near the heart of the basin, at the head of a grand system of cascades from ten to two hundred feet high, one following the other in close succession and making a total descent of nearly seventeen hundred feet. The rocks above me leaned over in a threatening way and were full of seams, making the camp a very unsafe one during an earthquake.
Next day the chaparral, in ascending the eastern rim of the basin, was, if possible, denser and more stubbornly bayoneted than ever. I followed bear trails, where in some places I found tufts of their hair that had been pulled out in squeezing a way through; but there was much of a very interesting character that far overpaid all my pains. Most of the plants are identical with those of the Sierra, but there are quite a number of Mexican species. One coniferous tree was all I found. This is a spruce of a species new to me, Douglasii macrocarpa 14.
My last camp was down at the narrow, notched bottom of a dry channel, the only open way for the life in the neighborhood. I therefore lay between two fires, built to fence out snakes and wolves.
From the summit of the eastern rim I had a glorious view of the valley out to the ocean, which would require a whole book for its description. My bread gave out a day before reaching the settlements, but I felt all the fresher and clearer for the fast.