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Waterfalls of the Eastern Sierra

Kayaking across Lake Sabrina and short hike revealed this roaring falls

We love waterfalls and we think you might too. So, we’re delighted you’ve found our page all about waterfalls in the Eastern Sierra. The sound and scene of flowing water, particularly when it’s falling over a rocky cliff or cascading down a rocky chute, instills a sense of wonder and peace. Whether it’s a close-up view or long-distance vista we feel a harmonious balance with nature that is good for the body and soul. Have you experienced this?

Visitors tell us that our waterfalls are some of the most spectacular they’ve seen. Not because they’re the biggest or highest, but because of the settings! Our waterfalls exist in one of the most scenic parts of our country and the most photographed region in California.

A recent study in the United Kingdom, conducted by The University of Derby and The Wildlife Trusts, found that increased and sustained connections to nature significantly improved people’s health, happiness, and pro-nature behaviors. A visit to one or more of the waterfalls in our big backyard will surely result in improved mood, reduced anxiety, and restore attention capacity and mental fatigue. Trips to see backcountry waterfalls will provide good exercise and optimize time spent on earth.

Some of our beautiful falls can be seen from vista points along mountain roads that will take you well into the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada. Many more can only be seen from hiking trails within our national forest and wilderness areas. That means a visit to a wild and scenic waterfall in the Sierra Nevada is an extraordinary experience.

Take some time to study this guide and make a plan to visit as many of these beautiful falls as you can. You could spend a day, a week, a month, or a lifetime here and every experience will be unique and enchanting.

What & Why
Lone Pine creek falls at Whitney Portal

The Sierra Nevada is a mighty mountain range in central and eastern California that runs for 400 miles, north-to-south, and about 70 miles, east-to-west. It rises to well over 9,000 ft all along its crest and has over 120 peaks above 13,000 ft. It also boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney, which stands at 14,505 ft above sea level. The westside of the Sierra Nevada has a gradual incline to the higher elevations, but the eastside rises dramatically and sometimes near-vertically from the valley floors below.

This immense range is the ‘water trap’ for California. It causes precipitation to fall from the moisture-laden airmasses that originate in the Pacific Ocean as they move eastward. About 20 to 80 inches of precipitation falls annually, most of it in fall, winter, and spring, and generally in the form of snow above 6,000 feet. In summer and warm periods the snow and ice melt and water flows into innumerable glacial lakes and continues down canyons into more lakes and creeks. Many areas of snow and ice don’t completely melt during the summer with some of these forming true glaciers. So there is a constant supply of water year-round.

Over 2,000 lakes, formed by the Pleistocene epoch glaciers that receded only a little less than 12,000 years ago, create a glacial staircase of connected lakes. These connections, on the steep Sierra escarpment of the eastside, produce countless waterfalls and cascades. Many of these are notable and worthy of the effort to see them.

Where & How
Finding waterfalls in the Eastern Sierra

This guide is set up to show where each of the noteworthy falls is located and how best to see, photograph, and get near them. The list is compiled showing the proximity of each falls from the nearest town along scenic US Highway 395 from Lone Pine to Lee Vining. All waterfalls, and/or the trailheads to the falls, are accessed along spur roads off US-395. In some cases, falls can be seen from vista points along these roads, but most require a hike of at least a mile and often significantly more.

Viewing and/or access to each waterfall has been graded; easy, moderate, or strenuous. It should be noted that many of these can only be seen from a distance. Nonetheless the hikes are wonderful and, when suitably prepared, an Eastern Sierra waterfall adventure can be an incredible experience.

Easy = these falls can be seen from the roadside or a parking lot which is accessed by motorized vehicle or after a short hike of less than a half mile and under 200 feet of elevation gain.

Moderate = these falls can be seen after a hike of less than 2-miles one way with less than 500 feet of elevation change and some may involve a little rock scrambling. Many are situated near lovely campgrounds for an easy camping adventure.

 Strenuous = these falls can be seen after a hike of more than 2-miles one way with significant change in elevation. Many are well-suited for overnight backcountry camping.

NOTE: All swift water and waterfalls are inherently dangerous. Be very aware of wet, slippery rocks and keep at a safe distance from rushing water, steep drops, and cliffs.

 

Who & When
Access is easy to First Falls along Big Pine Creek

A trip to an Eastern Sierra waterfall can be a solitary experience, a romantic getaway, or a family, fun adventure. It all depends on what you or your group need and want. A quick drive up to a viewing site can be an easy and delightful side trip on a long journey. A lengthy hike or overnight camping trip requires experience and planning. A short hike should also be suitably planned so that all hikers are properly clothed, equipped, have enough snacks and water, and in good enough shape for a couple of miles at altitude. Remember that ALL hikes (except the first waterfall on our list) begin above 4,000 ft above sea level and the hike will take you still higher.

Most waterfalls are only accessible or viewable during the warmer months and spring is primetime for waterfall adventures. Backcountry waterfalls are generally only accessible in summer and hikes may take a half-day, full-day, or multiple days – depending on which you choose and how you plan your adventure. A late summer or autumn adventure can still offer spectacular views of waterfalls. Late blooming wildflowers or the changing colors of autumn leaves nearby a perennial tumbling waterfall is magical.

Only two of the falls on our list are best visited in winter. The Darwin Falls in Death Valley are a great winter fall destination – summer is just too hot! Lee Vining Falls are generally dry in the warm months, but produce a magnificent icefall in winter. A trip to see one of California’s preeminent icefalls, and perhaps ice climb, is an adventure that should only be undertaken by experienced ice climbers or with an experienced, qualified guide.

 

Links & Things
Darwin Falls, Death Valley National Park

Weather in the Eastern Sierra is always unpredictable and mountainous terrain makes it even less stable. Summer can produce fast developing thunderstorms and occasional flash flooding. Temperatures can differ significantly during the day between lower elevation valleys and higher elevation canyons and crests – even in summer. Always pack layers when undertaking a hike in the Sierra Nevada.

Points to consider

  • Fast flowing water can be dangerous.
  • Be aware of wet, slippery rocks.
  • Keep at a safe distance from rushing water, steep drops, and cliffs.
  • Have enough changes of clothing to stay dry.
  • Always wear a hat and sunscreen whenever you’re outdoors. And don’t forget your sunglasses!
  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
  • Permits may required when traveling in the wilderness.
  • Please pack out everything you pack in with you.
  • Most trailheads and campgrounds are serviced, but every bit you do to help keep our backyard clean and lovely is very much appreciated.

For the best Eastern Sierra waterfall experience come see us at the Bishop Visitor Center at 690 N. Main St. in Bishop or call ahead on (760) 873-8405. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff can provide maps, advice, and information on what would be the best adventure for you and your crew.

Guide services in the area are highly experienced and skilled at taking our guests safely into and out of the backcountry.

This landing page was first published on BishopVistor.com here. Click to see an interactive map, read full descriptions, and study trail maps of over 15 waterfalls in the Eastern Sierra.