In no other place in the Sierra Nevada mountains can you see so many impressive waterfalls gathered together in one spot. When snow melt from mountain peaks brings icy waters rushing downstream into Yosemite Valley, great waterfalls spring to life. During the peak seasonal flow, which usually happens in May, the thundering of waterfalls can be heard clear across the valley.
Clouds of mist often obscure the very bottom of the falls in late spring, when visitors who venture right up to the falls can expect to get fully soaked in spray. Some of the valley’s waterfalls run year-round, while others flow only during certain months. No matter when you choose to take your Yosemite vacation, you’re guaranteed to see at least some of the valley’s famous waterfalls, all easily accessible from paved roads and footpaths.
Record-breaking Yosemite Falls (2,425 feet high), North America’s highest waterfall, is actually made up of three distinct cascades that all rush down the north wall of Yosemite Valley. The falls’ massive flow of water builds throughout the winter, when an ice cone appears at the base of the upper falls. The falls peak along with many of the valley’s most memorable waterfalls in May. Staring up at this monumental tower of water, it’s easy to fathom that an estimated 135,000 gallons of water drop over the top of the falls every minute during peak season. You can see Yosemite Falls from various viewpoints around the valley, but none more thrilling than walking the one-mile paved loop trail right up to the bottom of the 320-foot-high Lower Yosemite Fall, from where you can see the Middle Cascades and Upper Yosemite Fall stretching skyward.
With almost ethereal beauty, Bridalveil Fall (620 feet high) is the first waterfall that most Yosemite visitors catch sight of on their way into the valley. Pull off the road at Tunnel View for the classic postcard shot of the falls dropping off the cliffside, with monumental El Capitan to the left and Half Dome in the background. Named for the delicate appearance of its year-round cascade, Bridalveil Fall can be a mighty beast in spring, especially during the peak flow in May. The paved half-mile trail to the base of falls is an easy walk, but can be slippery in spring and icy during winter.
Nevada and Vernal Falls
Deep inside the eastern Yosemite Valley, these two famous falls drop elegantly down from beneath Glacier Point. The lower fall, Vernal Fall (317 feet high), drops from a ledge bordered by pine trees down into a tumbling cascade of granite boulders and rocks. The upper fall, Nevada Fall (594 feet high), also shoots over a water slide of granite as it slips down the steep side of the valley. Both falls flow year-round, but look different depending on when you visit the park. After the peak flow in May, for instance, Vernal Fall starts to thin out, and by midsummer it may have actually separated into two or three separate falls.
On the north side of Yosemite Valley, this smaller, often unsung waterfalls is a rare beauty. Cascading off the east side of monumental El Capitan, Horsetail Fall (1000 feet high) usually flows from December through April. The best time to visit is during late February, though, when the orange glow from the setting sun often makes the waterfall look as if it has caught on fire. Don’t forget to bring your camera!