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THE MONTHLY PUBLICATION OF
THE YOSEMITE NATURALIST DEPARTMENT
AND THE YOSEMITE NATURAL HISTORY ASSOCIATION
|VOL. XXIV||January, 1945||NO. 1
by C. FRANK BROCKMAN
In the spring and early summer, when the melting snowbanks of the High Sierra give way to the onslaughts of the advancing season, the numerous water courses of Yosemite assume a grandeur which has done much to attract the attention of the world to this area. Such is particularly true of Yosemite Valley where monumental precipitous cliffs foster free-leaping waterfalls and numerous cascades of great height and beauty. Their magnificence is directly linked with the geological significance of this area. Likewise it was the report of “a waterfall 1000 feet high” (Ref. 19) that served as the magnet which attracted James Mason Hutchings and his companions to the Valley, in 1855, in what is generally regarded as the first “tourist” visit to the area. It is fitting that these men, as well as those which comprised earlier military forays into the region, entered the Valley at a time when the great natural water spectacle was at or approaching its peak. Since tributaries of the Merced River are of small size, largely fed by melting snow in the highlands, they become much reduced in volume in late summer and early fall. A number of these waterfalls disappear entirely as the season advances, to be reborn annually upon the rejuvenation of the high country snows.
Even previous to the expeditions noted, members of the redoubtable Walker party journeyed westward through the center of what is now Yosemite National Park in October, 1833. These men are generally credited with being the first white men to enter this region and members of this band noted the abundance of waterfalls which were undoubtedly seen from points along the north rim. In the narrative of Zenas Leonard, a clerk of the Walker party, appears the following—
“We traveled a few miler every day, still on top of the mountain, and our course still obstructed with snow, hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path, many small streams which would shoot out from under the high snowbanks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below. Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high.”
The foregoing statement has given rise to the thought that members of the Walker party were the first to gaze into Yosemite Valley. (Ref. 11.)
[Editor’s note: today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea]
The nature of many of Yosemite’s waterfalls is singularly characteristic for they plunge from lips of hanging valleys. Such valleys were formed by the relatively smaller cutting power of their streams as compared to the Merced River during that period of this region’s geological past when a great granite block of the earth’s crust was tilted slowly to the west, eventually forming the Sierra Nevada of the present day. The Merced, flowing generally from east to west, received the greatest impetus from this uplift and over a period of approximately 60,000,000 years embedded itself in a V-shaped canyon about 1/2 mile deep. Tributary streams, flowing from the north or south, were but little accelerated in cutting power by the impetus of the Sierra uplift and the valleys they eroded were of minor size. Thus, unable to match the erosive power of the Merced, these water courses were left “hanging” above that of the more powerful stream, their waters pouring over the rim of the canyon in a series of cascades.
The picture was materially changed by events of the ice age. From their source in the high elevations near the crest of the Sierra, glaciers converged upon the Valley, following the lines of least resistance —the previously formed, stream-cut Merced and Tenaya canyons. The resultant trunk glacier not only filled the Valley to the brim but also inundated sections of the adjacent terrain and extended at one time to a point several miles below the present town of El Portal. Due to the erosive power of the glacier ice the V-shaped canyon walls, which had previously
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Yosemite Falls from Plaza at Government Center
Each of Yosemite’s falls has a distinct personality, for their appearance was determined by fractures in the granite which regulated the nature of the erosion in the canyon walls in each particular area.
Few areas of similar size can match the Yosemite Valley region in the number and beauty of waterfalls. True, there are many places in the world that are characterized by cliffs or canyons of greater size than those found here. In many such localities there are waterfalls of considerable interest and beauty. In many instances, however, these are broken in their descent by numerous ledges to form cascades consisting of a series of minor falls. Although this is also true in the case of many of the falls in Yosemite, rarely do we find such extensive, precipitous cliffs of such massive, unbroken height as one finds in this region. These cliffs, and hanging valleys by which most of the streams enter Yosemite Valley, provide the setting for Yosemite’s matchless water spectacle. Their abrupt nature is responsible for many falls that are characterized by clear, unbroken leans of great height, their waters plunging free of the cliffs to form falls in the most literal sense. It is that fact, rather than their height, that renders them outstanding among waterfalls in the world.
Since most of these falls are fed by the waters from melting snows in the high country about the rim of the Valley, or the more remote High Sierra region, they fluctuate in volume through the seasons. The best time to view them is in the spring and early summer, usually during May and June, with the peak of interest being about Memorial Day. Broadly speaking, they are of small volume, long columns of water descending from great heights, shrouded at their base in clouds of mist and spray as they dash upon the rocks below. Their interest lies in ethereal grace and beauty rather than magnitude.
By means of the system of highways about Yosemite Valley—including the road to Glacier Point overlooking the great granite gorge —one may obtain excellent general views of all but two of the principal waterfalls of this area. In addition, more intimate approach is provided in most cases by numerous trails that lead to the rim from the Valley floor.
But 3 miles after passing Arch Rock Entrance Station, on the All Year Highway from Merced, one sees Wildcat and Cascade Falls (500 ft.) which descend over the irregular granite walls on the north side which characterize the Valley at that point. Although in reality cascades, they are quite beautiful and impressive. Such is particularly true of the latter and a parking area is provided along the highway where it can be viewed to best advantage. Bridalveil Fall (620 ft.) pours over the edge of the South Valley wall and can be seen to advantage from numerous points, particularly from the parking area near its base, from Valley View on the North Valley road, and from the esplanade at the east portal of the Wawona Tunnel. Ribbon Fall (1612 ft.) is best viewed near the junction between the old Big Oak Flat and North Valley roads just before one reaches the base of El Capitan.
Incidentally, El Capitan is enhanced in beauty during the early spring, when numerous small rivulets of water from the melting snow upon its crown, stream from the edge of the 3000 ft. precipice, dissolving into spray in mid-air as they are wafted about in the breeze.
The magnificent Yosemite Falls (2425 ft.) can be seen to advantage from many points, each of which presents this dramatic feature from new and unexpected angles to enhance its charm. Of especial importance in this connection are the views one obtains from the end of the short spur road, paralleling Yosemite Creek, just above Yosemite Lodge. Good views are also obtainable from the South Valley road below the Old Village, from the swinging bridge which spans the Merced River, from the plaza in front of the Park Museum at Government Center, and from Glacier Point. From the latter place Yosemite Falls serves as a highlight in the matchless mountain panorama provided by this location.
The boisterous ribbon of water which forms the Royal Arch Cascade (1250 ft.) can be seen best from points between the Ahwahnee Hotel and Camp Curry.
Of more minor character are Silver Strand Falls (1170 ft.) which may be viewed to the best advantage from the esplanade at the east portal of the Wawona Tunnel, Staircase Falls (1300 ft.) above and in back of Camp Curry, and Lehamite Falls, a not too impressive series of cascades in Indian Canyon which are most advantageously seen from in front of the Park Museum.
Although an excellent comprehensive distant view can be obtained of Vernal (317 ft.) and Nevada Falls (594 ft.) from Glacier Point, both of these must be approached on foot via the trail leading from Happy Isles, at the upper end of Yosemite Valley, to be properly appreciated. This trail also affords a general but not. too satisfactory view of Illilouette Fall (370 ft.). This is best viewed from a point on the “Eleven Mile Trail” between Happy Isles and Glacier Point. Illilouette Fall is one of two falls in the Yosemite Valley area that cannot be seen from a highway. The other is Snow Creek Falls (2000 ft.), composed of a series of cascades. Only its lower part can be seen from a point reached via the trail along Tenaya Creek above Mirror Lake.
Other sections of Yosemite National Park possess waterfalls of considerable interest and beauty but in most cases these suffer by comparison with those of Yosemite Valley. In other parts of this booklet mention is made of Tueeulala (1000 ft.) and Wapama Falls (1500 ft.) in the Hetch Hetchy region. The Tuolumne River also abounds in interesting cascades.
Since it is not mentioned elsewhere, attention should be called to Waterwheel Falls found about three miles below Glen Aulin on the Tuolumne River. It is not a falls in the same sense as those described here but it never fails to capture the imagination of those who hear about them and invariably holds the interest of all who see them. A hike of eight miles from Tuolumne Meadows is necessary if one intends to visit this point of interest. Here the waters of the Tuolumne River rush down the steeply inclined course. Obstructions in the granite of the river bed hurl the waters 30-40 feet into the air in a series of giant “wheels” that extend down the steeply inclined canyon for more than a mile. Visitors should plan to see these waterwheels during periods of high water, normally in July. Diminutive examples are found in several other places in the park, notably on the Silver Apron of the Merced River above Vernal Fall and on the same stream several miles below Merced Lake.
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Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point (Courtesy of the Yosemite Park and Curry Co.)
Photo by Ansel Adams
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