World Waterfall Database

Yosemite Falls

Mariposa County, California, United States

Status: Cataloged
This waterfall has been surveyed by members of the World Waterfall Database.

Detailed Info

Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in the state of California, dropping a total of 2,425 feet. The falls are commonly said to consist of three parts, but actually are made up of five distinct plunges and one section of cascades. Yosemite Creek enters the falls by plunging 1,430 feet over the massive Upper Yosemite Fall (when referenced by itself, the singular form is used). At the base of the upper fall, the creek sprays widely over a bedrock bench and begins flowing towards the narrow gorge just downstream. In a run of about 800 linear feet the stream drops over a series of small falls and cascades, losing about 240 feet in elevation. The second major fall, where Yosemite Creek enters the gorge proper, drops nearly vertically for about 250 feet, followed shortly by the third fall of about 120 feet and the fourth fall of about 50 feet. The fourth fall terminates almost immediately above the top of Lower Yosemite Fall (again, singular when referenced independently) which itself drops 329 feet (this was the only section of the falls we were able to accurately measure on our most recent survey). The falls and cascades between the bottom of the Upper Falls and the top of the Lower Falls are often referred to as Middle Cascades, however this is essentially a deceitful name as there is only one section of this part of the falls can legitimately be qualified as Cascading type falls. Unfortunately the only place that all six parts of the falls can be seen is from the Pohono Trail and in the vicinity of Sentinel Dome near Glacier Point.

We should also note that according to photographer and former park ranger Mike Osborne's excellent book "Granite, Water and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley" the measured height of Yosemite Falls apparently stems from the first USGS survey of the valley by geologist Francois Matthes in 1913. The process by which he measured the valley's waterfalls was not documented in his studies and simply because these measurements were taken over a century ago their accuracy should be called into question. The current USGS topographic maps support Matthes' measurements, but to what degree of accuracy is not yet known. We don't have any reason to think the original measurements are grossly inaccurate however.

In addition to being California's tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls is commonly claimed to be both the tallest waterfall in the United States and in North America. Given that Yosemite's height takes into account six distinct leaps, we must consider other waterfalls which do not drop in one single fall against this claim, in which case there are several waterfalls in Canada, Hawaii and one in Washington State which are taller than Yosemite. If the qualifier is only those waterfalls with a sheer drop, then the 1,430 foot drop of Upper Yosemite Fall is bested by neighboring Ribbon Fall just a few miles to the west, so while the popular conception is that Yosemite is king, in reality it is only the top dog in California, not in all of the USA.

Due to the fact that the Sierra Nevada range is composed almost entirely of glaciated granite and contains little soil to retain precipitation and runoff, the waterfalls in Yosemite National Park exhibit a behavior we refer to as "The Yosemite Effect". Essentially without soil to promote groundwater retention, precipitation has the tendency to run off extremely fast, so once the winter snowpack has melted and the rain has stopped for the season the volume of the streams in the area dwindle very quickly. This becomes especially clear when looking at the average volume of Yosemite Creek over the year. The USGS gauge at Yosemite Creek was only active for 6 years between 1912 and 1918, but it provided what should be a ballpark for the typical flows that the creek sees. In April, May, and June, the creek averages about 307 cubic feet per second. But for the remaining 9 months out of the year, its flow averages just 16 cubic feet per second, and it drops to just one cubic foot per second in October and November (per the limited gauge statistics at least). These figures may not be entirely accurate 100 years later, because the creek has been known to run entirely dry in the summer during dry years in modern times. That the falls do not flow consistently all year long is the only factor that prevents Yosemite Falls from scoring in the absolute highest margins of our rating system.

History and Naming

Yosemite Falls is the Official name of this waterfall.

Has also been known as:

  • Choo-look
  • Scholook
  • Yo-ham-i-te Falls

Yosemite Valley, Creek and Falls were all named by Lafayette Bunnell, who was a member of the volunteer-based Mariposa Battalion which discovered the valley in 1851. He proposed naming the falls for the Indians who inhabited the valley (whom in a twisted bit of irony the Battalion was apparently hunting and capturing to remove from the area). The Indian names for the falls, Choo-look and Scholook, both essentially mean "the fall", a reference to the fact that Yosemite Falls is easily the most prominent waterfall in the valley.

Our Thoughts

Despite its inconsistent flow throughout the year and the fact that it is neither the true tallest waterfall in North America or the United States, Yosemite Falls is far and away the best waterfall in the United States. The scenery of Yosemite Valley is truly one of a kind and can't be seen anywhere else in the country and when the winter snow is melting off, the falls can exhibit extremely violent tendencies which will not only shake the ground itself, but will instill a sense of wonder that simply can't be replicated anywhere else.

Photo Tips

There are too many locations from which to photograph Yosemite Falls for us to go into detail about - you can literally see it for half the length of Yosemite Valley. Just walk around and you'll no doubt come across a fairly compelling composition. Yosemite Falls faces south and will see even lighting for the majority of the day. Lower Yosemite Fall is more susceptible to bad lighting due to the large cliffs immediately to its west, and it will fall within partial shade starting at around 1-2pm, and should be entirely shaded by around 4pm at the latest. Expect to encounter heavy spray near the base of the falls.

Location & Directions

Coordinates:   37.756845, -119.596785
Elevation:   6480 feet
USGS Map:   Yosemite Falls 7 1/2"

Yosemite Falls can be seen from literally dozens of vantages throughout Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. Commonly popular views are had from Swinging Bridge at Leidig Meadows, Southside Drive near Sentinel Rock, Glacier Point, Taft Point as well as all manor of locations around the base of the falls and along the Yosemite Falls trail. Parking can be sparse in the area (especially since the lot at the foot of the falls has been permanently closed as of 2011). Pullouts along Northside Drive, as well as lots at Yosemite Village, Yosemite Lodge and Sentinel Bridge picnic areas all provide access to the base of the falls within about half of a mile of easy walking. Shuttle buses also run throughout Yosemite Valley providing easy access to the trails around the falls from larger parking areas such as at Curry Village.

View this location in Google Earth
Yosemite Falls is marked with the large icon in the center of the map. Up to ten additional waterfalls (if any) may be marked as well, with links below.

Other Nearby Waterfalls

Additional Waterfalls which occur within 5 miles of Yosemite Falls
No additional waterfalls were found within 5 miles.

By The Numbers

The information presented in this table is meant to help identify and clarify the physical aspects of the waterfall for comparative purposes. While we try to ensure this information is as accurate as possible, sometimes it will prove necessary to either estimate or flat out guess at certain characteristics where either enough information isn't readily available, is not known, or we were not able to confirm a given trait upon surveying. This information may be changed at any given time to ensure accuracy.

Total Height

The Total Height listed for the waterfall represents the difference in elevation from the top of the uppermost drop, to the bottom of the lowermost drop of the waterfall, including all stretches of interstitial stream in between. Stream between two tiers of a waterfall is counted in its overall height regardless of whether or not that section of the stream would be legitimately considered a waterfall on its own right, were it to be isolated. Waterfalls with only one drop will of have the height of only the single drop listed here.

Tallest Drop

The Tallest Drop figure represents the height of the largest single drop within a multi-stepped waterfall. Waterfalls with only one drop will have the total height of the waterfall repeated here.

Num of Drops

The Number of Drops in a waterfall is a tally of the total number of distinct drops which make up the waterfall. Stretches of interstitial stream in between two or more distinct drops of a single waterfall are NOT considered to be distinct drops of the waterfall unless the section of stream in question would otherwise qualify as a waterfall were it to be isolated.

Avg Width

The Average Width of the waterfall represents the breadth of the waterfall from bank to bank under typical flow conditions, or if the waterfall has been Cataloged, under the conditions which it was most thoroughly surveyed. Often this number will be approximated because of a lack of approachability to many waterfalls. We often utilize Google Earth to measure the width (where imagery is of sufficient quality and resolution to allow it.

Maximum Width

Maximum Width represents a hypothetical measurement of roughly how wide a waterfall could get during peak streamflow or flood conditions. For smaller waterfalls, this figure will generally not differ much from the Average Width measurement, but for broader waterfalls - especially those that feature a crest that isn't constricted - this figure can at times be consideraby larger. Like the Average Width measurement, this measurement will take into account the difference in width at the top and bottom of the waterfall as much as possible, but will often be made based on the width of the crest of th falls alone.

Pitch

The Pitch of a waterfall is an estimated - often very roughly - measure of the average slope or steepness of a waterfall. The Pitch figure only takes into account sections of stream which are actively falling. Pools or stretches of level stream in between two or more successive drops of the falls will not factor in this figure. As an example, a waterfall which features two truly free-falling leaps separated by several dozen yards of flat stream will have a Pitch of 90 degrees. Similarly, a waterfall with two drops separated by a pool, one with a true free-falling drop, and one with a Horsetail type fall will average the two, so while the Plunging drop has a Pitch of 90 degrees, if the Horsetail drop has a Pitch of 45 degrees, the total Pitch will be roughly 67 degrees.

Run

The Run of a waterfall is a measurement representing the total linear distance on the ground between the top and bottom of a waterfall. This figure is not often easy to establish with a high degree of precision and as such will often be estimated. Waterfalls with a longer Run will usually either be less steep, often cascading type waterfalls, or will feature multiple steps separated by shorter stretches of a more gradual gradient streambed.

Form

The system of classification of waterfall forms we use is a heavily modified derivative of the classifications outlined by Greg Plumb in his "Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest" books. While plumb uses eight distnct forms, we wanted further granularity and opted to break down the hierarchy twofold: first based on the overall pitch of the waterfall, and then based on what shape the fall takes as it makes its descent. There are five primary Categories of falls in this system: Plunge, Horsetail, Steep Cascades, Shallow Cascades, and Rapids. Additional deliniation is then applied depending on characteristics such as the breadth of the falls, whether it splits into two or more channels, whether it falls in multiple successive drops, etc. For more information on our waterfall form classifications, see the Help page.

Watershed

The watershed which a waterfall occurs within, if it is specified, will be based on the ultimate distributary watercourse to the ocean. For example, Washington's Palouse Falls occurs along the Palouse River - which is a tributary to the Snake River, which is itself a tributary to the Columbia River, which ultimately enters the Pacific Ocean, so Palouse Falls would then fall within the Columbia River watershed. Streams which empty directly into the ocean, or into a minor basin which then empties to the ocean will often have this field left blank.

Stream

The name of the watercourse which the waterfall occurs along. If the watercourse is not known to have an officially or colloquially recognized name, this field is left blank.

Avg Volume

The volume of water present in the stream at the location of the waterfall. This is often the most difficult figure to pin down because accurately measuring streamflow is not a simple process. We will rely on USGS data as much as possible, and attempt to take into account seasonal fluctuations in stream levels if possible. There is no guarantee that this figure will be accurate, and in cases where there is no USGS data to use, it may be a very, very rough estimate at best.

Source

If known, the primary source of the watercourse which produces the waterfall will be listed here. This is helpful in determining whether a waterfall may flow more consistently during certain periods of the year - streams which originate in Springs, Lakes, or Glaciers will often flow more consistently throughout the year than those fueled by simply Runoff. The source of the stream may also be either unknown or undetermined.

Flow Consistency

A rough estimation of how many months out of the year the stream which produces the waterfall will actually hold water. The vast majority of waterfalls featured on this website will technically be truly perennial waterfalls (those that flow all year long), but some may see their flow dwindle greatly in the late summer months. This figure will not take into account the winter months when the waterfall may freeze, because in such cases the waterfall will very often be inaccessible. Entries which specify a Flow Consistncy of 12 Months should in general have an acceptable flow at any time of year (but may be better during certain periods - see below).

Best Flow

A general estimate of the best period of the year during which time the falls will be considered at optimal conditions, or flowing at their best. There may be variance within the range specified where the flow will be better or worse, but visiting at any time in the range specified (if available) will generally present the waterfall in its best light.

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Key

Cataloged Icon
Cataloged
Waterfalls which are Cataloged we have visited and surveyed in person. Statistical information should be quite accurate (for the most part), and exact measurements will often be available (information is not guaranteed to always be up to date). Detailed information, directions, and photographs will almost always be available.
Confirmed Icon
Confirmed
Confirmed Waterfalls are known to exist, should be relatively accurately mapped and geotagged, and the statistical information available will often be dependable. If height information is presented, it may be estimated but should be accurate. Directions will not likely be available.
Unconfirmed Icon
Unconfirmed
Unconfirmed Waterfalls are often marked on a published map, but we have yet to confirm the exact location and / or whether or not its stature is significant enough to qualify for listing in the database. Statistical information may be estimated and may be inaccurate. No directions.
Unknown Icon
Unknown
Waterfalls marked as Unknown are either suspected to exist based on heresay or a hunch, or we have received unverified information suggesting a waterfall may exist near the location provided but cannot corroborate it in any way. Geodata may not be accurate, the location may not be known at all, and statistical information will be estimated and highly inaccurate.
Inundated Icon
Inundated
Inundated Waterfalls have been submerged beneath lakes or reservoirs, usually a result of impoundment of a river behind a dam, and most often no longer functionally exist (there may be rare exceptions). We maintain records for these features out of historical importance.
Subterranean Icon
Subterranean
Though not common, some waterfalls can be found entirely underground within cave systems. Access to subterranean waterfalls can vary from easy via developed walkways to requiring a high level of extremely technical spelunking skill, including familiarity with ropework and a distinct lack of claustrophobia.
Disqualified Icon
Disqualified
Waterfalls which have been marked as Disqualified do not have the necessary stature or features to qualify as a legitimate waterfall according to our criteria. We will maintain records for entries with this status where the feature is well known and / or may have been historically referred to as a waterfall at some point in time.
Posted Icon
Posted
Posted Waterfalls are known to exist, and we may have a large amount of information associated with them, but are located on private property and are not legally accessible to the general public. Accessing waterfalls with this status should not be attempted without first being explicitly granted permission of the property owner.
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