When and How to See Yosemite's Waterfalls

Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point, California, USA
Chris Hepburn / Getty Images

Waterfalls are a prominent part of the Yosemite landscape, cascading over the glacier-carved cliffs into the valley below.

Some of the waterfalls flow all year, but the flow varies. In spring, melting snow fills the streams, and in unusually wet years, Yosemite Falls alone can fill the entire valley with its roar. The spring runoff usually ends by May or June.

Some of the falls (including Yosemite Falls) slow to a trickle or completely stop running by August and they may stay dry until spring, although autumn storms can cause a temporary flow.

In mid-winter, the falls accumulate frost along their edges, and sometimes they appear to freeze solid on the rocks.

Yosemite Falls is the most spectacular waterfall at Yosemite. It's an iconic Yosemite Valley sight. It's a double waterfall that descends the cliff face in sections: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet).

From the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower one is 2,425 feet (739 m). By some measures, that makes it the highest waterfall in North America and sixth-highest in the world. But that assumes that you count the three separate falls as one.

Yosemite Falls goes nearly dry in the summer. It freezes solid on a cold winter morning. It can create so much spray that you can see a rainbow in it. And it sometimes generates an unusual slushy, frozen phenomenon called frazil ice.

Yosemite Falls can also create a so-called "moonbow." It's like a rainbow but lit by the full moon. It only occurs a few times a year. And you can't see it with your naked eyes, although your camera will pick it up just fine.

You can see Yosemite Falls from many places in Yosemite Valley and take a short hike to its base on a well-marked trail. You can also see it from Glacier Point.

You can hike to the top of the falls, but it's a long trek. If you do that, you'll hike 7.2 miles round trip and conquer a 1,000-foot elevation gain.

Yosemite Falls may be California's most-photographed and popular waterfall, but it's not the only place to see falling water in the state.

01 of 08

Bridalveil Fall

A Double Rainbow at Bridalveil Fall
Mark C Stevens / Getty Images

Located near the entrance to the Yosemite Valley across from El Capitan, Bridalveil is the first Yosemite waterfall that most visitors see. It's 617 feet (188 meters) tall and flows year round.

On a windy day, the falling water can look like it's falling sideways, which is why the Ahwahneechee Native Americans called it  ​Pohono, Spirit of the Puffing Wind. When it spreads out, it also looks like a bride's white veil, which is the source of its English name.

You can see Bridalveil from the valley and park nearby to walk closer. The walk to its base takes just a few minutes, but the trail is but steep (up to 24% slope).

Bridalveil is also visible from Tunnel View on the Wawona Road (Highway 41).

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02 of 08

Horsetail Fall

Yosemite waterfall at sunset
Steve Whiston - Fallen Log Photography / Getty Images

Much of the year, this slender waterfall is dry, but when it's running (December through April), you can view it from the side to see its horsetail shape.

When the sun is in the right position, Horsetail Falls glows orange at sunset, which usually happens in mid to late February. Some people call that natural phenomenon the firefall but don't be confused. It is not the same as the practice of pushing a burning campfire over the cliff at Glacier Point, which was discontinued in 1968 by National Park Service Director George Hertzog, who called it an unnatural spectacle more appropriate for Disneyland than a national park.

Legendary photographer Galen Rowell took the first well-known image of the natural firefall in 1973. Today, so many photographers show up trying to capture the magic that it can be hard to find a good spot to set up your tripod

Horsetail Falls is on the east side of El Capitan. You can see it from the El Capitan picnic area on Northside Drive or from the road at turnouts just east of the picnic area.

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03 of 08

Sentinel Falls

Sentinel Falls, Yosemite
Troy Smith/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sentinel Falls is visible from the Yosemite Valley, just west of Sentinel Rock.

In most years, it flows from March through June, cascading down its 2,000-foot height in many steps. Even though is among the tallest waterfalls in the world by some measures, it often gets overlooked because of the even more spectacular Yosemite Falls nearby.​

You can see Sentinel Falls from the valley along Southside Drive near the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area and near the Four Mile Trailhead. You can see it from across the valley near Leidig Meadow, or while hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.

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04 of 08

Ribbon Fall

Ribbon Fall, Yosemite
Joyce Cory/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Ribbon Fall is another very seasonal Yosemite waterfall, usually flowing from March through June.

You can see the 1,612-foot waterfall from the road into Yosemite Valley, just past the turn for Bridalveil Fall. It flows off a cliff on the west side of El Capitan.

At 1,612 feet, it is the largest single-drop waterfall in North America.

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05 of 08

Nevada Fall

Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, and the Half Dome
Yi Xiang Yeng / Getty Images

Nevada Fall is a short one at 594 feet, but the Merced River which feeds it flows all year. You'll often see it in photos next to Liberty Cap, the granite dome. It's easy to recognize because of the bend in the middle, caused where free-falling water crashes onto slick rocks. 

The impact aerates the water and makes it look white. That's why it's called Nevada which means "snow-covered" in Spanish. The native people called it Yo-wy-we, to describe the twist of the falling water. 

Between Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall (which is downstream), you'll find the Emerald Pool. The entire cascade from top to bottom looks like a giant staircase. It's easy to see that from Glacier Point, even though it's far in the distance.

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06 of 08

Vernal Falls

Rainbow in the Mist of Vernal Falls, Yosemite
NPS/Madelyn Carpenter

Only 317 feet high, Vernal Falls flows all year, but in late summer, the cascade breaks apart and looks more like several small falls.

You can see it from Glacier Point or take a moderate to strenuous hike to it from the Happy Isles shuttle stop at the end of the Yosemite Valley. You don't have to hike all the way up the trail to get a good view, though - just go about 3/4 mile (1.3 km) to the footbridge.

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07 of 08

Wapama Falls

Wapama Falls at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite
Cowgirl Jules/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

You'll have to drive to Hetch Hetchy to see this 1,400-foot-tall waterfall, which flows year round. Once you get out there, you can see the cascade from the parking lot at O’Shaughnessy Dam.

The spectacular thing about Wapama Falls is the way it drops almost straight into the lake. 

The waterfall on its left is Tueeulela Falls. You can't tell it from this photo because you can't see all of Wapama Falla, but Tueeulela is 880 feet tall - shorter than Wapama but with a longer free-fall distance.

You can hike to both of the waterfalls, but the trail can be uneven. To get to it, you walk across the dam and through a tunnel, then follow the trail which hugs the edge of the lake. If you hike all the way to the end, it's about 5.5 miles round trip, but with very little elevation gain.

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08 of 08

Chilnualna Falls

Chilnualna Falls, Yosemite
Jayson/Flickr/Chilnualna Falls

Chilnualna Falls is in the Wawona section of Yosemite. It's 2,200 feet tall and flows year-round. Most visitors never see it because it's hidden from the road and it's a steep hike to its top.

The strenuous hike to get there is 8.2 miles round trip, with 2,400 feet of elevation gain. The trail begins at the Chilnualna Falls parking area, about two miles up the Chilnualna Falls Road, which branches off Wawona Road near the Big Trees Lodge (Wawona Hotel).

Because of rock formations surrounding the falls, it's impossible to see the entire thing at one time.