The water dropped, a pure white ribbon fluttering down-down-down a towering granite wall.
In other winters it was a sight to behold, but to be expected. This year, the return of Yosemite’s waterfalls was more.
Because they had disappeared.
When California is not in a historic drought, winter snow piles up high in the backcountry. Come spring, it melts, running down rivers and over cliffs. Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls build to thundering crescendos and drum all summer. Some seasons, if it’s hot and dry, the cascade of water stops for a beat at the tail-end of summer, until the autumn rains.
This has been the hottest year on record in California. Wildfires raged around and in the park. Fall rains didn’t come.
The famous granite walls were mostly dry by the end of June, and no one was sure whether the waterfalls would return by Christmas.
In the first week of December a storm passed over the Sierra Nevada. It rained for two days up high near Tuolumne meadows.
“One day later, Yosemite Falls came back,” said Ryan Sheridan, a park employee at Denegan’s Deli. “I was riding my bike to work and I just stopped and kept looking. It’s hard to miss. It’s the essence of pure power.”
Bridalveil Fall and Cascade Fall also were running. He feared it wouldn’t last. But just as the rumble of water started to fade, another storm renewed the volume.
“Hopefully we get a lot of snow and the falls come back with a vengeance,” said Sheridan, 22. “I don’t think it means the drought is over or that the climate isn’t changing, but it’s comforting to see a natural process greater than anything we can control.”
Yosemite Falls is probably the park’s most famous waterfall. One of the tallest in North America, it’s actually three separate waterfalls that drop a total of 2,425 feet. It can be seen — and heard — in much of Yosemite Valley.
Craig Jeschke, of Robinson, Kan. (pop. 300), had seen photos and watched videos, and long wanted to do exactly what he was doing on a recent day: stand in front of Yosemite Falls.
It was a 15th-anniversary trip for him and his wife, Elizabeth. The kids were at home. They’d rented a convertible, drank wine in Napa and seen the ocean. But this was the highlight.
He hadn’t known the falls had stopped before recent storms.
“Did you hear that, Liz? California is in a drought. The falls weren’t running,” he called to his wife.
She came to him and held his hand.
“I’m happy it rained our first day here, " she said. “My husband has a thing for waterfalls. That sound is something man can’t make.”
Above the valley, the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada falls is one of Yosemite’s most dangerous and popular hikes. A summer day can see 2,000 visitors.
With another storm moving in and the route that stair-steps beside Vernal closed for the winter, Madi Kaufman and Lily Logan were among a handful on the trail.
The two 21-year-olds have been best friends since they were 3. Logan was boarding a plane in Florida to come home to the Bay Area for winter break when Kaufman called and said, “Let’s go to Yosemite.”
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Kaufman said. “But it had been storming. It rained more in the past three weeks than all of 2013, so we thought, ‘Let’s go see.’”
Driving up, they saw the trees sparkle with crystalline snow. Waiting for the bus to the trailhead, they made eye contact with a statue-still buck. Now they were taking a snapshot on an empty footbridge with a view of Vernal Fall.
“It’s so much beauty. So much water,” Logan said.
The Merced River, flowing under the bridge, was dry-rocks low — a reminder of snowpack that was 25% of normal last spring. Even damp, twigs broke under foot with a brittle crunch.
But throughout the valley, there was a sound that had been missing: moving water. Creeks were running, rivers were beginning to rise, and the low roar of waterfalls bounced off granite walls.
Lucy Garces, 27, a park employee, found it comforting.
“I was a little terrified this summer. There were fires all around. Every time, they said it depended on which way the wind blew if there was going to be fire in the valley,” she said. “Now there are waterfalls surrounding us again.”
She’s been visiting Yosemite Falls every chance she gets.
“When you stand close, the decibel level seems impossible,” she said.
“You can hear the power and the danger and you feel so small, but it’s so big that you get to be here and cherish it.”