Ribbon Fall is the tallest single-drop waterfall in the United States. This would usually be enough to draw hundreds of people a day, but being amongst falls like Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada, and Vernal Falls, few people even notice that Ribbon Fall exists. It flows every spring just West of El Capitan, and the best way to see it (and to find refuge from the throngs of people in Yosemite Valley) is to climb the 2nd class bushwack up to its base.
Luis, Jon, Bryan and I arrived at Camp 4 around 10:00. I pointed out Ribbon Falls as we passed it on the road, and on a whim, we decided to climb up to it. After setting up camp, we drove out to the El Capitan Footbridge picnic area to begin our hike. There were probably nearer places to park, but none of them were listed on the map. We got out and hiked south along the Valley Loop Trail for about a mile-and-a-half before we hit Ribbon Creek and veered off trail. Despite the throngs of people out at Mirror Lake and the Mist Trail, the West end of the Valley is rather quiet, even on trail.
There’s somewhat of a use trail most of the way up to the base of Ribbon Fall, but we couldn’t find it, and so we just bushwacked our way up the slope, trying to stay as close to the creek as possible. The scrambling was light, and most of the challenge was trekking through spiny bramble. This is not a hike for shorts and a t-shirt. The closer we got, the more often we could see the fall peeking through the trees.
Fifteen-hundred vertical feet later, we hit the cliffs. We traversed below them for a few hundred feet and found our way to the base of Ribbon Fall. Ribbon Fall streams down into an amphitheatre created by three thousand-foot walls. The area inside this amphitheatre is barren, dark, and windblown. Directly underneath the waterfall is a huge sheet of icy snow. The white noise of the cascade, combined with the shaded, closed off light, creates a feeling of skyscraper landscape, while the black rock and diffuse mist evoke more of a moonscape.
The climb was tough, but not too tough. The trees were thick, but not too thick. This was not that terrible nor dangerous of a hike, but because it’s not on a map, it’s easy to find yourself alone here. We were within one of the most popular areas of one of the most popular national parks in the country, and yet most people would not even know this place existed. A point on a map or a line on a trail draws a lot of people in Yosemite National Park.
The hike back down went much faster, and about two-thirds of the way back we found the use trail we hadn’t found on the way up. We followed way too many cairns on the way down, and got to the bottom in about forty-five minutes. We crossed the creek again, then headed back to the car. We still had a few hours to kill, so we took the shuttle around the Valley, took in the sights, then picked up some groceries. We were only a few hours into the trip, but it was already looking adventurous.
Everyone who likes hiking should try this trip. It’s off-trail, and the bushes are thick at parts, but the destination is just too unique to miss. Anyone in reasonable shape can do this hike; Bryan had never done a hike in Yosemite before, and he didn’t have any problems with exposure or exhaustion. It’s easy to get frustrated at the crowds in Yosemite Valley, even in the off-season. Here, though, you’ll be amazed at how few people visit amazing places when they aren’t listed on maps or guidebooks.