OverviewYes, Yosemite Falls is a feature of the valley, not a route, but here I will attempt to describe several scramble routes in addition to the standard NPS trails used to view the falls.
After Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite Falls is the third most recognized feature in Yosemite Valley, and possibly the most photographed subject in the whole park. According to the Yosemite Fund, "three million annual visitors discover the quintessential Yosemite by visiting the Falls viewing area." This is one popular attraction.
And no wonder. Yosmite Falls total drop of 2,425ft makes it the tallest waterfall in North America, and the fifth highest in the world. It is fed by Yosemite Creek, a watershed of nearly 50 square miles that lies north of the valley. Much of the watershed is bare granite with limited soil and few lakes for water storage which would prolong a greater water flow into late summer and autumn. This means it roars with tremendous force starting in mid-winter and through spring, and dries to nothing in the fall. There is no accurate measurement made of water flow, but hydrologists have estimated that average spring flows are 300 cubic feet per second, or 2,400 gallons per second. That's a lot of water.
The falls are made up of three sections. Upper Yosemite Falls is 1,430ft, tumbling nearly straight down from Yosemite Creek at the top to a large horizontal fault area below about a quarter mile in diameter. This runs through a series of gouges carved in the granite to the central cascades which tumble another 675ft. Lower Yosemite Falls makes up the final 320ft of drop to the valley floor.
In wintertime, the spray from Upper Yosemite Falls freezes onto the rocks on either side of the fall line. During the morning hours as the sun hits the south-facing wall, the ice breaks off from the wall and falls to the base of the falls, building an ice cone. The size and shape of the cone is highly variable depending on weather. In some years it is almost non-existent, in others it is hundreds of feet high and plainly visible from the valley floor. John Muir was the first to explore and report on this remarkable phenomenon, climbing to the very brim of the cone on a rare winter day when the flow was low and diverted by winds, leaving the cone dry. Though very fond of John Muir, the NPS is not particularly enamoured by his "stunts" and discourages others from repeating them.
Some 100,000 yrs or so ago Yosemite Creek flowed down the channel west of the present location, where the Yosemite Falls Trail switchbacks up to the valley rim. This makes Yosemite Falls one of the youngest falls in the valley, and explains why its upper lip has not been cut as deeply as the other major streams entering the valley. The stream was diverted by glacier activity in the Yosemite Creek drainage that left morraines during the glacier's retreat, blocking the old channel. More on this fascinating history can be found at www.yosemite.org.
Lower Falls Viewing AreaThe most popular trail (remember those three million visitors) is less than half a mile in length from the parking lot across from Yosemite Lodge to the viewing area at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. The Upper Falls is not visible from this spot, but there is no better place to see the Lower Falls than this point. The water from the falls crashes down in a thundering roar about 100 yards away, tumbling and flowing down a boulder-lined creekbed that flows under a bridge at the view site. Rainbows in the spray are common during spring flows. The spray is often felt during this time all the way to the viewing area.
If you can time your visit for a full moon and visit the view area around midnight you will not be disappointed. There is about a one hour window around midnight where the moon is visible through a break in the trees behind you and can create faint rainbows in the spray of the falls. The soft glow of the falls by moonlight is simply magic.
Yosemite Falls TrailAfter the JMT to Vernal and Nevada Falls, the Yosemite Falls Trail is the second most popular trail in the park. The 3.5mi (one way) trail offers fine views of the valley floor, Yosemite Falls (of course), and a number of major features around the valley from Half Dome to Glacier Point to Sentinel Rock. Despite often oppressive temperatures and little shade from the sun, the trail is a regular freeway in summer. Do not underestimate the amount of water you'll need (unless you're into that sort of deprivation training). There is no water available along the trail until you reach the top. In wintertime the trail is closed at the halfway point where one first gets a view of Upper Yosemite Falls. Beyond this point the trail follows along the bottom of a tall east-facing cliff, and there is significant avalanche and icefall danger.
The trail starts just north of the parking lot for Camp 4 (formerly Sunnyside Campground), a short distance west of Yosemite Lodge. Head north from the parkinglot on one of several use trail until you reach the Valley Loop Trail. A short distance west you should come upon the sign indicating the start of the Yosemite Falls Trail. The trail climbs in a series of switchbacks through an oak forest. After 3/4mi it levels out a bit and begins a traverse east across a shrubby ledge high on the cliff heading towards Yosemite Falls. Columbia Rock is encountered along this section, a fine view site to take a break. Mt. Starr King is now visible as a rounded granite dome to the southeast. Just past Columbia Rock a frustrating sandy hillside must be overcome before the traverse continues east.
At the halfway point you will get your first views of Upper Yosemite Falls, and the best you're likely to find all day. After continuing under a very tall east-facing cliff a short distance, the trail switchbacks up a steep and narrow canyon to the left of Upper Yosemite Falls. The falls are gradually lost from view, but your views into the valley and the to the peaks in the high country improve steadily. At the top of the canyon you will reach a trail junction. Left to Eagle Peak and El Capitan, right to Yosemite Creek and Yosemite Point. Yosemite Point is another mile beyond Yosemite Creek, but well worth the additional walk for the views (Yosemite Creek is nice for a dip and drink, but not much for views under the forest cover). Yosemite Point has grand views of the valley and the surrounding peaks, and a near view of Lost Arrow Spire. You can scramble down Yosemite Creek through a series of granite pools during low water, but use caution as you approach the lip of the falls. The rocks are unusually smooth and slippery due to millenia of water-polishing.
Visiting the Base of Upper Yosemite FallsThough the NPS discourages scrambling in this area, it is not forbidden. But you should recognize the inherent dangers and use your judgement in accepting the risks involved.
In late summer and into fall, dangers are at a minimum in this area. Water levels are low, reducing your risk of being swept away, and material falling from the walls and in the falls is also at a minimum. In winter there is ice falling from the walls almost daily. During high flow times, debris (including entire logs) can be swept down in the water, and if the water pounding on your head doesn't bother you, a rock as small as a marble can be quite deadly. Winds can shift the direction of flow quite suddenly by up to a hundred feet. Always approach the fall line with extreme caution. In winter ice/snow covers much of the base of the Upper Falls. Crampons, axe, and possibly a rope are advised when travelling about. As the ice and snow break up in early spring it can be very unstable and you are advised to stay well clear.
Ok, warnings and all, this is still a fun venture. The base can be approached from either the left or right side. The left side is the easiest to approach and offers the closest access to the falls. The right side is more circuitous, but more interesting, and a far better scramble. Both are described below.
Climb the Yosemite Falls Trail until you are past the gate that is closed in winter, where you first view Upper Yosemite Falls. If there is no snow/ice, you can continue on the trail until it starts to switchback steeply up the canyon, then leave the trail and head down over boulders to the base of the falls. In winter, avalanche danger and much tedious snow on the trail will make you want to leave the trail sooner. Traverse over large boulders and some easy bushwhacking towards the left side of the falls. Snow often covers these boulders and can hide deep pockets, so use caution. If icy, put your crampons on.
As you approach the falls, stay far left to avoid freezing spray and icefall. There is a long, horizontal cave on the left side of the falls that will provide perfect protection from falling ice and debris and allow you to approach quite closely to the falls. Parties have used this cave regularly to camp in, as evidenced by the cleared pad areas amongst the rocks. The far east end of this cave is usually very wet and quite close to the falls, less than 100ft. From here you can venture out behind the falls, staying close to the rock. The rock overhangs at this point and allows you to approach the backside of the falls, protected nicely from falling ice/debris. Rain gear is most helpful to keep you dry if there is significant water flow. If you decide to climb the ice cone at this point, you have several concerns. If you fall in the center hole, you will likely die. As you climb the cone, you expose yourself to falling material from above. Fortunately, the stability of the cone itself is pretty solid, and it is highly unlikely to collapse under your weight. Consider the volume of water that falls on it continuously and you can see that it must be pretty sturdy. The composition (compressed individual pieces of ice/rime) is excellent for climbing in crampons. The lip into the center hole is not sharp, but rounded, and you can actually climb up to the lip where it levels off. This is as far as I went before I nearly peed in my pants as I gazed into the black hole that sucked down all the water. The roar is deafening, and visibility is poor. Even with rain gear things get soaked pretty quickly, and expensive cameras won't last long here.
Right Side/Sunnyside Bench
There are two horizontal ledge systems on the cliffs to the right of the falls. A climbers' trail called Sunnyside Bench follows along the lower ledge system. It is mostly class 2, with some easy class 3 at the end.
To reach the ledge system, you need to climb a vegetation-free boulder field located behind (north of) Yosemite Village, just east of the government stables. If coming from the east, the location is about 1/3 of mile west of Indian Canyon. Climb this boulder field to the top, then exit left onto the ledge system. Ducks should help you stay on track nearly from the beginning. This climbers' trail is used to access climbs of Lost Arrow Spire and the walls right of Upper Yosemite Falls, and as such is quite well-travelled. Deluxe even. Sunnyside Bench traverses west, mostly level the whole way until a short distance from the falls. You can follow the ledge out to the very brink of Lower Yosemite Falls where you can see the viewing area 300ft below you.
The route heads up and right slightly, from a point about 30 feet east of the brink. Here it is easy class 3. You can follow ducked crack systems or take off up and left on face climbing. Head left if you want to reach the base of Upper Yosemite Falls, head up and right if you want to climb to the base of Lost Arrow Spire or a higher view of the falls. It is a worthwhile scramble to climb up as far as possible, just for the views.
The right side of Upper Yosemite Falls does not have the easy access found on the left side, but you can still climb down quite close on the southeast side. The water cuts a gouge in the rock here keeping you from approaching closer. In winter, ice/snow covers up some of the outflowing water, and it may be possible to cross over to the left side by climbing behind the ice cone and falls. On inspection in Feb of 2003, it looked like a pretty hairy adventure. Perhaps with larger ice cone formations, it would be a safer proposition.
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