Hiking Yosemite Falls After Record Breaking Snowpack
All winter long I had been planning on getting to Yosemite National Park in the spring. Like many, I understood the massive amount of snowfall in California would set the stage nicely for jaw-dropping waterfall displays. If you have never been to Yosemite, there are over 25 waterfalls ranging from “tiny” 100 foot falls to the 2400 foot Yosemite Falls, the largest waterfall in North America. Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls in April was at the top of my travel list in 2023.
It had been over a decade since I had last been to the park. Furthermore, I had been hearing Yosemite calling my name like a mountain coyote for a few years now. I longed for the panoramic views, solitude and complete silence. It’s a much different vibe than Tahoe or Mammoth, not better, just different. More grand, more historic and a lot less people. There are no gaudy mansions, no restaurants, no signs, just Mother Nature in all her glory – complete serenity & unparalleled beauty. April seemed like the perfect time for a California road trip.
The day before we planned to leave, Yosemite National Park announced they were closing the valley for flood concerns. The massive snowpack was melting and gushing too much water into the valley. I was devastated as we had been planning this trip for months. Then on closer inspection I learned that the park closure started at 10pm on Friday. We were planning our ascent on Upper Yosemite Falls, Friday morning. As the Grateful Dead say, “tragedy narrowly averted”. 🙂
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains. To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” – John Muir, 1800s
We hit the road at 6am on Thursday morning and arrived in Yosemite after five relatively boring hours speeding through the central valley of California. The central valley looks like a Mad Max movie location, flat & dusty. We planned to rent a house in Yosemite West, 25 minutes from our trailhead, but we hit another snag. Apparently a water main broke and the entire community was closed due to the water being turned off for all homes. We received three calls on the drive up and got bounced around to a couple different homes. People were scrambling to change plans because of the water main break and the park closure.
We were relocated to Wawona, which turned out to be a wonderful change of plans. This is why you roll with the punches on a trip and take what the adventure is giving you. Wawona is a tiny historic town inside the park with a population of 111. Wawona was founded in the late 1800s and was one of the earliest tourist rest stops on the way to Yosemite Valley. There are mostly rental cabins that sit in a beautiful valley called Mariposa Grove, divided by the south fork of the Merced River. The ‘town’ has an old grand hotel, a general store/post office and that’s it. Perfect!
We were on the road at 6am again Friday morning. Wawona is about 45 minute drive to the trailhead in Yosemite Falls. It’s a gorgeous drive on top of the valley, on a very windy road with no shoulder or guardrails and majestic views. Coming down into the valley you are immediately greeted by El Capitan and Upper Yosemite Falls. It’s impossible to resist pulling over and taking some photos. I highly recommend planning these stoppages because the lighting is so vibrant in the morning. We were an hour late starting our hike but it was well worth it to capture these gems.
We get to the trailhead around 8am and immediately make a wrong turn on the trail, but again Yosemite doesn’t disappoint. We ended up on a short valley loop trail that took us past the bottom of Yosemite Lower Falls which we would not have seen. This is where most of the tourists go and our first opportunity to feel the sheer power of the falls, which was pretty rad. We didn’t mind the detour and were on back on the Upper Falls trail in 30 minutes.
The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is a 6.6-mile out-and-back trail with an elevation gain of 3,254 feet. It is generally considered a challenging hike, and takes approximately 5-7 hours to complete. The hardest sections being the beginning and very end where there are countless switchbacks going up a very steep grade. The beginning of the trail is mostly under the canopy of trees which is nice. After a couple hours there is a nice semi-flat section that culminates at Columbia Rock, a scenic cliff where most hikers rest and enjoy views of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.
As mentioned this is a good spot to hydrate, stretch your quads and have a snack. You will encounter people from all over the world hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail. We met a local guide at the rock who was really cool and told us what to expect over the next couple sections of the trail. The good news is that the trail actually goes down hill for a bit after the rock opening up to our first view of the upper falls. Amazing. This is one of those moments when you are hiking for a couple hours and you are finally rewarded and energized for your adventure! So rad.
We continued on until we got above the canopy then took lunch and enjoyed the amazing views of the entire valley. A sense of accomplishment warmly embraced us, as we looked down 2500 feet to where we began our adventure this morning. Looking up, we see that we have more meat on that bone.
Time to mount up and get back on the trail. Temperatures are rising, the runoff is increasing, and we have miles to go before we sleep … and miles to go before we sleep. 🙂
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