Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.
While I did not grow up literally in Yosemite, it was an integral part of my childhood and my family history. We were there frequently and over the years, I got to know the rocks and rivers of the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows well and explored significant tracts of the backcountry. The beauty and wildness of the mountains was irresistible. Yet, ever since I was a child, it was the waterfalls that always had my heart. The sound and motion drew me to them and their power and grace captivated me. The best hikes were always the ones the led to waterfalls, either up close or with great views. I have said many times that my most favorite thing in the world is running water over granite. This is true but falling water is better yet!
When it comes to waterfalls, there is no place in the world better than Yosemite. There may be larger or taller waterfalls elsewhere in the world but when it comes to the shear number and variety, as well as size and height, Yosemite is simply the greatest collection of waterfalls in the world. It speaks to the unbelievable grandeur of the place when one considers that waterfalls are only one of many aspects that combine to make this blessed spot what it is. Granite cliffs and domes, spectacular forests and meadows and beautiful rivers and lakes are all part of what makes Yosemite what it is.
Of all the places in Yosemite, Yosemite Valley is obviously the highlight of the park’s waterfalls. There are 15 named waterfalls in the valley and a few others that ought to have names and be recognized. It should be noted that the entirety of Yosemite National Park is well above average when it comes to waterfalls, especially those on and along the Tuolumne River. Giants like Waterwheel and Wapama are among the grandest in America yet receive little due. Nonetheless, the following catalog will focus on the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, the finest collection of cataracts in the world!
The waterfalls of Yosemite Valley are addressed in my own personal order: first the “big 5” and then the lesser known falls, from east to west.
Yosemite Falls (2,425 feet)
A spring pool reflects Yosemite Falls.
My brother and I have had a running debate over the last few decades about which waterfall in Yosemite is the “best”. It is my contention that this would have to be Yosemite Falls. The combination of its incredible height, its spring fury and its delicate swaying in the wind, as well as its myriad intricate cascades that form on the cliffs as the Upper Falls tumbles down its long drop all give it a unique and inspiring bearing. It is also ubiquitous. Whether one is driving around the valley, sitting at the “Queen’s Table” in the Ahwahnee or hiking difficult trails on the cliffs and peaks around the Valley, it is visible. Indeed, my earliest memories of Yosemite feature Yosemite Falls, especially the view from the footbridge at Housekeeping and the booming of the falls heard at night. It is fitting that Yosemite Falls bears the park’s name, for it truly is the falls of the Yosemite.
Panorama Point view of Upper Yosemite Falls in the wind.
It is hard to treat the falls as one and leave it at that. The two main parts of Yosemite Falls deserve a closer look. When I generally think of the falls, it is of the upper, taller section. At 1,430 feet, it is actually the second highest single drop in the park, but the volume is significantly greater. Even when it is in its full might, the wind can blow the falls around and the spray billows across the cliffs. When it does, huge sheets of water are still seen flowing down the cliffs. Despite how seemingly ever-present the upper falls are, they are isolated. The lip of the falls is reached by one of the park’s classic trails but the base of the falls is a little tougher to get to and has always been a place of distant magic to me.
A dizzying view of Lower Yosemite Falls and some of the middle cascades.
While Upper Yosemite Falls may be grander and more remote, Lower Yosemite Falls is the heart of the great cataract. It is the portion with which one can interact intimately. At 320 feet, it is much shorter than the upper falls but the urgency with which it hurtles itself off the cliff and the arrangement of its grotto home make it a nearly perfect waterfall. Scrambling on the rocks up to the base of the falls was one of my favorite past times on my early trips to Yosemite.
Bridalveil Falls (620 feet)
Bridalveil Falls plunges into Yosemite Valley.
It is strange to think that a waterfall as high and large as Bridalveil Falls might be underappreciated but in many ways I think it is. Prominently visible from the park’s roads, from Tunnel View and from the vista point at the base, it is still something of an outlier from the rest of the park. I think this is because it is not really visible from the valley’s trails and is best appreciated from those few vantage points. The only good trail from which to get different views of it is the Pohono Trail, which, though spectacular, is one of the valley’s less frequented paths. Nonetheless, it is an incredible waterfall and is among the finest in the world. It has a large watershed filled with meadows so it flows even into the autumn. The hanging valley from which it leaps is a classic of its kind. Despite the lack of trails, the arrangement of the falls opposite El Capitan is iconic.
Vernal Falls (318 feet)
A classic view of Vernal Falls and the torrential Merced River.
Vernal Falls is my brother’s choice for the “best” waterfall in Yosemite. With its terrific plunge and rectangular shape, it is hard to fault him for the choice. In some ways, this may be the most iconic of all Yosemite’s waterfalls. Simply put, Vernal Falls is raw power. Unlike all but one other of waterfalls in the Valley, Vernal is on the Merced River, which means its volume is considerably greater than anything else. The entire river simply runs to the edge of the cliff and jumps off. Add to the power and beauty the experience of hiking up it on the Mist Trail and you have the quintessential Yosemite experience.
Nevada Falls (594 feet)
Half Dome, Mount Broderick, Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.
It is amazing to think that Vernal Falls is only one of half of the Giant Staircase. Just upstream is Nevada Falls. Equally massive in volume but twice the height, it is my second favorite of Yosemite’s waterfalls. Though it is all one single drop, the Nevada has two distinct parts. First is a free fall for about 250 feet. It then hits the granite slope and explodes into massive slide for the rest of the distance. It is a plume of white water the entire way. Nevada is Spanish of “snowy” and that is truly an appropriate name for this grand waterfall.
Illilouette Falls (370 feet)
Ilillouette Falls and Half Dome.
Only in Yosemite can a waterfall of this magnitude be hidden away in a remote gorge and left to the few eyes that hike the spectacular Panorama Trail or know to look up from a few points along the John Muir Trail to catch a glimpse of this thundering giant. Illilouette Creek is one of the larger tributaries of the Merced River before entering Yosemite Valley. This means it has high volume and is one of the park’s most impressive waterfalls. It certainly makes a grand entrance to the Valley. After crashing down the main falls (nearly 400 feet) it then races down an precipitously steep and rocky gorge before joining the Merced just above Happy Isles.
This concludes the catalog of Yosemite Valley’s “Big 5” waterfalls. The following are all significantly smaller or have shorter running seasons. However, anywhere other than Yosemite, they would all be major attractions. Yet in the venerable park, they are mostly overlooked, forgotten, unappreciated or generally unknown.
“Hidden Falls” (80 feet)
Hidden Falls pours through notches in the smooth granite.
“Hidden Falls” is the only unnamed waterfall I am including on this list. While I am focusing on the named falls of Yosemite Valley, I feel this one must be included because of its unusual nature, ease of access and incredible beauty. Of course, it is only in Yosemite that a waterfall like this does not even get a name. Nonetheless, it has long been one of my favorite spots in Yosemite and is without doubt one of the Valley’s best hikes.
Snow Creek Falls (2,140 feet)
The final cascade of Snow Creek Falls.
Tucked away between Basket Dome and Mount Watkins is the awesome series of cascades that is Snow Creek Falls. In truth, these are located in Tenaya Canyon (as is Hidden Falls) but they are so close to Mirror Lake they are part of the Valleys waterfall “ecosystem”. They are hard to see but the best places to appreciate them are from the top of Hidden Falls or at the base of the final cascade. Long ago a maintained trail led to the fall’s base and it is still possible to follow the trail. Not many do.
Staircase Falls (1,020 feet)
Staircase Falls seen from Stoneman Meadow.
Pouring down the south side of Yosemite Valley between Glacier and Moran Points, Staircase Falls is a personal favorite. Indeed, a spot near the base is my favorite place on earth. Though the falls actually run most of the year, they are best seen in spring when they get surprisingly large. Below the falls the water runs through Camp Curry.
Royal Arches Cascade (1,250 feet)
Royal Arches Cascade slides down the north side of Yosemite Valley.
On the north side of Yosemite Valley, Royal Arches Cascade is the counterpart to Staircase Falls but they could not be more different. Rather than a series of steps, Royal Arches Cascade is a long, slender stream down a shear granite cliff. Located near the Ahwahnee, it also flows well into summer, though its volume can be left as a mere trickle. There is a fantastic ledge a hundred feet or so above its base that offers cool “bathtubs” and fantastic views of the valley.
Lehamite Falls (1,180 feet)
Rarely appreciated Lehamite Falls cascades down a narrow chasm above Indian Canyon.
Another of Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls that hides in plain sight, Lehamite Falls is a series of very vertical cascades pouring through a narrow slot. Located along Indian Canyon, just east of Yosemite Falls, it is rarely appreciated for a variety of reasons. The iconic falls nearby naturally draws attention while the slot it falls through tends to cast shadows on it as well. The flow lessens significantly in summer, which also hides its presence. For the few who scramble to its base, it is a fun adventure.
Sentinel Falls (2,000 feet)
Sentinel Rock stands vanguard as Sentinel Falls pours out of the clouds into Yosemite Valley.
One of the highest waterfalls in Yosemite, Sentinel Falls is a spectacular series of drops just west of Sentinel Rock. While the top of the falls is crossed by the Pohono Trail, the base of the falls is an off trail scramble but well worth the effort. It is best viewed near Camp 4, where it can actually be heard in the spring.
Ribbon Falls (1,612 feet)
Ribbon Falls has the longest single drop in Yosemite.
Boasting the tallest single drop in Yosemite Valley, Ribbon Falls is a spectacular springtime companion to mighty El Capitan. Located in a massive amphitheater, it is an incredible waterfall. However, appreciating it in its full might requires a spring trip, though it trickles through the summer. The base is another off trail adventure but is an incredible experience.
Silver Strand Falls (574 feet)
Silver Strand Falls is tall but seldom noticed.
Silver Strand Falls is almost totally unknown, but is another “if it were anywhere but Yosemite it would be famous” waterfall. Best seen from Tunnel View, the vast majority of visitors to this famous vista rarely take note of the large waterfall overhead. Who can blame them with such a great view? Another falls whose precipice is passed by the excellent Pohono Trail, it lessens considerably during the summer. In the early 20th century it was known as the Widow’s Tears.
Cascade Falls (800 feet)
Tamarack Creek joins Cascades Creek at the bottom segment of Staircase Falls.
The westernmost of the Valley’s big waterfalls, Cascade Falls is the herald of the coming grandeur while driving in on Highway 140. As a kid, I knew we were finally there when we passed Cascade Falls. Part of a larger complex of cataracts on Cascade Creek known as The Cascades, the falls proper is the final 800 or so feet. The lip is immediately below Big Oak Flat Road. From there Cascade Creek and Tamarack Creek combine and drop the rest of the way to the valley floor. It is a massive waterfall and the scramble to the best is a great beginner’s adventure.
Wildcat Falls (640 feet)
Wildcat Falls cascades down the north side of Yosemite Valley.
The westernmost of Yosemite Valley’s named waterfalls, Wildcat Falls is located just west of Cascade Falls. It is a slender series of drops much like Staircase Falls. The base is a fine cataract itself and there is a use trail that accesses it.
This is a fairly complete list of Yosemite Valleys waterfalls. Left off the list are Horsetail Falls (I have never gotten a decent picture of it is so ephemeral) and Pywiack Cascade. The latter is a giant of a waterfall but its remoteness at the head of Tenaya Canyon rightly puts it outside of the Valley’s demesnes. There are plenty of other smaller or more seasonal waterfalls to explore, some of which only develop after thunderstorms. All are worth exploring if the opportunity presents. However, the named waterfalls themselves is probably the finest collection of waterfalls in the world!