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Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls Trail; an Icy Challenge

“I would have just gone to “oh my gosh” viewpoint and then returned had I know how grueling the trail was going to be.”

“Not for the weak.”

“If you like inflicting pain on yourself, this is the trail for you.”

“It felt like pure torture.”

These are just some of the reviews of hiking Upper Yosemite Falls Trail that we read AFTER we had taken on the challenge.

Type 2 fun is defined as “miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect. It usually begins with the best intentions, and then things get carried away,” and that’s exactly what we kept joking about for the last three hours of this hike.

Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park -

On day two of our trip to Yosemite, we broke camp early and after breakfast and stocking up on National Park gear, we made our way to Yosemite Falls. Finding our way to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls was breathtaking, then we continued to make our way along the trail until we found a trail marker indicating that climbing to the top of the upper falls was an option. I began verbalizing the best intentions...“How cool would it be, to get to the very top!?” “Psh, 3.4 miles, we got this!” “Let’s do it!” “Worst case we turn around at any point and head back.” One shared grin to my husband and he knew we were now on the hook for giving it a shot.

Built in the 1870s, Upper Yosemite Falls trail is one of Yosemite's oldest historic trails and leads to the top of North America’s tallest waterfalls standing at 2,425 feet above the valley floor.

The first hour of the hike was beautiful. The oversight on my part at the start of this hike, and truth be told on every hike, is refusal to take elevation gain into account when looking at mile markers. Sure the trailhead said 3.4 miles, but what it failed to include, and I failed to think about, was that within those 3.4 miles was also over 2,700 feet of elevation gain. Needless to say, the hike was a steep climb of switchbacks and an intense gain in elevation the entire way.

The 7.2 mile roundtrip hike is considered one of Yosemite’s most strenuous hikes, and it took us a total of 6 hours and 48 minutes to complete.

Hiking Yosemite Falls Trail at Yosemite National Park -

Streams crossed the path in various parts of the trail from where the snow above had begun melting and ravens made their occasional presence atop nearby tree tops. The narrow path of rock and snow drift made the ascent to Columbia Rock a fun challenge. The falls from here were an incredible sight. We stayed for some time, enjoying the views and then proceeded to take on the next 30 minutes of the hike with views of the water breaking along the rock walls and dancing its way into a giant snowpack at the bottom.   

By the time we were another 30 minutes past the viewpoint is when things got carried away and one hour past the viewpoint is when the type 2 fun was in full swing. There was no going back. We had come this far and invested so much into the hike already, we had to complete it.

Now switching up our gear, layering into wind breakers, donning snow spikes on our boots and finding a solid grip with our hiking sticks we proceeded up the now relentless ice covered rocky switchbacks that would be our path for the remainder of the incline, that is, until we it was time for the final trek to the top in a winter wonderland through the snow pack.

The saving grace for making this journey was having crampons for our boots. There is no possible way we could have successfully made that journey without them and on the hike, the very few people we did see who did not have boot spikes, all had a look of absolute fear across their faces as they gripped anything in sight to slide down safely.

Nikki Emord hiking Yosemite Falls trail at Yosemite National Park -

The final portion of the climb was a push and an undocumented part of our trek as I greatly needed both hands and full concentration to avoid falling or sliding down the trail or the cliff side. As we dug our steps into the trail, hoping each new visible set of switchbacks was the last, only to be greeted with more, the lingering concern of the time and remaining daylight loomed over us. We absolutely did not want to make the descent in the dark, however we had headlamps if it absolutely came to that. Beyond the struggle and the lingering concerns, the excitement of seeing the views that would make this all worth it was growing with each step. It was a continuous flow of emotion and awareness as I focused on maintaining traction with each step and taking in the whole experience. Awe-inspiring beauty at every glance and the continuous astonishment that we were in fact climbing to the top; it was a rush that kept my heart racing with excitement…that or it was the near 3,000 feet of elevation gain and continuous incline that did it, either way, my heart was racing.

Making the final stretch through the snow across iced over snow pack, the occasional hole in the snow where someone’s foot went through revealed we were walking on top of bushes and small trees; a crazy and simultaneously unsettling feeling. We made a beeline to the accessible overlook marker, took in the astonishing views, enjoyed a small snack and then headed back to ensure we had plenty of daylight to make the journey back.

While the climb up was intense, the pure exhaustion and physical limits were reached on the way down. Transitioning from iced-over trail to large rocky staircases took every bit of energy left. At one point, finding my step down a single stair led my leg to give out and it took all my strength to hold myself up with my hiking sticks to not fall. Energy levels were depleted and the exhaustion was overwhelming.

As we made our way down the trail returning to the trailhead we began meeting up with people who had hiked to the scenic viewpoint before turning around. As we took a moment to pause and catch our breathe, a man looked over to us; “You guys hiked all the way to the top didn’t you? Amazing! You guys are heroes.” I must say, I’m not one to bask in strangers’ compliments usually. Typically I smile and move on, but for this hike, damnit, I was embracing every word…we were freaking amazing! Despite still pushing through the exhaustion, we were conquering this icy hike and I was damn proud of it.

Once we reached flat ground at the trail head the last burst of energy kicked in to feel not only relief but overwhelming elation over what we had just done. We hiked to the top of the tallest waterfall in North America, one of the most difficult trails in Yosemite and one of the most intense physical challenges I’ve ever taken on.

The exhilaration we felt at the end of the hike and return to the trailhead would have been the perfect wrap up to the journey, had we not parked an additional 3 miles away. The final 3 miles toward the car extended the exhaustion that had already set in and at that point the only thing moving me forward was pure joy that we had successfully taken on the entire hike. I have never felt more proud to have completed a trail before. I’m beyond grateful for a husband who allows me to push my, and his, personal limits, even if it does leave us in a new zone of physical pain and with a nearly unusable leg the following day.

For the reminder of our time in Yosemite, whenever Yosemite Falls came into sight, I’d smile and proudly declare between the two of us; “we conquered you!”

Needless to say, that hike was our last for our trip. Despite our original plan to fit a couple more in on day three before heading home, physically that was not going to happen. When we checked into the Yosemite Valley Lodge we both laughed through the pain once we reached our hotel room and found we were in an upstairs unit. In hindsight it’s humorous to look back and think of the agony, but in the moment it was just that; pure agony.

We enjoyed a dinner and a couple drinks at Mountain Room Lounge before passing out in the hotel room for the night. In the morning, I was excited about thinking of our next trip, one that would allow us to enjoy a more leisurely visit to bask in the beauty the lodge area. Until then however, I couldn’t help but take in the incredible realization that for this trip, we had the park to ourselves. The lodge area was a ghost town, the roads were completely vacant and everywhere we turned and drove throughout the morning led us to more places of isolation and beautiful solitude; an experience I recognize is far from reality in the warmer months. It was an experience I am beyond grateful for having.   

A digital fitness map of Yosemite Falls trail at Yosemite National Park -

While I can say I’ve conquered Upper Yosemite Falls, I can also admit that I’m not against doing it again in the future however I would definitely do some things differently, the biggest difference being, I would park at the trailhead, not three miles away.

Overall, the trip was gorgeous. A final visit to Yosemite Village and Degnan’s Deli for breakfast allowed us to enjoy some time in the park’s museum and the chance to buy an album of Ansel Adams’ works. There is no questioning how Ansel Adams found inspiration to use his camera to show the natural art that is present in Yosemite's rocks, trees, and waters.

The beauty of a campground shadowed by iconic cliff sides, a winding road to drive along by ourselves, and sketchy but beautiful hike that definitely made the top of the list for the hardest hike I’ve ever endured. This visit was no doubt, both magical and triumphant.


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