Hike details last updated May 2017.
Yosemite! The mere mention of the park should conjure up images of epic vistas, Half Dome, El Captain and of course, Yosemite Falls. Dropping down 2,425 (per Wikipedia), there are three sections to Yosemite Falls combining to make it one of the tallest in the world and arguably the winner for all of North America.
While it seems like most of the park’s 5 million annual visitors all make the short walk to the Lower Falls viewing area, ascending over 2,700 vertical feet (*approx 3,700 effective gain) to look down from the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is an adventure well worth adding to your list. That is if you’re up for the challenge!
What to expect for your hike
While a frequented hike, Upper Yosemite Falls is nothing to take lightly. With an elevation gain that often exceeds 1,000 feet / mile, expect a steep trail that’s icy and snowy in winter, slick from excess water in Spring, and just plain hot much of the year. The trail its self is comprised of a combination of dirt switchbacks, small and large stone steps and a final section of exposed walking over carved granite to reach the falls view point. Proper gear, footwear and planning is important to make for a safe hike so know the conditions, start early and come ready.
That said, hiking Upper Yosemite Falls is an incredible experience that combines so many of Yosemite’s experiences into one day outing. Over the course of the 3.6 mile (one way) trail there are endless views of the valley as it drops further and further below, incredible high forest scenes, and of course waterfall views both from Yosemite Falls its self and other overflow falls along the trail.
The exact conditions do vary greatly by season and mid Spring thru early Summer is your best bet for seeing the full force of the falls though it’s a worthwhile adventure up later in summer and even part way in winter (again, expect snow & ice higher up.)
Finally, I want to point out that while the hike rises about 2,700′ in altitude the trail is not all uphill along the way! As the profile above shows there is a few hundred feet of vertical downhill shortly past Columbia Rock and a bit more to reach the viewpoint. My GPS tracked the total effective climb at just over 3,700′ start to finish, far more than the listed climb.
That said, the hike is listed at 6-8 hours but for avid hikers who are use to uphill days, it may just be a few up (though it may very well be 8 door to door too, don’t underestimate the day!)
Trail Warnings & Risks
The Upper Falls trail is certainly well traveled but crowds do not insure safety. Expect a long, exposed, and remote day outing so be sure to bring all the essentials including food, layers and especially water (4+ liters people, summer is hot!) Also be ready for slick conditions (think falls & twisted ankles) any time of year, lots of exposure to the elements (hello sunblock) and a rather hot day come summer (so start early.) And always stay clear of the river above the falls no matter how tempting it may look to go play.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, shuttle & trail facilities
Located right in the heart of Yosemite Valley the falls are just a few minutes beyond Yosemite Village. While the Lower Falls viewing area is closest to the Yosemite Lodge (shuttle stop #8), the Upper Falls trailhead is a little further up the road by Camp 4 (there is a trail from the lodge and lower falls as well of course) which is Shuttle Stop #7 on the valley bus. There is some parking in the vicinity of the trailhead but taking the shuttle from the main visitor lot is your best bet in the busy Spring and Summer months. The trail is just before the camp to the right and a bit further beyond it though it’s well marked so you should have little trouble getting to it.
Water and vault restrooms can be found at the day use area by Camp 4 while the closest supplies, restaurants, and more elaborate facilities are just down the road at the Yosemite Lodge. I’m a big fan of finishing the hike with a visit to the Lodge’s Cafeteria for a quick meal myself. Showers can be found in Half Dome Village and will run you a couple bucks.
Hike Details: To Columbia Rock
With over 3,000′ of effective elevation to climb in just a few miles, the Yosemite Falls trail wastes little time in getting to the fun. Walking out of the floor of the valley you’ll pass a few sign posts for the Upper Falls trail before arriving at a large mileage marker with information about all sorts of wonderful adventures that lie beyond the top of the rock you’re now standing under. It’s certainly worth exploring beyond the falls if you have the time and energy so consult a trail book or topo map for the climb involved in other hikes like El Cap, North Dome and the like.
The start of the trail up is mostly dirt and rock switchbacks that wind up almost directly above those a few nice curves and plenty of large granite slabs keep the route from looking too stacked up above below. Like many Yosemite trails, the falls route is solid preferring carved steps and rock slopes to simply winding around ridges like you will find in other parks. For the first stretch these steps are fairly mellow which is to stay it’s not a lot of effort to go from move to move though as you continue on up things to step up so to speak. With a deep snowpack at the top of the mountain even this first part of the trail can be flooded over; you should expect to walk through water, around or over large rocks, and generally not to be on simple dirt.
After a mile and 1,000′ (if you’re not familiar, that’s pretty steep for a maintained trail) the trail emerges from the spectacular tree view to offer up a spectacular valley view (but no sign of the falls.) This is Columbia Rock and is a great destination throughout much of the year including winter when I’ve made it my own personal end point for the day.
That said, if conditions are nice, there is a great view of the upper and middle falls just a little ways further along the trail so take a quick break and push on ahead…
Hike Details: To the Upper Falls View
Passing beyond Columbia Rock you will encounter one of the steepest and most exposed sections of the entire trail. In the past few years work has been done to mellow this out and help it match the stairs of the trail to come but it can be slippery here both in winter (snow & ice) and summer (loose, dry dirt) so pay attention.
After a quick climb up just a couple hundred vertical feet (now up 1,250′) the trail mellows out completely and then surprisingly drops down and down some more. In all I tracked nearly 250′ of descent down which of course will have to be made up for on the remainder of the climb if you intend to reach the top as well as overcome again on your return.
Continue over a final, longer flat stretch and you’ll start to see Upper Yosemite Falls peeking out through the trees until suddenly it’s all you can see. The view here is spectacular and in Spring the trail may be overflowing with water just at the perfect place making it another nice final destination or stopping point for the day.
Hike Details: To the Top of the Falls
The fall viewpoint is just over 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet up the trail meaning that you’ll have over 1,700′ left to climb in just about 2 miles to reach the top so get ready for a steep ascent ahead!
After regaining the 250′ you lost on the downhill section, the trail exits the cover of trees for the most part and while that means tremendous views, it also means you can expect the full force of the sun to bear down on you which is yet another reason to be on the trail early in the day. The second half of the trail is also unforgiving in its design as you climb up steep switchbacks of dirt, rocks and carved steps that put your gym’s stairmaster to shame. In Spring water may be rushing down some of these switchbacks which can make the granite slick so once again be careful as you ascend and even more so on your way back down.
It’s an intense climb up and easy to get discouraged or really lose pace. Eating, drinking and staying cool is essential to keeping up your energy here (filter any water you get along the trail!) and I really encourage you to aim for a more moderate continual pace rather than aggressively pushing only to stop again. If you keep moving the distance goes away a lot faster than breaking all the time! The good news of course is that the views continue to get better and better as you go up each and every switchback and while the falls are not included in the sights, it is an encouraging motivator.
Finally after several even steeper, all stone staircases the trail returns to the cover of trees and it becomes evident that you are near the top. The now dirt trail forks several times with options to El Cap and other stops to your left, Yosemite Falls to your right and Yosemite Point beyond it.
The final path over to the viewing area is perhaps 0.25 miles and mostly flat at least right up until the trail reaches the edge of the mountain. Here you’ll find a final sign post marking the official viewing area (below) along with a flat area for a pre or post viewing break.
The viewpoint for the falls is accessed via two stone staircases which wind their way down something like 100 feet. The first set is large, wide, and has a nice railing though the drop-off exposure off to the side can be intimating but it’s well worth heading down.
As you arrive at the bottom of the steps the trail will widen out a bit as it comes to a viewpoint for the creek that feeds Yosemite Falls. A couple “small” falls lie just above the main drop.
The second steps are far more narrow, exposed and as such harrowing to many though in reality the drop is not that great as the viewing area is below them and a handrail helps as well (though in winter conditions frozen granite is nothing to mess with.)
After you’ve climbed down them enjoy the spectacular view of the Upper Falls roaring to your left and the Lower Falls far below off to your right in the valley below. You’ve made it (though remember you still have to hike back up the stairs and up the downhill by Columbia Rock to get back to the bottom!)
Extend the hike to Yosemite Point
While the climb up to Yosemite Falls is plenty for most hikers, you’ve hiked so far out of the valley that it would be a shame not to get a couple more views if you’re up for a little more work. In particular is Yosemite Point, a high spot just across from the falls that offers an incredible view of Half Dome and the surrounding peaks. With only 1.6 miles (r/t) further with about 500′ of additional climbing it’s not a crazy continuation and departs right from the same trail!
You can find ready my Yosemite Point Trail Guide if you want all the details but really you can get to the Point pretty easily. Just head back up the stairs from the Yosemite Falls viewpoint, pass through the narrow spot in the trail and look for another trail to your right heading down the hill. Take that to Yosemite Creek and cross over the bridge (stay out of the creek no matter how tame it looks, seriously, it does not end well) and then follow the trail back along it before it starts to cut up the mountainside above you. Follow the trail as it winds back away from the valley and then towards it again, staying to your right at the fork (the point is ahead) and you’ll find yourself at the railing for Yosemite Point in maybe 20 minutes time.
Beyond having incredible views, Yosemite Point is a large, fairly flat rock and an ideal break spot that’s likely to have a lot less of a crowd tan the falls viewpoint. If you’re headed out early season expect snow up top and potentially covering the entire trail so be ready for that as well. It’s not a long journey but as you can hopefully tell from the photos, well worth a little more work!
Quick facts about the trail
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Camp 4 / Shuttle Stop #7
- Distance: ~7.2 miles roundtrip as an out & back
- Duration: 6-8 hours (4ish for regular climbers + the summit break)
- Climb: Approx 3,700′ effective gain
- Crowds: Heavy
- Recommended time: Late Spring, Early Fall
- Facilities: Vault toilets at Camp 4
- Water: At Camp 4 (treat anything you drink along the trail)
- Parking: Road side lot, shuttle bus
- Fees: NPS Pass to enter Yosemite
- Permits: None for day hikers