The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls
By Michael Lanza
My seven-year-old daughter, Alex, is engaged in some heavy intellectual lifting. I can tell by the way she stares quietly, her brow knitted in thought, at Upper Yosemite Falls. We’ve hiked for 90 minutes up a thousand vertical feet of hot, dusty trail above Yosemite Valley to stand below this curtain of water that plunges a sheer 1,430 feet off a cliff, ripping through the air with a sound like fighter jets buzzing us.
I can only imagine how it challenges her young sense of perspective. I was an adult when I first saw Yosemite Falls, the tallest in North America at 2,425 feet, consisting of the upper falls in front of us, several hundred feet of cascades below it, and 400-foot-tall Lower Yosemite Falls, out of sight far below us. It awed me then, as it still does. But I’m wondering what it looks like to the eyes of a seven-year-old.
Finally, Alex asks me, “How does the water go up the mountain?”
Correction: I could not imagine her perspective—I sure didn’t anticipate that question, anyway. But after she utters it, it strikes me as a perfectly logical inquiry for someone who hasn’t conceptualized that uphill from this liquid tower, beyond sight, sprawls a high country of forest and meadows. Up there, an exceptionally deep snowpack from the past winter and spring continues melting well into summer, feeding Yosemite Creek and this waterfall. To Alex, the water appears to materialize inexplicably from the top of this cliff.
We are on a family trip to Yosemite Valley to hike to some of the most spectacular waterfalls on the continent—and we’ve come in early summer, when mountain snowmelt fattens them up so much that they create something like a very localized rainstorm, even on a sunny day. Besides Alex and me, our three-generation party consists of my nine-year-old son, Nate, my 12-year-old nephew, Marco, my wife, Penny, and my 73-year-old mom, Joanne, who hiked to these same waterfalls with me 15 years ago.
First, like good tourists, we warmed up with short walks to some of the sights that make the Valley special. We scrambled to the banks of the Merced River in the lower end of the Valley, where the river is a perpetual thunderclap of foaming whitewater coursing around boulders the size of SUVs. And we walked to Vista Point below Bridalveil Falls, getting showered by mist.
At nearly eight miles round-trip with 2,700 feet of vertical ascent, we knew the dayhike to the brink of Upper Yosemite Falls would test the endurance of some of our party. (On the park shuttle bus to the trailhead, the driver, upon hearing our plans, had made a point of walking to the back of the bus to warn us against trying to take young kids all the way up the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. We thanked the driver and ignored her advice—preferring to think that our reaction says more about our kids’ abilities as hikers than it says about our judgment as parents.)
And indeed, we didn’t start hiking until noon—a long story that basically boils down to the fact that Yosemite Valley is one of the most popular and crowded destinations in America. So now we’re laboring uphill in blazing heat, and I’m receiving a lot of blowback from certain small people complaining about being tired, hot, and hungry.
But that first view of Upper Yosemite Falls begins to spin our little group’s collective morale 180 degrees. Revived by snacks and scenery, and dazzled by the waterfall’s mist raining onto us out of a blue sky, the kids pick up enthusiasm and speed. Yosemite Valley gradually slips farther below us, until the big trees down there look less like a forest than a neat supermarket display of broccoli crowns. And after about four hours of climbing, we tiptoe along a narrow catwalk of steps blasted out of the cliff face to a broad ledge, with a railing, at the top of the waterfall. There, we peer transfixed over the dizzying brink, watching Yosemite Creek leap off a cliff with a force many times that of a fire hose and disperse in a curtain of water falling through a quarter-mile of air.
Born in snow at up to 13,000 feet in Yosemite’s backcountry, the upper Merced River—just that stretch of the young river upstream from Yosemite Valley—drains an area of the park encompassing about 182 square miles, the approximate equivalent of 140 Central Parks. Not many rivers drop as steeply as the upper Merced, which plunges 8,000 feet within just 24 miles. Over the river’s three and a half miles right before it levels out upon entering the Valley, it tumbles 1,880 feet through a geologic wonder known as the Giant Staircase, including two sheer drops: 594 feet over Nevada Fall, and 317 feet over Vernal Fall.
Not surprisingly, the loop dayhike on the Mist and John Muir trails to those two waterfalls is one of the most popular in America.
Because getting an early start to beat the crowds is as easy with children as crushing granite with your bare hands, we start up the Mist Trail in late morning, when the flow of hikers seems almost as heavy as the Merced’s whitewater torrent paralleling the path. We weave around slow-hiker jams, thinking this feels like a strange cross between a walk in nature and Black Friday at the mall. But the kids don’t seem to mind the hordes too much. And having been up this trail a few times, I want them to experience it. Fifteen years ago, when my mom and I hiked it during a June of unusually high runoff, it was all we could do to struggle uphill through the monsoon hitting the trail from the colossal force of Vernal Fall smashing onto the rocks at its base: We just put our heads down, rain jacket hoods up, shielded our faces with an arm, and plowed through.
Today, true to the Mist Trail’s name, we walk through a light shower from Vernal Fall. Energized by this phenomenon of rain materializing from sunshine, Marco, Alex, and Nate scamper upward as quickly as they can high-step up the trail’s large granite blocks. I hustle to stay on their heels. The sunlight through the mist launches a rainbow arcing down-canyon from the foot of the waterfall. At one point, Nate turns to me with a wide grin and gushes, “I can see why they call this the Mist Trail!”
Yosemite’s world-famous waterfalls naturally swell in spring, as mountain snows melt, and dwindle by autumn, after the typically dry, hot summer. Some, like Yosemite Falls, dry up completely by late summer—a visual absence as conspicuous as seeing the New York City skyline before and after 9/11—to be revived by melting snow come spring. But they will suffer pronounced shrinkage under even the best-case scenario envisioned by climate researchers: a 30 percent decline in Sierra Nevada snowpack in this century if we take aggressive measures to reduce our carbon emissions—which we have not come close to achieving yet. If we don’t, projections call for snowpack to diminish by up to 90 percent, which scientists predict could result in Yosemite’s waterfalls reaching peak runoff in early spring instead of late spring, and drying up weeks earlier every summer.
Not only would that really change the view from Yosemite Valley at the time of year when most hikers visit, but it would have cascading effects on plants and wildlife, which depend on abundant water during the spring and summer growing season. As one U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist told me, “It’s a really frightening thing. Within about 20 years, the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite will be really quite a different place.”
Alex’s question about how the water gets up the mountain might have real-world relevance by the time she has a young daughter or son.
But there’s no evidence of that future on this June day; the magic of Yosemite’s waterfalls still endures. After the kids toss sticks into the Merced and roar with delight as each gets whisked over Vernal Fall, we continue up the trail to even-bigger Nevada Fall. Everyone ventures out to near its brink, where the Merced explodes in a white cloud of water droplets freefalling almost 600 feet. Beyond Nevada Fall, we stop at an overlook on the John Muir Trail with a photogenic panorama of Nevada Fall and the granite monoliths of Half Dome and Liberty Cap. Even from hundreds of feet above Nevada Fall, its white curtain looks so massive and powerful that it’s hard to imagine this scene ever changing.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Yosemite’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.]
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone capable of hiking six to eight miles, with 2,000 to 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, on trails that are sometimes steep. The trails are good and easy to follow. There is some exposure in a few spots, the most severe being the steps blasted out of a granite cliff face to reach the overlook at the top of Upper Yosemite Falls.
Make It Happen
Season The best time to see Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls at their peak is late May through late June.
The dayhike to the brink of Upper Yosemite Falls is 7.2 miles out-and-back and climbs 2,700 feet; plan on about six hours. Start at the Yosemite Falls Trailhead at Camp 4 (shuttle stop no. 7).
The dayhike to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, making a loop via the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail, is 6.3 miles with 2,000 feet of vertical gain and loss. Start at Happy Isles (shuttle stop #16). The two trails diverge at 0.2 mile; most hikers ascend the steep Mist Trail and descend the moderate John Muir Trail.
An alternative to the loop up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail is to buy a one-way ticket on the earliest tour bus to Glacier Point (yosemitepark.com/glacier-point-tour.aspx) and dayhike from Glacier Point to Happy Isles. It’s eight miles downhill via the Panorama Trail and Mist Trail (strenuously steep descent in places), or 8.3 miles via Panorama Trail and John Muir Trail (close to nine miles if you detour over to Nevada Fall).
Get an early start on any summertime dayhike in Yosemite Valley, to get ahead of the crowds and do much of your uphill climbing before the afternoon heat sets in.
Getting There Yosemite Valley is reached via CA 120 or CA 41. It is four to five hours from the Bay Area, four hours from Sacramento, five hours from Reno, NV, and six hours from Los Angeles.
Shuttle Bus Yosemite Valley’s free and frequent shuttle bus is the best way to get around the valley. See info about that and other public transportation at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/bus.htm.
Where to Stay To stay at a campground in Yosemite Valley, make a reservation five months in advance literally at the first minute that reservations open up for the month you want to visit—the campground reservations get claimed that quickly. See http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm for more information. Lodging reservations in the park should also be made at least several months and even a year in advance through the park concessionaire, DNC Parks & Resorts, http://www.yosemitepark.com/Accommodations.aspx.
Map Trails Illustrated Yosemite map no. 206, $11.95, or SW Yosemite no. 306, $9.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
Contact Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200, nps.gov/yose.