In terms of bang for your hiking buck, the hike to Upper Yosemite Falls ranks right up there. You not only get to view the tallest waterfall in the country from angles that most people never see, but you also get great views of the valley as well as the chance to see Lost Arrow Spire up close. Not bad for a day hike!
The trailhead is easily accessible from the shuttle bus or on foot. If using the shuttle, get off at stop #7 (or at least it was #7 at my last visit). Even though the round trip is only a bit over 7 miles, the elevation gain is 2,700 feet so be prepared for a lot of climbing. You could probably complete the round trip in as little as 4 hours, but with all of the great views, I would allow at least 6 hours. In addition, during the summer months this trail can get pretty warm so bring lots of water.
The trail starts off with a bang – close to 40 short switchbacks give or take a few that quickly gain a good bit of elevation. There are a few views along the way but the first big-time view is from Columbia Rock. This obvious and protected viewpoint offers views of Half Dome as well as many of the other features the valley is known for. What you won’t see is Yosemite Falls – they are still hidden at this point. Quite a few people turn back at this point so the number of hikers should thin at least a little from this point on.
Once you have enjoyed the view at Columbia Rock, a few more switchbacks are waiting before you begin to traverse back toward the falls. You will lose a bit of your hard-earned altitude on this section but don’t worry, you will be richly rewarded with an amazing and unexpected view of the Upper Falls a short way up the trail. If you are carrying a camera, you will not be able to pass this view up.
From here, it is a steady climb to the rim up the gully next to the falls. It is not nearly as steep as it looks from the valley, but still offers a very good workout!
Once you reach the rim, you will have many scenic options. There is a great viewpoint right at the brink of the upper falls that allows you to look 1,400 feet straight down the falls. Yes, 1,400 feet, not 2,400 – Yosemite Falls is actually two falls and a cascade. The view from the brink takes in the upper portion to the cascade. You may be surprised to see that the cascade section is actually quite big – something that the view from the valley does not make obvious. Even though the viewpoint is protected with steps and railings, it still feels pretty exposed so you might want to think it over if you are afraid of heights.
Be sure to spend a few minutes continuing up the creek from the falls. This is a very scenic and peaceful area that seems completely disconnected from the falls. Be careful! The stream is more powerful than it looks and you definitely do not want to get caught in the current knowing what lies a short way off at the edge of the rim!
It is also worth the short walk east on the rim trail to the Lost Arrow Spire. You will be amazed at how much bigger and exposed it looks from above. People have actually slack-lined across the void between the rim and the spire – something that I can’t even begin to imagine.
Another option is to add a side trip to Eagle Peak to the west. This adds a few miles and a couple hundred feet of vertical to your day, but offers outstanding views. It will be covered in a future post.
Once you have enjoyed the views, reverse your path and head back down. This trail can be very hard on the knees so take your time. I have seen more than a few hikers reduced to hobbling backwards by the time they reached the bottom.