Yosemite Waterfalls 101

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“A waterfall is water that has awakened… That awakening in the water seems to wake up something in us too.” – Shelton Johnson, National Park Service in Yosemite

Yosemite’s waterfalls are diverse and dramatic. They draw visitors to the park from around the world, and spring is the best time to witness their full power. Between March and May, the waterfalls reach their peak flow and put on a spectacular show. If you can’t marvel upon them in person today, build your excitement with a few Yosemite waterfall facts.

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Yosemite’s waterfalls are a force of…

AWE

  • The highest, the tallest…: Yosemite waterfalls claim some impressive records. At 1,612 feet tall, Ribbon Fall is the highest single drop of water in North America. The combined cascades of Yosemite Falls make it the tallest waterfall in North America and the 5th tallest in the world. This famous 2,425-feet-tall waterfall sends 135,000 gallons of water over its edge every minute during its peak season.
  • Horsetail Fall phenomenon: Under the right circumstances, a small waterfall pouring over El Capitan appears to catch fire during the sunset. Drawing photographers and visitors from around the world, the Horsetail Fall phenomenon only occurs in years with enough snow or rain for a waterfall to flow during mid- or late-February where the sun’s angle hits it perfectly. The earliest known photograph of the firefall was taken by Ansel Adams sometime in the 1930s, but it was black and white. The first known orange glow photograph was taken by Galen Rowell in 1973.

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NATURE

  • Two types of waterfall formation: There are two types of waterfalls in Yosemite Valley. In “hanging” waterfalls, the water appears to drop from the sky at the top of steep cliff faces. Bridalveil Fall (as well as Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls and Ribbon Fall) was formed when one side of the Sierra block rose faster than the other and the Merced River barreled down into Yosemite Valley, leaving Bridalveil Creek stranded far above the valley. The Ice Age and years of water wear have left Bridalveil Creek with an even steeper drop today. Vernal and Nevada Falls were formed differently. Glaciers from the High Sierra came down and trimmed away rock only in portions of the stairway. The tougher rocks were left behind and formed the Giant Staircase that Vernal and Nevada Falls now pour down.
  • Why some waterfalls dry up: Bridalveil Fall almost never goes dry, but Yosemite Falls only flows for part of each year. Yosemite Creek, which feeds Yosemite Falls, was almost entirely glaciated about 20,000 years ago and is now bare bedrock. During big storms, Yosemite Falls quickly swells and the water runs straight into the falls, but it doesn’t stick around for long. And since it’s largely fed by melted snow, its season typically ends when the snow is gone. Bridalveil Fall, on the other hand, has a smaller basin but has many meadows, lakes and patches of soil near the basin that contribute to a more constant flow regardless of rainfall.

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DESTRUCTION

  • Frazil ice: In winter, the mist coming off the waterfalls freezes into small crystals of frazil ice. This ice moves downstream in a slurry mixture that flows like lava. Frazil ice can become thick and act like cement, causing channels to clog up and changing the flow of the stream. Yosemite Creek at full force can flow up to 100 cubic feet per second, and when frazil ice is involved, buildings and foot bridges can be easily damaged or destroyed by the strong flow. Frazil ice has been observed in all of the valley waterfalls.
  • Danger: Sixteen water-related fatalities occurred in the park between 2002 and 2011. Waterfalls and rivers in the park draw visitors to their beauty but they can be extremely strong and unpredictable. Most fatalities occur when visitors leave the trail to take photos, wade in shallow water, attempt to cross streams or try to swim. The rocks around the rivers in Yosemite are not only water-polished but glacier-polished, so they’re especially slick.

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LORE

  • Poloti witches in Yosemite Falls: An old Ahwahneechee tale warned that the pool at the bottom of Yosemite Falls was inhabited by the spirits of Poloti witches. In the tale, a woman went to fetch a bucket of water from the creek. When she pulled it up, she found it full of snakes. Each time she scooped out water, she found more snakes. Eventually a sudden gust of wind blew her into the pool.
  • Pohono’s evil spirit: Another Native American myth tells of Pohono, an angry spirit who cursed Bridalveil Fall. Pohono is felt in the cold wind that blows around the waterfall. In the legend, a woman at the top of the fall went close to the edge to gather grass to weave a basket. Pohono placed a mossy rock near the fall to lure her near and then sent her down the falls. No one found the woman, and legend says Pohono imprisoned her spirit until she lured another victim down.

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Do you have a favorite Yosemite waterfall or story? Share with us in the comments!

Information gathered from Yosemite National Park’s Nature Notes, an interview with Greg Stock (NPS geologist), Oh Ranger, Domes, Cliffs and Waterfalls, The Waterfalls of Yosemite brochure by Steven Medley/Yosemite Association, and yosemite.ca.us.

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7 comments on “Yosemite Waterfalls 101

  1. Seeing Horsetail Falls reminds me of the “Let the fire fall” tradition. I saw the firefall with my parents and grandparents when we visited Yosemite in the summer of 1967, only a few months before the tradition was ended. I’m glad they don’t do it any more, but I’m also glad I got to see it. Thanks for reminding me of this amazing sight.

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  2. “Hello Glacier.” “Hello Curry.” “Let the Fire Fall.” “The Fire Falls!”
    I think this is how the dialogue went way back in the 50s and 60s. I’ll always have the vivid picture of standing at Camp Curry and watching the FireFall and listening to the Indian Love Call.

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  3. I used to be a frequent visitor. One summer visit, can’t remember what year, there was a Full Moon shining through Yosemite Falls. We were told it was a fairly rare event, it was beautiful, something I will always remember and treasure.

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  4. In addition to the Yosemite Valley waterfalls and cascades, there are also many more Yosemite waterfalls and cascades that can be found on rivers and creeks through out the park.

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  5. We are coming to visit in late April and hope to see some of these falls. Pictures are beautiful and information is wonderfully written too.

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