Upper Yosemite Falls, Struggles of a Winter Hike

Hike summary:

♦ Trail:  Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
♦ Distance:  7.4 miles
♦ Time:  6 hrs 15 mins (including breaks)
♦ Elevation Gain:  2,926 ft (max: 6,961 ft)
♦ Difficulty Level: strenuous (tallest waterfall in Yosemite National Park)

Winter hikes are really a wondrous things… trails are less busy, everything is white, and the experience is completely different than a summer/spring hike.

A few months ago this past winter [2.20.16], I went to Yosemite National Park and it was beautiful!  I’ve been wanting to see Yosemite Valley in the winter with all the snow and hike to the top of Yosemite Falls, but wasn’t sure if the trail would be open due to winter weather conditions.  Well, we picked a great weekend to go with perfect weather and I was able to hike the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.


**note: there are a lot of pics and all of me because my friend does not like to be photographed


I’IMG_5710m not very experienced with snow hikes so the struggle was very real.  It was high 40s/ low 50s when we went.  The trail up to the top 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.  The icy trail conditions didn’t help.

We started at 10:28 am from the Camp 4 parking lot and the dirt trail was dry and sunny.  It climbs 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 in.  For winter hiking, 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 will see Upper Yosemite Falls.  The waterfall was amazing when we went.  Due to recent snowfall, the falls was flowing with water and it didn’t even look like water!  This is probably 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 any adventure to the top, carry on.

From this point, the trail conditions changed.  The trail starts to get more ice on it with some snow along the sides of the trail.  I busted out my hiking poles but I was kicking myself for forgetting my microspikes 🙁 (I still haven’t got to try them out yet)!  If you keep walking for a few more feet… ok maybe like 20-30 minutes (2 mile mark), you well 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 more dry, 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 awhile, we trekked on around 12 pm.  The trail gets more dangerous at this point, probably the worst conditions I’ve ever hiked in (keep in mind I’m a SoCal hiker used to dirt dry trails).  Ok maybe you think I’m exaggerating after seeing the pictures, but 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 strength.  I did slip several times but I didn’t actually fall because my sticks kept me up; it was still really nerve-wrecking 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 national forest.

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 up-hill 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 next trail junction (first one I’ve seen the entire trail, actually).  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 2: 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 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 lays on top of the Upper Yosemite Falls.  It’s basically the water source in which the falls flows down from.  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’ve seen during the entire hike.  The bridge is over a strong flowing water which is Yosemite Falls.  From here, 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 to the grounds of Yosemite Valley.  Our entire journey was 7.4 miles, 6 hrs 15 minutes including breaks, and one of my best experiences.

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 that 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 it.  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 about 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, it was like I was skiing!


4 thoughts on “Upper Yosemite Falls, Struggles of a Winter Hike”

    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

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