Understanding Yosemite National Park Rockfall: A Comprehensive Guide

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Nestled within the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park is renowned for its breathtaking granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and unique ecological diversity. Yet, there’s a dynamic and often dramatic force that has been shaping this landscape for millennia: rockfalls. These sudden, awe-inducing events have played an instrumental role in sculpting Yosemite’s iconic valleys and peaks. While they’ve shaped Yosemite’s vistas, they also pose challenges for its visitors. This guide dives deep into the phenomenon of rockfalls, exploring their history, causes, and implications for those venturing into the park. Stay informed, stay safe, and unlock a deeper appreciation for the dynamic beauty of Yosemite. This isn’t just a geological tale; it’s a journey into the very heartbeat of one of America’s most celebrated national parks.

History of Rockfalls in Yosemite

How frequently do rockfalls occur in Yosemite National Park?

Rockfalls are a natural and dynamic process in Yosemite National Park, with its towering granite cliffs and constantly evolving geology. On average, the park records about 50 to 80 rockfalls per year, although the actual number can be much higher since many smaller rockfalls go undetected. It’s worth noting that the exact frequency of rockfalls can vary widely from year to year. Factors contributing to this variability include weather conditions, particularly freeze-thaw cycles and heavy precipitation, seismic activity, and long-term geological processes. It’s essential for visitors to understand that while rockfalls are relatively frequent, the vast areas of the park remain unaffected, and the National Park Service diligently monitors and responds to ensure the safety of its guests.

Recent Incidents of Rockfall in Yosemite National Park

In 2023, Yosemite National Park witnessed several rockfall incidents. One notable event occurred on February 20 at the famed El Capitan. A British tourist, Alex J Wood, was present at Yosemite Valley’s base of El Capitan during the event. He managed to record the last moments of the rock’s descent, later describing the spectacle as resembling “a giant oversized grand piano falling in slow motion … It was mad.” The size of the rock that dislodged was estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,000 cubic yards (764 and 1,528 cubic meters). Fortunately, the cascade of stone and debris did not result in any injuries.

Yosemite National Park Rockfall Events in 2022

2022 marked an active year for rockfall in Yosemite, with multiple incidents underscoring the unpredictability and potential dangers of the park’s dynamic landscape Throughout 2022, landmarks like El Capitan, Half Dome, and Pulpit Rock also experienced significant rockfalls. In total, the year documented 52 rockfalls with a cumulative weight of around 6,250 tons. These events served as poignant reminders of nature’s ever-evolving force and the need for caution and awareness in the park.

May 15 : A rockfall near Union Point affected the Four Mile Trail. Two hikers sustained minor injuries as boulders crossed nine trail switchbacks before plummeting to the valley floor.

Fall Season: As storms hit Yosemite, rock falls increased. Big Oak Flat Road faced damages from rock falls on November 8 and December 12, leading to temporary road closures and necessary repairs.

November 12: Middle Brother saw the year’s largest rockfall. A 4,000-ton slab dislodged, with additional rocks later adding to the debris. Some boulders impacted Northside Drive, causing minor road damage.

December 27: In the year’s most tragic event, a rockfall near the Arch Rock Entrance Station led to a boulder striking a vehicle, resulting in two fatalities.

End of December : Heavy rains catalyzed at least 15 rockfalls and debris slides within 24 hours, affecting park roads. 


Yosemite National Park Rockfall Over The Years

The park has witnessed numerous rockfalls over the years, reshaping its iconic landscapes. Here are some significant Yosemite National Park rockfall events that happened over the years:

Happy Isles 1996 Rockfall: The Happy Isles rockfall was one of the most devastating events in Yosemite’s history, occurring on July 10, 1996. A large granite slab, weighing approximately 30,000 tons, broke off from the Glacier Point cliff and crashed down near the Happy Isles area. The impact led to an airblast, causing significant damage and leading to the death of one visitor and injuries to several others. The rockfall also led to the closure of a section of the park and forced a reevaluation of rockfall hazard zones.

Rockfall in Curry Village in 2008: In October 2008, Curry Village experienced a series of rockfalls that drastically impacted the area. Large boulders crashed into this popular lodging space, forcing the park authorities to permanently close a portion of the accommodations. About 233 tent cabins and hard-sided structures were affected. This rockfall brought to light the necessity for constant geological monitoring and led to significant changes in visitor accommodations and emergency planning.

Yosemite National Park Rockfall in Mirror Lake: A significant rockfall occurred near Mirror Lake in 2009. While no fatalities or injuries were reported, the event changed the landscape dramatically. The impact resulted in the temporary closure of nearby trails and led to a reassessment of the area’s geological stability. The rockfall prompted further study into the mechanics and triggers behind such events in a bid to better understand and predict future incidents.

Yosemite National Park Rockfall in El Capitan: Yosemite National Park Rockfall in 2017 occured at El Capitan, one of Yosemite’s most iconic granite cliffs, and witnessed a series of rockfalls over two days. The first rockfall was particularly devastating, leading to one fatality and injuring another visitor. Several subsequent rockfalls in the area led to the closure of a popular climbing route on El Capitan. The incidents initiated a comprehensive review of rockfall hazards and their implications for visitor safety, leading to more stringent safety measures.

Staircase Falls in 2019: A significant rockfall event occurred at Staircase Falls in 2019. The event was noteworthy for the volume of rock that fell, even though it didn’t result in any injuries. Park rangers were quick to assess the area for further danger, temporarily closing certain routes and viewpoints near the site. This rockfall re-emphasized the importance of rockfall monitoring systems and led to a reevaluation of safety measures in nearby locations.

Areas Most Prone to Rockfall in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a vast expanse of stunning granite cliffs, lush meadows, and dense forests. While its rugged beauty is undeniable, certain areas within the park are naturally more susceptible to rockfall due to their geological makeup and historical patterns of rock movement.

El Capitan: One of the park’s most iconic granite monoliths, El Capitan, has witnessed numerous rockfalls over the years. Climbers and hikers in this region, especially the base of the cliff, should be particularly vigilant.

Glacier Point: Offering panoramic views of Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point is a favored spot for many visitors. However, its towering vantage point has experienced several rockfalls, and caution is advised when in the vicinity.

Yosemite Valley: The heart of Yosemite National Park, the valley sees the highest concentration of rockfalls. Specific areas within the valley, such as the cliffs behind Curry Village and the Royal Arches area, have a historical precedent of rockfalls.

Half Dome: Rock Slide in Half Dome happens mostly at its trails, especially the subdome region, which have been sites of past rockfalls. It is an iconic granite formation in Yosemite and any rockfall or slides there would certainly impact the park’s visitors and natural landscape. 

Hetch Hetchy Valley: Although less frequented than Yosemite Valley, the steep cliffs surrounding Hetch Hetchy Reservoir are known to shed rocks occasionally, especially after heavy rainfall or snowmelt.

Merced River Canyon: The steep slopes along this river, especially near the Arch Rock Entrance, have seen rockfall activity in the past. 


Causes of Rockfalls in Yosemite


  • Dominant rock in Yosemite: Granite.
  • Erosion reduces pressure on granite.
  • Pressure release allows granite to expand and peel away in onion-like layers.
  • Creates unstable rock slabs prone to detachment and falling.

Freeze-Thaw Cycles

  • Water expands upon freezing.
  • Water seeps into Yosemite rock cracks.
  • Nighttime freezing expands the water, pressurizing the rock.
  • Repeated cycles widen cracks, enhancing rockfall risk.


  • Processes: water, ice, wind, and vegetation.
  • Chemical weathering transforms hard granite minerals to soft, clay-like minerals.
  • Plants’ roots in rock cracks can force cracks to expand as roots grow.

Seismic Activity

  • California and Sierra Nevada region known for seismic activity.
  • Even minor tremors can dislodge unstable rocks.
  • Some Yosemite rock falls directly linked to earthquakes.

Water and Rock Interaction

  • Numerous waterfalls and streams in Yosemite.
  • Water exerts significant pressure on rocks.
  • Erosion and destabilization, especially during high flows like spring melts or heavy rains.

Previous Human Activity

  • Human influence is minimal but significant.
  • Activities: climbing, trail construction, infrastructure development.
  • Repeated placement/removal of climbing anchors can impact rock stability

Speed of Rockfall in Yosemite National Park

Due to the steep inclines and vast vertical drops, rockfall in Yosemite can reach staggering speeds, sometimes accelerating up to 100 mph. The combination of velocity and mass makes these events particularly hazardous, highlighting the importance of adhering to safety guidelines while in the park.

Safety Precautions for Rockfall in Yosemite

Park Management and Rockfall Mitigation

Yosemite National Park, with its towering granite cliffs, has a naturally dynamic geology. As such, rockfalls are an integral part of the park’s landscape evolution. Recognizing the potential risks associated with these events, the park authorities have implemented a robust set of measures to enhance visitor safety without compromising the natural processes at play.

Zoning and Infrastructure: The park management frequently assesses areas that are more prone to rockfalls. High-risk zones are often restricted from development, and in some cases, previously built infrastructures like campgrounds or roads have been relocated.

Public Awareness: Signages and informational boards are placed in vulnerable areas, advising visitors of rockfall risks and educating them on precautionary measures.

Temporary Closures: When rockfall risk is perceived to be heightened, due to factors like heavy rainfall or seismic activity, certain areas might be temporarily closed to the public for safety.

Seismic and Acoustic Monitors: These devices detect ground movements and sounds associated with rockfalls, helping to establish real-time alerts.

Geological Surveys: Periodic surveys assess cliff stability, helping park management anticipate potential rockfall sites.

Remote Sensing: Techniques like LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) provide detailed topographic data, assisting in monitoring cliff changes over time.

Trail Reroutes: After major rockfalls, trails that run near or through the affected areas are often rerouted to ensure visitor safety until the area is deemed stable.

Clearance Operations: Large rock debris that block infrastructure like roads or paths are promptly cleared, though some might be left in place to allow the natural process to shape the landscape.

Impact Assessments: Post rockfall, a thorough assessment is conducted to gauge the event’s severity, its cause, and potential future risks in the vicinity.


What to Do During a Rockfall in Yosemite: Essential Safety Tips

  • If you hear a loud rumbling, be vigilant and prepared to act.
  • If safe to do so, quickly move away from the source of the rockfall or potential rockfall areas like cliff bases.
  • Find a natural shelter like a large boulder or dense tree canopy if you’re in the vicinity of a rockfall.
  • If you’re driving and witness a rockfall, continue driving to a safer distance before parking.
  • Once you’re safe, report the rockfall to the nearest park ranger or visitor center.
  • Always follow the warning signs and closures.
  • Regularly check the Yosemite National Park website or contact park officials for updates on rockfall activity or area closures.
  • Avoid traveling near cliffs and rockfall-prone areas during nighttime.
  • If traveling in a group, make sure everyone knows the safety protocols.

Deaths Caused by Rockfall in Yosemite

Yosemite National Park, with its soaring granite cliffs and breathtaking vistas, is a place of undeniable natural beauty. However, its rugged topography also means that rockfalls are a natural and sporadic occurrence. Although rare, some of these rockfalls have unfortunately resulted in fatalities over the years.

Since the establishment of Yosemite as a national park, there have been several fatalities attributed to rockfalls. The exact number fluctuates as rockfalls can sometimes go unreported. Among the most significant incidents was a 2017 rockfall from the Waterfall Route on El Capitan, which resulted in the death of a British climber. This event drew international attention not just because of the tragic loss of life but also due to its location on one of Yosemite’s most iconic granite faces.

Impact of Rockfalls on Yosemite’s Ecosystem

  • Rock Falls significantly change the physical landscape, creating new niches or destroying existing ones.
  • Freshly exposed rock or disturbed soil provides new habitats for pioneering plant species, altering the vegetation dynamics.
  • Rockfalls can alter the course of streams or waterfalls, affecting aquatic habitats and potentially leading to erosion in new areas.
  • The fallen rocks can create microhabitats, like temporary ponds or shaded areas, which can be colonized by specific fauna or flora.
  • Sudden changes in the terrain might alter the behavior and movement patterns of wildlife, as they adapt to the new conditions.
  • Rock debris from falls can cover existing soil, impacting its chemistry, moisture content, and the organisms it supports.

Unique Insights about Yosemite Rockfall

Trails and Landmarks to Exercise Caution:  

The Four Mile Trail: Given its route, which offers spectacular views of Yosemite Valley, this trail also passes through zones prone to rockfall, especially near switchback areas.

Mist Trail: While mostly safe, there are narrow sections of this popular trail where falling rocks can pose hazards, especially during or after heavy rain.

Valley Loop Trail: Particularly the sections near the base of Yosemite Falls and El Capitan, where falling rocks are a possibility.

Visitors to Yosemite should always be aware of their surroundings, heed warning signs, and keep informed about any rockfall advisories issued by the park authorities. By doing so, they can enjoy the park’s magnificent beauty while ensuring their safety.

  • Every rockfall is also a testament to the park’s ever-evolving landscape.
  • Predicting the exact time and location of a rockfall remains a challenge, highlighting the raw power and unpredictability of nature.
  • Climbers often have firsthand experiences or observations, making them valuable sources of information for park management.
  • Monitoring the frequency, and intensity of freeze-thaw cycles might influence rockfall occurrences and predict future rockfalls. 

Key Takeaways

  • Rockfalls, while unpredictable, have been instrumental in shaping the iconic landscapes of Yosemite.
  • Over the years, there have been notable rockfalls in areas like El Capitan and Curry Village, each having its own impact on the park.
  • Factors causing rockfall in Yosemite range from natural exfoliation, weathering, and freeze-thaw cycles to seismic activities.
  • Yosemite National Park has implemented multiple safety measures, from real-time alerts to strategic infrastructure design, ensuring visitor safety amid rockfall-prone zones.
  • Rock slides in Yosemite National Park significantly influence the park’s ecosystem by altering terrains, water dynamics, and even influencing wildlife patterns.
  • The park has witnessed recent rockfall events, like those at El Capitan in 2017, which have implications for both the landscape and park visitors.
  • A visit to Yosemite isn’t just about its beauty; understanding rockfalls offers a richer appreciation of this dynamic landscape and its evolving story.


1.       If there’s a rockfall while I’m hiking, what should I do?
If safe, move away from the source of the rockfall, then inform a park ranger once you’re in a secure location.

2.       How common is rock slide in Yosemite National Park?
Rock slides in Yosemite are natural occurrences and happen frequently, though most are small and go unnoticed by visitors.

3.       How do rockfalls affect hiking trails in Yosemite?
Rockfalls can lead to the temporary or permanent closure of affected trails.

4.       Are there areas permanently closed due to rockfall risks?
Certain sections, like parts of Curry Village, have been permanently closed.

5.       Is it safe to visit Yosemite given the history of rockfalls?
Yes, while rockfalls are natural, Yosemite has safety measures in place to protect visitors.

6.       Are there any alerts or warning systems for rockfalls?
Yes, Yosemite provides real-time alerts and warnings for potential hazards, including rockfalls.

7.       Do the park rangers offer guidance regarding rockfall-prone zones?
Absolutely, rangers offer information and safety tips about current conditions and potential risks.

8.       Are the main roads in Yosemite at risk of being blocked by rockfalls?
There’s a minimal risk, but the park service is efficient at clearing and ensuring road safety.

9.       What precautions does the park take for visitor safety concerning rockfalls?
The park uses monitoring systems, signage, educational programs, alerts, and infrastructure design for visitor safety.

10.   How can I stay updated about rockfall events during my visit?
You can subscribe to park alerts and also check the official Yosemite website for current updates.

Extra Scoop for You

Official Website of Yosemite National Park: https://yosemite.org/

Contact Details: 209/372-0200

For those of you who are intrigued about birding, we have some extra reading material recommendations for you. Discover the enchanting world of Yosemite National Park with these popular books:

  • Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park by Allen F. Glazner and Greg M. Stock
  • The Geologic Story of Yosemite National Park by N. King Huber

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