About the Site
Yosemite National Park (2)  


Park History

Yosemite Valley

Merced River

Half Dome & El Capitan

Yosemite Peaks

Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls


Yosemite Village

Valley in Snow

Wawona Area

Mariposa Grove

Tioga Road

Tenaya Lake

Tuolumne Meadows

Plants and Animals


Yosemite Valley

Although it accounts for only 1% of the park's surface area, Yosemite's most well known and popular feature is unquestionably the valley of the Merced River with its spectacular granite mountains and sheer cliffs. The valley itself was carved by the Merced River over millions of years, gouged and flattened by glaciers. After the retreat of the last of the glaciers a huge lake--Lake Yosemite--formed in the valley. This lake lasted several centuries. As it silted over and disappeared, it left behind the flat floor of the valley which exists now. It has deservedly been described as the most spectacular valley on earth.

A portion of the floor of the valley is shown below, with Cathedral Rock in full view.

One of the most impressive views of the valley--the famous "Tunnel View" or "Discovery View"-- is presented to the visitor heading east towards the valley on Highway 140. Passing through the Wawona tunnel, the valley spreads out suddenly before the fortunate traveller. El Capitan can be seen to the left, Half Dome in the center, Cathedral Rocks on the right, and Bridalveil Falls. Cloud's Rest can be seen in the center of the picture. This vista has been called one of the most photographed on earth. Interestingly, it is about 1000 feet below the point from which the Mariposa Battalion first glimpsed the magnificent valley.

The Indians who lived in the area before the arrival of the white man called the valley "Ah-wah-nee"--place of the gaping mouth, and identified with this special place, referring to themselves as the Ahwahneechee. They used fire to clear the valley for black oak trees which provided acorns, an important source of food. These trees can be seen in many photographs of the valley floor.

Of the 4 million or so people who might visit Yosemite in a year, about 90% of them go to Yosemite Valley, although the valley itself represents only 1/2 of 1% of the total area of the park. From Yosemite Lodge, which sits near the edge of the valley, the precipitousness of the valley's walls is particularly obvious.

Yosemite Valley is, in essence, a 7 mile long canyon. It is a valley or gorge carved by the Merced River and cut by the glaciers. which flowed through the valley on three occasions. It is about 1 mile wide. The end of Yosemite Valley is generally considered to be Half Dome, where the valley splits into a Y, the north arm being Tenaya Canyon and the south arm the Little Yosemite Valley, through which the Merced River flows over Vernal and Nevada Falls. The end of the valley can be seen in the picture below from Glacier Point.

The glaciers which visited the area repeatedly covered all but the highest landforms in this area--El Capitan, Bounding Ridge, Cloud's Rest, and Sentinel Dome.

Merced River

One of the two major waterways in the park is the Merced River, which carries rainwater and snow melt from the high Sierras and drains the southern part of the park. Arising high in the Sierra backcountry in the park, if flows though the heart of Yosemite Valley. The picture below shows the river from the location known as "Gates of the Valley" or "Valley View", and in the background can be seen El Capitan (left) and Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls (right).

This river was originally known as El Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Merced--the River of Our Lady of Mercy. It is the river and its erosive power which was responsible for the existence of the valley in the beginning, although of course the valley was widened and deepened by glaciation.

The Merced River eventually flows into the San Joaquin river 100 miles to the west.

Mark Twain is said to have remarked that Yosemite was so incomparable that it had to be the place God cast all his remaining treasures after the creation of the world.

In the southeastern section of the Yosemite Valley are the Happy Isles. These are small islands which formed within the flow of the Merced River.

In the Happy Isles area the road crosses the Merced River over a picturesque stone bridge of the type which is common in the Yosemite Village area of the valley.

Below is another picture of the Merced River in the Happy Isles area.

Early settlers placed boulders and other barriers to deepen and widen the river. Presently, it is being allowed to return to its wilder, more natural state. This has included bridge widening, as bridges themselves can constrain the flow of the river. The river is crossed by a number of scenic bridges in the valley. It finally runs out of the valley and toward the western park boundary.

Another of the stone bridges over the Merced, the Stoneman Bridge, is shown below.

The Mist Trail The Merced River enters Yosemite Valley down a stairstep of cascades, including Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail provides an opportunity to walk alongside the river as in plunges down into the valley. One view, from the trail, of the river as it boils among the rocks and boulders is shown below.

While Mist Trail is very popular, Yosemite National Park features 840 miles of hiking trails for visitors.

A view looking back down the Mist Trail is shown below.

Another view of the canyon from the Mist Trail shows the rugged nature of this area.

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

  • Commercial use of the images contained in this document without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

  • Comments and other remarks can be sent via e-mail to parkvision@shannontech.com