The Best Waterfalls in Yosemite

People come from all over the world to get a negative-ion fix from the plentiful waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. But there’s a catch: Show up in mid- to late summer and your waterfall fantasies may be all dried up. Waterfall aficionados should time their Yosemite visit for April, May, or June, the months during which 75 percent of the high country’s snowmelt occurs, producing powerful cascades of water. Start with Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls, which are easily seen by walking, driving your car, riding the free Yosemite Valley shuttle bus, riding a bike, or any combination of the above.

waterfall in Yosemite with lush green landscape
Yosemite Falls is not to be missed. Photo © Maridav/iStock.

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall in its 620 feet (189 m) of cascading glory is an obvious must-see, but don’t miss some of the lesser-known falls nearby. At the overlook for Bridalveil Fall, turn directly around and you’ll see Ribbon Fall pouring off the north rim of the Valley. Also look for Sentinel Fall on the south canyon wall, roughly across from Yosemite Falls, just west of Sentinel Rock.

Yosemite Falls

Lower Yosemite Fall is an easy walk, but waterfall lovers can’t leave Yosemite without a trip to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall. Start hiking at the trailhead behind Camp 4, and after 3.7 miles (6 km) and 2,700 feet (825 m) of elevation gain, you’re at a railed overlook that is perched alongside the brink of this behemoth. Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America, at 2,425 feet (739 m).

Vernal and Nevada Falls

Hike the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley. It’s an 8.5-mile (13.7-km) one-way trek; you’ll need to catch the tour bus at Yosemite Valley Lodge in the morning to deliver you to the trail’s start. Just 2 miles (3.2 km) downhill from Glacier Point you’ll come to the lip of 370-foot (115-m) Illilouette Fall. Keep going and an hour or so later you’ll reach the brink of Nevada Fall, then finally Vernal Fall. It is a dizzying experience to stand at the railing-lined overlooks on top of these two falls and stare down into the powerful plunge of white water below.

waterfall and mountains
Hike the Panorama Trail or the Mist Trail to enjoy beautiful Vernal Fall. Photo © Kit Leong/iStock.

Tuolumne Falls

For waterfall fans who are unlucky enough to miss the prime falling-water season in Yosemite, there’s still hope. July and August park visitors can enjoy a waterfall-laden hike along the Tuolumne River that leads past four falls: Tuolumne, California, LeConte, and Waterwheel. The trailhead is on Tioga Pass Road near Lembert Dome and Soda Springs, and the trail is not usually accessible until July each year due to snow and wet conditions. This epic hike is a whopping 16 miles (26 km) round-trip, but with only 1,900 feet (580 m) of elevation change. The good news is that you don’t have to hike the entire distance to enjoy some of the falls. The first one, Tuolumne Falls, is only 4.5 miles (7.2 km) from the trailhead.

water splashing down rocky landscape
Visit Tuolomne Falls in July and August. Photo © Patrick Poendl/iStock.

Chilnualna Falls

Drive to the south part of the park to see a lesser-known waterfall. Hike the 8.2-mile (13.2-km) round-trip trail to Chilnualna Falls, located near Wawona.

Tueeulala and Wapama Falls

Head to Hetch Hetchy Valley to see its spectacular free-leaping falls. Tueeulala Fall and Wapama Fall can be seen via an easy-to-moderate 4.8-mile (7.7-km) round-trip hike along the edge of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Park near the dam, walk across it, and then follow the trail through a tunnel and along the north edge of the reservoir. You’ll cross over the flow of both falls on a series of sturdy bridges.

Ann Marie Brown

About the Author

Ann Marie Brown made her first solo trip to Yosemite at age 22. Like many first-time visitors, she was immediately inspired by the Valley's sheer granite walls and shimmering waterfalls. Parking her car at the first trailhead she saw, she set off on the Four-Mile Trail. Carrying nothing but a water bottle, she intended to hike only a short distance but was so wowed by the scenery that she kept on walking. Two hours later she found herself at Glacier Point, considered by many to be the grandest viewpoint in the West. Scanning the scene, she noticed tourists dressed in everything from high heels to a nun's habit, and realized that she could have driven to Glacier Point instead of walking. Ann Marie vowed she'd never again go hiking without a map.

More than two decades later, Ann Marie has gained substantially more outdoor savvy and is a dedicated California outdoorswoman. She hikes, camps, and bikes more than 150 days each year. She is the author of 13 Moon guides, including several outdoors titles, like Moon 101 Great Hikes San Francisco Bay Area, and is the co-author of Moon California Hiking with Tom Stienstra. Her work has also appeared in Sunset, VIA, and California magazines.

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