After shooting in Yosemite for several years, I began to look for locations that were more off of the beaten path. A couple of years ago, I finally ventured up the side of the valley and found an alternate location from which to shoot the Horsetail Falls in February. I also began going on longer hikes up the four mile trail, the Upper Falls trail and out to the Cathedral Lakes. After finding the alternate location from which to shoot the Horsetail Falls, I began to wonder what other opportunities I might be missing. Yosemite Falls was my next logical choice and I began to notice that most, if not all of the shots of the falls were either from the valley floor or from the Upper Falls Trail. After looking online, I finally found a couple of spectacular shots that were taken from the East, but I had no idea where they were taken from. I spent a few hours one afternoon looking for spots to shoot from in the residential area above Yosemite Village, but the angles were not what I had in mind.
Finally, my hiking buddy Tom sent me a link to an article which mentioned a location referred to as the Fern Ledge. In the article, they mentioned how John Muir had hiked out and had become enamored with this location. He spent long hours listening to the falls, and actually walking out behind them. After checking around a bit more, I found that Ansel Adams had also made the trip up and had taken photos from there. Why hadn’t I heard of this place before?
Tom and I set this as one of our goals and on our next trip, we were resolved to find the trail to Fern Ledge head on up. But we only had one article to go on, and the article stated that the trailhead was somewhere behind the Yosemite Stables. When we reached the stables, we got the distinct impression that we weren’t supposed to be in that area and we chickened out.
I spent the next year or so investigating this trail, and couldn’t find much. From what I read, the trail could be very dangerous. I could expect steep inclines, sections where the trail simply fell away over steep precipices, and rattle snakes. Others online were reluctant to give away too many details as they feared hordes of hikers would head up there and cause damage to the habitat surrounding the trail. Others were concerned that people simply didn’t understand how dangerous this route really was.
Undeterred, I made my first attempt a couple of weeks ago. After a couple of hours of climbing I finally made it out to the Sunnyside Bench, which overlooks the top of the lower falls. But as I looked around for the trail which would lead me up to the Fern Ledge, my heart sank. There was a yellow rope off a cliff, which meant a vertical climb with a heavy camera bag on my back. I knew that Fern Ledge would have to wait for another day as there was no way I was going to make it up that cliff.
That day came exactly six days later and this time, I made it all the way up. It was easily the most difficult hike that I have ever been on. I say “hike” as if to imply that there was some sort of trail, so that’s probably not the right term here. Maybe 30 percent of that climb was a path, but the rest of it was grabbing on to rocks and trees for dear life.
The Fern Ledge “Trail” begins easily enough behind the Yosemite Stables. In fact, the trail that takes you behind the stables links up with the Valley Loop Trail, which is very safe and very well traveled by hikers in the valley every day
To get to the Fern Ledge Trail, I would suggest heading up just East of the large rockfall/talus area behind the stables. There are a few sections in this area that almost resemble a trail and I found the scramble up to be much easier than picking my way thorough the boulders in the slide area. Be careful not to cut across too early as there are several false trails that lead to steep droops right at the beginning of the trail. It is important to point out at this point that this particular “trail” is not maintained at all and it struck me that the National Park Service would prefer that most hikers left this area alone due to it’s many pitfalls and dangers. The area shown below is one of the better areas where you can actually make out a trail. But there are several spots on the way out to the Sunnyside Bench where the trail will simply vanish and you are left to wonder if you should climb over a tree, or down a short short slope, or turn around because you missed a turn. I sure as heck wouldn’t try this hike at night as this is truly one of the most sketchy trails I have ever been on.
There are a few spots early on that will demand a bit of concentration as you need to maneuver yourself around some outcroppings of rock and make a couple of scrambles, but eventually, the path becomes a bit more defined. Even so, there are several spots where the ground could easily give way and there is NOTHING between you and a nice 500 foot drop at the end, so if you do end up on this trail, watch your footing at all times. Eventually, the trees fall away and you are left with some spectacular views of the valley below:
Once you make it up to the trail, it’s roughly 45 minutes out to the Sunnyside Bench. It took me considerably longer on this trip as I was looking for an alternate route. I wasn’t looking forward to climbing that small cliff and I had heard there were alternate routes up to Fern Ledge. I tried a couple of other routes but both of them came to dead ends and I had to double back. I finally made it out to the bench 2 hours after setting off. When you arrive at the point where the trail comes to an end, there are a couple of nice overlooks where you can see out over the valley and look up at the upper falls. But the nicer view is located down a small ravine which requires a bit of climbing. Once down, the view opens up considerably and the mist of the upper falls begins to hit you in the face:
These shots of Sunnyside Bench were taken the week prior under cloudy skies…
After grabbing a couple of shots off of the Sunnyside Bench, it was time to press on to Fern Ledge. The only problem was that the yellow rope that I was planning to climb was now gone. After trying alternate routes, I was now convinced that the only way up to Fern Ledge was up was to make a vertical climb up the small cliff in front of me.
After making it to the top of the small cliff, I was hoping that the trail might get a bit easier, but instead of getting easier, the trail, for the most part, disappeared. From this cliff to Fern Ledge, most of the route was straight up with a couple of sections where the trail would follow ledges up off to the East. From the first small cliff to the top, the only way I knew I was on the right route was by looking at cairns that other hikers had left before me. If you decide to press on after the Sunnyside Bench, this is pretty much your “trail” to the top:
The remainder of the climb was mostly hand over hand, grabbing on to outcroppings of rock or tree branches to pull myself up.
After climbing for about another two hours up terrain that was far outside of my comfort zone, I finally arrived at small crest with a stunning overlook of the valley below. It was here that I began to find an actual trail again…
While I was doubtful that I would ever be making this trip again, I was glad I had made the effort as the full grandeur of Upper Yosemite Falls gradually came into view:
I began to pick up my pace, wincing slightly and now very thirsty as I was saving my second bottle of water for the way home, but before I had gone too far, I noticed something slithering ahead between the boulders. It turned out to be a medium sized rattlesnake who decided to take up residence underneath a large boulder next to my route. Undeterred (I actually yelled pretty loudly when I saw him) I clambered over a few manzanita bushes …carefully…poking the area now in every direction with my mono pod, and continued my climb. The two guys that had passed me earlier were now on their way back. I warned them about the rattler, and they told me the rest of the hike was a piece of cake. Well…their definition of cake and mine were two completely different things and there was still a bit of rock climbing to do and several spots where I had no clue if I was still headed in the right direction. I finally spotted one final cairn and arrived, exhausted and thirsty, and the Fern Ledge. I spent several long minutes just staring up at the falls. I have seen many spectacular sights around Yosemite National Park, but none have surpassed the view of standing directily beneath the upper Falls and watching the enormous plumes leap out from the cliffs above before plummeting a thousand feet to the rocks that were now at my feet. John Muir described his experience as watching comets plummeting to to the earth all around him. In fact, he got nailed by a couple of them…at night, and recounts how close he came to death from his experience on this ledge. I didn’t venture all the way out behind the falls, but I edged out as far as I dared and then looked up….
After shooting for a half hour or so, it was time for the trip back down. part of me wanted to believe that it would be much easier going down, but it took me just about as long as I had to inch down the steep terrain. I missed a cairn on the way back down and it took a while to back track and work my way across the mountain to finally find the “trail” again. I was very grateful when I finally edged my way down the last small cliff to arrive back down at the Sunnyside Ledge. The view was still amazing on the way down, but I was taking less photos at this point and concentrating more on the fact that I was almost out of water with over an hour of hiking left.
By the time I finally limped back to my car it was almost 4 PM. My jeans were shredded from coming down those rocks on my butt and I had my share of cuts and bruises, but I felt glad that I was finally able to shoot from this incredible location. I think I can safely say that I won’t be making this attempt again on my own, and the jury is still out on whether I’ll be making this climb again even with some company. If that were to happen, I would definitely need more water with me, and I’m still trying to get my head around getting up that first cliff with the extra water on my back…not to mention the rest of that climb, along with the rattlesnakes. In the mean time, I’ll be trying to get into better shape. This was the toughest hike I’ve been on yet. Maybe not as long as Grinell Glacier trail or the hike to Yosemite Point, but dealing with the disappearing trail, steep drop offs and vertical climbs was more than what I was prepared for when I set off. At least next time, if there IS a next time, I’ll know what to expect.
If you have questions or comments regarding this hike, please let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!