YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK,CA - Towering granite cliffs, snow-covered peaks and idyllic lush valleys define this glacier-sculpted cathedral of natural beauty and draw millions of visitors every year.

Yet each spring, the main attraction here is simply water.

Roaring cascades of water burst out of sheer rock walls and thunder over massive stone ledges in countless ephemeral waterfalls, some running thousands of vertical feet and all fed by the annual melting of snow in California's majestic High Sierra mountains.

"It is the waterfall capital," says John Braud, a radiologist from Shreveport, La., standing camera in hand on a rocky perch at the top of Vernal Fall, one of the main spring destinations for hikers in Yosemite. "There is no other place like this."

The waterfalls typically peak in May or June and turn dry before July. Yet last year, when the snowfall was double the average size, the waterfalls kept flowing into the new year, to the delight of visitors in the peak summer months.

"To get chilled in the spray of the waterfalls is a treat," says Mike Tollefson, a former park superintendent and president of the Yosemite Conservancy, a non-profit organization that supports preservation work in the park.

Vernal Fall, though one of the smaller waterfalls, is one of its most dramatic. And last year, its most deadly. The clear flow of the Merced River turns to white, angry foam in an instant as it tumbles over the cliff and pounds downward toward the valley floor. When a bigger-than-average winter snowfall produced a record flow, three young tourists were swept to their deaths after crossing the metal barricade where Braud stood photographing one day recently. They were among six people killed in water-related accidents last year, park ranger Scott Gediman says.

The sight of the powerful cascades of water is enough to deter most visitors from venturing into the forbidden water, and the park has warnings posted in various languages and drawings.

Getting to the top of Vernal Fall requires a moderately strenuous climb up the rough rock steps of Mist Trail, though the falls can be viewed more easily from a viewpoint below.

"Ultimately, this is a wilderness area, and visitors need to make good decisions," Gediman says.

Many other waterfalls, fed by creeks that flow into the Merced River, draw crowds as well. The biggest, Yosemite Falls, runs 2,425 vertical feet in three stages. It is the tallest waterfall in North America and fifth-highest in the world, says Gediman, assistant park superintendent. The dramatic view from the base is easily accessible without a climb, and the white cascades appear seemingly in slow motion as they fall to the rocky bottom.

Emily Jacobs, head of interpretive services for Delaware North Companies, the company that manages lodges, hotels and restaurants inside the park, says the flow is lightest in the mornings and, as the sun rises in the sky and melts snow far up in the High Sierra, the water grows larger into the evening. At Yosemite Lodge at the base of Yosemite Falls, springtime visitors fall asleep to a steady roar of water when the flow is near its peak.

Yosemite features iconic landmarks, such as Half Dome, the improbably sliced mound of granite immortalized by Ansel Adams and countless other photographers. El Capitan, a granite monolith reaching 3,000 feet above the valley, is one of the premier attractions for the sport of rock climbing.

Looking closely from the valley on a spring day, one can see climbers appearing as tiny as ants on the side of El Capitan, many spending the night in fabric cocoons hung from ropes.

Yosemite has a rich history that is intertwined with the creation of the national park system. Though he never visited it, President Lincoln signed a federal act protecting Yosemite Valley in 1864 to preserve its beauty for future generations. Congress made it a national park in 1890, a quarter-century before the National Park Service was created to protect it.

In 1927, the park's most dramatic man-made feature opened: The Ahwahnee, a grand hotel with high ceilings, huge fireplaces and displays of art and architecture from both the art deco period and the Native Americans who called the valley home before being pushed out during the Gold Rush.

Every evening at sunset, photographers can be seen at various spots on the valley floor, capturing the orange hues thrown briefly onto Half Dome and other peaks by the dying light.

Phil Hawkins, a pro photographer in Fresno who runs workshops in Yosemite, advises his students that sunset provides the best light for capturing landscape images. "Yosemite is a west-facing park," he says. "You have sunsets that are just jaw-dropping."

Jacobs, the guide, says it's no wonder that 4 million people visit here each year. "This place is full of wow."

About the park

History: Native Americans lived in Yosemite Valley until the Gold Rush. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 to protect the valley. Scottish-born naturalist and writer John Muir was entranced by the area during a visit in 1868 and devoted much of his life to its conservation. He was a founder of the Sierra Club.

When visiting: The park is in California's Sierra Nevada range of mountains, 195 miles east of San Francisco and 313 miles north of Los Angeles. The closest major airport is Fresno Yosemite International, about a 2½-hour drive away. The Yosemite Valley Visitor Center is on Northside Drive in Yosemite Village. Some roads and trails are subject to seasonal closures. Visitor info: 209-372-0200.

Of note: The park is as big as the state of Rhode Island, but most visitors spend their time in the 7-mile-long, 1-mile-wide Yosemite Valley.

By William M. Welch

Read or Share this story: