The Yosemite valley waterfalls don’t all always have water all year. Some dry up completely. Their flow depends on the amount of snow, how fast it melts, the drainage of each fall and on occasional rain storms.
Below is a NPS photo of Yosemite Falls during peak flow on May 23, 2003. Notice how high the river water level is and how much more flow than in the photos at the top of this page from April, February, and later summer with more normal flows.
John Muir described the spring and fall seasons in Our National Parks, Chapter VIII, The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite National Park:
“In the spring, after all the avalanches are down and the snow is melting fast, it is glorious to hear the streams sing out on the mountains. Every fountain swelling, countless rills hurry together to the rivers at the call of the sun,– beginning to run and sing soon after sunrise, increasing until toward sundown, then gradually failing through the cold frosty hours of the night. Thus the volume of the upper rivers, even in flood time, is nearly doubled during the day, rising and falling as regularly as the tides of the sea. At the height of flood, in the warmest June weather, they seem fairly to shout for joy, and clash their upleaping waters together like clapping of hands; racing down the cañons with white manes flying in glorious exuberance of strength, compelling huge sleeping boulders to wake up and join in the dance and song to swell their chorus…
In tranquil, mellow autumn , when the year’s work is about done, when the fruits are ripe, birds and seeds out of their nests, and all the landscape is glowing like a benevolent countenance at rest, then the streams are at their lowest ebb,–their wild rejoicing soothed to thoughtful calm. All the smaller tributaries whose branches do not reach back to the perennial fountains of the Summit peaks shrink to whispering, tinkling currents. The snow of their basins gone, they are now fed only by small moraine springs, whose waters are mostly evaporated in passing over warm pavements, and in feeling their way from pool to pool through the midst of boulders and sand. Even the main streams are so low they may be easily forded, and their grand falls and cascades, now gentle and approachable, have waned to sheets and webs of embroidery, falling fold over fold in new and ever changing beauty.”
You can read the entire book at:
Some falls have a bigger drainage feeding them than others or have soil that holds more water longer. For example, Vernal Fall (height 317 feet) and Nevada Fall (height 594 feet) have more acreage of land with snowmelt to feed them than Yosemite Falls (upper fall 1430 feet, middle cascade 675 feet, lower 320 feet) does. According to the park: “The watershed at the source of the Merced River contains 118 square miles. Beginning along the eastern ridges of the Clark range, which often retains snow year-round, the Merced River flows through a large, glacially scoured basin. The watershed is drained by a seemingly infinite number of waterways, and Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall seldom if ever run dry.”
So in August or September Yosemite Falls may be dried up or just a trickle, but Vernal and Nevada will still be falling.
The Bridalveil Fall (height 620 feet) drainage was never scoured by glaciers. We learn in The Waterfalls of Yosemite, by Michael Osborne, that “the watershed of Bridalveil Creek is about 25 square miles in area and largely forested. Because its moderately large watershed has especially deep soils, Bridalveil is Yosemite’s only tributary waterfall that does not become dry. The others usually go dry in the Autumn, but are revived by November rains.”
Bridalveil fall in September, with just a wisp of water:
and in February 2017, with full flow:
How much water has been flowing the last few days?
To see the water flow at Happy Isles where the section of the Merced River that fills Vernal and Nevada falls enters the valley, click on this webcam link:
You can also find a Weekly Video & Image Archive.
The U.S. Geological Survey maintains stream gages along the Merced River in two locations in Yosemite Valley. The info, with the median daily streamflow based on over 80 years of record (the little triangles you will see on the chart) is at:
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How cold is the water in the Merced River in Yosemite valley right now? Scroll down at:
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Yosemite Valley spring runoff and flooding / Yosemite snow pack has statistics and links,
The Merced river drainage mentioned below is the water for the Little Yosemite Valley waterfalls, such as Vernal, Nevada and Bunnell Cascade.
May 1, 2017 snow surveys. The water content of the snowpack in the Merced drainage is 201% of average. The water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage is estimated at 167-180% of average. The snow pack is heavily weighted toward the higher elevations, with many courses over 200% of their May 1 average.
April 1, 2017 snow surveys. The water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage is 177% of average; in the Merced drainage it is 168% of average. The snow pack is heavily weighted toward the higher elevations. Below 7,500′ the snow is deep but not exceptional; 143% of average across the park. Above 8,500′ the water content of the snowpack is the highest on record. The snow on the high elevation courses is 10-14 feet deep and contains 5-7 feet of water.
March 1, 2017 snow surveys. The water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage is 208% of average; in the Merced drainage it is 177% of average. Several courses established new records for both depth and water content. The snowiest course in the park is Grace Meadow, with 16 1/2 feet of snow and over 7 feet of water content.
May 1, 2016 The water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage is 57% of average; in the Merced drainage it is 63% of average.
April 1, 2016 snow surveys showed water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage at 89% of average; in the Merced drainage at 91% of average. According to the park “The April 1 survey is considered the benchmark for the year; the water content of the snowpack typically peaks near this date.”
March 1, 2016 snow surveys showed water content of the snowpack in the Tuolumne drainage at 101% of average; in the Merced drainage at 89% of average.
Feb. 1, 2016 snow surveys showed water content for the Merced river drainage at 105% of average and the Tuolumne drainage at 132% of average.
May 1, 2015 snow surveys showed water content for the Merced river drainage at 0% of average and the Tuolumne drainage at 3% of average.
April 1, 2015 snow surveys showed water content for the Merced river drainage at 2% of average and the Tuolumne drainage at 7% of average.
March 1, 2015 snow surveys showed water content for the Merced river drainage at 12% of average and the Tuolumne drainage at 16% of average.
Feb. 1, 2015 snow surveys showed water content for the Merced river drainage at 21% of average and the Tuolumne drainage at 22% of average.
June 7, 2010 the Merced River had it’s highest recorded flow on that date from 93 years of records.
2005 was the 7th wettest season on
record for the park (for 4/1). The top six years: 1983, 1969, 1952, 1995,
1978, and 1993.
Warm spring weather and rain caused some of the huge 2005 snowpack to flood Yosemite valley on May 16, 2005 and close all roads into and out of the valley for a short time. On May 17, high water levels peaked at about 11 feet, 6 inches in Yosemite Valley at about 5:00 PM.
In the NPS photo of flooded Sentinel Meadow taken May 16, you can just make out the sunken edge of the boardwalk across the meadow between the two posts on the fence and can just see Yosemite Falls thru the low clouds in the background.
Next to it is the same place in June, 2005, and on the right, Feb. 4, 2008.
Since the most flow is usually in the spring, this means that during full moons in April and May (if the night sky is clear) you can often see a “moonbow” at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. It’s like the rainbow you see sometimes in the spray of a waterfall during the day, but more silvery with no strong primary colors. You can see it from fairly up close (turn off those flashlights so you don’t wreck your night vision) and sometimes from far away, like up at Glacier Point.
Below: when we hike the Mist trail (one of the routes between Vernal and Nevada) in its mistiest months we like to either wear better rain gear than this, or wear a minimum amount of clothes and plan to get soaked. (But we always bring warm things to put on after.)
Vernal Fall Mist Trail has pictures of Vernal Fall from the trail, from Glacier Point, Washburn point and from near Clark Point.
To see a 360 degree view of Vernal Fall from near the top of the steps of the Mist Trail, go to
The tiny tan dot in the lower left of the Yosemite Falls photo below is a coyote looking for breakfast.
Sometimes, during rain storms at a higher elevation than normal in the winter, big spring storms that melt the snowpack faster, or during huge thunderstorms, there are more waterfalls than usual, ephemeral falls .
John Muir wrote of a Dec. 19, 1871 storm with “Yosemite rejoicing in a glorious flood.” He counted six falls in the neighborhood of Glacier Point; “between the Three brothers and Yosemite Fall, nine; between Yosemite and Royal Arch Falls, ten; from Washington Column to Mount Watkins, ten; on the slopes of Half Dome and Clouds Rest, facing Mirror Lake and Tenaya canyon, eight… fifty-six falls occupying the upper end of the valley.”
Read the whole text of this chapter ‘Winter Storms and Spring Floods’ from the book The Yosemite
A couple of these ephemeral falls have names:
Ribbon Falls comes down the canyon to the side of El Capitan and becomes a creek through El Capitan Meadow.
Horsetail Fall, on the east side of El Capitan, (1,000 feet) flows from about December to April, lights up in mid to late February “when the angle of the setting sun sets the waterfall ablaze with reds and oranges, like a fire was falling down the cliffs on the shoulder of El Capitan.” This Firefall comes and goes in roughly only ten minutes. For photos, viewing info and allowed parking:
Yosemite nature podcasts: http://www.nps.gov/yose/photosmultimedia/ynn.htm episode #2 is Yosemite Falls
Below: Upper Yosemite Fall in April, 2004, August, 2003 and National Park Service photos of Upper Yosemite Fall in early April, early and mid May, 2003, dried up in September, 2003 and with a snow cone forming Nov. 14, 2004, Dec. 12, 2004, and a snow cone Feb. 11, 2004.
Upper Yosemite Fall drops 1,430 feet, (nine Niagra Falls stacked on top of each other). In the winter the water falling down Yosemite Creek often freezes as it goes over the top, creating a snow cone or ice cone at the base of upper Yosemite Fall.
The Park website tells us: “During winter, sunny days between storms keep the falls in the valley at a trickle; they are transformed into pillars of ice by freezing night temperatures. The Yosemite Falls ice cone forms when water spray, frozen to the granite wall, loosens as it is warmed by the sun and spills to the base of the upper falls.
Water that does not freeze builds up on the cone, and as the temperature continues to rise, the water falls straight into the cone like a reverse volcano. The cone can grow to heights of 250 feet and can cover up to four acres.”
Below: a NPS photo,
Webcam of Yosemite Falls http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/webcams
John Muir wrote “In winter the thin outer folds and whirling spray of the great Yosemite Fall are frozen while passing through the air freely exposed, and are deposited around the base of the fall in the form of a hollow, truncated cone, which sometimes attains a height of 400 feet.
In the building of this cone, part of the frozen spray flows directly to its place in the form of minute particles like the dust of wind-beaten snow, but a considerable portion is frozen upon the face of the cliff along the edges of the fall and attains a thickness of a foor or more during the night. When the sun strikes this ice-coating on the cliff it is cracked off in large masses and built into the walls of the cone, while in windy, frosty weather, when the fall is swayed from side to side, the whole surface is drenched, dinding the whole mass of loose blocks and dust firmly together. While in the porcess of formation the surface is smooth, and pure white, the outlines finely drawn, the whole presenting the appearance of a beautiful crystal hill wreathed with clowds of irised spray, with the fall descending into the heart of it with a tremendous roar, as if pouring down the throat of a crater.”
Ice also builds up overnight at the edges of the falling water. You will need to get up early to photograph this. NPS photo below:
The NPS photo below was taken December 23, 2003. People who have not been to Yosemite in the winter might imagine that the valley looks like all the publicity photos with snow all over in the winter, but the valley is more often without snow or with little snow. When it does snow you need to get out of bed early to get pictures. Especially for sights on the north side of Yosemite Valley, with the low angle of the winter sun, the snow on the trees and cliffs will melt shortly after the sun is well up. The south side of the valley has some cliffs in shade all winter and has more snow buildup. The Indians originally lived on the north, ‘sunnyside.’
Snow chains for tires can be required over half of the year, the photo below, from the NPS, taken on April 9, 2005, shows why:
Upper Yosemite Fall Hike, has pictures, including a couple of nice rainbows.
Below: the line on the sign next to Sentinel Bridge in the upper right of this photo shows the water depth during the January 1997 Yosemite valley flood:
In the NPS photo below, taken from Taft Point on May 15, 2004, we can see lots of water flow from Yosemite Falls, but we can also see that the cliffs, hills of the Yosemite Falls drainage are practically free of snowpack.
Royal Arches Cascade in three seasons:
Below, awhile after an April sunrise, the sun just starts to touch the cliffs of Royal Arches Cascade.
and almost dried up in May 2014:
and in full flow during rain storms in February 2017:
At the start of the trail to Mirror Lake, along the cliffs, (across the parking lot from the Majestic (Ahwahnee) hotel), in some months, you can see and feel mist from the Royal Arch Cascades. In heavy rain – two photos below from February 2017 – the white is not snow, it is rushing water – this section of trail can become an unsafe creek/river!
Compare the photo above to April 2017:
And with the heavy rains falling on already deep snow in early February 2017, many of the Upper Pine campground campsites flooded and most parking spaces were ponds. At one point one and a half loops of normally open campsites in Upper Pine campground were closed.
There was toooo much snow at the ski resort so it closed for awhile also.
Any fall or cascade that falls directly in contact with the cliff walls in the valley will warm up as it drops, and there can be little soaking pools in the rocks with comparatively warm water. Below, the view from one at the base of Royal Arches Cascade (known as Devil’s Bathtub):
In Yosemite Falls—A New Perspective, N. King Huber, Geologist Emeritus with the U. S. Geological Survey,
he notes that “Yosemite Creek is the largest stream flowing into the north side of Yosemite Valley and probably entered the pre-glacial Merced River canyon through a steep side ravine.”
Heights of some Yosemite National Park waterfalls:
Yosemite Falls: 2,425 feet (with its three sections, it makes up the tallest waterfall in North America)
Upper Fall: 1,430 feet
Middle Cascade: 675 feet
Lower Fall: 320 feet
Bridalveil Fall: 620 feet
Ribbon Fall: 1,612 feet
Vernal Fall: 317 feet
Nevada Fall: 594 feet
Illilouette Fall: 370 feet
Silver Strand Fall: 1,170 feet
Sentinel Fall: 2,000 feet
Horsetail Fall: 1,000 feet
A National Park Service photo of Yosemite Falls on Jan. 14, 2004
The Yosemite park service trail descriptions page (with some photos) starts at:
(Backpackers should always check with the Rangers before going out to verify if streams are still flowing, or on the other hand, if trails are safe from water flow.)
Yosemite nature and photography links has the links to birding, geology, wildflowers info previously at this page as well as moonbow or lunar rainbow info.
Photos in the book Yosemite: Its Wonders and Its Beauties (1868) by John S. Hittell
To calculate sunset, sunrise, moonrise for trips go to http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/monterey/sunset.html
to see a live, or nearly live shot of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, go to
At this site you can become a member of the Yosemite Conservancy (formerly the Yosemite Association) and get 15% off on books, postcards, etc. at the Yosemite (and most other National Parks) visitor centers.
below: swimming next to a waterfall at Glen Aulin
In the book, Yosemite, The First Hundred Years, the author, Shirley Sargent, writes “A woman who visited Yosemite Valley during a dry autumn, when not so much as a drop of water slipped over Yosemite Falls, was put out. “We drove clear across the country to see this place,” she complained, “and there’s nothing but rocks!” “
Swimming or wading above waterfalls is dangerous. Almost every recent year someone, or even more than one person, has been swept over a Yosemite waterfall. Some people just got too close trying to get a picture. Others climbed over protective railings/fences.
fatal, near fatal or close call incidents/accidents in camping, backpacking, climbing and mountaineering for details.
Below, a warning sign above Vernal Fall.
http://www.nps.gov/yose/photosmultimedia/ytp.htm click on Beautiful but Deadly
Not a waterfall, the 1872 to 1968 firefall off Glacier Point:
Imagine Tueeulala and Wapama falls in all their glory…
Bridalveil Fall and Nevada Fall
photos by Quang-Tuan Luong/terragalleria.com, all rights reserved.