Yosemite Waterfalls

Showy Yosemite Waterfalls Are the Stars of the Park

Yosemite-Falls-2

Yosemite Upper Fall

“No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”– John Muir

Water. Sure, we depend on it for our very lives. But the thought of water by itself doesn’t necessarily make us misty-eyed.

Granite. We love it on our kitchen countertops. And it’s kind of impressive in the form of massive cliffs. But it’s still just a rock. Right?

Light. Like water, it’s one of life’s essentials. But when’s the last time it made you want to do back flips?

Our point is, none of these three things on its own seems all that exciting. But take a heaping amount of ice-cold water (which just a few days ago might have been snow), make it plunge 1,000 feet off the edge of a gigantic granite wall, and aim the sunlight at just the right angle to create exquisite rainbows or lava-like “liquid fire.” Now you’ve got the recipe for a vision so sublime that if it doesn’t make you choke up and contemplate your existence amid the universe’s grand scheme, you’re not much of a human.

That’s Yosemite waterfalls – some of the grandest, most amazing falls in the world not only because of their sit-up-and-take-notice statistics, but also because there are so darned many of them in one relatively small geographic area.

And talk about fame – iconic Yosemite waterfalls have appeared in more photographs than Lindsay Lohan. What the Green Door lounge in Hollywood is to celebrity sightings, Yosemite is to “star” waterfalls.

Easy Yosemite Hiking Is a Relaxing Diversion

The best time to see Yosemite waterfalls is during spring, when most of the snowmelt occurs. Peak runoff typically occurs in May or June, dwindling to a trickle or completely dry by August. Storms in late fall rejuvenate some of the Yosemite waterfalls, and all of them accumulate nighttime frost along their edges during the winter.

If you’re in Yosemite Valley during a full moon in spring or early summer, head for the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. You might be fortunate enough to spy a moonbow (aka lunar rainbow), a phenomenon caused by the bright light of the moon reflecting on the mist from the waterfall.

Of course, if you’re an ice climber, winter is the best time to visit Yosemite waterfalls. With a pair of snowshoes (to get there), a sturdy constitution, the right training, and the right equipment, you can actually climb some frozen cascades.

Yosemite Waterfalls Can Be Viewed Many Ways

Some Yosemite waterfalls are directly accessible via hiking trails; many can be viewed from afar. The Yosemite Valley floor is a prime vantage point for anyone wanting to view multiple falls at once.

Keep in mind that while Yosemite waterfalls may be flowing at peak in the spring, some of the trails that access them may still be closed until they become less hazardous. 

A Word of Caution About Yosemite Waterfalls

It is extremely dangerous to swim or wade through any pool near the top of a waterfall – especially Emerald Pool near the top of Vernal Fall. Also watch for slippery rocks around waterfalls and along river banks.

Yosemite Waterfalls: Singular or Plural?

The term falls is best used for Yosemite waterfalls with multiple drops: Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls, Snow Creek Falls, etc. However, the term fall is more properly used when there is only a single drop: Upper Yosemite Fall, Lower Yosemite Fall, Vernal Fall, Bridalveil Fall, etc.

Top 10 Yosemite Waterfalls

Yosemite waterfalls number waaaay more than just 10, but these are the biggies.

Upper-and-Lower-Yosemite-Falls

Upper & Lower Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls
At 2,425 feet, this is the big kahuna of Yosemite waterfalls – hence the name. Composed of three stages of falls, It’s the tallest waterfall in North America and the fifth tallest in the world.

To give you perspective, Upper Yosemite Fall by itself is 1,430 feet, the size of the Sears Tower in Chicago. Lower Yosemite Fall is 320 feet, the length of a soccer field. The total, counting the Middle Cascades, is the length of the Sears Tower plus the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Yosemite Falls flows November through July, with peak flow in May. It’s visible from numerous spots around the valley, especially Yosemite Village and Yosemite Lodge. The best full view is from Sentinel Dome near Glacier Point.

A one-mile trail loop leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and is partly wheelchair-accessible. But if you’re in good shape, you might consider the 7.2-mile round-trip hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall, which will take most of the day. (But at least you’ll avoid the crowds at the base.) With a 2,700-foot elevation gain, seemingly endless switchbacks, and quite a bit of sun exposure, this hike is not for the faint-hearted. Start early and pack lots of water and snacks. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the upper falls just past Columbia Rock, 1.5 miles from the trailhead. At the top, there are cliff-edge views (with railings) of the far-away valley for those who dare.

Bridalveil-fall

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall
The romantic name says it all. Among Yosemite waterfalls, this 620-foot beauty stands out as one of the most memorable – and certainly the most-photographed. It’s the first waterfall that most Yosemite visitors catch sight of on their way into the valley, especially from El Portal Road/Highway 140 out of Mariposa. The vista point at Wawona Tunnel (Wawona Road/Highway 41) is also famous for its view of Yosemite Valley with Bridalveil on the right.

Want to capture a classic postcard shot? Stop your car at Tunnel View and glimpse Bridalveil Fall cascading down the face of the cliff, with El Capitan to the left and Half Dome in the background.

Like Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall peaks in May, but unlike many Yosemite waterfalls, it flows all year.

The paved half-mile trail to the base of the fall is a short but somewhat steep walk. It’s wheelchair-accessible, but can be slippery in spring and icy during the winter.

Known by the Awahneechee Indians as “Pohono” or “spirit of the puffing wind,” Bridalveil Fall often blows sideways, giving it the appearance of a bride’s veil.

Vernal-Falls-mystic-water-fall

Vernal Fall – mystic water fall

Vernal Fall
Known as the lower step of the Giant Stairway (Nevada Fall is the upper step), this year-round waterfall is full of surprises depending on what time of year you visit. Claim to fame: soaking hikers along the Mist Trail during peak flow in May. (Don’t forget to bring your rain poncho!)

While popular, Vernal Fall isn’t as easily accessible as some Yosemite waterfalls, and it’s not visible from the valley. Getting close to it requires a bit of a hike, and the only views from afar are just that – far away.

To hike to Vernal Fall, start at the Happy Isles trailhead and proceed about a mile to the footbridge, where there are restrooms and a water fountain. You’ll want to stop here to take in the view, but keep going because there are better vistas ahead. Not far up the trail, you’ll have the option of staying on the Mist Trail or taking the John Muir Trail. Stay on the Mist Trail, which follows the scenic Merced River up a series of steep granite stairs all the way up to the top of Vernal Fall. But watch your step; the trail can be moss-caked and slippery.

The constant spray of water does have its benefits, however. Among the prized views at Vernal Fall are mini rainbows that change shape with the wind.

The hike to Vernal Fall and back is 3 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. Reaching the top, you’ll finally get to dry out. Spread out on a rock slab, grab some lunch, and take some time to soak up the sun.

You can also see Vernal Fall from a distance at Glacier Point. A wheelchair-accessible trail leads to the viewpoint when the road is open, which is approximately late May through sometime in November.

Nevada-Fall

Nevada Fall

Nevada Fall
Continuing on the Mist Trail from Vernal Fall, past seductive-but-treacherous Emerald Pool and Silver Apron, is the trail to 594-foot Nevada Fall, which represents the longest leap of the Merced River. Here you get stunning views of Liberty Cap standing like a sentinel alongside the fall.

The almost-7-mile round-trip hike to Nevada Fall from Happy Isles gains over 2,000 feet in elevation. The extra effort required to get there means you’ll leave behind most of the crowd gathered around Vernal Fall.

Ribbon-Fall

Ribbon Fall

Ribbon Fall
Located on the west side of El Capitan, Ribbon Fall is the tallest single fall in North America at 1,612 feet. But because it’s thin and wispy – not macho like many Yosemite waterfalls — it’s not on many visitors’ radar.

Ribbon Fall is a seasonal waterfall, which flows approximately March through June and peaks in May. During peak flow, catch a view of Ribbon Fall and El Capitan from Dewey Point on the south rim of Yosemite Valley.

Horsetail-Falls-at-Sunset

Horsetail Fall at sunset

Horsetail Fall
Another “star” among Yosemite waterfalls, Horsetail Fall is famous for appearing to be on fire when it reflects the red-orange glow of sunset in mid- to late February. If you go at that time, be prepared to rub elbows with clusters of shutterbugs.

Horsetail Fall, located on the east side of El Capitan, drops 1,000 feet and flows approximately December through April. It’s best seen from the El Capitan picnic area (on Northside Drive west of Yosemite Lodge) or in turnouts just east of the picnic area. You don’t even have to leave your car.

Illilouette-Fall

Illilouette Fall

Illilouette Fall
Here’s another Yosemite waterfall that flows year-round, peaking in late May. Illilouette Fall, which drops 370 feet, can’t be seen from any road; you have to hike steep trails to take a peek. Best viewpoints: the Panorama Trail a few miles from Glacier Point and on the hike toward Vernal Fall.

Wapama-Fall

Wapama Fall

Wapama Falls
Want to ditch the crowds? This “best-kept secret” among Yosemite waterfalls lets you do just that. The 1,400-foot-tall waterfall flows year-round at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which gets a lot fewer visitors than Yosemite but is considered by many just as beautiful.

You can see Wapama Falls from O’Shaughnessy Dam or hike 2.4 miles to its base. Here you’ll experience Wapama Falls in all its punch-packing glory as it plunges through a gorge next to a granite dome, drenching the footbridge near its base during peak flow. Now imagine if the reservoir hadn’t been built – you’d be looking at a magnificent 1,700-foot drop into the Hetch Hetchy Valley. 

Chilnuana Falls2

Chilnuana Fall

Chilnuana Falls
Located in Wawona at the southern end of Yosemite, 2,200-foot Chilnuana Falls is another of those hidden treasures that’ll take you far from the crowds in the valley. That could have something to do with the effort it takes to get there; it’s an 8.2-mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 2,316 feet. The first quarter-mile is the worst, but the panoramic views of the valley along the way are well worth it. At the top, kick back and cool off in a swimming hole.

Chilnuana Falls flows year-round, peaking in May. It’s impossible to view all at once because it “hides” behind twists and turns in the rock.

Waterwheel-Fall

Waterwheel Fall

Waterwheel Falls
Seven-hundred-foot Waterwheel Falls, a set of long, narrow falls that plunge through a trough in a ledge, gets its name from the ridges in the ledge, which occasionally cause the water to strike the ridges and pinwheel back around, creating a “waterwheel” effect.



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