Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Speaking of buckets, bring your rain gear April–June when snowmelt makes the falls boom, and overspray soaks much of the viewing area.
As for Yosemite’s other falls, they all have their undeniable allure. An easy walk to 620-foot Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.) On the park’s south side near Wawona, Chilnualna Falls tumbles over a series of granite ledges.
To see Yosemite at its watery best, time your trip for snowmelt—usually April to June. February, however, often offers a special treat: the Firefall, which looks like a stream of orange lava flowing down the side of El Capitan. It happens at Horsetail Fall, a waterfall east of Bridalveil and Ribbon falls, whose season typically lasts from winter through early spring.
The Firefall phenomenon, which tends to happen over the course of about three weeks, literally reflects the convergence of clear skies and the right amount of snowmelt. As sunset nears, the mist catches the sun rays and creates a fabulous optical illusion that lasts up to 10 minutes, making for some dazzling pictures. Get the best views from the El Capitan Picnic Area, less than two miles from Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly the Yosemite Lodge). Celebrate afterward with a Firefall cocktail (hot chocolate with tequila, crème de cocoa, and pasilla chile) at the lounge in The Ahwahnee Hotel.