Map of Yosemite Valley showing rockfall locations and sizes, with most
Mapped above are documented rockfalls in Yosemite Valley, from 1857 to 2020, for which location and seasonal timing are known.

What Is a Rockfall?

Rockfalls are a natural and dynamic geologic process involving the detachment and rapid downard movement of rock. Due to its steep, glacier-carved cliffs, Yosemite Valley experiences many rockfalls each year. Historical records indicate that more than 1,000 rockfalls have occurred in the park during the past 150 years. Massive piles of "talus" or rock debris at the base of Yosemite Valley's cliffs are reminders of these dramatic events. Natural processes like rockfall help to create the beautiful and changing scenery in Yosemite National Park, but they also present potential hazards.

Rockfall in progress
A rockfall tumbles down the face of Half Dome on July 27, 2006.

Photo by Amanda Nolan

What Causes Rockfall?

A number of geologic processes set the stage for rockfalls, including glaciation, weathering, and bedrock fractures. Tectonic stresses and erosion cause granite rock to fracture. Rockfalls later occur along these fractures. Fractures that develop parallel to the surface are called sheeting joints. Sheeting joints create large slabs of rock that ultimately fall away in a process known as exfoliation. In Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches and the face of Half Dome are examples of landforms that have resulted from this process. Over long periods, water flowing through fractures decomposes the bedrock in a process called weathering. Weathering loosens bonds that hold rocks in place.

Triggering mechanisms like water, ice, earthquakes, and vegetation growth are among the final forces that cause unstable rocks to fall. If water enters fractures in the bedrock, it can build up pressure behind unstable rocks. Water also may seep into cracks in the rock and freeze, causing those cracks to grow. This process is called "frost wedging" or "freeze-thaw" and can incrementally lever loose rocks away from cliff faces. Recent research suggests that daily temperature variations and extreme heat can also cause rock slabs to become unstable. Ground shaking during earthquakes often triggers rockfalls. Additionally, a variety of vegetation-most notably firs, pines, and canyon live oaks-grow into the sheer rock faces where their roots expand and pry apart joints in the granite. Most rockfalls in Yosemite occur in the winter and early spring, during periods of intense rainfall, snow melt, and/or subfreezing temperatures, but many large rockfalls have also occurred during periods of warm, stable weather.

For any given rockfall, there is always a large degree of uncertainty about what exactly triggered it; historical records indicate that more than half of all documented rockfalls in Yosemite were not associated with a recognizable trigger.

Predicting actual rockfall events is not yet possible, but understanding the forces that trigger rockfalls is an important step toward this goal.

Computer simulation of rock fall
Computer modeling can help to identify potentially hazardous rockfall areas.

How Does Yosemite Address Rockfall?

The National Park Service in Yosemite is responding to rockfall in a variety of ways. Park scientists, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and academic researchers, are actively studying rockfalls through the use of new technology, such as high resolution digital photography, laser mapping of cliffs, and exposure dating of boulders. These tools offer vast improvement in resolution from previously available data, allowing geologists to accurately map rockfall zones and to study rockfall source areas. Additionally, new computer modeling technology shows promise in simulating future rockfall behavior. The park is also actively investigating methods for monitoring rockfall activity.

The National Park Service has produced a report quantifying rockfall hazard and risk in Yosemite Valley to help improve safety and guide future park-planning efforts: Quantitative rock-fall hazard and risk assessment for Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California. Based on the results of this study, the National Park Service reduced rockfall-related risk in Yosemite Valley by removing or repurposing high-risk buildings within hazardous areas. These actions reduced rockfall-related risk by 95%.

Additionally, park rangers have developed emergency plans for rockfall events, and may close trails and post warning signs in particularly hazardous areas.

What Should I do in the Event of a Rockfall?

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Rockfall hazard zones occur throughout the park near any cliff faces. If you witness a rockfall from the Valley floor, quickly move away from the cliff toward the center of the Valley. If you are near the base of a cliff or talus slope when a rockfall occurs above, immediately seek shelter behind the largest nearby boulder. After rocks have stopped falling, move quickly away from the cliff toward the center of the Valley. Be aware that rockfalls are inherently unpredictable and may happen at any time. Pay attention to warning signs, stay off of closed trails, and, if unsure, keep away from the cliffs.
  • Inform park staff if you witness a rockfall. If you witness or hear a rockfall of any size, please report it by calling 209/379-1420 or reporting it at one of the park Visitor Centers. This information is useful for assessing rockfall hazards and adds to the growing knowledge base of rockfall activity in the park.
  • Understand this dynamic natural process. Remember that Yosemite is a wild place. Rockfall is the most powerful geologic agent acting today in Yosemite. The dramatic cliffs of Yosemite are constantly being shaped by this potent natural force.
Rockfall from the "Porcelain Wall" just west of Half Dome on June 20, 2020, was 1,040 cubic meters in volume (nearly 3,100 tons).
This rockfall from the "Porcelain Wall" (just west of Half Dome) on June 20, 2020, was 1,040 cubic meters in volume (nearly 3,100 tons).

Morgan Newport

Yosemite Rockfall Year in Review: 2023

2023 was a very active year for rockfalls in Yosemite, with a large number of rockfalls and debris flows, as well as unusual events not seen in more typical years. The winter of 2022-2023 was very wet and cold, with low snow levels. As a result, wintertime rockfall activity was higher than normal and skewed toward lower elevations where rain dominated. Roads were closed on multiple occasions, with 35 rockfalls and debris flows affecting the El Portal, Big Oak Flat, and Wawona roads.

Intense rain and saturated soils produced many debris flows. At 9 pm on January 9, a landslide originating from the canyon wall above Old El Portal quickly mobilized into a debris flow down a steep gully. Before the debris flow reached Old El Portal it was intercepted by a catch basin installed in the mid-1990s, trapping the debris and protecting structures downslope. With the catch basin full and the slope above still susceptible to landslides, an evacuation advisory was put in place during subsequent storms. On March 10, a rain-on-snow event in Yosemite Valley triggered wet snow avalanches that mobilized into debris flows near Yosemite Lodge and the National Park Service (NPS) stables. Four days later, heavy rain triggered debris flows that buried the El Portal Road near Arch Rock and deposited boulders into the Merced River opposite Dog Rock. March 14 set a record for the greatest number of rockfalls and debris flows documented in a single day (15).

The most spectacular rockfall of 2023 occurred at 11:41 am on February 20 from the southeast face El Capitan. A single block of 1,595 cubic meters (4,746 tons) fell from the cliff along the path of Horsetail Fall, free-falling 325 meters (1,060 feet) before impacting the base of the cliff. Small rocks landed on Northside Drive, but fortunately the road was closed for the Horsetail Fall viewing event and there were no injuries. The Horsetail Fall viewing area was closed while geologists assessed the hazard.

Other large rockfalls in 2023 occurred at Glacier Point, LeConte Gully, Ahwiyah Point, and Snow Creek. In all, there were 72 rockfalls documented in 2023, with a cumulative volume of 18,730 cubic meters (55,740 tons), well above annual averages.

Two additional events in 2023 are worth mentioning. The first is a crack that appeared in the John Muir Trail between Clark Point and Nevada Fall in mid-May. The second is a crack that formed in the cliff west of Royal Arches and north of the Ahwahnee, adjacent to the climbing route “Super Slide”; this crack was first discovered in late August and continued to grow into September. Both new cracks have partially detached large rock slabs and are being closely monitored.

If you witness a rockfall of any size or encounter fresh rock debris, please contact park geologist Greg Stock at 209/768-1028 or by email, or contact park dispatch by dialing 911 within the park. Documented rockfalls are added to the park database, enabling long-term evaluation of rockfall activity to improve public safety.


Learn More



Historical Rockfalls and Case Studies


Prehistorical Rockfalls


Rockfall Hazard and Risk


Methods of Rockfall Characterization

Last updated: April 29, 2024

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