The hike from Yosemite valley floor to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall is 7.2 miles round trip (one source says 6.6 miles) with a 2,700 feet elevation gain. Plan to start early and take all day to do this hike and enjoy it.
photo above of Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point courtesy of NPS
Conservationist John Muir wrote of the trail to Upper Yosemite Fall:
“The Yosemite Fall is separated into an upper and a lower fall with a series of falls and cascades between them, but when viewed in front from the bottom of the Valley they all appear as one.
So grandly does this magnificent fall display itself from the floor of the valley few visitors take the trouble to climb the wall to gain nearer views, unable to realize how vastly more impressive it becomes when closely approached, instead of being seen at a distance of from one or two miles.
The views developed in a walk up the zigzags of the trail leading to the upper fall are as varied and impressive,and almost as extensive, as those on the well known Glacier Point Trail. One rises as if on wings. The groves, meadows, fern-flats and reaches of the river at once new over and over again as we go higher from point to point; the foreground also changes every few rods in the most surprising manner, although the bench on the face of the wall over which the trail passes is very monotonous and common place as seen from the bottom of the valley. Up we climb with glad exhilaration, through shaggy fringes of laurel and ceanothus, and glossy-leaved manzanita and live oak from shadow to shadow across bars of sunshine, the leafy openings making charming frames for the valley pictures beheld through them, and for the glimpses of the high alps that appear in the distance.”
Along the way to the top, the hike to Columbia Rock (also known as Columbia Point) is only about a mile; it gains over 1,000 feet.
In the map below (courtesy of the National Park Service)
the dotted line in the upper left in the drawing above is part of the trail.
If you drive to the trailhead, please do not park in the small parking lot near the trailhead. It is for occupants of campsites in Camp Four (Sunnyside Campground) only. Park instead right across the street at the day use parking west of the Lodge at free Yosemite Valley shuttle bus stop #7. Or even better, take the free shuttle bus!
Dogs and bikes are prohibited on all unpaved trails in Yosemite (see also links to Yosemite rules and regulations)
A warning sign about ice and rock falls at the trailhead:
(From the Yosemite Rockfall Year in Review: “There were 37 documented rockfalls in Yosemite in 2008 with an approximate cumulative volume of 6385 cubic meters.” “There were 52 documented rockfalls in 2009, with an approximate cubic volume of 48,129 cubic meters (142,000 tons).” “2014 was an active year for rockfalls in Yosemite. In all, there were 77 documented rockfalls, which is considerably more than the recent (2006-2013) average of about 45 rockfalls per year. Most of the rockfalls in 2014 were relatively small, with a total volume of about 6,500 cubic meters (about 19,350 tons).””Rockfall activity in 2016 was slightly lower than in previous years, with 58 documented events (rockfalls and rockslides) and a cumulative volume of about 5,000 cubic meters (roughly 15,000 tons). ” Read details and yearly reports at: Yosemite rock falls
It would be wise to ask at a Visitor Center about trail conditions before your hike, but a rockfall could close part of the trail and they would not know about it. In cold weather the trail may also have icy conditions that are not reported. You take your own risks. IF there are any trail closure signs, please follow them.
After the first long section of switchbacks (the zigzags on the map), there are a few streamlets in wetter months to pump water at.
There’s a railing at Columbia Rock (also called Columbia Point) to aid in taking pictures and a big section of granite to have lunch on. (Two photos below by Pavan Singh.)
2018 photo from Piyush Rohatgi:
There’s a great view down to the valley. You can pick out rafters on the river (well, in the summer), bikers on trails and the various hotels.
Below, the view of worn switchbacks on the trail looking down towards Columbia Point.
Don’t let the next section of switchbacks intimidate you, because the section of trail following them isn’t as steep and you can get to a view of the whole upper fall (a 1,430 foot drop), sometimes with a rainbow. Pictures below are from early February 2005, 2003, a trickle in Feb. 2007.
and in 2018:
In winter, when most of the pictures on this page were taken, the lower and middle sections of trail don’t have much snow except for one stretch during some years:
Go a little farther (here a picture looking down the trail to the section pictured above)
and you can get photos the falls and the winter snowcone.
I suggest to people that they stop when they get to this point on their hike, look at the upper fall, imagine it with full flow in the winter and then imagine the wind catching and holding the flow. Conservationist John Muir, who built a cabin in a tree near the base of Yosemite Falls, wrote about a winter storm when this happened and he counted to 190 before the wind stopped holding the water. Read what he wrote about the experience at:
Upper Yosemite Fall held stationary in mid-air.
Please stay on the trail.
Read what happened to a hiker who left this trail and attempted a short rock scramble. (“Granite rocks are slippery, even when dry, and injuries and fatalities while scrambling are common.”)
The last of the steep switchbacks to the top are along the original route of Yosemite creek and Yosemite fall, as shown on the left in this NPS display:
If clouds come in and drop down the top of the cliffs, you can find yourself at the top of upper Yosemite Fall, in fog with no views at all:
You will find that with a large group, some people are not as fast of hikers as others, and the fastest do not always keep track of the rest. Or someone stops to take pictures and becomes separated unintentionally or . . . The NPS gave this caution: “The Yosemite Emergency Communications Center frequently receives calls from separated parties, which usually result when groups did not make a plan for where and when to meet in the event they became separated. Fortunately, many of these incidents self-resolve; however, a few become search and rescue incidents when the separated parties fail to reunite. When hiking in a group, be sure to account for all members of the group while hiking and develop a plan with group members before separating from the group.
From a winter hike (February 2014) in cold, rainy (or snowy at higher elevations) weather:
John Muir wrote “In winter the thin outer folds and whirling spray of the great Yosemite Fall are frozen while passing through the air freely exposed, and are deposited around the base of the fall in the form of a hollow, truncated cone, which sometimes attains a height of 400 feet.
In the building of this cone, part of the frozen spray flows directly to its place in the form of minute particles like the dust of wind-beaten snow, but a considerable portion is frozen upon the face of the cliff along the edges of the fall and attains a thickness of a foor or more during the night. When the sun strikes this ice-coating on the cliff it is cracked off in large masses and built into the walls of the cone, while in windy, frosty weather, when the fall is swayed from side to side, the whole surface is drenched, dinding the whole mass of loose blocks and dust firmly together. While in the process of formation the surface is smooth, and pure white, the outlines finely drawn, the whole presenting the appearance of a beautiful crystal hill wreathed with clowds of irised spray, with the fall descending into the heart of it with a tremendous roar, as if pouring down the throat of a crater.”
The big dark cloud moving in from the right of these 2003 pictures brought snow falling on the students who made it to the top of the falls, as well as rain and a hailstorm on them on the way down and on everyone making dinner or sitting around the campfire that night.
People who have made it to the top during our winter trips hiked through waist deep snow most years.
In 2007 Howard Wang (?) took this photo at the top:
next photo of hikers finishing by flashlight (electric torch) / headlamp after dark in 2009 by Peter Ye:
(Your cell phone will not function as a flashlight bright enough or long enough after dark.)
Four views, (each one closer in than the previous one), of the same part of the top of the upper Yosemite Fall trail, with railings so hikers can walk out on the cliff face where the falls start dropping.:
– – – Upper Yosemite Fall drops 1,430 feet.
People (not on our trips) have had to be rescued from the trail. One guy (again, not from our trips) in 2012 “slipped on a step covered by decomposed granite (very fine gravel). While one leg slipped forward, the subject’s other leg slipped backward, forcing the subject to do the splits. The subject was wearing tennis shoes with slick bottom soles… While traveling downhill on steep sections of trail, slipping on gravel is common. Wearing trail shoes, hiking boots or footwear with sticky rubber soles can help hikers maintain traction on the park’s tails; some hikers also use trekking poles to help with balance and avoid slipping.”
If you decide to go off-trail, please be prepared that you can step between rocks and unknowingly step near a rattlesnake, or “crevices can hide scorpions, spiders, and yellow jacket nests”. https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/Nevada-Fall-Rattlesnake-Bite.htm
In another rescue report the park said “scrambling off trail is one of the leading causes of serious injury and death in Yosemite”. People on the Yosemite Falls hike are often tempted to go a bit off trail to see better views of the rainbow/snowcone. A bit off trail, maybe a few yards below the trail, is the farthest they should go, trying to go all the way down to where the waterfall flows is risking too much.
Quoted parts above are from http://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/Lessons-Learned-2012-Last-post-for-the-season.htm
A woman (and friends), “while the group was at Columbia Rock, . . . decided to take a jumping photo to post on social media. The group of hikers . . . all jumped and tucked their legs behind them. When the subject landed, she slipped forward on gravel and face-planted on a rock . . . The subject had broken several teeth and was bleeding profusely.”
Photo and quote above from https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/a-picture-for-social-media-result-in-injury-and-carryout.htm
Slip and fall how far???
You can also do this trail in the summer starting up in the high country and going down to the valley. There is a (fee) daily hiker’s bus in warm months with stops along the road between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
For info on our Yosemite winter camping (or cabin / tent cabin) trip this year go to:
photos below by Quang-Tuan Luong/terragalleria.com, all rights reserved. Same trail, but not from our trip.
Google maps street views:
Yosemite nature podcasts: http://www.nps.gov/yose/photosmultimedia/ynn.htm episode #2 is Yosemite Falls
webcam of Yosemite Falls http://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/webcams
Enhance your hike by reading:
Hiking Advice has HIKING SECRETS and etiquette, including hiking in the heat, preventing and/or dealing with blisters, logistics of hiking, a day hike gear list, Half Dome hiking advice, winter hiking and the answer to the question: When is the best time of day to cross a mountain stream?
Can a person who is prescribed an epi-pen risk going into the wilderness? see: anaphylaxis quick facts
The view of Yosemite falls in February from the far left hand portion of the lower Yosemite Falls walkways/trails.
The view of Yosemite falls in June from the far left hand portion of the lower Yosemite Falls walkways/trails.