YOSEMITE VALLEY, Calif. -- Pam Courtney had never seen Yosemite Falls so big and powerful until last week, even though she has visited the area since childhood.
The Sacramento, Calif., teacher rolled her wheelchair up a crowded trail to the base falls and was blasted by cold water from America's highest waterfall.
"This is the best I've ever seen the falls. It's awesome. I heard this was a great waterfall year because of the snowmelt, and I had to drive up here. This is an event of a lifetime."
In a nearby viewing area, children in soaked T-shirts opened their mouths wide to the driven droplets. Families from around the world craned their necks to see water roaring down 2,425 feet.
It's a banner year for California's high-country waterfalls, rivers and streams after a long, cold winter and spring that had many residents yearning for the state's legendary sunshine.
"This is one of the top years for falls in Yosemite Valley in the last 80 years," said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite National Park ranger and spokesman. "Not only are the flows higher, but they will stay high longer."
Winter storms unloaded the heavy snow. Cool spring temperatures preserved it. Now, warming days are melting a snowpack at twice the normal level in areas above Yosemite Falls, and the smaller Vernal, Nevada and Bridalveil falls.
Yosemite's waterfalls often peak in May and can dry up as early as June.
This year, Yosemite Falls is just reaching its peak flows in late June, and it may continue gushing into August or September, Gediman said.
"It's the highest flows I've seen in my 15 years at the park," he said, "and our visitors are having a good time seeing it."
There are risks, however, from the heavy runoff both in Yosemite Valley and elsewhere in the Sierra.
One Yosemite Valley visitor fell into a swollen creek and died this year. A second man is missing and presumed dead a week after setting out on a trail to Upper Yosemite Falls.
Park rangers warn hikers and cross-country skiers to use extreme caution in high-country areas with snow on the ground, ice in lakes and trails that cross swollen rivers.
"It's a very tricky time in the backcountry," Gediman said.
Yosemite Park has banned rafting on the Merced River within the park until flows subside enough to allow rafting on a short stretch of water normally gentle by now.
Visitors also are advised to line up lodging in advance because park campsites and lodges sold out long ago.
Those who make the trip will see the big waterfalls, as well as many smaller ones in unfamiliar places.
Along the snow-covered edge of Tioga Road last week, Jerry LeRoy pulled his RV into a turnout to view a 15-foot waterfall that appeared to gush out of solid granite.
Seeing so many new flows inspired one visitor.
"As I ride my motorcycle here, I'm seeing waterfalls in all sorts of places I haven't seen them before," said Catherine Kouriri, 49, of Sacramento.
She said she was so inspired by the majestic scenery that she decided to apply for jobs in the park. "I've raised four children and worked in many fields. I can drive a bus. I think I would be qualified for many jobs here."
Many were happy with visits to the big valley carved out by glaciers eons ago.
Napa Valley resident Rebecca Fletcher and a friend spent the day photographing the scenes changed by the flowing waters.
She set up her camera on a tripod along the roaring Merced River to capture the high water churning over granite boulders and wrenching loose brush and trees along the banks.
"I'm a world traveler and I like to see new things," said the retired Air Force master sergeant. "I've been here many times, but I've never seen the flows this high."
Later in the day, she photographed flooded meadows, where ducks paddled over a submerged hiking trail. "I'm looking for that National Geographic photograph."
While photographers peered into untrammeled areas, the biggest crowds flocked to the paved trail leading to the lower part of Yosemite Falls -- the world's fifth highest, according to the National Park Service.
The trail is gentle enough that Courtney was able to roll her wheelchair up an observation area at the falls' base. Mesmerized, Courtney and others watched the huge plume cascade off a cliff, tumble onto granite boulders, and explode with a roar into white clouds and sheets of mist.
The mist soaked Courtney's pet, Rookie, a Chihuahua-terrier-dachshund, and gave her the shivers. Rookie perked up and jumped onto Courtney's lap to pose for photos.
"It's an awesome fall, and it's accessible," Courtney said. "Some of the world's biggest falls are in places you can't even get near."
Courtney, who grew up in Walnut Creek, Calif., said her parents brought her to Yosemite Falls many times when she was young.
Before a car accident put her in a wheelchair, she worked a summer in Yosemite Valley as a maid.
"Yosemite is like my second home. Seeing the water this year is amazing. It's nature at its best."