Yosemite National Park is home to many incredible attractions—magnificent granite cliffs, extraordinary wildlife and bright beds of lively wildflowers—but what really drives visitors to make their way to Yosemite? The chance to see one of Yosemite’s famous waterfalls.
Yosemite waterfalls are some of the largest in North America and a hike to the top results in stunning views many have only dreamt about. Yosemite waterfalls reach peak flow during late spring, specifically May and June when most of the snowmelt occurs. Each waterfall in Yosemite has an approximate peak flow season and some of them flow year-round.
While hiking to waterfalls in Yosemite is quite popular, many waterfalls can be accessed without undertaking a steep, all-day hike. From Glacier Point Road, visitors can head on an easy stroll to vista point where a quick glance to the right offers views of the Merced River as it makes its decent down Nevada Fall to Vernal Fall before hitting the valley floor. Views of both Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall can be grabbed from the Yosemite Valley floor, Sentinel Meadow and Cooks Meadow Loop via a series of boardwalks that have no elevation gain, too. Whether you’re in the mood for a leisurely jaunt or looking for more of a challenge, there will be an unforgettable view of one of the many waterfalls in Yosemite to fit your hiking level.
Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall and Horsetail Fall are some of the tallest waterfalls in Yosemite.
Yosemite Falls, the world’s fifth tallest waterfall, is actually made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall at 1,430 feet, the middle cascades at 675 feet, and Lower Yosemite Fall at 320 feet. Lower Yosemite Falls trail is an easy hike, but many visitors can’t stop themselves from trekking to Upper Yosemite Falls, which is 2,425 feet tall and ranked as the highest waterfall in North America. Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls is like hiking the Empire State Building—twice. The hike is pretty demanding with quite a few switchbacks, so don’t forget sunscreen and bring plenty of water. We promise the views are worth it. Check out the Yosemite Falls webcam for a current view of the falls!
Photo Credit: Chris Migeon
While Yosemite Falls is the tallest, Sentinel Fall is a close second at about 2,000 feet and usually flows from March through June, with a peak flow in May. Located in the south side of Yosemite Valley, this Yosemite waterfall is comprised of multiple cascading pieces that range anywhere from 50 – 500 feet in height. You can see Sentinel Fall from across Yosemite Valley near Leidig Meadow, or more clearly from Southside Drive near Sentinel Beach Picnic Area.
Finally, Horsetail Fall also referred to as “the natural Firefall” and “Yosemite Firefall,” which generally flows from December through April, is famous for looking like it is on fire when it reflects the orange-red glow of the sunset from mid-to-late February. This phenomenon typically lasts for about three weeks if conditions are right. Horsetail Fall is located on the east side of El Capitan. To see Horsetail Fall, park at the El Capitan Picnic Area on Northside Drive west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, formerly Yosemite Lodge. Due to the popularity of the Horsetail Fall sunset phenomenon, you will need to obtain a permit from the National Park Service, as they will be managing vehicular traffic on Northside Drive in Yosemite Valley beginning in February.
If you’re visiting Yosemite National Park in late summer and still want to catch a glimpse of a famous Yosemite waterfall, check out Chilnualna Falls for a full-day hike to a year-round, steady flowing fall in the southern region of the park. Chilnualna Fall is located in Wawona and cannot be seen from the road.
If you’re in the northern part of Yosemite National Park, you’re bound to find some roaring falls at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. John Muir once described the beauty of the Hetch Hetchy area as more beautiful than all of Yosemite Valley. The region was a valley prior to the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, and John Muir often wrote about the valley and its offerings in his travels. The trail leading around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is flat and eventually leads to Wapama Fall. From there, you can continue to the cascades at Rancheria Flat.
If you’re looking for Yosemite waterfall hikes, try Bridalveil Fall, mentioned above. Bridalveil Fall is an easy Yosemite waterfall hike that offers paved trails which are wheelchair accessible and perfect for leashed pets. Located off State Highway 41 on Southside Drive, Bridalveil Fall is about 620 feet tall and flows all year long, with peak flow in May like most Yosemite waterfalls.
From Bridalveil Fall, you can also see Ribbon Fall and Sentinel Fall, too. Bridalveil Fall and Ribbon Fall are the waterfalls that visitors typically see when they first arrive at the park. In spring, Bridalveil Fall thunders, so if you’re visiting during peak season, bring a raincoat!
One of Yosemite National Park’s most popular waterfall hikes begins at Glacier Point. Take the tour bus from Yosemite Valley Lodge to the Panorama Trail and hike down for about two miles. Here, you will find Illilouette Falls.
Illilouette Falls flows year-round and is only visible from the Panorama Trail. This trail will also lead you to both Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall. Here you can climb the granite steps to witness the Merced River plunge off two colossal drops. If you continue on this trail past Nevada Fall, you will eventually reach Half Dome. Many people assume the granite dome to the left of Nevada Fall is Half Dome, but it’s actually Liberty Cap. If you’re planning to hike the Half Dome Trail, don’t forget that you need a permit. Permits are given out on a lottery basis and capped at 300 hikers per day. Daily lottery applications are accepted from 12:01 AM PST to 1:00 PM PST two days in advance of the intended hiking date, so you’ll need to plan accordingly.
When visiting Yosemite National Park, it is important to remember that many visitors will want to see the same iconic Yosemite waterfalls you do. To reach the best views, it will take some work, as hikes to waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls are steeper and can take most of the day.
Enjoying Yosemite National Park waterfalls is a favorite activity among travelers and hikers from all over the world but staying safe in the park is a priority. Whether you choose to take part in viewing some of the most beautiful and tallest waterfalls in the United States in spring or to make the trip to the valley in the later months of the year, there will always be something beautiful to see.
If you are planning to visit Yosemite National Park during the peak season for waterfalls, which is by far early spring, remember to pack appropriately. Always bring extra water, food and an extra pair of socks. Make sure that your hiking boots are good and worn in and you’ve packed a raincoat. Because we’re not kidding when we say the waterfalls will be roaring.
Yosemite waterfall hikes range anywhere from easy to difficult, and there are several handicap accessible trails as well, so no matter what level of hiker you are, you will be able to reach at least one Yosemite waterfall when you visit the park. Just make sure to do your research on the hike and its difficulty, review the rules of the trail and remember to waterproof your camera!
Check out our guide to Yosemite hiking trails with waterfalls to get a better idea of your options in Yosemite National Park and always abide by posted safety signs, roped off areas and warnings.
Discover the park’s most popular hiking trails including the less-traveled trails that many don’t know about to plan your perfect trip to Yosemite.
Legend has it that renowned Yosemite Ranger Carl Sharsmith was once asked by a visitor, “If you had only one day in Yosemite, what would you do?” The veteran ranger and Yosemite-lover looked solemn and replied “Madam, if I only had one day in Yosemite I’d sit by the Merced River and cry.”
Yosemite National Park is home to many incredible attractions—but what really drives visitors to make their way to Yosemite? The chance to see one of Yosemite’s famous waterfalls.