The 5 best waterfall hikes in Yosemite National Park

A rainbow emerges from the mist at the base of Bridal Veil Falls in California's Yosemite National Park
The best waterfall hikes in Yosemite National Park take you through soaking mist, rainbows and up steep granite scrambles (Image credit: Image by David Gregg)

There’s no bad time of year to visit Yosemite National Park, but if it’s thundering cascades you’re after, spring is the best time to go. Known as spring runoff, the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range starts to melt when the temperatures rise, and the headwaters and rivers in the park begin to swell. As soon as late March, Yosemite is awash with waterfalls that materialize overnight and these aquatic apparitions delight park visitors with their wispy spray. Some are home to near-constant rainbows.

By the time summer rolls around, many of these waterfalls have shrunk to a mere trickle, and by fall some have disappeared completely, so if you want to see them in all their glory, we recommend taking a trip soon.

Vernal Falls, near the Mist Trail inside Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls flows year-round (Image credit: wayfarerlife photography)

Here, we outline some of the best waterfall hikes in Yosemite. Some take you so close to the cascades that you’ll need to carry a waterproof jacket or a rain poncho to fend off the mist, while others give you splendid vantage points (and photo ops) of the falls in the distance. Whichever trail you’re on, it’s vital to wear proper hiking boots or hiking shoes with a good grip, since the trails can be slick or rocky, and of the steeper trails we recommend using trekking poles too.

1. The Mist Trail

A rainbow in the mist of Vernal Falls in Yosemite

Yosemite’s signature hike is absolute splendor (Image credit: Julia Clarke)

 Distance: 3 - 7.2 miles
Difficulty: Challenging

Yosemite’s signature hike is absolute splendor. The rocky Mist Trail takes you up alongside the mighty Merced River as it roars over granite ledges to form both Nevada and Vernal Falls, which flow year-round. The real thrill of this hike is when it brings you so close to the falls that you’ll want waterproof gear as you pass by the bottom of Vernal Falls, about 1.5 miles in, and within touching distance of a rainbow in the mist. 

After this section there’s a single-file only section cut into the rock face that requires focus and holding on to the ropes, but it’s worth it to keep going to get to the top of the falls, where you can relax on giant rock slabs and watch the water tumbling out of view.

You can turn around here for a fabulous three-mile hike, or keep going to Nevada Falls which is about two more miles in and makes for a strenuous day hike. The crowds after Vernal Falls thin out considerably and Nevada Falls is another magnificent Yosemite standout that is worth the steps. 

You can return the way you came, but we recommend joining the John Muir Trail to make a loop offering a quieter return through the forest and different views of the Falls.

2. Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls reflected in the Merced River

Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the entire world (Image credit: Anna Gorin)

Distance: 2 - 7.6 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous

Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the entire world, tumbling 2,425ft from a tributary of the Merced River over the high walls of Yosemite Valley. If you only have time for one waterfall hike, this one comes highly recommended. 

Yosemite Falls is actually a set of three waterfalls forming a cascade of mist and near-constant rainbows that can be seen from vantage points all over the park. The lower falls are wheelchair accessible and the middle cascades offer a great spot to turn around for a shorter hike or pause for lunch. 

The hike all the way to Upper Yosemite Falls is a strenuous stair stepper, but you’ll get some shade and be cooled by the mist from the falls and be able to photograph the falls and Half Dome in one shot. 

3. Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point

Yosemite Valley From Glacier Point

Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point delivers the best views of Yosemite Falls in the world (Image credit: GomezDavid)

Distance: 4.7 - 9.4  miles
Difficulty: Moderate

The Four-Mile Trail isn't a waterfall hike per se, but when you get to Glacier Point, it delivers the best views of Yosemite Falls in the world, unless you’re a bird or flying a drone. This hike takes you from the valley floor near the Swinging Bridge all the way up to the south rim via a wide trail, and it’s not crazy steep either. Once you get up above the trees, nothing blocks your view of the falls as you climb, and you’ll also get an amazing reverse Tunnel View and views of Half Dome near the top. If you hike out-and-back, it makes for a long day, so bring lots of water, but you may also be able to catch the shuttle bus from the top to save your quads.

4. Wapama Falls 

High debit Wapama Falls flowing over the footbridge and creating hazardous conditions for crossing

If getting soaked gets your goat, you’ll love the bridge crossing to Wapama Falls (Image credit: Sundry Photography)

Distance: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy

If getting soaked is your idea of a good time, you’ll love the bridge crossing to Wapama Falls, though be warned that if you do visit this trail too early in the spring, it may be impassable and you should not try to cross the river if it’s blocking your path. This fairly easy hike along the shore of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is up in the quiet northwest corner of the park, outside of the valley, and for that reason it’s one of the most peaceful waterfall hikes on the list. The reservoir has stymied the flow a little at the bottom, but you can still enjoy 1400 feet of glorious falls.

5. Chilnualna Falls 

Chilnualna Falls

For another impressive falls set far away from the hoards of people, head south to Wawona (Image credit: Josh Sorosky)

Distance: 8.2  miles
Difficulty: Strenuous

For another impressive falls set far away from the hoards of people, head south to Wawona for the staggered cascades that make up Chilnualna Falls. These falls flow year-round and comprise five cascades, a series of pools and a 240-foot cataract at the bottom to get you started. Though the final waterfall isn’t easy to see from the trail (you’ll end up above it), you’ll still get plenty of eye candy on the way up this steep climb.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.