Hike Upper Yosemite Falls in the Winter

HIKE TO: Upper Yosemite Falls
TRAIL: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
MILES: 7.4 miles
TIME: 6:15 hrs with breaks
DATE I WENT: 2/20/16
DIFFICULTY: strenuous
ELEVATION: 6,961 ft
ELEVATION GAIN: 2,926 ft
HIKE PERMIT: no
PARKING: National Parks Pass
LOCATION: Yosemite National Park

Is Upper Yosemite Falls Worth It? When is the Best Time to Go?

Winter is the best time to visit and hike National Parks. The trails are less busy, everything is beautiful and white, and the experience is completely different than seeing it in the busy Spring, Summer, or Fall seasons.

Yosemite Falls flows strongest in the Spring from the snow melt, but there is still typically a good flow in the Winter and seeing the rest of Yosemite Valley covered in snow makes the Upper Yosemite Falls trail more magical and worth it in the wintertime. In fact, Yosemite National Park in the winter is my favorite time to visit! You can see the current waterfall conditions on Yosemite’s webcam here.

Why hike to the top of Yosemite Falls?

Yosemite National Park has numerous waterfalls and Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the granite park and one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. It rises up to almost 7,000 ft above sea level and flows for 2,425 ft. The upper falls, middle cascade, and lower falls make up the 2,425 ft long Yosemite Falls — although Lower Yosemite Falls is a popular tourist destination that you can see with a short, flat walk in the valley or just from the drive, Upper Yosemite Falls is for the hikers who seek a challenging adventure above the valley and away from the crowds.

Is hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls in the winter difficult?

Yes, it can be. Trail conditions in the winter can be icy and snow-covered. Although the trail remains open year-round, you should be prepared for ice, snow, and winter weather conditions.

In the first winter after I really started hiking [2.20.16], I went to Yosemite National Park and was blown away by the beauty of it all. I’ve been wanting to see Yosemite Valley in the winter with all the snow and hike to the top of Yosemite Falls. Well, we picked a great weekend to go with perfect weather and I was able to hike the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.

upper yosemite falls sign

Yosemite Upper Falls Trail Report

I was not very experienced with snow hikes at the time so the hike was challenging.  This was actually one of the first snow hikes I’ve done and I have learned how to better hike in the snow and ice since then. Temps were in the high 40s/ low 50s when we went.  The trail up to the top of Yosemite Falls is only 3.5 miles, but from the ground of Yosemite Valley up to the tallest waterfall in the valley… it sure is a long 3.5 miles with over 2,000 ft of elevation gain. The icy trail conditions didn’t help.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead

The hike starts from Yosemite Valley just above 4,000 ft near Camp 4. We started at 10:28 am from the Camp 4 parking lot and the dirt trail was dry and sunny.  It ascends right away with many switchbacks, some well-shaded areas, and before you know it you get a beautiful view of Yosemite Valley.

At 11:10 am, we reached Columbia Rock, about 1.2 miles from the trailhead. For hiking in February, it was a really warm day to be layered up.  This is a nice area to stop and take photos with Half Dome in the background.

Continuing on for another 15 minutes, you cross some small water streams dripping along a narrow path and for about another half mile or so, the trail descends and you get a nice view of Upper Yosemite Falls.  The waterfall was roaring.  Due to recent snowfall, the waterfall was flowing strongly and it didn’t even look like water but rather a mystical misty flow. This is the best view of the entire upper falls. If you’re just looking for a simple waterfall hike, this may be a good spot to stop; but if you’re looking for an adventure to the top, carry on.

From this point, the trail conditions changed and started to have more ice with some snow along the edges until it eventually became fully snowed.  I busted out my hiking poles but I was kicking myself for forgetting my new microspikes! If you keep walking for a few more feet… ok maybe like 20-30 minutes (2-mile mark), you will end up almost right next to the waterfall, or as close as you can get next to it on this trail.  You will cross a few flowing water so make sure you have waterproof hiking boots (unless you go when it’s drier, you can probably avoid it, but I walked in a lot of water and the rocks were slippery so be careful).

After enjoying the views for a while, we continued around 12 pm.  The trail gets more dangerous at this point, probably the worst conditions I’ve hiked in for someone who is used to dry dirt trails. Tractions would have helped tremendously. The trail was mostly icy until the top and snowy near the very top.  I lack upper body strength so although using my hiking poles gave me some stability, it was still a struggle and very slippery.  I felt like I dug my poles into the ice as much as I could with each step, and my shoes were still slipping on the ice so it really took a lot of balance and strength.  I did slip several times but I didn’t actually fall because my sticks kept me up; it was still really nerve-wracking for me though.

There is something about the large granite walls and the snow-filled mountain around me that was mesmerizing. I felt so small, like a tiny little ant in this gigantic granite park.

We took a lunch break along the side of the trail around 1:10 pm. Everyone kept telling us we were almost there but the struggle uphill in the snow was so draining that we couldn’t wait to eat. After continuing on though, we realized we were only less than half a mile away. The sun was shining bright and reflected blindingly white on the snowy ground… so don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen!

At 1:45 pm, we made it to the trail junction.  We were finally at the top of the mountain (but not the falls) where it was all snow!  No more slipping yay!  The trail splits in two directions: Eagle Peak and El Capitan to the left; and Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point, and North Dome to the right. We went right. We crossed the small stream where the trail signs were – be careful as the snow does cover part of the water, don’t take the wrong step and step in the water!

The trail from here on out is easy and flat.  You will find another (unmarked) split in the trail.  If you go right, you will end up at Yosemite Falls Overlook (top of the falls).  If you go left, you will end up at a bridge that lies on top of Upper Yosemite Falls.  It’s basically the water source from which the waterfall flows down. Both are close (right is slightly closer) and we went to the overlook first.

2 pm and finally there. I must admit, I was a little disappointed you don’t get an actual view of the actual waterfall at the top, but it was still a breathtaking view of the valley. Your view of Half Dome is partially blocked, but there is so much else to see! We went back towards the other junction to the bridge… and this view was even better. Maybe it was just nicer because it was different than the valley view we’d seen during the entire hike. The bridge is over a strong current which is Yosemite Falls. You can see where the water flows down between the mountain, with another mountainous view ahead.  It’s really something. If you haven’t noticed by now, I have a thing for the mountains.


At 2:39 pm, we finally began our descent. By 4:10 pm, we were back to the dry trails at Columbia Rock, and by 4:40 pm, we were finally at the grounds of Yosemite Valley. Our entire journey was 7.4 miles, 6 hrs 15 minutes including breaks, and still one of my best experiences to-date.

Going up was a long journey… but it was worth it. I almost wanted to give up and didn’t think I would make it because of all the ice. I was even more terrified of the idea of going down and it made me hesitant to continue going up. I did let my fears get the best of me at some points, but I’m glad I overcame them. I know my limits and I was determined to make it to the top. I knew going down would be a struggle but I knew I would just deal with it when the time came. If I kept dwelling on it, I would never make it up. So going down was a challenge… but not as terrifying as I anticipated (I literally thought I might slide off the mountain 😛 ).  There was still a lot of snow and ice on the same parts of the trail going down, and it got cloudy fast.  I think I slid down the trail (on purpose) for a good chunk of it with my hiking poles, and I imagine this is what skiing feels like.

We ended the day with an amazing surprise – I had never heard of the Firefall before but it just so happened to be there the same time we were!

4 thoughts on “Hike Upper Yosemite Falls in the Winter”

    1. and we are taking our hiking group next weekend to Sequoia/Kings Cyn for Tokopah Falls, Grizzly Falls, Roaring River Falls and Mist Falls—we love this area more than Yosemite since you can park whereever you want and just walk/hike and without the Yosemite crowds

Leave a Comment