Whitewater runoff

Yosemite’s abundant water displays

Mirror Lake Yosemite WINTER RAINFALL Yosemite’s Mirror Lake is now just a seasonal pool that has nearly completed the process of silting up and becoming a meadow. Photo: Ron Erskine

Plentiful winter rains bring a spring of singular delights: energized creeks, top shelf wildflower displays and green hills that persist through April. As wonderful as our lowland spring has been, it is quaint and timid compared to the cirque du soleil of water shows in Yosemite Valley.

I tend to stay away from Yosemite Valley. The grandeur and beauty of the valley is unrivaled, but the pressing crowds make a visit feel more like a day at Disneyland than an experience in nature. A ranger told me that on Memorial Day just past, the line at the Highway 140 entrance gate was backed up beyond El Portal, a distance of three miles and a three-hour wait; congestion that surpasses your daily commute woes and extinguishes the restorative benefit of a day in a natural cathedral.

Nevertheless, that is where the show is. The same winter rains that lit the desert with special wildflower color are spilling over Yosemite’s granite walls in grand fashion. Despite my feelings about Yosemite Valley, I couldn’t resist seeing a stampede of spring runoff dropping thousands of feet.

Above El Portal, on the approach to the Yosemite’s Arch Rock entrance, the topography steepened and the Merced River became an insane channel of water madness. An immense flow of white water raged over more than around every boxcar-sized block of granite in its way. The impact of water on rock launched spouts of spray skyward. Not a moment’s rest; just incessant rushing and pounding.

As I entered the valley, the landscape reclined and the river relaxed. Now, the water show moved from the roadside to high overhead. Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls are wonders any spring, but each waterfall fumed with the same stunning energy I saw in the river below. With so much water compressed into each stream bed the water leaped from the valley rim as if shot from a cannon.

It was a particular treat to see ephemeral Ribbon Fall, at 1,612 feet, the highest single drop waterfall in North America (Yosemite Falls is higher but it reaches the valley floor in three distinct steps). Tucked in a recess just west of El Capitan, Ribbon Fall is at the foot of a small watershed, so it makes only a fleeting appearance each spring.

We debated the options: a crowded hike to the marquee falls or a quieter route to less spectacular scenery. We chose option two and set out on the Mirror Lake Trail from the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee). Mirror Lake is now just a seasonal pool that has nearly completed the process of silting up and becoming a meadow, the eventual fate of all Sierra lakes. Up Tenaya Creek, Washington Column and North Dome towered overhead. Coming back down, we had a dizzying view up the 4,000 foot sheer vertical wall of Half Dome. Like the other creeks we had seen, Tenaya Creek was a frothy ripsnortin’ torrent that ignored its banks and help us rapt our entire five-mile walk.

You won’t be alone, but Yosemite Valley is putting on quite a show.

Ron Erskine

Ron Erskine

Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.
Ron Erskine

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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.