Born in Birmingham, England, Thomas Hill came to the United States as a youth, following his father to Massachusetts in 1844. He worked briefly in a cotton factory, became an apprentice to a carriage painter, and later joined an interior decorating firm in Boston. He moved to Philadelphia in 1853 to study art, enrolling in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A year later he visited the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a region associated with painters of the Hudson River School. He departed for California in 1861, at the outset of the Civil War.
Hill made his first sketching trip to the Sierra in 1865. He exhibited Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County in San Francisco that same year. It was the first major work that the Crockers purchased from a contemporary Californian artist.
After Hill traveled to France in 1866 and became acquainted with the Barbizon style, he brought a new expressive and painterly quality to the foliage of his Sierra and Yosemite subjects.