I fell in love with Yosemite National Park the very fist time I went there back in 2005. After we moved to California, I returned back as often as I could. I hiked the Mist Trail, photographed the Milky Way from Glacier Point, witnessed the Firefall, and walked among giant trees in Mariposa Grove. Yosemite National Park captured my heart and will forever be a part of me. One of my bucket list items was to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. I spent months preparing for this hike and finally accomplished it in June 2016. While it is an arduous hike, the vistas and sense of accomplishment at the end completely make it worth it! Because of that, I have put together a list of 7 tips to help you as you prepare to hike Upper Yosemite Falls.
Tip #1 Arrive at the trailhead early for your hike to Upper Yosemite Falls
The first tip is fairly self explanatory. Arrive at the park early for your hike up the Yosemite Falls Trail. The best time to go is in April or May, as it is a bit cooler and the falls are at their peak. That said, however, much of the trail is in full sun and it can get HOT even then! Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and dress accordingly! Although we hiked to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls in June, there was still plenty of water cascading down.
Another reason to leave early is because this hike is LONG. According to the National Parks Service, the Yosemite Falls Trail is 7.2 miles round trip. This hike took us about 8 hours round trip. Granted, we had lots of stops along the way to take photos and rest. Still, it is a long hike and you need to plan accordingly.
In addition to leaving enough hiking time, you will also want to make sure you arrive early enough to find a parking spot. We arrived around 7 am and had no trouble parking but it really depends upon the time of year. Yosemite National Park can get super congested at peak times.
Tip #2 Park in the parking area off of Northside Drive across the street from Camp 4
The next tip is on where to park. There is a parking lot off of Northside Drive just past Camp 4. This is the closest parking lot to the Yosemite Falls Trailhead. You can’t park at the campground, but you can right across the street. If the parking lot is full, you will need to find parking elsewhere and then take the shuttle. On a side note, Camp 4 is a great place to camp if you are lucky enough to get in! It is a walk in, first come, first serve campground, so early arrival to secure a spot is essential. That said, we loved it when we camped there!
Navigating the park can be tricky, so pay attention to signs
One thing to note is that the Yosemite Valley road has several sections that are one-way. The parking lot near Camp 4 is located on your way out of the park. So if you miss it, you will have to go all the way around the loop again, or take a shuttle.
Here are some directions to help you. If you enter Yosemite National Park on 120 from the West, you will need to head down Southside Drive and then cut over to the left on Sentinel Drive. Before arriving at Sentinel Drive, you will pass Swinging Bridge (which has a stellar reflective view of Upper Yosemite Falls) on your left.
You will then see the Yosemite Chapel on your right. (We’ve attended church services there on the Sabbath which is kind of cool.) Sentinel drive is located on your left just past the Yosemite Valley Chapel.
Once you go up Sentinel Drive, turn left onto the one-way section of Northside Drive. You will pass the amazing view of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls on your right and then you will find Camp 4 on your right (with parking on the left). There are no bathrooms on the Yosemite Falls Trail, so be sure to use the public restroom at Camp 4 just prior to starting your hike.
Tip #3 Know your limits and practice several smaller hikes before attempting to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls
The next tip is that you really need to know your limits. The hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is strenuous. It has an elevation gain of 2,700 ft. in a short distance.
There are several sections of steep switchbacks including several additional sections of stone staircases. It’s important to understand this and to practice. One shorter hike I highly recommend practicing on is the Mist Trail. You still get to hike to the top of a waterfall and practice long stretches of stone staircases, but can do so in half the amount of time.
Another thought is to practice doing a small portion of the hike first. Columbia rock is 1 mile up and just .5 miles further you will arrive at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.
From here, you will get some amazing vistas of the falls, as well as Half Dome.
If you reach this point and still feel up to it, then continue on up the Yosemite Falls Trail to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls.
Tip #4 Use good hiking gear and common sense
The Yosemite Falls Trail has several sections with loose, slippery spots on the switch backs. Twisted ankles are common, so good hiking shoes are a must. Even with my good shoes, I slipped in several sections.
In addition to good shoes, hiking poles help tremendously. You can purchase some hiking poles online ahead of time or get some at one of the shops in Yosemite Village. My poles saved me many a fall along the trail.
Tip #5 Bring extra water and salty snacks
While we brought lots of water with us, we were completely underprepared for this hike. I had no idea how much I would sweat.
Or how much my boys would sweat! Bringing water and salty snacks will help replace what your body sweat out.
We brought several water bottles with us per person, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The National Park Service recommends bringing 4 quarts of water, per person for this hike.
I also recommend evenly distributing the water among all hikers. My older son was a lot faster and stronger than me. He carried all the water and then got bored and hiked up to the top of the falls without us. This left me and my youngest son alone with no water. When we reached the top, completely parched, my son had consumed all of our water bottles leaving us with none.
My youngest son desperately wanted to drink from the river. Even though it has running water, Yosemite National Park has had several outbreaks of disease in the past. Rodent and other disease carrying animals use the streams to go to the bathroom and the water isn’t necessarily safe. Thankfully, on our way back down, my son and I encountered a group of men in speedos hiking up with a huge water bladder on their shoulders. They were kind enough to share a little water with us. The dehydration was almost worse than the entire hike itself, so please bring enough water. In the future, I’m packing a water bottle with a filter so that we can safely drink from the streams.
Tip #6 Bring a buddy and encourage other hikers along their way
While hiking along can be fun, I find it a lot more fun to bring someone with you. It’s safer as well. I’ve known several people who have lost family members due to hiking alone. It’s really sad.
My youngest son was a great companion for me. He encouraged me, rested when I needed to rest, and gave me the push I needed when the hike got tough.
It was also nice meeting other hikers who were on their way down. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step, a kind hiker looked at me and said, “Just keep going. You’re almost there. It’s worth it!!!”
I especially needed this encouragement when I reached the final staircase. There is a small section of the hike that will leave you breathless if you are afraid of heights. Which I am.
I didn’t take the above photo of the final section because I honestly thought I was going to die. This photo of the final section, used with permission, was taken by hiking guide Eric Ongerth. The full photo can be viewed here. While it’s only a short distance of sheer terror, it felt like an eternity and I was already so very tired. Thankfully my son encouraged me every step of the way on my final approach to Upper Yosemite Falls.
When I finally made it to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, I looked down the long expanse and thought, “Yes. This was all worth it.”
On my way back down, I returned the favor to other hikers by sending smiles and encouraging words to them.
Tip #7 Find Joy in the Journey
This last tip is a reminder of why we hike in the first place. While the destination was spectacular, it really is all about the joy that comes from the journey.
Take time to soak in the beauty of Yosemite National Park.
Bring your camera and use your creativity to capture these amazing moments in time.
Take time to rest and just soak in the moment (or collapse from exhaustion as my son did).
Spending time in Yosemite National Park allows you to step away from the craziness of the world and ponder about life. As I turned to the left, I saw the source of this massive 2,425 ft. waterfall. Take time to ponder and ask questions. Like, “How can this tiny Yosemite Creek feed North America’s tallest waterfall?”
Or questions like, “Why am I so lucky to be a part of all of this?” and “What shaped this beautiful valley?” Finding joy in the journey is what makes it all worth it, the good and the bad. I am grateful that I was able to have this experience and hope that my tips can help you along your own journey!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about hiking Upper Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park! Thanks for reading and sharing my adventures with me!
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