Bay Nature magazineSummer 2006


What a Grand Sight!

July 1, 2007

Beginning in 1860, botanist William H. Brewer accompanied state geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney on an expedition to perform “an accurate and complete Geological Survey” of California’s rocks, fossils, soils, minerals, and botanical and zoological specimens. Brewer’s accounts of his travels, eventually published as Up and Down California, provide a vivid window on California’s past landscapes. In this edited excerpt, the survey party visits Mount Diablo, and Brewer’s emphatic description of the view says much about what has changed in the past 144 years, and what remains.

Camp 70, near Mount Diablo, May 18, 1862.

On Wednesday, April 30, we visited a ridge about two thousand feet high, quite a hard day’s tramp. Heavy clouds wreathed the whole summit of Mount Diablo, but we had a fine view of the green hills near and around us. A shower caught us on our return and wet us, but how unlike the rains of the city. The smell of the rain on the fresh soil and green grass was decidedly refreshing.

Everything has “greened up” marvelously, and this region, so brown, dry, dusty, and parched when we visited it last fall, is now green and lovely, as only California can be in the spring. Flowers in the greatest profusion and richest colors adorn hills and valleys and the scattered trees are of the richest green.

Tuesday, May 6, I footed it across the Pacheco Valley, a plain of many thousand acres sloping gently from Mount Diablo northwest to the Straits of Carquinez.

The plain is covered for miles with intervals of scattered oaks; not a forest, but scattered trees of the California white oak [valley oak-ed.], the most magnificent of trees, often four to five feet in diameter. They are worthless for timber, but grand, yes magnificent, as ornamental trees, their great spreading branches often forming a head a hundred feet in diameter.

On arriving I found the camp pitched in one of the loveliest localities, a pure rippling stream for water, plenty of wood, fine oak trees around, in a sheltered valley, but with the grand old mountain rising just behind us.

That evening, a lovely May evening, the moon lit up the dim outline of the mountain behind. We “talked of the morrow,” spun yarns, told stories, and the old oaks echoed with laughter.

Wednesday, May 7, 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.

The summit was reached, and we spent two and a half hours there. The view was one never to be forgotten. It had nothing of grandeur in it, save the almost unlimited extent of the view. The air was clear to the horizon on every side, and although the mountain is only 3,890 feet high [actually 3,849—ed.], 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 beyond 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.

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! 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, 125 miles distant, and Castle Peak, 160 miles distant, and hundreds of other peaks without names but vying with the Alps themselves in height and sublimity—all marshaled before us in that grand panorama!

Find the full text of Brewer’s journal at

About the Author

Matthew Bettelheim is a freelance writer and a wildlife biologist with URS Corporation.

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