Geologic history of the Yosemite Valley

Professional Paper 160




The problem of the origin of the Yosemite Valley inherently demands a solution in quantitative terms. Its essence is, To what extent is the valley a product of glacial action, to what extent a product of stream erosion? The principal result of the investigations upon which this report is based is the determination within narrow limits of the preglacial depth of the Yosemite Valley and of other facts concerning its preglacial development which permit fairly definite estimates of the proportionate shares of work performed by stream and by glacier. The investigations comprise a detailed survey of the glacial and geomorphologic features of the Yosemite region and an equally intensive study of its rock formations, supplemented by reconnaissance work of both kinds in adjoining parts of the Sierra Nevada. The petrologic studies were made by Frank C. Calkins; the glacial and geomorphologic survey by Francois E. Matthes.

Detailed mapping of the morainal system of the ancient Yosemite Glacier has served not only to determine the farthest limits reached by that glacier but to throw new light on the significance of the hanging valleys of the Yosemite region. It is reasonably certain that the glacier never extended more than about a mile beyond the site of El Portal. The hanging side valleys of the Merced Canyon below El Portal, therefore, hang not because of any glacial deepening suffered by that canyon. The explanation is offered that they hang because their streamlets have been unable to trench as rapidly as the Merced River since the rejuvenation of the Merced by the last uptilting of the Sierra Nevada. The streamlets were handicapped not only by their comparatively small volume but also by the fact that their courses trend northwestward and southeastward, substantially at right angles to the direction of the tilting, and therefore have remained essentially unsteepened, whereas the Merced's course trends southwestward, directly down the slope of the Sierra block, and therefore has been appreciably steepened.

Projection of the longitudinal profiles of these hanging valleys forward to the axis of the Merced Canyon shows that they are closely accordant in height. Their profiles indicate a series of points on a former profile of the Merced with respect to which the side streams had graded their courses prior to the last uplift. This old profile can be extended upward into the glaciated part of the Merced Canyon above El Portal and even into the profoundly glaciated Yosemite Valley, accordant points being furnished by a number of hanging side valleys (due allowance being made for glacial erosion suffered by those valleys). However, not all the hanging valleys of the Yosemite region are accordant with this set. Several of them, including the upland valley of Yosemite Creek, constitute a separate set indicating another old profile of the Merced at a level 600 to 1,000 feet higher than the first. Others, including the hanging gulch of lower Bridalveil Creek, point to an old profile of the Merced about 1,200 feet lower than the first. There are thus three distinct sets of hanging valleys produced in three cycles of stream erosion. The valleys of the upper set, like those of the middle set, were left hanging as a result of rapid trenching by the Merced induced by an uplift of the range, there having been two such uplifts. Only the valleys of the lower set hang because of glacial deepening and widening of the Yosemite Valley, the cycle in which they were cut having been interrupted by the advent of the Pleistocene glaciers. They consequently indicate the preglacial depth of the Yosemite Valley. That depth, measured from the brow of El Capitan, was about 2,400 feet; measured from the rim at Glacier Point it was about 2,000 feet.

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USGS Numbered Series
Geologic history of the Yosemite Valley
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Professional Paper
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U.S. Geological Survey
Report: vi, 137 p.; 3 Plates: 37.13 x 28.80 inches or smaller
United States
Other Geospatial:
Yosemite Valley
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