The Falls in
by Karen Sorenson
Yosemite Falls. No single feature
has contributed more to the wide acclaim of Yosemite National
Park. The beauty and power of this waterfall—the world’s
fifth tallest—are unrivaled in the United States, and its
allure spans the globe. No matter what the season, Yosemite
Falls inspires all who view it.
Just like other components of nature,
Yosemite Falls is highly affected by the seasons. The waterfall
is at its height in spring and early summer, when melting winter
snow collected along the high country path of Yosemite
a torrent of water that plunges over the cliffs into the Valley.
The avalanche of water fills the rock basin with spray and consequent
wind. Rainbows appear and disappear, and the thundering sound
of the Falls reverberates in the Valley and rattles windows at
Yosemite Lodge. By late summer, Yosemite Falls becomes a mere
trickle, and often dries up entirely by autumn when the nearby
oaks, dogwoods and maple trees are awash in vibrant color.
In winter, a completely different
phenomenon occurs at Yosemite Falls. “Every clear, frosty
morning loud sounds are heard booming and reverberating from side
to side of the Valley,” wrote Yosemite’s famous naturalist,
John Muir. “The strange thunder is made by the fall of sections
of ice formed of spray that is frozen on the face of the cliff
along the sides of the Upper Yosemite Fall . . . This frozen spray
gives rise to one of the most interesting winter features of the
Valley—a cone of ice at the foot of the fall, four or five
hundred feet high.” In official records, the maximum height
of the cone is documented at 322 feet, about as tall as a 25-story
building. When temperatures warm in early spring, the water from
the Upper Fall begins to drill a hole at the top of the cone,
creating a volcano-like structure, and by mid-April, most of the
cone has melted. Another winter occurrence in and around Yosemite
Falls is “frazil ice,” a substance that forms in waterfalls
and creeks when water becomes super cooled. Turbulence cools the
water so that ice crystals form and group into spongy masses,
which sometimes overflow the creek bed. In Yosemite Creek, frazil
ice has frequently covered trails and damaged bridges, and has
even flowed through buildings that once bordered the creek. In
1997, frazil ice was above the railings of the Lower Yosemite
Fall bridge, almost completely burying it!
Throughout most of the year, the beauty
of Yosemite Falls is no less breathtaking. But the influence of
this waterfall stretches well beyond its immediate impact on viewers.
The grandeur of Yosemite Falls played a primary role in motivating
key individuals to call for the preservation of natural wonders,
rather than exploitation of them. It was this call that led
President Abraham Lincoln to set aside Yosemite
Valley and the
Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in 1864 for permanent protection and
the enjoyment of the public. The establishment of national parks
was not far behind. The beauty and influence of Yosemite Falls
cannot be overestimated. From American Indians and pioneers, to
scientists and artists, to millions of annual visitors, Yosemite
Falls has inspired all who make the pilgrimage to see this icon
Karen Sorensen is the former publications
manager for The Yosemite Fund. Her article first appeared in The
Yosemite Fund’s periodic magazine, Approach.
This article first appeared in
the Winter/Spring 2002-2003 edition of the Yosemite Guide (vol.
XXXII, no. 2).