Yosemite Valley in vernal glory.
Before the Long Winter set in, my wife and I had reservations to camp in Yosemite. The last few times we had been there it had been summer or fall. It has been 6 years since we were there in the spring and we reckoned it was time for our kids to be there in high water once again. Little did we know that the winter would yield an epic snowpack and, consequently, a magnificent array of spring time waterfalls and awesomely swollen perennial waterfalls.
The scenes were so spectacular I was compelled to document many of the cataracts in both images and video. I hope this gives some sense of the magnitude of the conditions in Yosemite Valley as the prodigious thaw floods into Merced River.
Although Highway 120 is the quickest way into the park when coming from Mount Shasta, Big Oak Flat Road is currently closed due to road damage. This means we had to drive down to Merced and enter the park on Highway 140, the Yosemite All-Year Highway. This was the way I grew up driving into the park and I always loved driving along the river. As a kid I would scan the steep canyon walls for remnants of gold mines. When we reached El Portal, we knew we were on the edge of the park. Above the village was Chinquapin Falls, always the first waterfall to greet visitors to Yosemite. Usually diminutive, this spring it was an awesome harbinger of what lay ahead. More immediate to the traveler was the Merced River, which was a cauldron of white water.
In normal years, keen observers might notice a distinct waterfall on the south side of the river just after passing through the Arch Rock entrance. This fall, which is on Grouse Creek, was at times difficult to spot due to the small size of the watershed and the reduced flow for much of the year. This year it was a monster. The video does not do justice to the incredible rooster tails hurtling outward from the cliff.
Perhaps the least known officially named waterfall in Yosemite Valley, Wildcat Falls is typically hard to spot. This time, it has substantial flow. The short walk to the base was a lot of fun too.
Cascade Falls was the first true “Yosemite waterfall” I would observe as a kid. Everything before it was just playing around. Of course, the Cascades are bigger than the final drop (the best place to observe them is from the Rostrum on the south side of the Valley). However, that final drop is an awesome sight. This spring, it was a misty giant.
The upper part of Cascade Falls stood out dramatically from the side of the valley, with the Merced flowing far below.
Ribbon Falls, the tallest single drop in Yosemite Valley had a strong flow.
Located on the eastern flank of El Capitan, Horsetail Falls is an ephemeral waterfall that gets a fair amount of attention in February (while cool, there is only one firefall, in my mind). I have never seen it with this much flow in May. It was a neat sight, plunging off the sheer cliff high above the river.
Almost unnoticed above the famed Tunnel View vista point is Silver Strand Falls. While tall, it is almost totally unknown, overshadowed by the incredible vista of Yosemite Valley. This was the strongest flow I have ever seen for this fall. The snow visible at the top was indicative of how strong and sustained the falls are right now.
For being one of Yosemite Valley’s “big four” waterfalls, I feel that Bridalveil Falls is sometimes overlooked. Though it has a stronger flow late in the year than Yosemite Falls, its position at the west end of the valley tends to leave it isolated. Right now, the falls are stunning in their ferocity and majesty. Incidentally, in all my years of going to Yosemite, I have never associated redbud with the Valley. Each spring, this small plant blossoms with vivid purple flowers and it is a highlight of travel through Northern California’s lower elevations. This year, the redbud in Yosemite Valley was bright, blossoming throughout the valley and tossing bursts of color everywhere.
(No sound with this one) Power is not a word typically associated with Bridalveil Falls. The name comes from the tendency for the wind to blow the water in misty sheets away from its linear trajectory downward. Now, with the large watershed melting out, the falls are plunging with stunning might into the rocks below. They are creating the wind, not being blown by it.
Yosemite Falls was the obvious star of the trip. Ubiquitous from most places in the valley, it could be heard thundering down the cliffside from nearly everywhere. This view, from flooded Leidig Meadow, was a perfect introduction to the incredible sight of this waterfall nonpareil.
A slightly different view from near Sentinel Bridge offers a glimpse of Lower Yosemite Falls as well. The ancient apple tree was in full blossom!
The classic view from the approach to the lower falls could not be ignored. It is simply stupendous.
The fury of Lower Yosemite Falls was terrific. Mist, produced by the explosive impact of the waterfall on the rocks at the base (and a large rib of rock on the cliff) drenched hikers crossing the bridge downstream. With all the displaced air blasting the trees and the water in the air, it feels like a perpetual hurricane.
One of my favorite views of Yosemite Falls, a bit off the beaten path.
Two of my favorite waterfalls in Yosemite are at the east end of the valley. Pouring down the north side is Royal Arches Cascade. Typically “flowing” all year, it is often just a wet smear on the cliffs with just a trickle reaching the valley floor. This year, they were as full as I have ever seen them (outside of some massive thunderstorms). They add a lot drama to the already dramatic cliffs that feature the Royal Arches and crowned by North Dome.
The ledges near the base of Royal Arches Cascade are a favorite valley destination for my family. The chance to look straight up the sheer cliff is one not to be missed. With the falls roaring down the rock, it was an unforgettable sight.
The bottom of Royal Arches Cascade is usually not a place where one expects to find a sense of power and force. That is not the case now, as the water is crashing down the cliff and overwhelming the trail below.
Across the valley flows Staircase Falls, which tumbles down the cliffs below Glacier Point, eponymously named for the tiered route it takes. We hiked up to the base of the falls only to find that the heavy winter had loosened a lot of debris in the canyon at the head of the falls. Consequently, large softball-sized rocks were being hurtled off the top of the final tier of the waterfall. When we realized the danger we promptly vacated the area, leaving the magnificent view behind.
Following the Merced River up toward the Grand Staircase, where Vernal and Nevada Falls await, the river was a torrent as it crashed down its steep, rocky channel. Outside of Yosemite, much of the river’s course would be considered “waterfalls” but in Yosemite it is just steep whitewater. It is fearsome in its power through.
Near its confluence with the Merced River, Illilouette Creek was itself a swollen beast of a creek. This spring, it had more water in it than the Merced itself often boasts. Amazingly, though the channel documented here is the largest, it is only one of four distinct channels on the creek as it reaches the Merced. There was A LOT of water here.
Tearing down its rocky gorge, Illilouette Creek puts on quite a show. It pours over one cataract after another, never finding any rest until just before it hits the Merced. The thick plume of mist at the head of the canyon is being cast by Illiloutte Falls, one of the best, but most unappreciated, waterfalls in Yosemite. Though visible from the John Muir Trail and Sierra Point, it is really only appreciated fully from the Panorama Trail and that still has a lot of snow on it right now.
Continuing up the river, the first really good view of Vernal Falls comes above the bridge. The river is still a raging torrent and the falls show off its awesome power. Vernal’s lines are classic in dimension and proportion, rendering it, in many ways, an archetype of waterfall beauty.
A classic view of Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail. It is impossible to get a clear shot of the waterfall at this time because of the spray drenching the trail. It is bracing but glorious!
The view from the top of the falls gives a good perspective of what a thrilling route the Mist Trail is. Slung on the slopes above the river and alongside the thundering waterfall, it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime trails that must be hiked to truly be appreciated. Only once is never enough.
My favorite perspective on Vernal is from the view just below Clark Point. Elevated above the falls and facing it obliquely, its great lines are really stand out from this angle. However, though it is a beautiful in appearance, the thing that really sets Vernal and Nevada Falls apart is the fact that these magnificent waterfalls consist of the entire Merced River flowing over the precipice, not just a creek. The volume of water hurtling off the cliff is humbling and not just a little sobering. It is, however, stunning its beauty.
Between Vernal and Nevada is the Silver Apron. The water runs through a gap in the rocks and the slides down a long, smooth granite slab before landing the Emerald Pool. It is an unusual cascade at any time but now with the water so full, it takes on exciting proportions not otherwise present.
Further upstream and not quite as well appreciated is Nevada Falls. Though twice the height of Vernal, Nevada Falls’ location means it is not seen as much as its lower counterpart. It is, nonetheless, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Yosemite. Nearly 600 feet high, the Merced races through a narrow chute before throwing itself off of the cliff with great urgency. Halfway to its rocky base, the sheer granite cliff angles outward slightly and the waterfall slams into the slope, bursting into a maelstrom of spray. At high water, the lower half of Nevada is nearly impossible to see. Even nearly a quarter mile downstream, the wind and mist in the air more closely resembles a thunderstorm than the result of a waterfall. Thus is the fury of Nevada Falls.
Yosemite Falls and Lehamite Falls (in cleft, far right), magnificent in spring.
It’s a remarkable time throughout Northern California, but Yosemite, set apart by its overabundance of waterfalls, is in a special condition right now. Though the images and video in this post fail to adequately convey the power, grace and overwhelming beauty of the scene, I hope they do at least give some glorious sense of what is going on there this spring, as the Long Winter melts out and over the granite cliffs of Yosemite.