Yosemite Valley’s incomporable waterfalls are
just now beginning to flow at their best—bring a poncho and get up close and wet
by Marv Dealy
If you’ve never visited Yosemite during the spring snowmelt runoff when the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley are running at their peak, you haven’t seen the valley in its most wonderful, loud and intense iteration.
I went into the park on a wintry day in early March to see how the falls were progressing. With me was Colleen Castro, a former park employee who could tell me more about the falls and the best time for you to make a beeline for the park to see them at their best.
The answer to the last question is—right about now. The warm weather in place as this issue of the Yosemite Gazette went to press is just the kind of weather we need to begin the snow pack melting, which in turn feeds the waterfalls in the valley, all of which are ephemeral.
We drove in through the Highway 120 entrance so we could see the first falls, near the newly refurbished Merced River Overlook. As you’re driving east toward the valley you’ll see Cascade Falls just after going through the first tunnel. It’ll be on your left and ahead of you. Cascade Falls begins as a series of waterfalls and cascades through a dense forest, then combines with Tamarack Creek just below Highway 120 to drop 500 feet into the Merced River.
After you reach the valley floor, the first major falls you’ll see will be on the right or southern side of the valley, Bridalveil Fall, which is about 620 feet tall. Even though all the waterfalls in Yosemite are ephemeral waterfalls, they flow as long as there is snow melting in the high country—that’s their only source of water other than heavy rainfall. Bridalveil actually flows longer than any of the other waterfalls in Yosemite Valley because Bridalveil Creek, which feeds the falls, goes through a large meadow area that acts like a sponge.
The abundance of dirt on top of the granite in that meadow holds water longer, so Bridalveil will continue to fall when almost all the other waterfalls are dry.
Ribbon Falls generally dries up first as summer wears on, then Yosemite Falls, followed by the others. Vernal and Nevada falls seldom dry up since they are part of the Merced River.
The next falls will be on your left and is called Ribbon Falls. Flowing from a cliff on the west side of El Capitan, Ribbon Falls is the longest free leaping waterfall in Yosemite at some 1,612 feet. Look for Ribbon Falls just to the left of El Capitan. Once the runoff starts you’ll be able to see it much better; on the wintry day we visited there wasn’t much water coming down this waterfall.
After you drive east past Bridalveil and Ribbon Falls you’ll be traveling through the narrowest part of Yosemite Valley, where El Capitan is opposite Cathedral Rocks. If the weight of all the climbers on El Capitan would push it over one day, it would crash against the other side of the valley because El Capitan has 3,000 feet of vertical cliff plus another couple of hundred feet up to the summit.
Next you’ll see Horsetail Falls on the North American Wall on El Capitan. Horsetail Falls is actually two side-by-side streams, one falling 1,540 feet and the other 1,570 feet. It is the highest fully airborne waterfall in Yosemite that runs at some point every year. The two streams gather and drop another 490 feet, making the total height some 2,130 feet. This waterfall is lit up by the setting sun for a few days each February, reflecting a brilliant orange; this colorful display can best be seen from the picnic area on the north road leading out of Yosemite Valley east of El Capitan.
Further along on your right, you’ll see Sentinel Falls to the right of Sentinel Rock. It is a series of six cascades totaling some 1,920 feet, and is usually dry by July.
Yosemite’s original inhabitants, the Ahwahneechee, all believed that each waterfall had a different spirit, generally considered to be evil. They called Yosemite Falls “Cholock,” which is a bad spirit, and believed that several witches called “Poloti” lived in the plunge pool at the base. “Pohono,” the Ahwahneechee name for Bridalveil Fall, is another evil spirit that means “windy spirit,” or “spirit of the puffing wind.” It was thought that all the waterfall spirits would mesmerize you and get you into the mist and make you fall in and you would die.
Yosemite Falls is either the sixth or seventh highest falls in the world and the highest in North America at 2,425 feet. The easiest place to see the upper, middle (or cascade) and lower falls is from the newly revamped area at the base of the falls. The path to the base of the falls has been paved and is wheelchair accessible. When the falls are booming at full runoff you’ll definitely want a poncho—or just be prepared to be wet when getting close to the spray.
It is recommended that you stay on the paved paths at each waterfall. Scrambling on the rocks is dangerous, as they are wet and slippery, and falls can be not just treacherous but fatal. People have died crawling around the rocks at the base of both Yosemite and Bridalveil Fall.
To the right of Yosemite Falls is Lehamite Falls, the only falls in the park to retain its original Indian name, which means “arrowood.” Lehamite is underappreciated both because it only runs in the spring or after a heavy rain, and because it is overshadowed by Yosemite Falls right next to it.
The Royal Arch Cascade is some 1,250 feet high and is right by the Royal Arches, directly opposite Glacier Point, and is within walking distance from the Ahwahnee Hotel. This fall is usually dry by June. Staircase Falls is a series of cascades that descend about 1,300 feet and is usually dry by May. This waterfall is behind Camp Curry on cliffs below Glacier Point.
Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall are on the Merced River and are 594 feet and 317 feet respectively. The falls run all year, although by the end of summer the water flow will be substantially reduced. The original name for Vernal falls was “Yan-o-pah” or “little cloud.” The Indians called Nevada Fall “Yo-wy-we,” which referred to the twist of the falling water.
You can see both Nevada and Vernal Falls either from Glacier Point when it is open or by a moderately strenuous day hike from Happy Isles. John Muir said to listen carefully as with each step the sound changes. It is beautiful with the Merced River on the right until you come into full view of Vernal Falls at the foot bridge which brings you to the “Mist Trail.” Here you will get wet during spring runoff. You can continue another two miles to Nevada Falls from the bridge.
There are other falls not accessible by vehicle, such as Chilnualna Falls at 690 feet on Chilnualna Creek in the southern section of Yosemite Park. Illilouette Fall is 370 feet tall in a small side canyon across from Vernal Falls. It is best seen from the Panorama Trail descending from Glacier Point.
We hope you’ll be motivated to get to the park and experience the Yosemite waterfalls soon, but bring some rain gear and make sure the camera you bring will still work when wet if you plan on taking pictures.
Remember that the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley are ephemeral. When the snowpack is melted for the summer most of the falls dry up. If you truly want to “experience” the whole wondrous effect of the falls the best time to view them is between April and early June.