Saturday, May 21, 2016

Upper Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls and Half Dome
7.6 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain (add 2 miles if walking from Yosemite Village)
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: $30 weekly admission fee to Yosemite National Park; parking near the trailhead is extremely difficult on weekends and during the summer.

After winding south from their source on the slopes of Mount Hoffman, the waters of Yosemite Creek embark on the most spectacular free-fall on the continent as they leap down the sheer granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley. The combined drops of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the Middle Cascades measure more than 2,400 feet tall, making the waterfall the tallest in North America. The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail brings hikers up close and personal with the Upper Falls, the most impressive of the three drops, delivering both mist at the base of the upper drop and the incomparable thrill of gazing directly down the falls themselves. It's an understandably tough proposition: hikers hoping to reach the top of the upper falls must hike from the Valley floor up to the Valley rim. The views of the falls and of the Valley from the above make the hike undoubtedly worthwhile, although those with vertigo may want to skip the dizzying view and hewn rock staircase at the top. This hike is best done in the spring: Yosemite Falls is at highest flow when the spring melt of the Sierra snowpack is in full force. Come between March and June and you'll probably see an engorged Yosemite Creek thundering off the cliff; August visitors may not even see a waterfall at all. As this hike climbs up the south-facing cliffs in the Valley, it's also free of snow earlier than most other trails to the rim and can provide Valley views matching those from Glacier Point when the road to Glacier Point is still closed.

I hiked this trail with three friends from the Bay Area on a late March weekend. We set out early in the morning from the Bay Area and headed out into the Central Valley, then took Highway 120 east from Manteca all the way into the park through the Big Oak Flat Entrance. At the entrance of Yosemite Valley, we took Southside Drive through the valley bottom all the way out to the Upper Pines Campground, where we had luckily snagged a spot for that weekend. After setting up our tent, we made the fatal mistake of driving the few miles between our campsite and the trailhead.

Even though Yosemite Valley is one of the continent's most hallowed natural spots, it's also one of the most heavily visited tourist sites as well. During the summer and during sunny holiday weekends (like the weekend of our visit), this leads to traffic jams that puts to shame the rush hour gridlock seen on the DC Beltway or California freeways. The three mile drive from Upper Pines Campground to Yosemite Valley started out reasonably enough as we passed by Curry Village (now Half Dome Village) and turned onto Northside Drive. But then the traffic stopped and didn't start again. We inched our way to the beginning of the turnoff for the main parking lot at Yosemite Village; after turning in, we spent nearly a full hour moving slower than a snail's pace as the line of cars looking for parking spots inched through the lot. After we finally found parking, we still had to make the roughly mile-long walk from the parking lot at Yosemite Village to the trailhead at Camp 4.

Luckily, the walk was extremely scenic. We exited the lot by cutting through woods at its western end to reach Sentinel Drive, then we followed a boardwalk out onto Cook's Meadow. As we cut across Cook's Meadow, we got our first direct view of the falls. The upper drop of Yosemite Falls is so tall that water plunging from the top turns almost entirely to mist by the time it reaches the base. Unlike shorter waterfalls, where water often appears to plunge, here the falling water almost seems to float; you can almost count the seconds between a pulse of water leaving the lip of the waterfall and arriving at its base.

Yosemite Falls from Cook's Meadow
Cook's Meadow also provided nice views of the Sentinel, a rocky spire that is perhaps one of Yosemite Valley's most underappreciated features, and Half Dome.

At the far end of the meadow, we hopped onto the path paralleling Northside Drive and followed it past the Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead to Camp 4 and the trailhead for Upper Yosemite Falls. A little over a mile of walking from the Yosemite Village lot, we came to the the junction for the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, just slightly uphill from Camp 4. Although the closest parking to the trailhead is here, you can't actually park here unless you're staying at Camp 4 (similarly, you can't park at Yosemite Lodge unless you're staying overnight there).

Camp 4 is perhaps the most famous campground in the world. Yosemite is no less than the center of pilgrimage to rock climbers, many of whom make Camp 4 their home during their time in the park. Some of the most astounding feats of human physical achievement have been conceived and planned in this slapdash collection of tents just west of Yosemite Lodge.

From Camp 4, we turned north and uphill onto the Yosemite Falls Trail. The trail immediately embarked on a stiff uphill climb up stone steps and sharp, short switchbacks. The first two-thirds of a mile contained over a dozen switchbacks as the trail climbed relentlessly uphill under the tree cover. Occasionally, the Sentinel or other nearby Valley features were visible, but this stretch of trail was not particularly rich on views. After climbing the good part of a thousand feet uphill, the trail leveled out a little and began to cut east along the side of the north wall of the Valley. After crossing a few seasonal streams and delivering some reasonably good views of the Valley, the trail pushed its way up to Columbia Rock. This outcrop, about a mile away from the trailhead and a thousand feet up, delivered a commanding view of the east end of the Valley and Half Dome.

Half Dome and North Dome from Columbia Rock
Past Columbia Rock, the trail made a short, steep climb around a large outcrop on the Valley wall before rounding a corner and descending slightly to a head-on view of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Upper Yosemite Falls
The trail began climbing once again after approaching the base of the Upper Falls. A long set of switchbacks brought us uphill through a wooded gully cut into the cliff just west of the falls. Mist from the falls showered us as we ascended the switchbacks. At some of the switchback turns, we found impressive views of the falls and of Half Dome and Glacier Point.

Upper Falls
The climb through the gully appeared endless at times: we spent the good part of an hour ascending the aggressive uphill switchbacks. The views of the vertical granite walls around us provided a respite on our climb but also reminded us how much uphill we had left ahead of us.

The switchbacks began to level out a little over 3 miles past the trailhead. As we approached the side of a tumbling stream, we finally arrived at a trail sign indicating that we had reached the rim of the Valley. At a junction with the trail to Eagle Peak, we stayed on the trail heading towards Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point.

Large patches of snow, up to five feet deep in places, covered much of the flatter terrain around the rim. After crossing a stream, we walked through the snow for a short stretch before coming to another trail junction: here, one trail led left towards Yosemite Point while the other turned downhill to the right and led towards the top of Yosemite Falls. We took the right fork and followed the footsteps in the snow down to the rim of the canyon.

The granite bench at the rim provided a stunning overview of the Valley. Although Half Dome was no longer visible, we could see Mount Starr King, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock. Sentinel Dome, still clothed in early-season snow, drifted in and out of the building clouds.

Western end of the Valley
We followed a set of stone steps downhill from the rim viewpoint down to the banks of Yosemite Creek. Here, the stream that fed Yosemite Falls plunged over a set of cascades that would have been impressive enough in their own right were they not just upriver from the tallest waterfall on the continent.

Cascades above the Upper Falls
In the final stretch of trail to the lip of the falls, we descended a set of narrow stone steps hewn into the granite of Valley rim itself. The stairs brought us to a small bench just above where Yosemite Creek began its 1400-foot freefall. Holding on the railing at the edge of the cliff, we had a stomach-churning, jaw-dropping view directly down the falls. We could even see the creek recollecting itself at the base of the falls to form the Middle Cascades. The collection of buildings that made Yosemite Village lay just to the left of the falls. The view was equally impressive at eye-level: Glacier Point, the Sentinel, and Sentinel Dome were directly across the valley from where we stood.

Looking down from the brink at Upper Falls
Mount Starr King, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Sentinel Rock
Due to our late start, we only stayed at the top of the falls for a short time before heading back. We skipped the side trail to Yosemite Point, which I've read is an excellent vantage point from the Valley Rim that even rivals the view from Glacier Point. We made our way quickly down the switchbacks and managed to work past the slippery rocks on the mist-drenched section of trail before dusk set.

We finished the descent in the dark with our headlamps. A decent number of hikers were caught in the dark on the trail without any light source- don't let this be you! Be sure to start hiking early enough in the day to return by sunset or come prepared for night hiking. By the time we reached Camp 4, we were all fairly hungry and tired but still had to make the trek through the Valley back to the parking lot at Yosemite Village. Luckily, the general store at Yosemite Village did not close until just after we arrived there, allowing us to pick up some much appreciated calories in the form of Fritos and over-processed liquid cheese product to accompany our chili dinner. When we returned to the lot, we found that the traffic from earlier in the day was long gone: our car was one of the few remaining.

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