Yosemite Valley Waterfalls
I’ve posted a few photographs of various waterfalls in Yosemite before, Yosemite is a favorite locale here, but even for those familiar with the park, y’all might not be familiar with the ephemeral seasonal falls that fall into the Valley famous for it’s falls. I realized that I have photos of all but four that I know of, and a photo that I cannot place what falls it is. Clearly, an excuse to go back. What I will try to do here is provide a short reference for the various falls that go into Yosemite Valley that might orient a first time visitor, one who hasn’t been in springtime when the ephemeral falls are, well, falling, or one who noticed that “There are waterfalls, like, everywhere!” but might not know what ones those are. I was definitely in that camp for quite some time.
I’ll go in roughly the order you might see them in on a visit, all the way down the list and make a brief mention of the ones not included here. There are also some websites out there that do a fantastic job for waterfall hunters in finding and locating all the ones in Yosemite, but I wanted to put together the “quick guide” rather than pages and pages of falls. Many of these are only available to see when the snow pack is properly melting, so gear up, here comes Spring!
1. Cascade Falls (not shown)
If you are coming into the park on Hwy 120, or Big Oak Flat Road, before getting down into the Valley, straight ahead, is a set of Cascades. As you approach, there is a pull out for Tamarack Creek and a bridge over Tamarack and Cascade Creeks. It’s a very pretty fall, and if you are coming in on 140 instead of 120, there is a small parking lot so you can see the fall proper. I haven’t gone that way in a while, so, no photo.
2. Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil was the first fall John Muir saw when he entered the Valley, and it is easily seen on entry into the park, from Tunnel View on 140, the road in panorama from 120, and 41 (the third and southernmost highway into the Valley) goes directly past the parking lot to walk to the base of the fall.
John Muir thought it no bigger than 50 ft, and from far away it does look quite petite, but in reality it is over 650 ft in plunge. In spring it is a wild misting poncho inspiring site at the base, in summer it is refreshing to cool off in, but in fall, there is only a trickle, and you can scramble over the rocks to get to the pools left behind. Unlike many, this one usually runs year-round.
3. Silver Strand
While you’re at Tunnel View, Look up and to the right. There, on the side of the Valley Wall, while everyone is looking down the Valley at Bridalveil and Half Dome and whatnot, is a lovely little fall called Silver Strand.
4. Widow’s Tears
Sometimes, sometimes, you can see the fall nicknamed “Widow’s Tears” from Tunnel View if it has a lot of snowmelt, but it’s best seen from the Valley View pullout on the Valley floor on Northside Drive 120/140 W. No photo yet.
5. Fern Spring
Fern Spring is jokingly referred to as “the shortest waterfall in Yosemite,” though it’s not really a fall at all. It’s a spring tucked into Southside Drive after the highways join up on the way into the Valley. It is so very overlooked that I had to include it. The water is quite clear, clean (it’s a spring), and delicious.
6. Yosemite Falls
The next one you’ll see on the way to your camp or tent or cabin or room is the Big Obvious: Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest Falls in the world (like third or fourth or fifth depending on who is counting). There are too many views of this to count, but the first one you’ll see is on Southside Drive as you pass the Chapel and a meadow. Earlier views at Sentinel Beach or Swinging Bridge are choice, as well as later at Stoneman bridge and meadow and, of course, the walk to the base of the falls that frames the falls magnificently.
7. Lehamite Falls
Once you’re done looking at Yosemite Falls, you want to look around it. There’s one, directly to the right, in a spot called Indian Canyon (for Indian Canyon Creek) that is oft shaded and overlooked next to it’s awesome neighbor. Still, the thin crash of water is quite pretty from several views in the park, now you know it’s there.
8-10. “El Capitan Falls,” Ribbon Fall, and Horsetail Fall
Looking back down valley, towards El Capitan, the monumental single hunk of granite on the north side of the Valley that makes good climber watching, there are actually three waterfalls, one on either side of the edifice and one coming down part of the sheer. They really need to be treated as a group so you can spot them easily.
The first, and most rare, is El Capitan Falls, an unofficial name for a series of falls over the cliffs that land near Camp 4, the only walk-in first come, first served campground in the Valley, popular with climbers. I do not have a picture for it.
The second is Horsetail fall, which is on the East side of El Cap. Back In The Day, people used to todd firey embers off the cliff above Camp Curry that was called the Firefall. This was stupid, and stopped. Horsetail Fall is called the Natural Firefall. It has a special ability to turn into a firey glow during sunsets vaguely in late January to early March so long as the water from the snowpack is actually melting and running. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of this one, but it’s very clear what one it is if you are looking at the right side of El Capitan.
The third is Ribbon Fall, which is on the Western or left hand side of El Capitan, thus you must see it from a point at the mouth of the Valley, like Valley View.
11. Sentinel Fall
I put this one after the El Cap Trio because it is often missed. Looking at El Cap, this Fall, as well as Sentinel dome and some lovely rocks, is behind you on the south side of the Valley.
12. Staircase Falls
Staircase runs behind Curry Village and always presents a dramatic sweeping set of falls into the Valley. There is a very good view from Stoneman Meadow or, alternately, the Ahwahnee meadow.
13. Royal Arch Cascade
Royal Arch Creek plunges downward at a very gradual angle along the granite face above the Ahwahnee Hotel. It is so gradual, that, with a quick climb up the trail on the north side of the Ahwahnee, you can get right up to a lovely cascade across the trail and look up to see the water spilling over the granite towering above you.
14 – 16. Illilouette, Vernal, and Nevada Falls
These two falls are a dynamic duo, always flowing as the waters of the mighty Merced River flow over them. A short walk uphill on the Mist Trail will take you to a viewpoint from which you can see Illilouette Fall. This fall is really best seen from the Panorama trail from Glacier Point to the top of Nevada Fall, a hike I hope to do sometime.
The walk takes you to a bridge view of Vernal Falls, a restroom and running water, and then you have a choice to make:
1. Climb up granite steps to the top of Vernal on the Mist Trail, getting soaked if it is springtime,
2. Take the longer, switchbacked, John Muir Trail up to Clark Point and then down to the top of Vernal Fall
…and the same of both to the top of Nevada Fall.
The John Muir Trail provides the best view of Nevada Fall, in my opinion, but for going to the top of Vernal, the Mist Trail is worth the experience – you don’t get the view nor the soak from the JMT.
There you have it, some sixteen waterfalls that come into Yosemite Valley. With all these surrounding you, the Valley is an awe inducing and uncanny place. While you can certainly go to see everything and be a tourist, take a moment to reflect on the fact that you’re in a World Heritage Site that is very special. If you stand in the meadows in springtime, say at Swinging Bridge or Sentinel Beach, and look around, take a moment to be swept up in the grandeur and majesty and magic of your surroundings. John Muir and other early visitors called the Valley a temple or cathedral carved by God, a consecrated space. See her in all her glory with the waters flowing all around, and you get in touch with your spiritual side pretty easily under the overwhelming and sublime beauty of nature.