Snow Creek Falls

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

About Snow Creek Falls


Hiking Distance: 16 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 10-14 hours

Date first visited: 2003-06-07
Date last visited: 2004-04-23

Waterfall Latitude: 37.77003
Waterfall Longitude: -119.53468

Snow Creek Falls is an elusive 2,140ft 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.

Half_Dome_068_06072003 - Snow Creek Falls seen from the summit of Half Dome
Snow Creek Falls seen from the summit of Half Dome

However, I don’t think it gets much fanfare due to its inaccessibility.

The photograph above is the best view that I know of, and we had to summit Half Dome at over 8,000ft in elevation in order to get it.

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.

Half_Dome_065_06072003 - The best view of Snow Creek Falls came from that diving board on the summit of Half Dome
The best view of Snow Creek Falls came from that diving board on the summit of Half Dome

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.

There were two ways that Julie and I have managed to expeience Snow Creek Falls, and they are discussed in detail below.

Logistics of the Half Dome Hike

Half_Dome_Trail.jpg - Half Dome Trail - Green (paved part of JMT), Blue (Mist Trail), Purple (JMT incl. Panorama Cliffs section), Red (JMT to Clouds Rest junction then on to Half Dome Saddle), White (Half Dome Cables)

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 4,800ft 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.

Upper_Yosemite_Falls_034_03202004 - Looking across Yosemite Valley towards Half Dome.  The summit of that dome is the goal of this hike
Looking across Yosemite Valley towards Half Dome. The summit of that dome is the goal of this hike

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.

This loop began by going up the Mist Trail (i.e. the green and blue lines on the map above). It ended by going down the John Muir Trail (i.e. the purple and green lines on the map above).

Vernal_Fall_024_03202004 - The Mist Trail leading up to the top of Vernal Fall
The Mist Trail leading up to the top of Vernal Fall

And the rest of the middle of the whole hike involved an out-and-back stretch that ended 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).

Continuing Beyond Nevada Falls

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.

Half_Dome_035_06072003 - The back side of Half Dome
The back side of Half Dome

Along this stretch, the Merced River started to become accessible (which allowed us to filter some water and replenish our water bottles). 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, including Little Yosemite Valley.

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.

Half_Dome_037_06072003 - Snow Creek Falls starting to come into view
Snow Creek Falls starting to come into view

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.

Half_Dome_054_06072003 - Looking back down at the steep switchbacks towards Clouds Rest on the way up to the summit of Half Dome
Looking back down at the steep switchbacks towards Clouds Rest on the way up to the summit of Half Dome

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.

The Summit of Half Dome
Half_Dome_057_06072003 - Looking up at the final ascent to the summit of Half Dome
Looking up at the final ascent to the summit of Half Dome

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.

Half_Dome_062_06072003 - Congestion on the cables
Congestion on the cables

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 hand holds, 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.

Half_Dome_063_06072003 - Looking back towards the upper end of the Half Dome Cables as we had finally made it up to the summit in June 2003
Looking back towards the upper end of the Half Dome Cables as we had finally made it up to the summit in June 2003

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 aggressive squirrels probably used to handouts so that was something we had to mind while having a picnic.

Half_Dome_085_06072003 - Snow Creek Falls from the Diving Board of Half Dome
Snow Creek Falls from the Diving Board of Half Dome

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.

Half_Dome_076_06072003 - Our buddy Chris sitting atop the Diving Board
Our buddy Chris sitting atop the Diving Board

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, where we filtered and re-filled on water once again.

Finally, we headed 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 (thus ending the nearly 14-hour excursion).

View of Snow Creek Falls from the Mirror Lake Loop

Mirror_Lake_021_05102003 - Reflections on Mirror Lake as we hiked a long loop in search of an alternate way to experience Snow Creek Falls
Reflections on Mirror Lake as we hiked a long loop in search of an alternate way to experience Snow Creek Falls

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.

Mirror_Lake_Falls_006_03212004 - Looking over towards the ephemeral 'Mirror Lake Falls' as we hiked the Mirror Lake Primitive Loop
Looking over towards the ephemeral ‘Mirror Lake Falls’ as we hiked the Mirror Lake Primitive Loop

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.

Snow_Creek_Falls_007_04232004 - As much of Snow Creek Falls as we'd seen from the Mirror Lake Primitive Loop Trail
As much of Snow Creek Falls as we’d seen from the Mirror Lake Primitive Loop Trail

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.

Authorities

Snow Creek Falls resides in Yosemite National Park near Yosemite Village in Mariposa County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Snow_Creek_Falls_001_04232004 - Partial view towards the bottom of Snow Creek Falls as we scrambled further upstream along Tenaya Creek in search of a way to improve our view of that waterfall in late April 2004
Snow_Creek_Falls_008_04232004 - Possibly the cleanest view of only part of Snow Creek Falls that I was able to get on my attempted scramble along Tenaya Creek beyond the Mirror Lake Primitive Loop in late April 2004
Half_Dome_001_06072003 - Looking up at Vernal Fall in full flow from the Lady Franklin Rock in the very early morning of our full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_012_06072003 - Ascending the Mist Trail in the early morning before Vernal Fall in full flow on our Half Dome hike in the very early morning of June 2003
Half_Dome_015_06072003 - Direct look at Vernal Fall fronted by a dead tree during our pre-dawn start to the full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_019_06072003 - Seeking temporary shelter from the intense mist on the Mist Trail before Vernal Fall during our Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_021_06072003 - Getting past the spray zone of the Mist Trail as we continued hiking towards the top of Vernal Fall and then ultimately to Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_025_06072003 - Partial view of Nevada Fall as we continued our ascent up to Half Dome during our June 2003 hike
Half_Dome_026_06072003 - Continuing along the Mist Trail alongside Nevada Fall during our full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_039_06072003 - Looking towards Half Dome as the trail continued towards the next steep section of ascent on our full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_041_06072003 - Disjointed look at Snow Creek Falls as we hiked towards the next steep part of the ascent to Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_045_06072003 - Looking towards Snow Creek Falls before the trail started climbing up granite steps en route to the summit of Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_048_06072003 - Looking towards the head of Tenaya Canyon and the Pywiack Cascade during our Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_051_06072003 - Getting closer to the saddle of Half Dome on our full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_053_06072003 - Looking down at the granite step switchbacks as we made the arduous ascent towards the Half Dome Saddle during our June 2003 hike
Half_Dome_056_06072003 - Looking towards Snow Creek Falls in the midst of the ascent to the Half Dome Saddle during our June 2003 visit
Half_Dome_060_06072003 - Julie looking ahead at the Half Dome Cables during our full day Half Dome hike in June 2003
Half_Dome_069_06072003 - Looking down towards a stretch of Snow Creek Falls with a rainbow starting to appear in part of its mist as seen from the summit of Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_070_06072003 - Looking towards the Diving Board atop Half Dome on our June 2003 visit
Half_Dome_072_06072003 - Looking towards North Dome from the summit of Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_079_06072003 - Looking towards the back of Half Dome where we saw this surprise unnamed waterfall during our June 2003 visit
Half_Dome_080_06072003 - Looking in the distance towards Mt Starr King as seen towards the backside of Half Dome during our visit in June 2003
Half_Dome_086_06072003 - The picnic spot we chose atop Half Dome in June 2003 happened to have this view of Tenaya Canyon
Half_Dome_087_06072003 - Partial and contextual view of Snow Creek Falls and Mt Watkins as seen from the summit of Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_096_06072003 - The deer we saw on the Half Dome Trail as we headed back to Happy Isles after having had our fill of Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_098_06072003 - Back at the top of the Nevada Falls footbridge en route to Happy Isles during our June 2003 visit
Half_Dome_104_06072003 - Profile look at Nevada Falls and the Liberty Cap during our return hike along the John Muir Trail after having summited Half Dome in June 2003
Half_Dome_123_06072003 - Looking back at Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap from near Clark Point on the return hike from Half Dome along the John Muir Trail in June 2003

join-booking-970x240-1.jpg


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 either 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.

For context, to get to Curry Village from Los Angeles, our preferred route would be to drive on the I-5 north.

After descending into the Grapevine (some 2 hours from home), we then take the Hwy 99 through Central Valley towards Fresno.

Then, we hop onto the Hwy 41 at Fresno which leads us to the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park via Oakhurst.

Continuing on Hwy 41 (now Wawona Road), we then take this for the next 60-90 minutes (passing through Wawona) all the way into Yosemite Valley and eventually to Curry Village.

Overall, this drive would take roughly 6 hours or more depending on traffic.

Tagged with: yosemite, mariposa, merced, mist trail, john muir trail, jmt, half dome, happy isles, curry, california, waterfall, giant stairway, liberty cap, sierra, little yosemite, saddle, cables, snow creek



Visitor Comments:

Mt. Lyell is the highest point in Yosemite, not Cloud’s Rest July 16, 2013 5:24 pm by Marcos - A bit of errata: The peak of My Lyell, from which rises the headwaters of the Tuolumne River on its north flank and the Merced River on its southwestern flank, is 13,114' in elevation and is the highest point in Yosemite National Park. Cloud's Rest, at 9,930', is a subsidiary of Tressider Peak which only… ...Read More

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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

Yosemite and Snow Creek Falls July 11, 2010 4:20 am by Anne Ripley - Two weeks ago I fulfilled a 60 year dream and made it to the top of Half Dome. Awed by the accomplishment as much as by the view, I stared, speechless, at the still snowcapped peaks. Then I saw Snow Creek Falls ! I couldn't believe that I'd never seen a picture of this beautiful… ...Read More

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About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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