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.
Bridalveil Fall in its 620 feet 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.
Lower Yosemite Fall is an easy walk, but waterfall lovers can’t leave Yosemite without a trip to the top of the highest waterfall in North America, 2,425-foot Upper Yosemite Fall. Start hiking at the trailhead behind Camp 4 and after 3.6 miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, you’re at a railed overlook that is perched alongside the brink of this behemoth.
Vernal and Nevada Falls
Hike the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley (it’s an 8.5-mile 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 two miles downhill from Glacier Point you’ll come to the lip of 370-foot 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.
Behind Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village), Staircase Falls skips its way down the stair-step cliff below Glacier Point. If you have time, drive partway up Big Oak Flat Road toward Crane Flat, where Cascade Falls drops just west of the tunnels. Or visit Cascade Falls’ final drop to the valley floor near Cascades Picnic Area, 2.8 miles east of the Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140.
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 1 each year due to snow and wet conditions. This epic hike is a whopping 16 miles round-trip, but with only 1,900 feet 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 located only 4.5 miles from the trailhead.
Drive to the south part of the park to see a lesser-known waterfall. Hike the 8.0-mile 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 and Wapama Falls can be seen via an easy-to-moderate 4.8-mile 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.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon.