Yosemite Falls: Where Nature Meets the Crowd
By Erik Skindrud, regional editor
The bridge below lower Yosemite Falls enjoys great views, but the creek banks endure flow rates of up to 144,000 gallons of water a minute. The boulders close to the camera were placed there by the design team to mitigate erosion. Photos by erik skindrud
At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America. Redesigning the falls visitor area for close to two million visitors each year was a tall order.
Yosemite Falls is the top attraction at California’s No. 1 national park, with up to half the park’s 4 million annual visitors exploring its base each year. The towering rocks called Half Dome and El Capitan attract their share of attention too, but most visitors admire them from the valley floor. At the falls, however, people of varying ages and abilities can walk together (or roll up in wheelchairs) to the cliff base where they feel the power and spray up close.
The crowd makes the falls a rock star, but until recently, it was a battered and aging one. Until 2004 the site was served by a painted-brick restroom a stone’s throw from a parking lot where diesel coaches huffed. The main trail to the lower falls view-point was a rough asphalt path that was crumbling apart like melting snow.
“It was crowded and noisy with a lot of fumes,” Yosemite project manager Randy Fong recalled. “The old trail was dilapidated and gave visitors a single route to the falls. People would walk up and walk straight back–sometimes in just 20 minutes.”
National Park Service project manager and architect Randy Fong looks over the Lower Yosemite Falls view terrace. The trail grade to the platform angles up to 14 percent, but most motorized wheelchairs can make the trip.
The new design gives visitors much more than the old parking-lot, restroom and trail facilities. Created by Lawrence Halprin, the new layout is a leap forward that blends attractive granite, asphalt and wood paths with artisan-built amenities and architecture that could stand next to park classics like Yosemite’s Awahnee or Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn.
Most visitors praise the work, but a few, from Yosemite Campers Coalition and other groups, have said the new features make it too easy for tourists to pour across natural features.
Since it debuted this spring, dozens of newspaper articles and television features have filed positive reports about the project—perhaps raising expectations that improvements elsewhere will be as sparkling and ambitious. Given the park service’s lackluster budget, however, that’s less than likely.
Based in San Francisco, Halprin is one of the more durable and better-known American landscape architects. He turned 89 this July 1—and counts Washington D.C.’s FDR Memorial and a promenade overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City among other recent projects. But Yosemite occupies a special place in his own personal and professional development, making the falls project among the more meaningful of his career.
Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his staff designed this granite-and-log bus-stop shelter. Abundant bicycle parking, trails and bus service are provided to compensate for the parking lot’s elimination.
Halprin visited Yosemite in 1948 after serving on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, Yosemite and the High Sierra became “a powerful refuge” for the young designer.
Time spent in the mountains also helped shape the core of his thinking. “I went camping there with my children for many years,” Halprin said via email. “The environment has affected me spiritually as well as physically. In addition, studying the granite formations, rivers, lakes and waterfalls and their evolution has formed the basis of my design philosophy. I learned not to copy the forms of nature but to understand the processes by which natural forms arise.”
The landscape architect didn’t just sit in his San Francisco office and sketch for the 52-acre visitor area. Halprin spent many days at the site himself, taking a lead in the placement of individual boulders and details that other landscape architects might delegate to associates. While they appear to be rock picked off the neighboring scree slopes, all the granite was either recycled from other sites in the park or brought in from Raymond Quarry, a commercial source near the town of Coarsegold by the park’s south entrance.
While they’re prominent features, the granite pavers are limited to “transition strip” zones at key points along the main asphalt pathways. In these spots they serve to soften the change from an obviously linear and man-made feature and the trees, rocks and cliffs that surround it. Adding interest and complexity, Halprin then set granite boulders at random points in the pavers.
The site of James Hutchings’ saw mill is marked by this sign near the base of the falls. The team rerouted the trail and built this retaining wall and wood structure near the big rock to protect the historical site.
“He wanted visitors to transition from the paths and roads into this more natural area,” Fong explained. “Larry personally supervised the positioning of one stone so you can sit on it and see the upper falls. He took a personal interest in design details—from the positioning of signs and trash cans to individual stones.”
The granite transition strips are a high-end feature that visitors don’t see at Happy Isles, Bridalveil Fall or other top stops in the park. Given their relative high cost, it wouldn’t be practical to pave the Yosemite Falls paths with granite either. Most of the path lengths are made up of traditional asphalt.
Other walkway areas—and the picnic area that replaces the parking lot—are covered with a product called TerraPave. It’s a permeable, crushed-stone pavement that uses tree resin to bond the surface together and is manufactured by Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Wheeler Zamaroni.
“Studying the granite formations… I learned not to copy the forms of nature but to understand the processes by which natural forms arise.”–Lawrence Halprin
A geologic quirk dictates the walkway surface that completes the mile-plus circuit of paths. The Yosemite Falls visitor area is crisscrossed by a tangle of rivulets known as braided streams. Along with adjacent boggy ground, this forces a significant portion of the trail system onto bridges and raised pathways. Here again, Halprin’s team focused on details, specifying tapering, trapezoidal planks at bends on the causeway. (The detail creates a fan pattern at curves instead of a less-elegant but easier-to-build construction.)
After a third of a mile, the visitor reaches the highlight of the visitor area—the lower falls viewing terrace. Here the traveler gets a geography lesson. After climbing a final grade, he or she sees that the lower falls are more distant from the upper falls than the scene appears from the valley. In fact, the two falls are separated by at least a quarter mile. Along the main path, the team placed a bronze relief map that details the geologic details. The feature has become the site’s most popular interpretive exhibit, and is usually crowded children and other visitors.
A bronze-relief sculpture showing the falls’ layout has become the site’s most popular interpretive exhibit. The feature is located on the main approach to the falls.
The viewing terrace faces the natural amphitheater where the lower falls come into view. The Halprin team enlarged the platform and specified a band of the granite pavers with embedded boulders along the rim. Planners considered re-grading the whole path system to comply with Americans With Disability Act standards. That would have meant rebuilding the trail from its 12 to 14 percent angle to a 5 percent standard. As built, however, most battery-powered wheelchairs can make it to the top.
Near the view terrace, the planning team had to deal with significant stream bank erosion issues—a problem that cropped up in other areas too. To fix the issue, crews installed additional riprap boulders below the terrace. At other points downstream, native plants with hardy root systems were selected to shore up erosion-prone banks.
The team created view and rest spots using granite pavers with inlaid boulders. Lawrence Halprin spent days on-site supervising the placement of individual boulders to afford comfortable seating and superb views.
After taking in the view, visitors are encouraged to continue exploring along the Eastern Channel trail, which uses raised walkways to pass over the braided stream zone.
Here also is varied terrain that required the construction of retaining walls at several points. Over many years, Yosemite trail builders have perfected the technique of placing dry-stacked granite to serve as retaining walls—a technique Halprin was familiar with from his many mountain visits. He recalled these when queried for this article.
“There were areas which required both natural rock walls and individually-placed boulders,” Halprin replied. “My intention, of course, was to incorporate all elements in a dynamic synergy of new and old. It was important that I achieve a contextual ‘rightness’ and design a combination that felt like the work of nature rather than man.”
“It was important that I achieve a contextual ‘rightness’ and design a combination that felt like the work of nature rather than man.”–Lawrence Halprin
The area has great historical significance, and the east path uses another raised platform to pass a rock where Yosemite pioneer James M. Hutchings employed flowing water to power the valley’s first sawmill in the 1860s—a structure that naturalist John Muir lived in for a time. Continuing down the path, the route passes a 19th-century apple orchard and the site of a cabin home constructed by Hutchings around 1860. Also along this way, a trail spur leads to a plaque that marks the spot where Muir built another cabin around 1869.
Granite pavers and a rock wall are natural elements that usher visitors up the Western Channel trail. Several dozen trees were carefully selected for removal during the design process to improve the corridor’s view.
The area’s wealth of historical detail is marked by new displays that introduce visitors to stories few would have learned about before the project. The most impressive landscape architecture feature at this point, however, is the view of the falls. The line-of-sight was originally cut through the trees by Hutchings himself. Despite its richness, the route formerly included a number of distractions. One was the school across the meadow to the east. Until recently it included playground equipment made of bright red and yellow plastic. The view has since been softened with the introduction of an earth-toned play structure. The area also got a Halprin-designed wood fence lined with native shrubs to screen the employee housing on the other side.
Visitors can return by the east trail to Northside Drive and the Yosemite Lodge area where they started their visit. As Yosemite planners intended, there’s no longer an easy way to park a car and charge up to the falls for a quick visit. The parking area has been eliminated to create visitor amenities that include picnic tables, water fountains, restrooms, bike racks and a small amphitheater.
Yosemite Falls’ new restroom, or “comfort station,” displays the granite-and-pine look of classic national park architecture. The water fountain is by manufacturer Most Dependable.
Planners hope most visitors find alternate transportation to the falls site. Options include strolling or cycling along the multiuse trail that borders Northside Drive. The less mobile (or more stubborn) visitors can park at the large, 500-car parking lot near Yosemite Village about half a mile away. The park’s new diesel-hybrid busses take them to the falls site.
Back at the west trailhead, the picnic area presents the project’s most transformed vista. The spot was formerly dominated by sights, sounds and smells of tourist busses and Kennedy-era restrooms. Today it’s an often-sunlit spot where visitors can lunch while watching the upper and lower falls spill and froth through the trees.
Yosemite Falls HIstory
The history of architecture (and landscape architecture) in Yosemite Valley dates to 1859, when magazine publisher James M. Hutchings built a two-story hotel on a site between the present valley chapel and Sentinel Bridge. Within a year, however, shade cast by the adjacent rock face prompted him to look north, where the meadow below Yosemite Falls was bathed in sunlight for a much larger portion of each day.
Project designer Halprin made a decision to protect native plants like this azalea, located by the area’s Bridge 6. The bridge was rebuilt to be wheelchair accessible during the project.
“How beautifully picturesque a log-cabin would look over yonder in the sunlight,” Hutchings recalled family members suggesting. “With a dark rich setting of oaks around it; to say nothing of the pleasure of listening to the grandest of natural anthems from the Yo Semite Fall.”
He found a spot by the lower fall where water could be harnessed to power a sawmill. Among its earliest employees was a young John Muir, who lived in the mill before building his own cabin nearby in 1869.
The view is hard to ignore at the Eastern Channel trailhead, where an interpretive sign gives visitors a thumbnail layout of the falls visitor area. Yosemite pioneer James M. Hutchings built a cabin and orchard near this spot in the 1860s.
After submitting the initial design for New York’s Central Park in 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted served as commissioner of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. His 1865 report to California’s state legislature was a landmark conservation document, and helped set the stage for Yosemite becoming a national park in 1890.