If you visit Yosemite any time of year, you should be treated to at least one water fall in the valley, maybe two. Nearby you may see up to three more. On Tioga Road, you might see one and at Hetch Hetchy you may see both of those. In the spring and early summer you will see all of them and countless other road side waterfalls and cascades and other water features, including rivers, lakes and streams.
The grand pubah of water features in Yosemite is Yosemite Falls. It is the fourth tallest waterfall in North America at 2625 feet, counting the Upper, Lower and Middle Cascades of Yosemite Falls.[i] It is so tall, that in the early days of Yosemite (1850s and 60s), eyewitness accounts of their height at 2500 feet were downsized to “over 1,000 feet” by the media because they felt their readership just wouldn’t believe it! There are, maybe, 2 places in the valley were you can view the whole falls. The easiest (surprise, surprise) is on the path up to the Lower Falls.
Another nice spot is over by the parking area near Sentinel Bridge. Well, actually, this shot was taken from the trail on the south side of Cook’s Meadow, just a few hundred feet from the parking lot. As you can see, the middle cascades aren’t visible from here. I took this picture (Yosemite Falls by Moonlight) about 10:30 PM (May 19, 2013). Shooting by moon light is not too difficult unless you have no idea what exposure to use (which I didn’t). It took me quite a while to get it down. I finally got this shot with an exposure of 30 seconds (not 1/30; 30…a half a minute). The aperture was set at 3.5. Focal Length was 18 mm. ISO was at 1600. It was NOT a full moon; the full moon would be the following week. I’d say it was about 70% of a full moon.
The above shot (Yosemite Falls in Motion) showing all three sections of the falls was taken May of 2005. I, of course, had to use a tripod and a neutral density filter because I shot in the day time (the lowest sensitivity my camera had was 200 ISO). I don’t have data on the exposure, but I suspect it was at least 10 seconds (I was still shooting with film back then and later had it scanned in). I like this effect, but it’s really hard to do in direct sunlight. You will notice that trees on right are out of focus because of wind (another draw back to shooting long exposures in the day time). From the same spot, I took this picture the same night I took the one from Cook’s Meadow (Yosemite Falls by Starlight) at about 10 PM. You can see the stars in the sky and that the trees are motionless. You can also see that the tree growth is starting encroach on the scene after 8 years. This was taken with an ISO of 1600, Focal Length 40mm, 30 second exposure, F-Stop of 4.2. I had been there about an hour trying various exposure settings from 20 seconds to 2 minutes. That not easy because everybody and their brother was there either trying to get the same shot, or wondering around with head lamps on, which, of course, ruins the shot.
Finally some guy, obviously well experienced, with, what I’m guessing was a $5000+ digital Nikon set up and took a 30 second exposure and about 20 seconds into it he asked if it was alright if he could “paint with light.” All the photographers were between shots at the time, so we agreed and the non-photographers didn’t care at all. So he took out a 4-D-Cell Mag Flashlight and started running it up and down the trees in the foreground like he was painting them. He spent about 5 or 6 seconds doing that and folded up shop. He told me he was shooting at 1600 at 30 seconds. Any higher ISO and the shot gets grainy any lower and you’ll need a longer exposure, which gives you more time to have things go wrong. He was there, maybe, a minute and a half.
Another place to get all three parts of the falls is from the 4-Mile Trail. Unfortunately, as shown in this picture (Yosemite Falls, Dry), the falls may not be there at all.
Also outside the valley, is the vantage from Glacier Point (Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point).
But there are other falls in the valley. Bridalveil is at the west end of the valley. In addition to being able to walk right up to it, it is visible from Tunnel View, Valley View, from the El Capitan vantage point and across the river from Northside Drive.
Bridalveil is so called because the wind will blow it about making look like the vail and train of a bridal gown.
The Native American name given to the falls was the name of a “vengeful” spirit, Pohono, or the “spirit of the puffing wind.”
This picture (Bridalveil Falls) was taken in the mid afternoon June 3, 2007 from the base of the falls. Here, it can be readily seen its susceptibility of the wind, which is more pronounced in the afternoon.
This image (Briadalveil Falls at Dusk) was taken later in the day at about 7:20 PM (May 17, 2013).
The other three falls are just outside the valley behind Half Dome. The first one, Vernal Falls, about a mile from the trailhead and is on the Merced River.
The trail up from the foot bridge (about a half mile from the trailhead) is called the Mist Trail and is so named because
(you guessed it) the mist that sprays from the falls. Late in the afternoon, heading DOWN the trail is kind of picturesque, because the misty grasses and spray are all back lit by the setting sun (see Down the Mist Trail).
The other falls on this trail is Nevada Falls. This fall was named by Lafayette Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion back in the early 1850s. Because of its bent shape, it causes the falls to spread out looking like a snowy avalanche. Bunnell chose “Nevada” as it is an old Spanish word for “snow” and “…it was the nearest to the Sierra Nevada.…”[ii] The name used by the Ahwahnechee tribe was Yowywe, which also underscores the falls twisted nature, means “worm”. The three easiest places to see the full falls is, from Glacier Point, along the trail between Nevada and Vernal Falls, and along the John Muir Trail.
From Glacier point, it is quite a distance to the falls, but it is distinctive and you can also see Vernal Falls as well
This shot was taken May 18, 2013 at about 10:15 in the morning. The lens was set at an 80 mm focal length, 1/60 a second with an aperture of f16 (see Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point)..
Isolating just Nevada Falls from Glacier Point can be done if you have a powerful Zoom. This was taken with a Nikon D70s with at 80-400 mm Zoom set at 260 mm. 1/20 of a second at f32. ISO was 200 (Nevada Fall Zoomed in From Glacier Point).
From the John Muir Trail you can get a side view (Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail).
On the mist trail (going either way) riverside you can get this view and may get a rainbow. This was taken August 6, 2006. I used a Nikon D70s, set at 24 mm focal length. 1/200 of a second at ISO 200. F-Stop was F7.1. It was just a bit after 6 PM (see Nevada Falls from Riverside).
Also back there, but not as prevalent, is Illouette Falls. It is possible to see it from Glacier Point, but it is difficult. From the far southern end of the viewing area where Vernal and Nevada Falls are easily visible, turn to right slightly and look down and you should see it. This picture was taken from the Panorama Trail (which starts at Glacier Point) and zoomed it the best I could (Illouette Falls from Trail).
It was taken about 1 PM using an 18-70 mm zoom set all the way to 70mm. F-Stop was f9 and shutter speed was 1/80 of a second. ISO was at 200. About an hour later, we found a clearing where we could see straight across to the falls. This was taken with a neutral density filter (ND 9, I believe). Shutter speed was .3 seconds, f-29, 48 mm on an 18-70mm zoom. ISO was 200 (see Illouette Falls).
Those are the major falls in and around the Valley, but there are others. On the road in from El Portel (California Highway 140), just before it reaches the junction with Big Oak Flat Road (which leads to Highway 120), there is a small turnout on both sides of the road where you can glimpse The Cascades (Cascades at Valley Floor). There is a better photo opportunity available up on Big Oak Flat Road. After coming out of the second Tunnel, there is a small turn and a turn out before an overcrossing. This overcross passes over the Cascades that you can see from the Valley floor. On the downside of the road is, quite obviously, the cascades. But the upside
has a nice water formation that really lends itself to one of those flowing cottony, long exposure photos.
This was taken on a heavily overcast day (Memorial Day Weekend 2008) at about 12:30 PM. ISO 200, f-22, .5 second shutter speed. 18mm on an 18-70 mm zoom (The Cascades).
This next one is illusive and I’m not completely happy with this particular shot, but it’s the best I’ve gotten so far. It’s called Horsetail Falls. It is a very wispy falls that happens during the winter when snow melts from the top of El Capitan. Ordinarily, the fall is almost impossible to see, but during the last couple weeks of February, the setting sun is just in the right position along the western
horizon that the light from it skirts the nose of El Capitan and lights up the falls from behind. Because it is a thin fall it is easily kicked up by the wind and that gives it the wispy look of a horse tail or fire fall. It is not clear when it was first noticed. Most accounts attribute the first photograph of Horsetail Falls to Galen Rowell in 1973. There is no record of the Ahwahnechees passing along the event to the white man. Most accounts give Galen Rowell the credit for first documenting the event, but I just read an article by John Muir where he alludes to what may be Horsetail Falls. He was telling of spring and that in addition to the 5 major falls:
“…there are at present fed from the universal snows a large number of smaller cascades and falls, which come down on steps from a few feet to thousands of feet in height. The best known of these are the Big and Little Sentinel, Cascades, the Bachelor’s Tears, and the Virgin’s Tears [today we call it Ribbon Falls]—magnificent weepers both of them. El Capitan is softened with a most graceful little stream that steals confidingly over his massive brow in a clear fall of more than a thousand feet. Seen at the right time the whole breadth of this fall is irised almost from top to bottom.[iii]” (my emphasis).
This image should give you a rough idea what to look for (Horsetail Falls). A lot of things have to come together for the event to show itself. There needs to be snow on the top of El Capitan. It needs to be warm enough during the day for at least some of it to melt creating the falls at all. And the setting sun cannot be blocked by clouds or an overcast sky. If all these things come together, then about 5:30 PM you should see the event and it will last about 10 minutes.
If I was of independent means, I’d plan to be there for the whole last two weeks of February as it would almost guaranty that you’ll be treated to the event. This image (Horsetail Falls) was taken from the picnic area on Northside Drive near the exit (the area enters and the drive horseshoes around to the picnic area then out back onto Northside Drive. But you’ll find people all over the place there and I’ll bet there’ll be fifty or more waiting for the sweet light if you’re there on a weekend.
There are other places that provide an even more interesting vantage point. The one I’d like to capture some time is from an elevated position that, in addition to the lit up falls, shows the snowy crown of El Capitan. This image (see Horsetail Falls (Photographer Unknown)) was found on the internet associated with an article 7 Surreal Places across the United States there was no photo credit given[iv]. I have no idea from where to capture this image. The next time I can make it out there, I’m going to scout around to find it.
Water features, of course, include things like lakes and rivers and, maybe, snow melt on the meadows. So let us not forget Tenaya Lake. The standard picture is from Tioga Pass Road side just around the bend from Olmstead Point (Tenaya Lake).
I like this shot from the shore near the picnic areas. The shot underscores the image of the “crystal clear mountain lake” that it is (Tenaya Lake from Picnic Area).
My wife pointed out his shot. Tenaya Picnic spots — no waiting (Tenaya Picnic).
There are the occasional snow melts like this one at Tuolumne Meadows (Stream in Tuolumne Meadows).
Especially during the spring, there are all kinds of cascades and runoffs along the valley walls and along the Tioga Pass Road. However, before I get into to them, let me point out “Fern Spring.” This is a year around spring roadside near the start of the road on Southside Drive just past the Pohono Bridge.
This was taken October 20, 2011 at about 3 PM. I used the Nikon D70s with the 18-70mm Zoom set at 55mm. ISO was 320, f-22, and speed 4 seconds (Spring in Fall)
One of my favorite roadside cascades it the South Fork of the Tuolumne River as it crosses under Tioga Pass Road. It is about 4 or 5 miles past the Crane Flat service station (eastbound). My favorite shot of this is from one spring in 2007 (Bloom on Cascade).
This was taken with the Nikon D70s with the 18-70mm zoom at 70mm, f-4.5, 1/640 of a second and the ISO was 200.
I like taking those long exposures of water flows, but this one as the same effect, at a higher speed. With a really shallow depth of field, the cascade in the background looks like a time extended exposure when it’s just blurred from being out of focus.
The same cascade taken from under the overpass is shown here (Roadside Cascade).
These cascades are, quite literally, everywhere, along Tioga Pass Road when it is first opened for the season (see Tioga Pass Road Cascades as an example). Naturally, there is the Merced River itself. But then, there is also the Tuolumne, and it’s various forks and, of course, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (but I hesitate to call that a “feature”).
The Merced can be placid (Merced Reflecting the Three Brothers[v]) or a torrent (Raging Torrent to Vernal Falls).
The Back Country has the occasional spontaneous lake or pool
[i] Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_waterfalls_by_height. It marks 20th tallest in the world and 6th tallest in the United States (3 of the top 5 are in Hawaii and the other 2 are in Washington State).
[ii] Discovery of the Yosemite by Lafayette Bunnell, Chapter 13.
[iii] Yosemite in the Spring John Muir 1872, published in the New York Tribute, May 7, 1872
[v]“The Three Brothers” formation was named by Lafeyette Bunnell in honor of Chief Tenaya’s three sons killed during the raid to re-capture Tenaya and his tribes in May of 1851.