By Staff assisted by Gino Zernitskiy
“When’s the best time to visit Yosemite?” “How can I see the Yosemite waterfalls?” We get questions like these a lot at Extranomical, and in this article, we’re going to give you the answers!
The Yosemite falls are, well, awesome. Three of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls—including Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall—are right in Yosemite National Park! And Yosemite Falls, you’ll be excited to learn, is the tallest waterfall in all of North America!
How far is Yosemite from San Francisco? Well, from Yosemite to San Francisco isn’t too far: only about four hours. (We offer San Francisco to Yosemite tours all the time; you can read about them here.)
More important, however, than where it is, is what you’ll find there. It’s the biggest collection of waterfalls in the entire Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s also a seasonal thing: Yosemite waterfalls all begin as snow melt, high up in the mountain peaks. Then gravity takes over, and, well you can guess the rest. The spring time is arguably the best time to see—and hear—this thunderous display.
It gets even better. This spring, you can expect unprecedented levels of waterfall awesomeness, because the generous winter rain and snowfall of 2019 are ready to pack their punch!
Yosemite in spring is so great for waterfalls, in fact, that we’ve teamed up with veteran Extranomical guide Gino Zernitskiy to give you this insider’s guide to the best, the drippiest, the noisiest, the most rainbow-packed waterfalls to be found in Yosemite. Some are easily accessible from paved roads and footpaths; others are hiding away, just waiting for you to discover them.
Let’s check them all out!
1. Yosemite Falls
If you’ve never been to Yosemite Falls, chances are you’ve seen pictures of it before. With its springtime rainbows, it’s a Yosemite icon (along with the Half Dome Yosemite and El Capitan Yosemite icons) and has been featured in zillions of books, calendars, and posters.
“Yosemite Falls” is actually not one, but rather three separate Yosemite waterfalls, stacked one atop the other. There’s Upper Yosemite Fall, at 1,430 feet; the Middle Cascades, at 675 feet; and Lower Yosemite Fall, at 320 feet. Add them all up, and that’s 2,425 feet—nearly half a mile!—of falling water. That makes it the tallest in North America, and the fifth-highest waterfall on earth.
As we’d mentioned before, all the Yosemite falls count on springtime runoff to power them, so the best time to see Yosemite Falls itself is in the spring, when it’s good and strong—and loud! It will continue to flow nicely through June, but by late summer it will have dwindled to just trickle. (So see it now!)
You can get great views of Yosemite Falls from different spots in the valley. One of the most-accessible is the one-mile loop that starts by Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge. But be careful: With all that water raining down, the trail can get slippery, especially in the spring and summer.
2. Bridalveil Fall
What makes Bridalveil Falls Yosemite’s iconic waterfall? It’s well-named: When the breeze sways it, it looks like the veil of a bride (although, at 620 feet high, a really tall bride!). Bridalveil Fall is often the first waterfall to greet visitors to Yosemite Valley. During the spring, it really comes down with power; during the rest of the year, it’s more wispy and “veil-y.”
You can check out Bridalveil Fall any time of year, but it’s strongest in May. Access is available near the tunnels on Wawona Road and Big Oak Flat Road, as well as the parking lot on the way into Yosemite Valley. It’s an easy walk to an overlook just beneath its cascade, but it is kind of steep. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
3. Sentinel Falls
Sentinel Falls (or “Fall,” we’ve heard it pronounced both ways) is situated on the south side of Yosemite Valley, just west of Sentinel Rock. Like Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Falls is actually a bunch of, well, cascading cascades, ranging in height from 50 to 500 feet, for a grand total of about 2,000 feet in total distance dropped (or more than half a kilometer, for our metric friends).
Visit Sentinel Falls anytime from March through June, although you’ll catch its peak flow in May. You can see it from the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area on Southside Drive; you can also see it from the Four Mile trailhead. Prefer a panoramic view? Check it from across the valley near Leidig Meadow, or by hiking the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail.
4. Nevada Fall
Measuring 594 feet from top to bottom, Nevada Fall is a huge, curved granite water slide—with the entire Merced River going for the ride. With its soaring mists and setting at the western end of Little Yosemite Valley, it’s one of the most beautiful Yosemite waterfalls in the entire park. It flows all year, but as you’ve come to learn by now, it peaks in the spring—in this case, late May.
You can catch a distant view of Nevada Fall from Glacier Point; the road to Glacier Point is accessible from around late May through November. When the road is open, a wheelchair-friendly trail is there, too. But if you really want to take in the grandeur of Nevada Fall, see it from the top! It’s a pretty steep climb up Mist Trail from Vernal Fall, but the views are worth it.
5. Ribbon Fall
Under-rated and under-appreciated, Ribbon Fall is one of our favorite Yosemite waterfalls. The best time to visit Yosemite—and this stunning waterfall, at 1,612 feet—is March through June. Peak flow is in May (not that we have anything against Yosemite in April!).
Ribbon Fall is just west of the El Capitan Yosemite icon. You can get the best views from the road that takes you into Yosemite Valley, just past the turn for Bridalveil Fall. You can park in the turnouts beside the road.
6. Horsetail Fall
Horsetail Fall is smaller than some of the others on our list, but at 1,000 feet, it’s still impressive. It’s an El Capitan Yosemite icon, since the water pours right down its eastern face. You can easily see how it got its name—it certainly looks like a horse’s tail—but in mid- to late-February, the setting sun pierces the mist with reddish rays… and these Yosemite waterfalls look like they’re on fire! Still, you can see great displays anytime from December through May.
To view it, park at the El Capitan Yosemite picnic area (that’s less than two miles from Yosemite Valley Lodge), or in any of the turnouts just to the east. You’ll be able to see Horsetail Fall from the road.
7. Vernal Falls
If you’re traveling from San Francisco to Yosemite (or from anywhere, for that matter!), you’ll definitely want to check out Vernal Fall. Look at that photo! It’s a sheer ledge of rock, hemmed in by towering pines. The water cascades over the edge, plummeting down to a roaring finish on an outcropping of granite boulders. Impressive!
Vernal Fall is 317 feet high, and actually looks different at different times of year. It flows year-round, with its peak in May; after that, it thins out, and may split into two or three separate Yosemite waterfalls by summer.
You can grab great views of Vernal Fall from Glacier Point; its road is open from late May through November, and the trail there to the viewpoint is wheelchair-accessible. For even more spectacular views, you’ll need to hike up the steep, difficult trail at Washburn Point. This is only recommended for experienced hikers—but if that’s you, it’s worth it!
8. Illilouette Falls
Here at Extranomical, we love to tell you about the hidden treasures you can find in Yosemite in the spring. And this one is hidden, all right! Illilouette Fall is not visible from any road. You’ve got to hike across steep trails to find it. It’s hidden inside Illilouette Creek Canyon, just below Glacier Point. You’ll really feel like you’ve accomplished something—discovered something—when you find it!
These 370-foot Yosemite falls flow all year long; peak flow comes in late May.
You can see the top of Illilouette Fall from Washburn Point on Glacier Point Road. But if you want to see these Yosemite waterfalls in all their glory, hike the Panorama Trail toward Vernal Fall; that’s a few miles from Glacier Point.
9. Wapama Falls
Wapama Falls is one of the most powerful Yosemite waterfalls in the entire park. You can find it by the Hetch Hetchy Valley reservoir, where the water plummets over 1,000 feet. Not so long ago, Wapama Falls would periodically dry up completely. But not this year! We’ve got a good snowpack, so it will live up to its all-powerful reputation, with peak flows in April and May.
Speaking of peak flows… be careful! Wapama Falls can actually spill across the trail bridge at its base. If that’s the case, don’t attempt to cross it! That would be dangerous and foolhardy. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The best spot for viewing Wapama Falls is from the parking lot at O’Shaughnessy Dam; alternately, you can hike the trail to get near its base.
10. Chilnualna Falls
Another hidden Yosemite falls gem! Chilnualna Falls winds its way through the rock-carved valley, to the point that you can’t even see these entire Yosemite waterfalls at the same time! Chilnualna Falls consists of five different tiers up to 300 feet high each; the grand total for these Yosemite waterfalls is about 2,200 feet. Peak flow comes, as it does with many other Yosemite waterfalls, in May.
To visit Chilnualna Falls, start at the trailhead at the end of Chilnualna Falls Road. The first section is easy, and it will give you nice views of the fall’s first tier. If you’re an experienced hiker with strength and stamina, you can continue all the way to the top. But be warned: this trail is steep and challenging.
To see all ten falls, you’ll likely need at least three days in Yosemite and even then you’ll be racing against the clock. Don’t have that much time? The most impressive of these falls are visible from roads you will travel on an Extranomical Tour’s expedition to Yosemite. Find one that right for you here.
See you at the falls!