Do you know the waterfall in Yosemite with the longest single drop? How about in the entire United States? If I said it’s in fact the same waterfall, most people would guess Yosemite Falls. Most people would also be wrong.
The answer is Ribbon Fall, a surprisingly unheralded waterfall that plummets 1612 feet into Yosemite Valley, a little west of El Capitan and just across the valley from Bridalveil Fall. But despite its unmatched height, Ribbon Fall is tucked into a granite notch and takes a backseat to several other Yosemite waterfalls.
Most would agree that, by virtue of their prominence and undeniable aesthetic appeal, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls deserve the most Yosemite Valley waterfall love. Views of Yosemite Falls dominate the east side of Yosemite Valley, and its 2425 total drop is 800 feet more than Ribbon Fall’s. Rather than reaching Yosemite Valley in a single precipitous plunge as Ribbon Fall does, Yosemite Falls tumbles to the valley floor in three distinct steps: Upper Yosemite Fall (1430 vertical feet), the middle cascades (675 vertical feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 vertical feet).
Bridalveil Fall, while less than half the height of Ribbon Fall, is Yosemite’s most exposed waterfall, as well as the first waterfall visitors see upon entering Yosemite Valley. It’s unshielded drop from a hanging valley beneath Cathedral Rocks makes Bridalveil Fall easy to see from much of the valley’s west end, including Yosemite Valley’s two most popular vistas, Tunnel View and Valley View. It’s unprotected exposure to the whims of the numerous breezes dancing along the valley’s steep granite, lift and twist the fall’s abundant mist into diaphanous sheets that resemble, wait for it… a bride’s veil.
I’ve always found it interesting that Yosemite Falls has a much larger watershed than Bridalveil Fall, and therefore in any calendar year delivers more water than Bridalveil Fall. But, because the primarily granite watershed feeding Yosemite Falls repels snowmelt and instantly propels it valleyward, in a typical year it’s usually dry by the end of July. On the other hand, Bridalveil Fall’s largely organic watershed absorbs snowmelt and releases it gradually enough to make Bridalveil the only waterfall in Yosemite Valley that runs year-round.
The two other most commonly known Yosemite waterfalls are Vernal and Nevada Falls. Technically not in Yosemite Valley, this stair-step pair is sourced by the Merced River, which means, like Bridalveil, they also flow year-round. It doesn’t hurt Vernal and Nevada Falls’ notoriety that they also happen to be prime destinations on Yosemite’s most heavily traveled trail.
But while these “big four” waterfalls get the most attention, Yosemite is actually full of many unheralded but still beautiful waterfalls that spring to life each spring. One of its least herald-worthy waterfalls is Horsetail Fall, which is usually hard to spot, even when you know exactly where to look for it. But somehow Horsetail managed to negotiate a February sunset spotlight that draws thousands of gawkers each day, and for a few weeks is bumped to the top of Yosemite’s waterfall hierarchy.
The Horsetail Fall mayhem is so extreme that the National Park Service has implemented a reservation-only admission system for most of February, closed certain parts of Yosemite Valley, and closed traffic lanes to accommodate pedestrians. Then March arrives and just as suddenly as it sprang to celebrity status, Horsetail Fall returns to total anonymity—until next February.
Spring visitors entering Yosemite Valley through the Arch Rock entrance are teased about the waterfall experience awaiting them by Cascade Fall, just off the road a couple of miles west of the valley. I’ve always found this high volume (in spring) waterfall more impressive to the eyes (and ears) than to my camera—I just haven’t found a combination of location and light that moves me enough to photograph it. But I do enjoy seeing Cascade Fall and always make a point of admiring it through the windshield as I drive past.
A Cascade Fall view I do like to photograph in spring (and wet winters) is Upper Cascade Fall, just upstream from the its lower relation and very photographable from a small bridge on Big Oak Flat Road (the route into Yosemite Valley through the Big Oak Flat entrance). It’s right next to the road, with parking on both sides of the bridge, but many tourists drive right by because unless you twist you head as you cross the small bridge, you’ll completely miss it.
Another Yosemite waterfall I’ve always admired but have had little success photographing is Sentinel Fall. Just west of Sentinel Rock on Yosemite Valley’s south wall, Sentinel Fall cascades more than 2000 feet down to Yosemite Valley in a series of steep steps.
And though I don’t have a lot of images of Sentinel Fall, that’s not for lack of trying. My favorite place to photograph it is the north side of Leidig Meadow, just beneath the Three Brothers (but too close to the Brothers to really see them). From here, with a wide lens I can include Half Dome and Sentinel Rock with Sentinel Fall. In fact, if I really worked at it, I could even work the Merced River into my frame as well.
I have waterfalls on my mind right now because Yosemite 2023 record snowpack is in the process of becoming Yosemite’s 2023 record runoff. And while the flooding probably won’t rival the atmospheric river fuel January 1997 flood event, it has already closed parts of Yosemite Valley for a few days, and I wouldn’t be surprise if we experience more closures before it’s over.
To get my eyes on all this water, and the waterfalls it feeds, my brother Jay and I made two trips to Yosemite in the last few weeks, one on each side of the Yosemite Valley closure. As I wrote in my previous post, the first trip was a photographic dud, but the second trip was a great success. Most of our time was spent doing close dogwood photography, but we also found some wider views.
Our last stop was at a spot above the Merced River with El Capitan in the background, and a nice dogwood tree in the foreground. The weather that day had ranged from slightly drizzly to a light rain, but nothing too intense or difficult to deal with. By the time we made it to this spot, most the rain was done, but the clouds were still hanging around enough to drape El Capitan and create a rapily changing variety of effects as they rose, dropped, and parted. Though the tree was flowering nicely, we were a few days early for its peak bloom, with most of the blooms small and yellow-greenish, but still photographable enough to complement the scene.
I’d be lying if I said I was here to photograph Ribbon Fall, but at some point toward the end of our 30 or so minutes here I noticed the clouds that had completely obscured the wall west of El Capitan had parted just enough to reveal the top of the fall. I quickly switched to a horizontal orientation, framed up a composition that included the dogwood tree, a little bit of the Merced River, and El Capitan.
I stopped down to f/16 for a little extra depth of field, then carefully (manually) focused on one of the farther back dogwood flowers (technically the dogwood’s flower is the center cluster, and the parts surrounding it that we want to call flowers are really bracts). By then the clouds had risen enough to mostly swallow the fall, so I just waited and hoped it would reappear. It teased me for about 10 minutes, never coming out completely, but eventually it show enough of itself for me to get a few clicks in.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
These landscape photos are some of the nicest I have ever seen (and I am old and have seen many)!
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I have been to Yosemite many times…your photos are fabulous and take me back to all the great times I’ve had in the park!My favorite time in the park is Feb-May…just when there is a little snow left it is awesome!..keep sharing your photos please!
I’m going for my birthday Saturday I hope to have lots of fun. I like the pictures
Some breathtaking and amazing images here Gary. The article is fantastic as well. A buddy of mine and I just wrapped up a 3 day weekend in the park. The camp season opener in fact at House Keeping Camp. The water shed was at a level I’ve never experienced in or around the park. One of my favorite trips thus far. Your photography is inspiring Mr. Hart.
Thank you…. -DB Simmz May 2023
It has been many years since I’ve been to Yosemite. 1988 was the last time. Moving to AZ. for college,then to Co.for work has kept me away for far too long, but my heart lies in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.
Absolutely GORGEOUS! My most favorite place in the world! My Mom climbed Half Dome in 1928 when she was 12’yrs old. As a child we went camping in Yosemite every year just after labor Day. The old firewall was spectacular! 5 yrs ago I chose a trip to Yosemite to celebrate my 80 birthday! Thank You so much for All your Beautiful Photos!