by Tracie Cone
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – Water, water everywhere — and it’s a spectacular sight.
Record Sierra snowfall over the winter now means record snow melt as temperatures rise, swelling Yosemite National Park’s iconic waterfalls, streams and rivers to their most turbulent level in years.
Yosemite Falls, the nation’s tallest, is spewing enough water to fill a gasoline tanker truck every two seconds. The force of water at Bridalveil Falls across the valley kicks up a mist that clouds the meadow below.
It means that until the peak melt around mid-June, visitors will experience more treacherous beauty in Yosemite than even the travel brochures promise.
“Breathtaking, that’s what it is,” said Lynne Bousie of Scotland, who stopped to pose for a photograph at the spot where the paved trail to Yosemite Falls makes a turn and the first full view of its entire 2,425-foot drop comes into view.
Water cascading from the many signature falls that cut across Yosemite’s granite walls (as well as countless unnamed ones that spout only in peak years like this) is swelling the Merced River. For the next few months the roar of violently churning water will drown out all other background noise in the park.
“Some falls that you can see now don’t have names and aren’t even on the map,” said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb.
Already the frigid, 40-degree river that drains Yosemite Valley’s snowmelt is flowing at more than 1,600 cubic feet per second, carrying people and objects away at more than 10 mph.
“That’s infinitely more powerful than anyone can imagine,” said Moose Mutlow, coordinator of Yosemite’s swift water rescue program, which began practicing for the season on Thursday. “You can’t keep up with someone if the water is that fast and you’re running and dodging trees.”
Even minor creeks and streams are flowing hard, which has forced closure of a few campsites. Because of the mild spring, the danger of flooding has been reduced.
Thanks to a snowpack twice as deep as usual park officials say the ephemeral falls like Yosemite that dry up in early summer will still by flowing into August. For the first time in a long time record melt and the peak visitor season are falling on the same weekend.
Yosemite Valley was carved eons ago by the ebb and flow of glaciers over many ice ages. The sheer 3,000-foot granite cliffs drain multiple watersheds, each sending a cascade of water into Yosemite Valley. Some flow for only a few weeks — or in dry years not at all.
It’s a dangerous beauty both in its force and in the allure that draws some people near. Rangers warn visitors to keep a safe distance and to be mindful the water makes granite boulders slippery.
Two people died earlier this month in accidents that might have been attributed to the water. One visitor slipped and fell below Yosemite Falls, where raging water sends a wet shroud over trails and rocks. Another fell into the Merced River, where he swiftly was carried about 150 yards and lodged under a rock. It is presumed he drowned.
Only three of Yosemite’s dozens of waterfalls can be counted on to flow all year — Bridalveil, Vernal and Nevada, and the last two require a steep hike. For a few more weeks, however, even those without the stamina for long walks can experience something rare and special.
“We are very lucky the timing was right,” said James Ayres of England as he gazed at Yosemite Falls. “This is incredible.”