Springtime Splendor in Yosemite

As the winter snows thaw, visitors flock to the popular national park to see frazil ice, moonbows and other seasonal sights

Springtime visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to sweeping views of lush landscapes. (Oleksandr Buzko / Alamy)

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Signs of spring abounded as we crossed the valley floor. The branches of the deciduous trees were still stark and nearly naked against the sky, but closer inspection showed tiny chartreuse leaves ready to unfurl along the branches. The meadows were covered in feathery green. Some snow still lay along the road among the shadowed evergreens, like a thick layer cakes documenting the winter’s storms, as well as on the mountain tops. Waterfalls burst from the peaks in great white plumes. Only a few other cars were on a road that would be clotted with traffic in summer.

By the time we reached the park service office, the clouds were spitting rain. We met up with naturalist Bob Roney, who had agreed to help us find some frazil ice. He set off at a brisk pace toward Yosemite Falls despite the rain. We passed a grizzled old apple orchard where the bears tore down the branches last fall, trying to get the apples. We passed the spot where 19th century naturalist John Muir lived and worked at a sawmill. We passed a tiny pine tree jutting from a crack in a huge boulder.

“That was there the first summer I started working here,” Roney said. “It hasn’t gotten any bigger.

Roney has been a park ranger at Yosemite since 1968, and he told us he’d seen his share of frazil ice. Soon he stopped at a footbridge over Yosemite Creek. “Imagine a daiquiri 12 feet high,” he said. “The first time I saw the frazil ice, it got so high it lifted this bridge off its moorings. It can be dangerous, because people think it’s snow and step into it and drop right into the creek.”

“Think there’s any left?” I asked.

“That might be some over there,” he said, pointing to a fat white line against a fallen log in the creek. “Or it might be foam. I think it’s foam.”

But even though we couldn’t satisfy our curiosity about the frazil ice on this trip, even though my sister and I were soaked, the walk was splendid. Yosemite Falls – divided into the Upper and Lower falls and together, the highest waterfall in North America – was thundering powerfully just ahead. As we got closer, we had to shout to be heard – with all the spring melt overhead, the water made so much noise crashing down the mountain that it was as if a jet were flying in tight circles just over our heads.

“By August, there will just be a trickle,” Roney said. “Right now, you could fill up a swimming pool four times in a minute with the water that’s coming down.”

We peered into the mist to see if there was a rainbow, but the clouds were too thick to let the sun through. Regardless, Roney told us that spring was not only the best time to see rainbows but also to see a rare phenomena called “moonbows” or “lunar bows.” Spring not only produces sufficient spray, but the full moon in April, May and June is at the perfect angle to Yosemite Falls to create these apparitions. “You get an opalescent arc in the spray,” Roney said. “Beautiful but more delicately colored than a daytime rainbow because our eyes don’t pick up the intensity of the color in dim light.”

Then he bent his head so that the pools of water rolled off his plastic-covered ranger hat.


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