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Waterfalls of the Sierra

January 07, 2020

Aside from jagged granite peaks and beautiful alpine lakes, waterfalls of the Sierra Nevada are another huge draw for hikers. Snowmelt has trickled down from high elevations for millions of years, carving out impressive chutes so all this water travel efficiently.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada. I’ll go over some of the more popular and easily accessible ones here.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls may be the most impressive waterfall on the eastern slope of the Sierra. It drops 101 feet from top to bottom, and is protected inside the Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The falls is only a mile and a half deep into the Ansel Adams Wilderness from the nearby Red’s Meadow Resort.

Rainbow Falls
Fall after a low snow year
Rainbow Falls
Spring after a heavy snow year

It gets its name from the massive rainbow that appears within the mist of the falls. I’ve visited in both spring and fall, and as long as the sun’s out there will always be a rainbow

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

Half Dome and El Capitan may be the most captivating aspects of Yosemite Valley, but Yosemite Falls certainly makes an argument. This Tiered waterfall drops 2,425 feet from the top of the upper falls to the bottom of the lower falls.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls from the Swinging Bridge
Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

You can hike to Yosemite Falls from many different directions. The lower falls is easily available from the valley floor. The upper falls can be reached via the Yosemite Falls trail, either from the valley floor or from Tioga Pass Road.

Mist Falls

Mist Falls

The Mist Falls trail starts at Roads End in the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon. This 8 mile round trip trail takes you through Paradise Valley and up to Mist Falls. It’s also the starting point for many trans-sierra hikes including the High Sierra Trail, Rae Lakes Loop, and Sierra High Route.

I hiked this trail in the spring of 2018 amidst a historic snowmelt, and I’ve never seen water more forceful than the Kings River was at that time. The river shot off the cliff at Mist Falls with raw power that is hard to put into words.

Vernal & Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls

One of Yosemite Valleys most popular trails, the Mist Trail, goes right past two impressive waterfalls. Vernal and Nevada Falls are both within three steep miles of the valley. Most of the foot traffic on this trail turns around at Vernal Falls or Emerald Pools. Don’t forget to loop around to Clark Point on the way back down for a beautiful view of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Falls.

Vernal & Nevada Falls
From Panorama Point
Vernal Falls
Vernal Falls

These will serve as your introduction to the Sierra if you’re heading southbound on the John Muir Trail. It’s an incline of 2,000 vertical feet to the top of Nevada Falls from the valley. But Little Yosemite Valley, the scheduled first night for many JMT hikers, is then less than a mile away.

Glen Alpine Falls

Glen Alpine Falls

Unlike Eagle Falls near Emerald Bay State Park, Glen Alpine Lake is a slightly less visited waterfall near Lake Tahoe. Water from Glen Alpine creek cascades down into Fallen Leaf Lake, just South of Tahoe. It’s a long drive on a small residential road usually only wide enough for one car at a time.

Top of Glen Alpine Falls
Top of Glen Alpine Falls
Bottom of Glen Alpine Falls
Bottom of Glen Alpine Falls

This waterfall is very impressive in the spring because of how wide it branches out. Water in these parts can move dangerously fast, but here it opens up for a beautiful display of nature.

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall, along with El Capitan, is one of the first things you see if approaching Yosemite Valley from the west. The parking area is the next turn after Tunnel View, and it’s normally packed. Arrive early or be prepared to wait for a spot. It’s a short hike to the base of the falls and you will get misted if the wind is blowing enough.

Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall from Tunnel View
Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall

Driving out of the valley actually provides some of the best views of Bridalveil Fall. Being opposite the Merced River gives this 620 foot waterfall some more perspective. Other great views can be found at Valley View and from hiking to the top of the falls via the Bridalveil Fall trail.

Most of my hiking destinations in the Sierra are either lakes or waterfalls. As the silence of an alpine meadow can be calming and relaxing, so can the constant noise of these raging rapids. The waterfalls of the Sierra are all spectacular, don’t forget to add them to your next hiking itinerary.