There’s no finer place in California to view waterfalls than Yosemite Valley. And there’s no better time than now.
Roaring like thunder, the world-famous falls are likely to grow even wilder after this month’s storms, adding more water to the Merced River already swollen to twice its average size, according to U.S. Geological Survey gauges.
“Right now we’re pretty close to the peak,” Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman said.
As days lengthen, temperatures climb and new rain accelerates the melting of this winter’s deep snow, “this is the best time of year,” he said.
This unusually wet May weather could continue until the end of the month, adding new precipitation to a soggy snowpack and saturated soil.
Of course, no one wants a repeat of the April 2018 flooding, when an unusual springtime atmospheric river delivered up to 6 inches of rain — spawning hundreds of spontaneous waterfalls, inundating the valley floor with 2 to 4 feet of water and damaging roads, campsites and electrical infrastructure.
Already, 16,200 gallons of water — per second — are flowing past Happy Isles Bridge, located at the eastern end of the Yosemite Valley floor, according to hydrologist Anthony Guerriero of the USGS’s California Water Science Center.
That’s more than twice the 7,480 gallons per second typical for mid-May.
A bountiful winter made the difference this year. As of May 1, the snowpack was between 149% and 160% of average in the Tuolumne and Merced River watersheds that originate along Yosemite’s rugged crest of the Sierra Nevada.
Dip your hands into their cold and wild creeks. Climb to the top of waterfalls, then feel head-spinning vertigo as you watch the water plunge down vertical granite walls. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots: Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall and Ribbon Fall.
They won’t last long. Four of the national park’s famed waterfalls are entirely ephemeral, disappearing by summer. Why? Their upper landscape is almost entirely granite. Yosemite Creek, for example, flows over bare bedrock, so the creek quickly swells as snow melts, sending water straight into the Yosemite Falls. But its season ends when the snow is gone.
Even those that flow all year long, like Bridalveil Fall, will soon turn polite and well-mannered. They persist because they’re fed by slowly draining meadows, lakes and patches of soil.
Each waterfall has its own personality, and Yosemite experts have their own favorites.
“Ribbon Falls is my favorite right now. It’s a sheer river, with water falling off the very, very tippy top,” said Rob Grasso, an aquatic ecologist with the National Park Service. “I’ve been here five years, and I’ve never seen Ribbon Falls like this.”
His second choice: The Cascades, less well known, which start off as a series of smaller tumblers through dense forest in the Tamarack Creek of western Yosemite, then plunge 500 feet into the Merced River.
“Ribbon Falls is a beautiful strand,” agreed Schuyler Greenleaf, project director of Yosemite Conservancy. “It falls into this very sweet, small amphitheater, with all this gold granite on one side. You have to get up there in the spring or you miss it.”
Her other favorite: Bridalveil Fall, famous for its drenching mist and light, swaying flow when the wind blows.
Nevada Fall is the most treasured waterfall for park spokesman Gediman. “It’s elegant, in this special setting, next to Liberty Cap,” a giant granite dome, he said.
He’s also fond of Sentinel Fall, “because it follows the contour of Sentinel Rock. It makes a statement, telling the story of snow melting into creeks.”
Another favorite: The Royal Arch Cascade near the formerly named Ahwahnee Hotel. “They’re just streams, really, that highlight the glacial polish,” he said. “But to me, they say spring.”
There are dozens of waterfalls throughout the park, the experts said. Not just the famous ones, but many more, named and unnamed.
Ready to find your own favorite? Here’s a start:
Yosemite Falls (2,425 feet)
Chilnualna Falls (about 2,200 feet)
Sentinel Falls (about 2,000 feet)
Ribbon Fall (1,612 feet)
Wapama Falls (1,400 feet)
Royal Arch Cascade (1,250 feet)
Horsetail Fall (1,000 feet)
Bridalveil Fall (620 feet)
Cascades (about 600 feet)
Nevada Fall (594 feet)
Illilouette Fall (370 feet)
Vernal Fall (317 feet)
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