Thursday, April 12, 2018

After the Deluge: Yosemite Valley a Day Later (and a sight I've never seen in more than 100 visits)

Yosemite National Park is a treasure. And the gem of the park is Yosemite Valley. There are spectacular spots to visit throughout the park and region, but ultimately, the sheer granite walls and booming waterfalls are the heart of this part of the Sierra Nevada. Most people know this of course, and the valley struggles with the desires of millions of people who wish to see the park for themselves. There are horror stories of absolute gridlock throughout the valley, with upset families who wait for hours just to get into the park, and then never find a place to park and get to know it better. I can barely imagine the frustration of devoting a hard-earned vacation to see the place and then have it spoiled by the chaos of too many people.
Bridalveil Fall (620 feet) and the Leaning Tower at the west end of the valley
I've been privileged to live relatively close to the park, and in 30 years, I've been there over a hundred times. I've quite literally never had a bad time, but part of the reason is that I've been able to pick and choose the times I visited. It turns out that the time most people set aside for vacation, in July or August, is possibly the least interesting time to do so. It's still spectacular, but the crowds are the worst, the waterfalls mostly dry, and it's hot. In fall, the valley is quieter, and the oaks and dogwoods add a splash of color. Winter brings snow and silence. Spring is noisy because of the waterfalls booming from the canyon rim. If your schedule allows, go there in the off season!
Ribbon Falls only flows in the spring; it's the highest free-falling waterfall in the park at 1,612 feet.
Of course, if you come at another time of year, you would be taking a chance with the weather. That's what happened to me last week. I was scheduled to take my students there on Saturday, but fate intervened with an epic warm tropical storm that dumped inches of rain on the snowpack. The Merced River swelled to nearly 14 feet (10 is official flood level) and major roads in the valley were under a few feet of water. For one of very few times in its history, the park was closed as a precaution and people were evacuated. I was luckily able to reschedule for Sunday, because the sun came up in a cloudless sky and the difference between the two days was astounding.
Upper Yosemite Falls, 1,430 feet high, the second highest in the park after Ribbon Falls (above).
I included some direct comparisons between Saturday and Sunday in my previous post (with thanks to the Park Service for posting pictures of the storm). Today I am offering views of some of the classic views in the park, revealing the vast amounts of water still flowing into and through the valley. The Merced River had subsided somewhat but was still flowing at flood level, but only barely. The main effect was the low-lying valley meadows that were still underwater (the next two pictures).
A flooded Cook's Meadow forms the foreground for Upper Yosemite Falls.
The occasional flooding of the meadows is part of what maintains the meadows as open areas. Tree saplings are smothered underwater, and only grasses and sedges that can survive the high water table. Not all of the meadows have survived however. Since the park was established, some of the original meadows have progressed into thick forest...there are only about 65 acres of meadows left out of the original 745 acres that existed at the time of European discovery. The growth of the forest is largely the result of fire suppression. The park service will occasional burn some of the meadow margins on purpose to help maintain the integrity of the open spaces.
No visit to Yosemite Valley would seem complete without a view of Half Dome, but I have been there a fair number of times when my students never had a chance to see it. When rain is falling, it can be completely hidden in the clouds. But on Sunday it was there in all its glory. The unique shape is due to a combination of exfoliation (the fracturing of rocks parallel to the surface, and jointing, which is the result of expansion as the rock is exposed at the surface. Exfoliation, which tends to remove corners and edges, leads to the rounding of the rock into the dome shape. But a prominent joint crossed the dome, and glacial quarrying at the base caused the rock on one side of the joint to be eroded away, forming the prominent cliff, or face, of Half Dome. When seen from other angles, it is clear that Half Dome should have been called Four-fifths Dome...
Directly across from Half Dome are North Dome and the Washington Column (below). The Royal Arches, in the center-left of the picture, are the result of a sort of reverse exfoliation, where the rock snapped out and fell from the middle of the arch, instead of the overlying cliff.
At the end of our day, we made a final stop at Valley View, one of the unheralded pullouts (only eight parking spaces) with one of the finest views to be had in all the valley (which is maybe why they call it "Valley View"). El Capitan, the sheer 3,000 feet cliff, looms on the left, while the Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls dominate the right side of the valley. A swollen flooded Merced River fills the foreground, with Bridalveil Meadow just across the raging waters. Only one of the ice age glaciers made it past this point, the so-called Pre-Tahoe (or Sherwin) Glaciation that took place around 800,000 years ago. The subsequent Tahoe and Tioga glaciers only reached the base of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. The Pre-Tahoe Glaciation probably did the most work in shaping the valley we see today.
I promised in the title of the post that we would include a sight I have never seen in more than 100 visits to the valley. We arrived that day when the gates to the valley reopened, at noon. A great many other people arrived at the same time, and for the first two hours the valley felt crowded. But by 4 PM, most of the visitors were already on their way back home, and the parking lots were practically empty. That is a sight in itself. But it was the drive out that astounded me.  Every time I visit the valley, Northside Drive from Curry Village to the Visitor Center area is always full of cars. Always.
But these two pictures show the astounding sight...not a single car ahead of us or behind us. For a few precious moments, we had the valley to ourselves. It's something I've never seen before, ever.

There's a secret though...even on the most crowded days in Yosemite Valley, you can find peace, serenity, and quiet. It requires that you park the car and get out. Not every trail is crowded, and in some places you can make your own path through the forest. The number of fellow hikers decreases exponentially with the distance from any paved road. If you are ever given a precious few moments in this grandest of valleys, give it a try. You won't regret it.
And that's the way it was, after the deluge...