There are a lot of great reasons to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. From the trail, the views of Yosemite Falls are magnificent. For part of the hike, you are close enough to feel the spray and hear the waterfall thundering down the mountain. Halfway up the climb you get an amazing view of Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome in the distance. Once at the top, watch as the falls plummet down the side of the mountain and get a greater sense of just how far you hiked. And if you have the energy to continue onto Yosemite Point, your reward is one of the best views of Half Dome in all of Yosemite Park.
This is not a hike to be underestimated. Getting to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is challenging. Most of the trail is a steady, uphill climb with a relentless number of switchbacks.
Facts About the Hike
Distance: 7 miles round trip to the top of Yosemite Falls; 9.9 miles round trip to Yosemite Point
Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet to the top of Yosemite Falls; 3,700 feet to Yosemite Point
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length of Time: 6 to 8 hours
When to go: Spring, summer, or fall. The Yosemite Falls is at its maximum flow in spring and early summer. By the end of summer into autumn, it could be just a trickle or completely dry.
Trailhead: The trail starts at Camp 4 (shuttle stop #7)
Elevation chart to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. Credit: nps.gov
Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls
The trailhead is located in Camp 4, a short walk from the Yosemite Valley Lodge. If you are using the Yosemite shuttle, get off on stop #7 and follow the signs to the Yosemite Falls Trail. Do not take the trail to Lower Yosemite Falls. This is a totally different trail and it does not join up with the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls.
We had a car, so we parked along the road near Camp 4. You can also park at the Yosemite Falls Lodge and cross the street to Camp 4. Parking at Camp 4 is for campers only.
Hiking to the Yosemite Falls Viewpoint
The hike from the valley floor to the viewpoint is a long series of switchbacks and steep trails. It is a strenuous climb and the trail is sandy at times, rocky in other places. Honestly, nothing about this first part of the hike is fun. It’s just about gaining elevation so you can have those awesome views later.
Even though much of this trail is under the shade of trees, the trail is hot, even during the morning hours. Since this hike is on the south side of mountain, it bakes in the sun all day long. We did this hike in July when daytime temperatures reached into the 90’s. It took less than 15 minutes of hiking until all four of us were dripping with sweat, even in the morning. This is a hike you want to start as early as possible.
The View from Columbia Rock
The view from Columbia Rock is one of the best on the entire hike. Here is your chance to capture Yosemite Falls and Half Dome in the same photo.
For about a half mile, the trail levels out, and even goes downhill for a little bit. If the Falls are at their maximum, you may even get to feel the spray of the waterfall. Enjoy it. The hardest part of the hike is yet to come.
Hiking to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls
I hope you don’t mind switchbacks, because there are a lot of them on this trail! Now it is one steady thigh-burning, are-we-there-yet climb to the top of Yosemite Falls.
The trail is now rocky and uneven. Crowds on the trail tend to lessen at this point, as some hikers choose to turn around at Columbia Rock.
Once you get to the top, follow the signs to Yosemite Falls overlook and enjoy the view.
Final trail to the Yosemite Falls overlook
If you want, there is a short trail that leads out to the best view of the top of the falls. Earlier this year, California had record snowfall, which meant that the waterfalls in Yosemite were raging during our visit. Yosemite Falls was literally thundering, something that was not only impressive to see but also to hear.
The photo above shows the steps leading down to the viewpoint (I took the photo from the bottom of the steps).
In the photo below, Tyler is standing on the final staircase down to the viewpoint. It is a narrow staircase with a drop-off on one side and a railing on the other.
A view of the falls before it cascades over the side of the mountain.
After enjoying the view, you can turn around and hike back down to the valley or continue to Yosemite Point.
To get to Yosemite Point, it’s just over one more mile of hiking and 700 feet of climbing to go. It’s worth it.
Along the way, you cross a bridge above Upper Yosemite Falls. Do not be tempted to wade in the water here. You are literally just feet away from the edge of the falls…one wrong move could be disastrous.
The view from Yosemite Point is simply amazing. Half Dome is just on the opposite side of the valley, a place we would be tomorrow. Yeah, doing this strenuous hike the day before the monster hike up Half Dome was a bit crazy, but we did it.
We had our chance to use the tripod that Tim lugged up the trail, perfect for a quick family photo session. The goofy ones are still our favorites.
Hiking Back to Yosemite Valley
To get back to the valley, retrace your steps back down the trail. It was a strenuous climb to get up here, but it’s almost as strenuous to get back down. Those dreaded switchbacks feel almost as difficult going down as they did going up.
And remember when I said not to underestimate this hike? We underestimated it. We failed to bring enough water for the hike, draining the last of our water halfway down the mountain. By the time we reached the bottom, all four of us were thirsty. Desperately thirsty. By now it was early afternoon, in the low 90’s, and the trail was baking in the sun.
From the trailhead, it’s just a short walk to the Yosemite Valley Lodge, where there is a cafeteria selling food and drink and lots and lots of water!
What to Bring on the Hike
Hiking Shoes. Hiking shoes are preferable, however, running shoes with good support and good traction are sufficient.
Water. The National Park Service recommends 4 liters of water per person if you plan on hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls. There is no water on the trail.
Sunscreen. There is very little shade on the mid to upper parts of the trail.
Hiking poles (optional). Hiking poles are my new favorite hiking gadget and I highly recommend them. They take about 30% of the weight off of your legs as you descend, easing knee pain and other symptoms. I use Black Diamond Distance Z poles and love them. They easily collapse down to fit in your luggage and hiking backpack, plus they are extremely lightweight. The poles come in several sizes, so make sure you pick the right length based on your height.
Hiking with Kids
At the time we did this hike, Tyler was 14 and Kara was 12. They both completed this hike easily, however, I did worry about tiring them out too much before our Half Dome hike the following day. There was no need to worry, as they both did great on the Half Dome hike.
We saw kids of all ages on this trail. An eight year old who is very active should be able to complete this entire hike. Hiking with young kids is possible, but I do not know how enjoyable this would be, especially for parents. I did see a father carrying 2 year-old at the top of the falls. He was dripping with sweat and didn’t look like he was having much fun, but it is possible.
If you are hiking with young kids and want to see Yosemite Falls, consider the hike to Columbia Rock. Enjoy the view, maybe go a little farther to feel the mist from the waterfall, and then return to Yosemite Valley. This hike is just 4 miles long and doable for most people.
Do you have any questions about hiking Upper Yosemite Falls? Comment below!
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