Yosemite Falls

Yosemite National Park / Yosemite Valley, California, USA

Rating: 4.5     Difficulty: 1
Yosemite Falls and the Merced River from Swinging Bridge
Along with Half Dome, Yosemite Falls is the iconic symbol of the grandeur and beauty of Yosemite National Park. We think the falls is practically synonymous with the incomparable Yosemite Valley, and for something this grand and beautiful, we had to put the falls in both our Top 10 Waterfalls of the USA List and our Top 10 Waterfalls of the World List.

I had read that the falls was featured on early drawings made by Thomas Ayres, which then found their way into print. Consequently, that popularized and attracted tourists from across the country in the latter half of the 19th century. Thus, I have to believe that the historical significance of the falls was such that it could very well have sparked the chain of events that ultimately led to the conservation movement and the eventual protection of lands that would eventually be known as National Parks.

The waterfall drops in three major stages. The first stage is the Upper Fall, which is said to plunge 1430ft. The second stage is the Middle Cascades, which tumbles down a height of reportedly 675ft. The final stage is the Lower Fall, which is said to drop 320ft. Thus, Yosemite Falls is widely reported to have a cumulative drop of 2425ft making it one of the highest waterfalls in the world.

Since the falls faces out towards a wide open valley, it also happens to be one of the easiest waterfalls to both see and access. I think it's this accessibility coupled with its immense beauty that makes Yosemite Falls a world class tourist attraction in a place that is full of them! Indeed, we were able to see some or all of the waterfall from various locations throughout Yosemite Valley both from within the valley itself and from the rim of the valley in the High Country.

Yosemite Creek, which feeds the waterfall, drains a very large area of the High Country (reportedly 43 square miles). Generally, snow pack accummulated from the Winter storms provide the falls most of its water, which for the most part remains locked up as snow and ice until the warmer climate of Spring and early Summer converts all that solid water into liquid water.

The falls flows most vigorously during the Spring snowmelt. We've seen the peak of this snowmelt occur as early as the early- to mid-Spring months during low snow pack years. On the other hand, we've also seen the peak of the snowmelt occur as late as June in high snow pack years. Yet despite the large drainage area feeding Yosemite Creek, the waterfall does dry up when its snow pack has completely melted away (which typically occurs by mid- to late Summer). Then, the falls remains bare until the next round of significant storms in the late Autumn or Winter months brings it back to life and repeats this cycle.

Over the years, we've photographed this waterfall too many times to count. So naturally, we have lots more photos of Yosemite National Park's crown jewel that we'd like to share with you, which are shown in the photo journal.

Directions: We've experienced the falls in a variety of ways, and in this page, we'll break down all the ways that we've done it.

You'll see that each way of experiencing Yosemite Falls is different. We think it's worth doing as many of these as you can, because you'll automatically visit parts of Yosemite National Park that you might not have considered otherwise, and thus you'll gain a better appreciation of your time spent in Yosemite in addition to a better appreciation of the waterfall itself.

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Base of Yosemite Falls
The paved walkway to the base of Yosemite Falls in early June 2011
This is the most straightforward way of getting close to the waterfall. The walk begins right across the Northside Drive from Yosemite Lodge. It's pretty much paved almost the entire way so there's even wheelchair access to see the lower waterfall. There's a footbridge providing great open views of the lower waterfall.

But what we enjoy most about seeing the falls this way is the view of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls from the paved walkway. To see the giant waterfall framed by tall trees flanking the walkway is truly a sight to behold, and we frequently found ourselves taking photos almost every step of the way. Proceeding further along the walkway, our grand view of the full height of the falls eventually gives way to just the lower waterfall as the views of the upper waterfall become blocked.

The base of Yosemite Falls with rainbow in February 2006 So given the fact that this super easy walk lets just about anyone get up close to the mighty Yosemite Falls (and perhaps induces many of them to become a lover of waterfalls like us), we found ourselves sharing this waterfall with people at all times. Indeed, you're most likely not going to have neither this trail nor the falls to yourself.

As for logistics, there used to be a car park on the north side of Northside Drive, but now it's pedestrians only. I recalled they did designate a day parking lot behind Yosemite Lodge with other car park locations by Curry Village. I'm not sure if that's still the case now. Nonetheless, I definitely remembered parking not being easy to find (and that was at least 5 or 6 years ago; I can only imagine it's worse now).

If parking near the falls isn't successful, there's generally some parking space at Curry Village (signpost V22 in the eastern end of the valley). Then, you can take the shuttle bus towards Yosemite Lodge.

The Yosemite Road Guide says the wheelchair-friendly pedestrian path is by signpost V3 (or is it V4?), but I don't remember if that signpost is still there.

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Top of Yosemite Falls (Difficulty: 4.5)
The Upper Yosemite Falls as seen from the trail to its top
We definitely had to be in pretty good shape in order to experience the waterfall in this manner! Just the fact that it was a long and tiring hike with some serious elevation gain made us appreciate just how tall this waterfall really was!

The vista from Columbia Point All told, we ended up doing about 7.2 miles round trip with about 2700ft of elevation gain. Most of the walk was exposed to the sun since it was on the south-facing cliffs of Yosemite Valley. So we definitely needed to bring lots of water, stamina, and sunscreen. I'd recommend getting an early start especially if you're doing this hike on a relatively warm day. My mom and I once started this hike in the early afternoon, and it was almost dark by the time we finished.

The trail began behind Camp 4 (also known as the Sunnyside Campground). This camp was well known in the rock climbers circle (because it's where you'd base yourself for a climb up El Capitan's vertical face) as well as park veterans (because it's a walk-in campground). It was about a 1/4-mile west of the walkway to Lower Yosemite Falls.

Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome Since we couldn't conveniently park in Camp 4 unless we somehow secured a camping spot there, we had to count that extra 1/4-mile distance as part of our hike. I suppose if we really wanted to save that extra 1/2-mile round trip distance between trailheads, we could've waited for a shuttle to drop us off at the Sunnyside Campsite one stop beyond Yosemite Lodge. The Yosemite Road Guide had the trailhead near signpost V5.

Once we found the correct trail, it almost immediately climbed up in earnest. This climb persisted until we got up to the Columbia Point Lookout at about the 1.2-mile point. During this stretch, we had to cross the stream coming from "El Capitan Falls" during an unusually high snowpack/snowmelt year so that crossing presented a mild slip-and-fall dropoff hazard. In any case, once we were at the Columbia Point Lookout, we were able to take a short break while looking down at Yosemite Valley, across at Sentinel Rock and Sentinel Falls, and further east at Half Dome.

At the top of Yosemite Falls Next, the trail went up a gruelling set of switchbacks on a sandy surface before leveling out. The trail then made a turn and headed closer to the Upper Yosemite Falls. It was from this stretch of the trail that we managed to get a closer look at the Middle Cascades.

By the time we got right up to the rock wall over which Upper Yosemite Falls plunged, we had to go up yet another series of long granite steps and switchbacks. I'd consider this part the most grueling stretch of hiking since it was basically a non-stop ascent on unforgiving granite steps, and I recalled even cramping up towards the end of this stretch. Ultimately, the trail reached the top where it junctioned with some high country trails (which were still under snow during our visit in April 2005), but signposts there directed us to keep right and follow that trail to the top of the falls.

Right near the top of the falls, we did have to face some mild cliff exposure, which tested our fear of heights. Fortunately, there were some railings to help reassure us. Yet despite the infrastructure, we were still getting some butterflies, especially near the cliff edges at some of the more exposed parts of the trail, because we knew that it was a long way down!

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View from Swinging Bridge
Yosemite Falls reflected in the Merced River from Swinging Bridge
This is probably one of my favorite vantage points for photographing Yosemite Falls. That's because we were able to see the falls reflected in the Merced River from a sturdy footbridge (totally not indicative of its name). We've generally found that the river was most calm with the most favorable lighting in the morning.

The car park for this spot is at signpost V17, which is a couple of stops after Bridalveil Fall and one stop after the bottom of the Four Mile Trail (to Glacier Point), which is also a spot to see Sentinel Falls. After parking the car, we walked a short distance to the swinging -err sturdy bridge.

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Yosemite Falls seen from across a Meadow
Yosemite Falls dwarfing cars as seen from Cook Meadow
This is probably one of the more obvious ways to view Yosemite Falls. As you drive along the Southside Drive past the pullouts for the Four Mile Trail and Swinging Bridge, the valley opens up and parallels a long pullout and bike path near signpost V19 (according to the Yosemite Road Guide). Given the size of this pullout, there's plenty of space and time to pull over here.

Yosemite Falls seen between trees while randomly walking one of the meadow trails between Cook Meadow and Yosemite Lodge I believe somewhere near the end of this stretch (not far from the Yosemite Chapel, I recall), there's a bridge crossing over the Merced River leading to another large pullout with more views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls from across Cook Meadow (see photo above). Beyond this car park, I believe the road continues into Yosemite Lodge as well as connecting with the Northside Drive.

If you proceed further along the Southside Drive, you can get all the way to Curry Village and Stoneman Meadow (near signpost V22). Here, you can see the Upper Yosemite Falls from a distance at an angle over the grassy meadow.

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View from the summit of Sentinel Dome (Difficulty: 2)
All three tiers of Yosemite Falls visible from the top of Sentinel Dome
We think the summit of Sentinel Dome is the best place to see the entirety of Yosemite Falls, including its elusive Middle Cascades. It's a fairly easy one-mile hike with a steep non-technical scramble (friction pitch) to make the final ascent. Once at the top, we could look into the ravines that would otherwise be hidden from us at other vantage points.

Looking up the ascent to the summit of Sentinel Dome Of course, the waterfall isn't the only reason why we've climbed Sentinel Dome. We were able to get complete 360 degree views of not only Yosemite Valley but also the granite wilderness towards the south (including shapely domes like Mt Starr King) and Tenaya Canyon with part of the Giant Stairway to the east, including the iconic Half Dome. The summit was also once famous having a picturesque lone Jeffrey Pine Tree, which was a popular landmark to frame high country panoramas. Unfortunately, it eventually died (in the 80s from lightning) and was naturally felled after a thunderstorm some time in 2004 or 2005. I considered myself fortunate to have photographed it back in 2002 when it was still standing.

The car park for this hike is along Glacier Point Road at signpost G8.

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View from Taft Point (Difficulty: 2)
Yosemite Falls from the precipitous Taft Point
For a little more solitude and a somewhat unusual view of Yosemite Falls, we hiked out to the fissures and sheer vertical drop cliffs at Taft Point. The lookout was at the end of a 1.1-mile hike from the car park near signpost G8 on the Glacier Point Road (the same one as for Sentinel Dome).

The views from up here definitely induced butterflies because most of the dropoffs did not have railings. However, the one spot that did have a railing happened to be the one kind of pointing towards the falls while also giving us a look at the bridge of the nose of El Capitan.

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View from Glacier Point and the Panorama Trail (Difficulty: 4)
Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point at sunrise in June 2002
We were able to see Yosemite Falls at an angle at one of the well-touristed lookouts in Glacier Point, which itself sat at the very end of Glacier Point Road (signpost G11).

Unusual view of Yosemite Falls from the Panorama Trail Glacier Point was also the starting point for the shuttle hike on the Panorama Trail, which allowed us to get close to three major waterfalls (Illilouette Fall, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Fall) while providing more sideways views of Yosemite Falls from a far distance.

The Panorama Trail was a 8.5-mile shuttle hike that required some coordination (basically either a hikers bus from the valley or having two vehicles - one parked at Glacier Point and the other parked at Curry Village). The hike was mostly downhill, but there was a fairly long uphill stretch once we crossed the bridge over Illilouette Creek in order to reach the Panorama Cliffs overlooking the backside of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Falls.

Then, the trail descended towards the John Muir Trail where we had the option of descending via the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail towards the Happy Isles trailhead.

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View from the Four-Mile Trail
Yosemite Falls from the Four-Mile Trail
Last but not least, there's a cliff-exposed view of Yosemite Falls from directly across the valley right on the Four-Mile Trail. This trail connects Yosemite Valley with Glacier Point. Technically, it's longer than four miles each way, and we've only walked down from Glacier Point to portions where we could get decent views of the falls before walking back up. We never did the whole hike.

Nonetheless, I'd imagine it's a pretty and exhilarating hike, but we were always cognizant of the cliff exposure on this trail. I remembered confronting my fear of heights on this trail the very first time I was on it way back in 1999, and I recalled how butterflies in my stomach were persistent. When I revisited this trail in 2005, my fear of heights were not as pronounced so there weren't as many butterflies. Still, I'd imagine it largely depends on your fear of heights and hiking experience that will ultimately determine how nervous you might be on this trail.

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The attractive Jeffrey Pine Tree atop Sentinel Dome while it was still standing in 2002
Panoramic view of the eastern end of Yosemite Valley from Columbia Point on the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls in April 2005
Upper Yosemite Falls seen from a meadow near signpost V19The upper falls seen from a meadow near signpost V19

Yosemite Falls as seen from the Northside Drive as we were approaching Yosemite LodgeThe falls as seen from the Northside Drive as we were approaching Yosemite Lodge

The paved walkway to the base of Yosemite Falls in 2002The paved walkway to the base of the falls in 2002. Notice how uncrowded it was back then (though it was still busy)

Lower Yosemite Fall from its baseThe gushing Lower Fall from its base in late May 2002

Some snow and cliff exposure on the Four-Mile TrailSome snow and cliff exposure on the Four-Mile Trail

Looking down at folks making the ascent to the summit of Sentinel DomeLooking down at folks making the ascent to the summit of Sentinel Dome

This unusual view of Yosemite Falls was from the Pohono Trail between Sentinel Dome and Taft PointThis unusual view of the falls was from the Pohono Trail between Sentinel Fome and Taft Point

The vertical cliffs of Taft PointThe vertical cliffs of Taft Point

Looking into the drop stones stuck in the fissures of Taft PointLooking into the drop stones stuck in the fissures of Taft Point

Looking across Yosemite Valley from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in April 2005Looking across Yosemite Valley from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in April 2005

Mild slip-and-fall drop off exposure thanks to this creek crossing on our hike to the top of Yosemite Falls in April 2005Mild slip-and-fall drop off exposure thanks to this creek crossing on our hike to the top of the falls in April 2005

Still on the trail to the top of Yosemite FallsStill on the trail to the top of the falls

There was still snow on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in the high country in April 2005There was still snow on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in the high country in April 2005

Following the signs to the top of Yosemite FallsFollowing the signs to the top of the falls

Starting to have cliff exposure as we got closer to the top of Yosemite FallsStarting to have cliff exposure as we got closer to the top of the falls

Yosemite Creek rushing towards the brink of Yosemite FallsYosemite Creek rushing towards the brink of the falls

Some cliff exposure near the top of Yosemite FallsSome cliff exposure near the top of Yosemite Falls

Some cliff exposure near the top of Yosemite FallsLooking back at the stairs with cliff exposure near the top of the falls

The viewing area at the top of Yosemite FallsThe viewing area at the top of the falls

Looking over the brink of Yosemite Falls to the valley way down belowLooking over the brink of the falls to the valley way down below

Vertigo-inducing viewsVertigo-inducing views

Mom leaving the top of Yosemite FallsMom leaving the top of Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls and the snow cone in the Winter 2006The falls and the snow cone in Winter 2006

Yosemite Falls from Cooks Meadow in winterThe Upper and Lower Falls from Cooks Meadow in winter 2006

Yosemite Falls from Cooks Meadow in SummerThe Upper and Lower Falls from Cooks Meadow in Summer 2011

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Top down sweep of the falls from Swinging Bridge

Bottom up sweep from the walkway to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls

Focusing on the falls and the people dwarfed by it in surprisingly Spring-like flow during a February 2013 visit. Then, the movie pans to the right showing people checking out the scene from the footbridge over Yosemite Creek.

Dizzying view from the top of Yosemite Falls on a late spring afternoon

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For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.

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Yosemite Falls: Is it a waterfall when no water is falling? 
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