Epic Spring Runoff In Yosemite Valley Creates Rare Opportunities For Photographers

A couple of weeks ago I was catching up on a pile of work on my computer when I came across an LA Times story describing how the Merced River was approaching flood stage due to the heavy run off from the record breaking snowfall earlier in the year.  A few hours later I was headed out of my driveway at 2 AM to make a stop at the Alabama Hills for a quick sunrise shot before heading across to Yosemite via the 14, 58 and 99.  By mid afternoon, I pulled into the valley only to find that the entire South side of the park was gridlocked by traffic.  It took me over an hour to get around the corner at Sentinel Bridge and to finally find a parking spot West of Camp 4.  Apparently, a ton of other people had read about the flooding and the park was jam packed in spite of the rain that was forecast for the weekend.

My first stop was going to be Swinging Bridge as I was very curious to see if the bridge was actually submerged and to see how high the Merced was flowing.  As I was stuck on the North side, I thought I would simply walk across to the bridge, but as I looked out from the Yosemite Lodge overflow parking, I could see that the path to the bridge, along with most of the surrounding meadow, was completely submerged.

I bailed on that idea and realized that if I was going to get back to the South side, I’d have to walk across the footbridge that connects Cooks Meadow to the meadow North of the Chapel.  As I came around the corner, I could see that the path was not submerged, but the river had definitely crested on that side and much of the meadow next to the river was now under water.


I also noticed two waterfalls that were flowing very well down the South side of the valley.   I believe the one on the left is Sentinel Fall, but I don’t know if the second one is named.


Before I crossed over to the South side, I noticed that the overflow from the river had created some nice reflections of the Chapel that usually aren’t available, so I sloshed over to grab a couple of shots.

Once I arrived at the Chapel, I could see how much of the meadow was completely submerged.  It looked as if a second branch of the Merced was now flowing.

Further down, the boardwalk that usually takes visitors down to the river’s edge was also under water, but the reflections in this area were amazing:


Even further, toward Swinging Bridge, the reflections from the new Spring flood waters were even more spectacular.  The view here is NOT from the river, but simply the flooded meadows surrounding the Merced:


Once I arrived at Swinging Bridge, I could see how close the river had come to submerging the bridge.  When I arrived, I saw that someone had placed police tape across the bridge presumably to block it from traffic, but someone had broken it and now people were shooting from the bridge and the other side.  So across I went!  The water level might have subsided and I can’t recall when they were forecasting the river to crest, but it looked to me like the river had about another foot before it would have gone under:

After crossing the bridge, I shot the valley from the center for a while before the rain really began to come down again.

I took another look at the path, but there seemed to be a fairly strong current moving over it and I could imagine myself going down hard on the slick mud, and decided to make the long walk back to the foot bridge by the chapel and then back to the car. On the way back, I noticed another fall East of Yosemite Falls.  Not sure about the name of this one either, but it looked like it was located around Indian Canyon.

I should also mention that ALL of the other falls were flowing very well, including ribbon falls, horsetail, and the cascades next to Royal Arches. I’ve never SEEN that much water in the park before!

As the clouds moved in heavier with the rain, I decided to bail and to head down to Oakhurst to grab a look at the weather.  I USED to be able to check the weather on my phone at the tunnel as the tunnel parking area has fantastic reception for ATT and Verizion customers, but T-Mobile gets squat in the park.  I also knew that if the weather wasn’t going to break, I could then just head home early.   After arriving at Jack-in-the-Box (Free wifi!) , I grabbed some dinner and looked at the satellite and radar.  The NWS was calling for an 80% chance of rain all night with more rain due to move in the following day.  So it looked like a safe bet to just head home.  But the satellite showed that the low pressure system had moved far further South than what they had forecast, and the clouds looked like they were already beginning to break apart.  I decided to bet against the NWS and headed back up to the park.

Sure enough, the coulds broke apart as I got closer to the tunnel on highway 41, and when I came through the tunnel, I could see that the storm had broken and the valley was now completely lit by a 3/4 moon.

I wasted no time in heading directly back to swinging bridge where I took the shot at the top of this blog post before heading out to the meadow to look for more reflections.

After shooting the area around Swinging Bridge, it was off to grab some shots of Yosemite Falls from other locations.  The clouds rolled across the falls as I left Swining Bridge, but as I drove across Sentinel Bridge, the clouds broke apart again and I slammed on my brakes and quickly pulled into the parking area.  I had just enough time to grab a few shots of the refleciton of the Falls in the moonlight before the clouds moved in again.

I decided to head back up to the tunnel to see what the valley looked like, but I ended up slamming on my brakes again as I approached the Bridal Veil viewing area on the North side.  The clouds were breaking again, and the falls were catching a dazzling amount of moonlight:


After shooting a few more frames, I tried to shoot the Gates of the Valley view, but the clouds had moved in again.  I headed up to the tunnel and grabbed a few more shots before a large cloud blew in and suddenly all of the moonlight was gone.  A second wave had blown in.  I drove back to the meadow West of the Chapel and tried to catch some ZZ’s as it was now approaching 3 AM.

I woke to the sound of other photographers and groggily jumped out and kept shooting.  The sun almost broke through a couple of times, but by 10 AM it was raining again and this time it looked like there would be no let up.  So it was time to head back home.  But not before grabbing one more shot of the Valley.

To summarize, it was a huge pain to drive all the way back to Yosemite, but to see that many waterfalls flowing throughout the park along with the river near flood stage with all of the flooded meadows…it was more than worth it.  The Dogwoods were blossoming EVERYWHERE, and the reflections!  If you get the chance to see the park in the Spring with a heavy run off from recent storms, take it!





4 thoughts on “Epic Spring Runoff In Yosemite Valley Creates Rare Opportunities For Photographers

  1. Greg Stevenson

    That looks incredible! I’ll have to plan a spring trip.

  2. Gena Warrington

    I enjoy your photos and blog. Thanks for sharing. Along with your pointers. I’m a “work in progress” Photograper.

  3. So neat seeing all that water in the valley! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mike Day

    Amazing as usual good sir. Your work continues to inspire.

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