By DENNIS WYATT
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — In the mood for some cheap natural thrills?
Then head to Yosemite National Park in the coming weeks to take advantage of the spring snow melt to either gaze at or get drenched by rushing water plunging over the edge of sheer granite walls carved by glaciers and crashing onto the valley floor.
If you are into some serious hiking you can head up from the valley floor to get a view of places such as where Yosemite Creek sends water over a granite lip at 5,404 feet in roaring sheets of water slamming to the ground below.
Even if all you do is meander around the valley, the $30 admission (a pass for one vehicle for seven days) is well worth the trip, roughly a two to two-and-a-half hour drive from the Central Valley.
This is the ideal time to go. The water is flowing and the crowds are still relatively sparse. The tradeoff for the next week or so are highs topping off in the upper 50s and lows that are expected to dip more than a few times below 32 degrees. But then again, bundling up against a slight daytime chill savoring the scenery and perhaps even enjoying a brisk picnic is a joy to remember.
You will not find another place on earth where granite, the power of glaciers, and snowmelt has created such a repertoire of stunning waterfalls cascading into a valley of less than six square miles. It’s why four million people from all over the world venture to Yosemite Valley each year. Yet many of us take it for granted — or have never ventured there — despite it being in our own backyard.
There are a number of waterfalls that cascade over the granite rim above the valley for only a few months max before they disappear.
That’s okay, as you are still left with two world-class falls you can see from the valley floor and another two that are a fairly short hike up the park’s most popular trail — the Mist Trail — that is also the first leg for those heading from the valley floor to top of the iconic Half Dome.
There are a number of other falls in the 1,169 square miles that make up Yosemite National Park. One that I’m lumping in with the valley falls as a must see is one of two that feed Hetch Hetchy Valley that the City of San Francisco flooded when they built O’Shaughnessy Dam, submerging the valley floor for eight miles under as much as 430 feet of water.
Here’s a look at the five waterfalls that are a must see in the next four weeks thanks to the late snowmelt putting them at prime flow levels for near maximum “wow.”
The first waterfall you see when you enter Yosemite Valley proper is Bridalveil. It plunges 620 feet to the valley floor from the south rim.
There are lots of reasons to like Bridalveil. Topping the list is the soaking that you can get this time of year as you near the base.
The best experience I ever had was eight years ago in late March when a mist from the fall strayed hitting us halfway up the trail. As we got closer it turned into rain then a heavy downpour as we neared the observation area.
One couple foolishly tried to open an umbrella for protection but the deluge and the wind kicked up by the power of the falling water made it an exercise in futility.
Most of the year you can reach the rail of the observation area without getting a drop of water on you but what’s the fun in that?
The trail is a half mile round trip from the Bridalveil parking lot. It has an elevation gain of 80 feet that should take about 20 minutes. The fall — that gets its name from its appearance — flows year round.
This is “the” waterfall. It drops 2,425 feet from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall.
There are three ways to get up close vantage points. One is the easy trail near the base of the lower fall. Another is a two-mile round trip to Columbia Rock that has a 1,000-foot gain and is considered a moderate challenge taking most folks two to three hours to make the round trip. At this point on the trail you are often rewarded with a rainbow arcing across the upper fall as well as an incredible roaring sound.
The trip to the top of Yosemite Falls is strenuous and would be a grind if there weren’t so many great places to stop and whip out your smartphone for photo ops. The trip covers six to eight miles round trip with a gain of 2,700 feet.
Rest assured it is more than worth it. The vantage point from the 20th highest waterfall in the world lets you see Yosemite Valley from a different perspective. The views along Yosemite Point rival my favorite from North Dome just to the north.
VERNAL & NEVADA FALLS
The Mist Trail is “the” hike for most Yosemite visitors.
I’d agree if you only had time to knock out one hike in your visit to Yosemite as it packs a lot into the seven-mile round trip to Nevada Fall (1,900 feet of gain) although you can make it a three-mile round trip to Vernal Fall (1,000 feet of gain). I’d be lying if I said it was my favorite hike given it doesn’t end above 10,000 feet on a mountain summit. That said; this is my sentimental favorite. It is where I fell in love with Cynthia.
It hit me perhaps halfway up the wide steps carved in the granite leading to Nevada Fall. And just as I went to steal a kiss, a vibrant rainbow arced across the Merced River from the mist created by water falling to provide a backdrop as I closed my eyes.
It was magical and romantic. Most people who tackle the Mist Trail get the magical part. At the top of the climb there is a huge granite plateau that nature created that’s perfect for basking in the sun as you dry off. The Mist Trail lives up to its name during the spring runoff. You might want to pack a rain jacket.
This is as good a time as any to remind you rocks along a river, creek or waterfalls in Yosemite can be dangerous at any time but especially during the spring runoff. There are very few places in the 1,169 square miles of Yosemite that you will see steel pipe fencing in place. There is even less — perhaps four — where there are signs posted not to cross the fence. Those foolish enough to throw caution to the wind or act without thinking have paid with their lives.
This is the waterfall on the Tuolumne River that drops into Hetch Hetchy Valley.
To reach the starting point for the hike at the top of the dam you take Evergreen Road. It’s the last left-hand turn from Highway 120 before reaching the park entrance.
You eventually will go through a park entrance station but no fee is collected. You need to note, however, that during the spring the gate that leads to the entrance station is only open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you’re not out by 7 p.m. you are locked in until morning.
I used to shun Hetch Hetchy thinking for some reason it wouldn’t live up to its hype plus the fact it wasn’t a peak hike.
That changed four years ago. It took just one hike and I was hooked. I just made my eighth hiking trip there. I’ve taken the hike to Wampa Falls in the spring, summer, fall, and winter. It’s a five-mile moderate round-trip with roughly 200 feet in elevation gain that is a three hour or so excursion. If I’m by myself or with someone who is game, I keep going to Rancheria Falls making it a six to eight mile trip covering 13.4 miles. Rancheria is a classic example of a ribbon fall.
Wampa Falls is an amazing experience. A series of five short bridges take you across the falls about 50 or so feet where the final 400 feet of the fall is buried under 400 feet from water in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Some 1,400 feet above as you look up from the bridges is the top of the fall. If you go in the coming week you may end up taking a shower with your clothes on so take rain jackets.
This hike has a lot of other bonuses. First you are walking across a 430-foot high dam and then through a tunnel bored during the construction of the dam. Then there are the unparalleled vistas from the trail where the lake never leaves your view with the granite walls of the southern rim of the valley soaring above it.
And if you time it right the next three or so weeks will provide a kaleidoscope of spring wildflowers.
Again, all five waterfalls flow year round. But it’s only in the coming weeks that they will be at their rip roaring peak to impress your senses.