Snow Creek Falls is an elusive 2140ft cascading waterfall in Tenaya Canyon. If the height figure is correct, then it has to be amongst one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. However, I don't think it gets much fanfare due to its inaccessibility.
The photograph at the top of this page is the best view that I know of. In order to get it, we had to summit Half Dome, which was over 8000ft high. From way up here, we were able to look down at the waterfall so its entirety was revealed. Otherwise, the waterfall's twisting nature and the deep recesses it resided within always conspired to conceal most of its presence from view.
In fact, the only other place we're aware of where we were able to sneak a peek at some part of Snow Creek Falls was from the far end of the Mirror Lake Loop Trail. I'm sure in order to see a bit more of the waterfall, some off trail scrambling in Tenaya Canyon would be required. Also, to the best of our knowledge (based on what we saw from the top of Half Dome), the Snow Creek Trail that switchbacks its way between the High Country and Tenaya Canyon, does not yield views of the waterfall as well unless some daring off-trail scrambling was done to get closer to the falls.
While Snow Creek flows with vigor during the Spring snowmelt, I'm not certain if it continues flowing for the rest of the year or if it suffers the same fate as Yosemite Creek (the one feeding Yosemite Falls) where it goes dry by mid- to late Summer.
These are two ways that Julie and I have managed to experience Snow Creek Falls, and they are discussed in detail below.
Before I describe the trail, let me explain what you're signing up for if you decide to do it. First, this trail is 16 miles round trip (if you do it the way we're describing) with 4800ft of elevation gain. The last 1/4-mile section of the trail involves holding onto cables while climbing a steep and slippery granite slope with exposure to long drop offs as well as the potential for lightning from pop-up afternoon thunderstorms. In order to minimize your risk of injury or death, wear sturdy shoes, bring plenty of water (and even a filter), a change of socks (to minimize blisters), food, and some form of sun protection. Heck, I even brought my own gloves to hold onto the cables which are metal and do have sharp fraying edges. I'd also recommend an early start to ensure you don't wind up hiking in the dark.
The way we did the hike involved doing the Nevada and Vernal Falls section as a loop (up the Mist Trail [Green and Blue lines on the map above] in the very beginning and down the John Muir Trail at the very end [Purple and Green lines on the map above]) while doing the rest of the middle of the whole hike as an out-and-back with the end at the top of Half Dome (Red and White lines on the map above). For a detailed trail description of the uphill section on the Mist Trail and the downhill section on the John Muir Trail, see both the Vernal Fall page and the Nevada Falls pages. The hike started from the Happy Isles Nature Center (signpost V24).
We pick up the trail description from the junction of the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail right near the top of Nevada Falls. At this point, we would have gone at least 3.4 miles with two steep climbs on granite steps.
Next, we turned left to continue on the John Muir Trail into a relatively flat section called Little Yosemite Valley. Along this stretch, the Merced River started to become accessible (which allowed us to filter some water and replenish our water bottles), and we were even able to see the wide backside of Half Dome, which looked like any ordinary dome from this side. There were also spur trails branching to the right leading to some backcountry campgrounds.
Eventually, this flattened part of the trail reached a junction (roughly 4.6 miles from Happy Isles) where we turned left and then proceeded to go up another uphill section. This forested section of trail ultimately leveled out once we hit another trail junction (turning right at this junction would've led us to Cloud's Rest).
Continuing straight ahead, we eventually reached an area where we could start to peer into parts of Tenaya Canyon seeing both Cloud's Rest as well as part of the elusive Pywiack Cascade. We were even starting to see disjointed sections of Snow Creek Falls.
The trail then bent to the left to continue towards Half Dome which was now looming ahead of us. After meandering a little more, it eventually reached the start of the next series of granite steps (which I informally called Mist Trail part 3 where each part pertained to a series of granite steps).
Some parts of this granite-stepped ascent seemed to be a bit slippery due to loose pebbles on the exposed granite slopes. Some of these slopes had dropoffs where a fall from the steps would not be good news. Moreover, the steps, which now ascended in switchbacks, really tested our endurance as both the higher altitude, the length of the trail, and the amount of elevation gain all took their toll on us. In some cases, we even let faster hikers pass us where there was room.
Once at the top of this last series of granite steps, the trail flattened out briefly once again. We were now on the saddle of Half Dome's back face (basically the top of an extra hump adjacent to the main peak). Looming right in front of us were cables aiding the final ascent to the top of Half Dome. Many people took breaks while also checking out the Tenaya Canyon scene as well as partial views of Snow Creek Falls before tackling the last 1/4-mile climb.
As we approached the cables, we saw there was a pile of used gloves (typically climbing gloves or even batting gloves) placed right at the entrance to the cables section. Given that the cables were made of steel, the gloves served to minimize the discomfort, blisters, or even callouses that might develop had gloves not been worn while grabbing onto the steel cables. If you lift weights, think of how calloused the hands get if gloves weren't used. That was the situation facing us at these cables.
Now that the magnitude of the final climb was apparent, we knew we had to secure loose items in our packs given the steep incline. If anything fell out, it was gone. And even though we had gotten an early start (before 6am), there was still congestion on the cables.
The cables were really acting as elevated handholds, which were propped up by metal poles planted into the granite surface. About every 10 feet apart, there were wooden planks to rest our feet on to help keep us from sliding down the steep and slippery granite surface. Given the way the cables were set up, it only allowed for bi-directional traffic on the single narrow lane between the parallel cables. In my mind, this was the real cause of the congestion (they certainly could've used a third steel cable with two lanes going in opposite directions). It was further exacerbated by people who were frozen with fear.
With the congestion, we noticed some people decided to climb on the outside of the parallel cables (while still holding on to one of the cables). In recent years, a permit system had been implemented to try to alleviate the traffic on the cables. When we did this hike in 2003, the permit system wasn't in place.
Anyways, at the end of the climb, we were finally on the wide and pretty flattened top of Half Dome. While up here, there were agressive squirrels probably used to handouts so that was something we had to mind while having a picnic. We also took the opportunity to change socks as a measure of blister prevention. However, we probably spent most of our time checking out the so-called Diving Board, which was a slight rock protrusion over the vertical cliff face of Half Dome. It made for a popular spot for a photo op as well as a pretty choice spot to see the entirety of Snow Creek Falls.
When we had our fill of Half Dome, there was still congestion in both directions at the cables so we passed on the outside with our backs turned to the open air. We essentially descended in a similar manner as rappelers would do, and it seemed to make the descent much easier and faster.
Then, we hiked generally downhill all the way to Little Yosemite Valley, and then eventually back to the top of Nevada Falls. At that point, we continued on the John Muir Trail all the way back to the Happy Isles Trailhead to complete the epic hike and ended the nearly 14-hour excursion.
Another way to see a piece of Snow Creek Falls is to do the Mirror Lake Primitive Trail Loop hike. We were able to arrive at its trailhead by taking the shuttle to signpost V26. Then, we walked a very straightforward paved path for about a mile. This path looked like it used to allow vehicles onto it, but now it was pedestrians only.
When we reached a part when the pavement ended, we were at the pond known as Mirror Lake (which actually dries up and becomes a meadow by late Summer). However, we continued a bit beyond the end of the pavement where we then encountered a real stagnant part of the water. It was at this spot that we were able to see nice reflections of Mt Watkins in the background.
Continuing further still, the trail went past what I called "Mirror Lake Falls" before reaching a junction with the Snow Creek Trail. This junction was near the end of the Mirror Lake Primitive Trail Loop where we then started to go on the other side of the loop. However, before we did that, we took a look back towards the south-facing wall where we finally saw the elusive Snow Creek Falls. This was about as much of the waterfall as we were going to see down here so we didn't seriously pursue any further off-trail scrambling to improve the view.
Both of the ways we've managed to see Snow Creek Falls involved going to the east end of Yosemite Valley. So it was best to park the car at Curry Village (signpost V23), then take the free shuttle towards the Happy Isles Trailhead (signpost V24) for the Half Dome Trail or towards the start of the walk to Mirror Lake (signpost V26) for the walk to see part of Snow Creek Falls without the long hike to the top of Half Dome.
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