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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Jubilee of Yosemite Waterfalls

"The might torrent of snowy, cometized water..."

“Today the (Yosemite) falls were in terrible power. I gazed upon the mighty torrent of snowy, cometized water, whether in or out of the body I can hardly tell—such overwhelming displays of power and beauty almost bring the life out of our feeble tabernacle. I shouted until I was exhausted and sore with excitement…
(The mountain waters of Yosemite Creek at the brow of the falls) “finally moved over the brink with songs that go farther into the substance of our being than ever was touched by man-made harmonies—songs that bear pure heaven in every note. The fleecy, spiritualized waters take the form of mashed and woven comets, going with a grace that casts poor mortals into an agony of joy.”

--John Muir, 16 January 1870

If, like Muir a century ago, you’re an admirer of waterfalls and the surge of wonder they provoke, then a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley is a must. California’s past four years of drought destroyed the annual spectacle, but this winter we managed average rainfall. Though not a banner year like Muir’s 1870, the spring snow melt was producing quite a show. And my buddy Al and I were there, thanks to Amtrak trains, connecting buses, and rustic accommodations at Yosemite’s “Housekeeping Camp” along the Merced river.

The valley exhibits not one, but two of the ten highest waterfalls in the world, and another eleven noteworthy ones to boot. Our mission: get a good look at as many of them in one short visit as our boots and the Park Service shuttle could manage.

We awoke just after dawn, and before breakfast were hiking through Ponderosa pines and Black oaks to the start of the John Muir Trail, where Canyon oaks began to appear. As we passed through the century-old apple orchard of Curry Village, we turned to take in a long view of 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls on the other side of the valley (fifth highest in the world, or so, depending on your list). The roar of the “fleecy, spiritualized waters” had been with us all night, an ever-present benediction filling the entire valley.

We swiveled 180 degrees to the granite dome brooding over Curry Village (brooding uncomfortably close, attested by the many bus-sized fallen boulders on the villages’ edge). And there it was: the 1,300-foot Staircase Falls making its way in a dozen or so tiers from the Glacier Point region above, not massive like Yosemite falls but cleanly etching its thin line down to the valley floor.

But now we were after two more falls as we began the uphill climb along the Merced river towards Half Dome and the Little Yosemite valley of the Merced’s higher elevation above us. A stiff fifteen minute hike brought us abreast of the Illilouette canyon entering from the right, and there at the far end was graceful Illilouette Fall, descending 370 feet from the highlands before winding its way several hundred more feet along the sloping canyon walls to the Merced river.

Another fifteen minutes hike along the “Mist Trail” beside the river brought us to the bridge traversing the Merced, and our view of 317-foot Vernal Fall, the broadest of the waterfalls we’d see today, carrying a mammoth load of water from the entire amphitheater of the Merced watershed between the Clark and the Cathedral ranges above. Here the Merced river is a raging torrent in the spring, which calms only a bit into the summer months, when its deceptive appearance leads unwary waders to its edge, some to be swept away to their deaths in an instant—every summer, with depressing regularity, despite the prominent signs at our bridge warning of the danger.

I’d swam in the Merced far above Vernal Fall, where the river flows through the gently-descending Little Yosemite valley above us, on one of our week long father-son backpacking sojourns in the high country years before, still remembering the shockingly cold temperature of the snow-melt water. And I’d waded in the river as it meanders through Yosemite valley below. But in the three thousand feet in between—it’s a life-threatening risk to be in that stretch in any season.

Al and I turned from the view of Vernal Fall and trudged back to a well-earned breakfast at Curry Village, with nearly four miles under our belts already. Four great waterfalls before breakfast! Then we took the shuttle bus into Yosemite Village (towards the base of Yosemite Falls) and stopped in at the museum there, where I followed the distinctive sound of someone napping flakes off a point. Sure enough, there sat a Maidu native-American park ranger, Ben Cunningham-Summerfield, working on a beautiful piece of obsidian.

Talking with the burly, dark-haired young man, we discovered that he was employing the knowledge of his ancestors not just in the art of transforming chunks of rock into projectile points, but also managing his and his father’s land nearby by the judiciously-employed agency of fire. The native Americans of pre-“discovery” Yosemite had kept the valley an open, productive parkland by annual burning—today it’s a thicket of crowded trees encroaching on the middle meadows (themselves chocked with crowded tourists).

Al enquired about the carved flutes beside Ben, and a nearby docent picked one up and produced a lovely tune from it. When Al handed him a smaller, simpler flute, though, he wasn’t able to coax out any sound at all. Upon which Ben accepted the little flute from the docent and proceeded to enchant us with a gorgeous, haunting melody. Another native-American art at which he excelled. I reflected that here was the best way of honoring your ancestors, by excelling in the arts and skills they had developed for centuries—no, for millennia, according to the archaeological evidence—before my own Euro-American ancestors rudely shoved them aside and took their home land by guns, germs, and steel (as Jared Diamond put it).

After lunch in the Yosemite Lodge food court, it was time for the walk to the nearby base of Yosemite Falls, the valley’s greatest wonder. We joined the throngs hurrying toward the reverberating sound of falling water, Muir’s “songs that go farther into the substance of our being than ever was touched by man-made harmonies—songs that bear pure heaven in every note.” Taking care not to bump into the hundreds of people taking photos of the upper (1,430-foot) and lower (320-foot) falls arrayed in two tiers on the valley’s northern wall, we pressed on to the base of the lower falls, where a wall of mist enveloped us all. Everyone was laughing and posing for photos, the general happiness buoyed by the concentration of “mood-enhancing” negative air ions attendant at all falling water (hence the many bad songs produced in morning showers). Not one of the hundreds of folks gathered here was immune to the general euphoria produced by the spectacle.

Reluctantly Al and I left the scene, following the portion of the creek along which Muir had built a small sawmill for processing downed trees, and embellished with his own “hang nest” where he slept, happy with the sound of the waterfall and the creek over which he perched. We looked back at the north wall as we hiked across the valley and spotted delicate Lehamite Falls in Indian Canyon just east of Yosemite falls. The only fall retaining its native-American name (“arrow wood”), 1,180-foot Lehamite is not well-known, being dwarfed by Yosemite falls beside it, and typically appearing only at the height of the spring snow melt, as a series of steep, multi-tiered cascades.

After a brief visit to the LeConte Lodge on the south side of the valley, built in honor of the Berkeley geology professor who Muir convinced of the glacial origin of the valley, we trudged wearily into Housekeeping Camp on the south side of the valley and permitted ourselves a brief late-afternoon nap, five grand waterfalls under our belts, and more to come.

Why is the seven square miles of Yosemite valley so blessed with waterfalls? Two factors are most important. First, the valley was throughout the past 2 million years scoured by many episodes of massive glaciers bulldozing their way through it. These moving blocks of ice, reaching four thousand feet high and nearly a mile across, interacted with the cleavage joints inherent in the granite rocks to create the famous “U-shaped Valley” deemed to be the mark of glacier-sculpted landscapes.
Secondly, this valley has water flowing into it from all directions, principally Yosemite creek from the north, Tenaya creek from the east, and the dominant Merced river and Illiouette creek from the south. And of course, numerous minor watercourses also find their way to the valley’s cliffs. The Sierra Nevada mountains in which the valley nestles receive abundant precipitation from the moisture-laden Pacific winds flowing up and over the peaks.

So: water from the high country in all directions flowing to a 7-mile long glacier-carved valley with steep, bare cliffs on all sides—waterfall Valhalla. It’s the same setup as the five-mile Lauterbrunnen valley in Switerzerland’s Bernese overlands, where I reveled as a young man, long before I’d seen Yosemite valley, entranced by the limestone (rather than Yosemite’s granite) cliffs and the 900-foot Staubbach Falls.

Now refreshed, we hiked across the valley (whose average width is about two-thirds of a mile) to the Ahwahnee Hotel—and notched our sixth waterfall of the day, the multi-tiered Royal Arch Cascade plummeting 1,250 feet between the Royal Arches and Washington Column behind the Ahwahnee. I celebrated with a surprisingly good vodka Mojito on the veranda of the venerable hotel as I finished Snow Falling on Cedars. (Better late than never.) A wonderful drink and a wonderful novel, to cap a wonderful day of waterfall-watching.

But we weren’t quite through. The other two of the five-highest Yosemite waterfalls were located five miles away, at the mouth of the valley. Too far for a pair of old codgers to walk and back, and beyond the shuttle route as well. So the next morning, as we rode the bus out of the valley to the San Joaquin town of Merced, where we’d catch the Amtrak north to home, I kept my eyes peeled. And was rewarded. As the bus drew even with the Three Brothers rock formation on the north wall, I peered directly across the valley to the south wall. There was Sentinel Rock, and just west of it—yes, Sentinel Falls, all 2,000 feet of it plunging gloriously to the valley floor in six tiers. Many world waterfall lists place Sentinel among the “top ten” falls, a few places below Yosemite Falls. But of course, such lists are surprisingly varied and diverse.

My joy at getting a good look at Sentinel Falls was clouded, however, by the memory that the Three Brothers formation was named for the sons of Chief Tenaya, leader of the Mono Paiute colony inhabiting the 19th-century valley, all three executed by Euro-American vigilantes “clearing” the valley of “undesirable elements” shortly after its discovery.

I crossed to the other, north-side aisle of the bus, wondering if my luck would hold. Massive El Capitan passed by. And there, just west of it: Ribbon Falls, dropping 1,612 feet in one un-tiered plunge, making it the tallest continuous waterfall in North America. My eyes greedily took it all in, the whole continuous plummeting wonder of it. Though a record-maker, Ribbon Falls is ephemeral, lasting only weeks of peak snow-melt in good years. Like life, I reflected, which is also ephemeral and filled with wonder. A fitting capstone to a jubilee of waterfalls, in which I was privileged to view eight of this incredible valley’s thirteen falls.

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