Last updated: August 11, 2013
Diamond Cascade and Silver Apron, colored lithographic photo print “photochrom” by Detroit Photographic Company, 1898.
Yosemite National Park contains some of the world’s most remarkable waterfalls, cascades, and rapids. One can experience such phenomenal forces though published accounts and photographs, but there’s nothing quite like getting to experience one of nature’s most powerful displays up close and in-person. But not too close.
People die in Yosemite every year by slipping into our renowned, rushing rivers. The beauty and magnitude of the various natural water features on the Merced River inspire multitudes of people to take the Mist Trail. Some of the most famous waterfalls and cascades in the park are visible along this steep hike, including Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, and the Silver Apron.
Between Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, the Merced River dives, churns, and glides hundreds of feet through rapids, part of which is called the Silver Apron. Just above the Silver Apron, the Merced River gushes under a footbridge through a pounding cascade, known as the Diamond Cascade. At the base of Diamond Cascade the torrent slams into a steep, smooth granite slab, then fans out and gains even more speed. The Silver Apron is a shimmering sheet of swift water, just inches thick, gliding along the slick rock surface. Gravity propels the entirety of the Merced River, which later runs its course through Yosemite Valley, down this steep slope at amazing speeds. On its way down, the river bends around a curve in the slab, riding high on the outer bank like a race car sticking to the track on a banked curve.
- A twenty-five-year-old male was trying to cross the Silver Apron, slipped and fell, and then was swept approximately 30 yards (meters) down the Silver Apron and into Emerald Pool. He reported contending with a strong current, and had to put his foot out to stop himself on a rock. His injuries included two separate fractures to his left ankle, as well as superficial abrasions on both shins. He was quite shaken up by the incident and stated to the medical staff who treated his injuries, "I could have died."
- A male in his early twenties deliberately slid down the Silver Apron, later telling medical staff who treated him that he was thinking, "I'm hot, and this looks like fun." When he careened into Emerald Pool, he hit his shin in between two boulders, and he thought he had broken his leg. He then had to make his way through the pool to shore, leaving a trail of blood as he swam. He received eight stitches on his shin bone, and, as he was being treated, he said, "I'll never do that again."
- A fifteen-year-old male (with parents nearby) intentionally slid down the Silver Apron, and as he was sliding, he felt like he was going too fast, so he rolled over to slow himself down. He ended up with a laceration to his knee that required six stitches.
- A forty-year-old male slid down the Silver Apron and requested medical attention for a two-inch laceration on his left leg below his knee, and a two-inch abrasion on his left foot.
- A nineteen-year-old male slipped into the river near Diamond Cascade and became stranded on a rock surrounded by rapids. A technical rescue was required to safely retrieve the subject, who was nearly swept onto the Silver Apron and did sustain various minor injuries. (This rescue will the subject of a future post.)
The curious forms the water takes as it flows through this area have enticed people to a wet demise for generations. One of the earliest published accounts of a nearly lethal mishap at the Silver Apron can be found in a book originally published in 1888. James Hutchings, a local guide and hotel owner, wrote a magazine and a book advertising the natural wonders of Yosemite. In his book In The Heart of The Sierras, Hutchings shares the following account of a visitor taking an unexpected ride down the Silver Apron.
The Silver Apron beckons people to inspect it closely. It is rather easily approached by a slick granite slab just off the main trail. When in the vicinity of the Silver Apron, or any body of swiftly moving water, carefully reconsider the urge to come into physical contact with the water, and consider the danger of slipping and being carried off by the current. Will an adventure in Yosemite be greatly enhanced by running ones hands or feet through cold water? There are innumerable places to do such a thing besides deadly rapids. Visitors are encouraged to ask a park ranger or volunteer where the safer places are for wading, swimming, and washing up.
Taking a “Bawth” (bath)
An English gentleman who was making his temporary residence at Snow’s Hotel amazed its inmates one morning by appearing on the scene with his face badly cut, and his hands bleeding. With astonished surprise at such a sight Mr. Snow innocently inquired:—
“What on earth, man, have you been doing to yourself, to get into such a plight as that?”
Looking steadfastly at the questioner, while wiping the red stains away with as much easy deliberation as though a little dust had fallen upon his face, and needed removal, he hesitatingly made answer:—
“Th-the-there is, you k-know, a s-smooth k-kind of place in the-the river, j-just b-be-low the-the lit-tle bridge, you know, w-where the-the wa-water p-passes s-somewhat r-rapidly over the-the-rock, you know.”
“Oh! Yes,” replied Mr. Snow, “I remember; that is what we call the ‘Silver Apron.’ Well?”
“W-well, w-when I g-gazed up-upon it, I-I-th-thought it-it w-would be a-a-de-lightful p-place to t-t-take a-a b-bawth, you k-know.”
“Why, sir,” responded the landlord of the ‘Casa Nevada,’ aghast, and interruptingly, “why, the whole Merced River shoots over there, at the rate of about sixty miles an hour—faster than a locomotive goes upon a railroad!”
“Is-is i-it p-possible? W-we-well, I h-had n-no s-sooner d-disrobed m-my-s-self, and s-set m-my foot in-into th-the h-hurrying c-c-current, y-you k-know, t-than i-it k-knocked m-me off m-my p-ins, you know! An-and s-swept me d-down s-so s-swiftly th-that it q-quite t-took my b-breath a-away f-for a f-few m-moments, you k-know; s-sometimes i-it r-rolled me o-over and o-over, a-and a-at o-other t-times s-shot me d-down en-endwise, y-you k-know; a-and fi-finally b-brought m-me up-in a s-sort of pool, y-you know!”
“The Emerald Pool,” suggested Mr. Snow.
“And, b-by G-George, if I h-had no-not b-been an ex-excellent swim-swimmer, I s-should cer-certainly h-have I-lost my life, you know! A-and, it is n-not my h-hands a-and m-my f-face o-only-i-it is a-all o-over m-me-like that, you know!”
Opinions are sometimes hastily formed, and are not always supported by the best of good reasons; and it may be so in this case, but the supposition most generally prevails, that, when this gentleman wishes to take another “bawth,” he will not seek to do so at the “Silver Apron.”
Emerald Pool’s slow, clear waters coax many an exhausted hiker into its depths. The often calm waves on the surface belie the strong current surging beneath, which can pin helpless swimmers against submerged logs and boulders. Even in the hottest summer months, the water is still the product of melting snow from higher elevations. Most of the water in the Merced River was solid snow or ice just hours before reaching this stretch of river. Cold water has caused serious cramps in many swimmers, some fatally drowning and many more having a near-death experience.
At the base of the Silver Apron, the water plunges through the surface of a clear, greenish pool of water: the Emerald Pool. Rather than being a pond or lake, this feature is actually a section where the river becomes wider and deeper, which causes the water to slow down. Across the pool run ripples of water, hinting at the faster flowing water below the surface.
It is for safety reasons that the National Park Service strongly advises and regulates against entering the water anywhere along the Mist Trail corridor. Additionally, anyone entering the river for any reason encourages other people, with perhaps less outdoor experience and safety sense, to follow suit. Yosemite National Park is a massive wonderland full of water, with suitable locations for wading and swimming in even more stellar locations than Silver Apron and Emerald Pool. And save the bathing for hotel rooms and camp showers.