We had all agreed that it would be a good idea to get up and hit the trail early to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. All the adults were up around 6:30am, but Sprout decided she would sleep in despite her 5am wake up call in Yellowstone and California’s later time. Just a reminder that making plans around toddlers is futile. We knew the hike would go smoother if we let her wake on her own, so we got our packs and breakfast ready and waited. Once Sprout was up, we gave her a quick breakfast and headed for the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.
There is street parking near the trailhead (Camp 4 area), but it fills up quickly. It is recommended that you take the shuttle instead. This helps keep traffic down in the park and saves you the hassle of finding a parking spot. Depending on your level of fitness, you may not even want to drive your car back to your campsite anyway.
The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is a strenuous climb – 2700 feet over 3.5 miles. The hike begins immediately with a series of switchbacks through a shaded area. At first, we were impressed with the construction of the trail. In many places, the stones were cobbled together to form small stairs. However, as we made our way up the trail, we noticed that the height of each stair was too small for one step, making extra work above and beyond walking on an incline. After about a mile of switchbacks, we emerged above the tree line to amazing views of Yosemite Valley from Columbia Rock.
The trail is relatively flat from Columbia rock to the bottom of Upper Yosemite Falls. Here, we let Sprout stretch her legs a bit, although there were definitely sections of trail where we picked her up due to steep drops and rough terrain. The trail, however, was relatively safe and wide for adult hikers (no panic attacks here for Jacqui). Once the waterfall comes into view, the views from the trail are breathtaking, but also, taking breaths is much easier as the cool spray from the falls fills the air. The climate quickly shifts from dry Mediterranean to lush, humid subtropical — with ample shade for lunch, which we enjoyed.
Sections of the trail near the waterfall can be pretty damp, we discovered, especially in the early spring when snow-melt fills out the falls. Sprout was a bit put-off by the sound and the spray, stating emphatically, “No Waterfall, All Done. Home Please.” She seemed to be the only person on the trail unimpressed by the falls and promptly fell asleep.
The trail steepens to climb a gap in the granite face after turning away from the falls. It is about another 1,000 feet of vertical on very rocky terrain and switchbacks (still, with uncomfortably small rock stairs in sections). This section was challenging for us because we hit it simultaneous with the strong afternoon sun. I wouldn’t want to traverse this section in July. We were very grateful for the few areas of shade along the trail; ample water is crucial here.
The trail leads to dense pacific forest near the top (there is not an immediate payoff with a view!). There is a quaint stream and plenty of comfortable, shady places to rest. Sprout enjoyed sitting with her winded compadres while wishing-well other passersby on their way. Don’t expect to catch your breath yet, though; the view of the falls (and the valley) is another (flat-ish) half mile away. This area serves as a junction for trails to El Capitan as well as points north in the Yosemite wilderness.
By all means, do not descend without taking the short trail to the nearest viewpoint at the top of the falls. What you see here is truly spectacular (but not for the fainthearted). The trail by the falls narrows to single-file close to Yosemite Creek, but there are many safer places to admire the view where the trail is wider. Guarded by only a metal handrail from a plunge to imminent death, this area was not amenable to Jacqui (who was carrying Sprout and has a fear of dying by gravity). Unfortunately, we did not have the energy to take many pictures here, but they would not have captured the glory of the panorama anyway. Although we opted to rest rather than continue, Yosemite Point is only an additional mile along the trail (which includes an additional 500 feet of vertical rise).
After some snacks and contemplating Darwinism as we watched people posing for pictures on the cliffs, we began our descent. We were pleasantly surprised to find the sun had moved away from the trail, as we made our way down in the cool afternoon shade. Even trekking poles could not allay the joint pain as we shuffled over the awkward, rocky steps. For some of us, the bodily pain was enough to contemplate quicker ways down, and we looked for NPS donation tins for future elevator service. There is no denying the return trip is mind-numbingly long.
By the time we returned to camp, we were ready to collapse as the sun was nearly set. We enjoyed a scrumptious, candlelit pasta dinner in the dark, and then said goodnight. Jacqui passed out, but Aaron revels in reading Green Eggs and Ham too much to deny Sprout’s fervent requests. We all slept splendidly before our third and final day at Yosemite.