Why do we enjoy traveling into the mountains? Is it for the scenery? Adventure? Solitude? There are so many reasons to visit, but we feel a major one overlaps all of them: Freedom. The ability to let go and enjoy the moment. With waterfall season upon us, it’s the perfect time to step away from the daily doldrums and truly let go of stresses by experiencing the power of water in all its glory. Here are just a few of the infinite number of High Sierra waterfall options that cascade down the rocky summits of the Sierra Nevada.
When To Go
As anyone that has looked at or seen California’s winters can tell you, the weather pattern is volatile. Majority of the snow or rain that falls out of the sky comes via 4 – 6 storms known as Atmospheric Rivers. Based on the season, the best time to visit could be as early as January or as late as June. It all depends on how much and when these storms arrive. For those falls in places at lower elevation like Yosemite Valley, a good time in most years is early spring such as March or April. You can catch the early show for wildflowers and then follow it up with some of the best waterfalls in California High Sierra. And those on the list that are higher in elevation, you’ll need to wait for the snow to recede which means coming in May or later.
Granite Amphitheater Roar
Like Yosemite Valley, Tokopah Valley was shaped by a glacier. Here you’ll find a quintessential Sierra canyon trail. Featuring immense granite walls, alpine meadows, and a thundering river, the trail culminates at the famous Tokopah Falls. The nearly 1,200 foot tall waterfall fills a granite amphitheater with a hearty roar that will leave you speechless with its beauty and sound.
Rainbows In A National Monument
This waterfall has a little bit of everything. If you want to cool off on a hot summer’s day, you’ll appreciate the ability to walk down right in front of the Rainbow Falls. Photographers have access to not just one viewpoint but two to capture the falls in all their splendor. Even hikers can choose from an assortment of other trails to make their journey into the wilderness a bit longer. Also, for those that visit in the afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll see the rainbows from the mist of the falls and where they got their name. Be sure to set aside enough time to take in the unique geological phenomenon that Devils Postpile National Monument is named after. Featuring thousands of hexagonal basalt columns, you would think they were man-made. They are in fact natural and formed when lava flow slowed and then cooled and cracked.
Emerald Bay Backdrop
This gorgeous waterfall is set against the backdrop of iconic Emerald Bay. There are the lower and upper falls – both equally beautiful. Lower Eagle Falls is about a mile walk downhill with drops in two large cascades of 60 and 90 feet. It’s an easy to moderate hike and takes about 20-30 minutes. Pack your water bottles and lunch for a quick bite at the picnic area. From there, continue a quarter mile up to see the Upper Eagle Falls.
Truckee’s Hidden Gem
If you’re staying in the historic town of Truckee-Tahoe and want to chase waterfalls, we suggest a visit to Webber Falls. This little-known gem is located approximately half an hour off the main drag of Truckee. When the snow begins to recede, this sleeping giant awakens creating a loud roar within the Little Truckee River Canyon. The waterfall has two drops. The upper is roughly 12 and 25 feet in height and the lower one approximately 50 feet, creating a 75 foot cascade in total.
Historic Trail & America’s Tallest Waterfall
While the big rocks of Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point, and Sentinel Rock get center stage in Yosemite, there is no denying the power and beauty of Yosemite Falls. Seeing them in full force or feeling their cooling mist is truly inspiring.
Yosemite Falls, which drops a total of 2,425 feet, is actually made up of three segments: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet) and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet). Those looking for an easy, relaxing hike but still want to see them in their full splendor, we suggest checking out the Lower Yosemite Fall. And if you’re up to a challenge, the trail to the upper falls, built between 1873 and 1877, is the oldest historic trail in the park. It packs a bit of danger, a lot of elevation climb, and America’s tallest waterfall into one spectacular hike. And don’t miss out seeing the other large assortments of falls within the park. With the “liquid rush” of spring, there’s so many falls to see in person.
Snow Creek Falls
Clocking in at 2,140’ of tumbling, rumbling water, you’d expect this to be in everyone’s top 10 especially that it exists inside of Yosemite National Park. How come? Well, it’s because of how inaccessible it is. For starters, it sits in a deep, tight, twisting canyon that conceals its view. Secondly, even the same named trail (i.e., Snow Creek Trail) that switchbacks its way alongside doesn’t really yield any views of it. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the best view is at the summit of Half Dome. A 16-mile roundtrip hike that ascends more than 4,000 FEET.
Corlieu & Red Rock Falls
A Moment Of Zen Near Yosemite
Yosemite Valley in the late spring / summer months can be a bit popular and rightly so. The steep granite walls and beautiful falls are amazing. But, if you’re looking for a chance to enjoy a waterfall in a more tranquil setting, we suggest making a pit stop on your way out of the Southern Gate. The effort to get to the Corlieu & Red Rock Falls on the Lewis Creek Trail is minimal too. At a short four mile round trip journey, it’s a great opportunity to stretch your legs and perfect for even kids.
Lundy Canyon Waterfalls
Highest Concentration of Falls on a Hike
Looking to see not just one waterfall but many? Then Lundy Canyon is where it’s at. The high concentration of waterfalls and overall quality of the hike is unlike anywhere else you’ll experience. Besides a lot of waterfall “action”, you’ll be exposed to reflective ponds and an array of blooming wildflowers of all different colors. Overall, this might be the most compelling waterfalling experience you can have anywhere and well worth the travel.
Shirley Canyon Falls
For those that look at this list and think, “I need a challenge!”, look no further than Shirley Canyon Falls. Starting along the beautiful Squaw Creek at the bottom of Palisades Tahoe in North Lake Tahoe, you’ll find one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. Although the trail is only four miles long, it climbs over 2,000 vertical FEET. Less about one magnificent fall, instead you’re gifted with an assortment of playful falls that ride their way down to the valley floor. The reward for this arduous summit is the beautiful Shirley Lake at the top. And if you’re feeling too tuckered from the climb, you can continue your way to High Camp and take the Aerial Tram down during the summer.
Roaring River Falls
The drive alone into Kings Canyon National Park is worth it. As you descend into the deepest canyon in North America, the road meanders its way alongside the South Fork of the Kings River. The river’s steep gradient and a path filled with boulders the size of VW Bugs has the waters quickly careening around and over many of them. Within the park, you’ll find a few other falls that deposit into the mighty South Fork of the Kings River including the Roaring River Falls. With less than a mile round-trip walk, you’re rewarded with a view of the appropriately named Roaring River Falls. Cascading over two granite monoliths, the volume of the water really showcases just how powerful nature really is.
“Fall” Into A Road Trip
On the other side of the spectrum, if you feel like taking in a bunch of waterfalls on a road trip, consider an adventure via Sonora Pass. At a whopping 9,264’, it’s the 2nd highest pass in the High Sierra. Fully opened typically around late May, you’ll find a host of waterfalls to see. Starting from the west ,they include Crystal Falls, Niagara Creek Falls, Brannock Falls, Deadman Creek Falls, and Blue Canyon, ALL before you even reach the summit. On the eastern segment, there are even more to see such as Sardine Creek Falls.
Hot Springs Creek Falls
“Fall” Into Hot Springs
Summer days can be very popular around Lake Tahoe. If you’re looking for a bit more elbow room but still enjoy some falls, head out to Grover Hot Springs State Park. A short and relatively easy 3.2-mile round trip jaunt will give you access to this impressive set of cascading water. The best part is once you’re done, you can then take a dip at the only California State Park with a public hot springs pool.
Note: As of July 30th 2021, the park is temporarily closed due to the Tamarack Fire but based on the virtual tour, most of the primary structures and campsites survived. Be sure to visit the California State Park’s website for the latest reopening information.
From historic to iconic, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range can arguably be considered the best place for viewing waterfalls in the world. This is just a drop in the bucket of the vast assortment of High Sierra waterfall beauty you can check out. What is your favorite on the list?
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex Silgalis is an outdoors travel writer who enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, or having a cold one from a local mountain brewery. See more of Alex’s work at https://localfreshies.com
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