Terra Galleria Photography

Yosemite Unseen II: Fern Ledge


If you look carefully at the Upper Yosemite Falls wall, you will notice a tiny horizontal ledge protruding all the way to the waterfall, around 1/8 of its height. This is Fern Ledge. I had read about it before, but my curiosity was rekindled when I saw an episode of The National Parks, America’s Best Idea where it was mentioned that John Muir crawled behind Upper Yosemite Falls on Fern Ledge to see the moon through the waterfall. The position clearly offers a tremendously close view of Upper Yosemite Fall, but I was a bit worried about safety, until my friends Tom Lambert and Theresa Ho assured me that this was one of their favorite hikes, one where they often take friends. John Muir narrowly escaping death crawling on the ledge, but you do not have to try to get behind the fall. You can just stop at a safe distance and still enjoy the proximity of the vertiginous waterfall.

I will first of all refer you to Tom’s excellent description of Fern Ledge. While you are there, be sure to check the site for other places to explore in Yosemite. I had no difficulty finding the route using Tom’s notes, but since sometimes having an alternative viewpoint can be useful, I’ll add a few comments, as well as two pictures of the route. I am also providing an unedited KMZ file (Update 2018: KMZ format appears to have changed in the while, please let me know if you are able to convert it to current format). It is missing the Fern Ledge proper (the Trackstick GPS chip easily looses the signal), but there are still some useful waypoints.

View of the route from the NPS stables

The most challenging part for us was getting lost … in the “concrete jungle” of Yosemite Village. The volunteer lady sitting in front of the visitor center had no idea of where the NPS stables are, nor had she ever heard of Fern Ledge. However, once we asked a ranger, she promptly pointed us to the NPS stables. From the visitor center, continue past the Museum, then make a right at the first main road. You will arrive at an area with lots of maintenance buildings, and few trees. From the stables, which are at the edge of the forest, the starting talus slope will be obvious.

The easiest way to find the talus slope is to start at the NPS stables, however, as can be seen in the image below, there is only one such slope in the area, so you can also get there and find it by hiking the trail between Yosemite Falls and Yosemite village, which will cross the base of that talus slope.

View of the route from Glacier Point

At the top of the talus slope, after turning a tight corner where you have to use your hands, you will be on the forested terrace above Sunnyside Bench, a long cliff East of lower Yosemite fall. Follow a user trail which is almost level. Although easy, the first part of this trail is the most dangerous portion of the route, as it traverses steep dirt slopes right above the cliff. Be sure to read the warnings on Tom’s page where one hiker reports that his son would have died if not roped. Please stay on the user trail to minimize meadow damage and do not knock rocks down, as the Sunnyside Bench below is used for rock climbing. Close to the end of the terrace (about a 1/3 of a mile from the tight corner), a short scramble over steep but easy rocks leads you the final slopes, a mix of sandy trail and low-angle slabs.

On that trip, I went with a friend from college who was visiting Yosemite for the first time, but wanted to avoid the crowds. Since I was mostly interested in a back-lit photograph of Upper Yosemite Falls, we started at about 12.30 after a brunch at the Yosemite Lodge. We reached Fern Ledge around 3.00, which was a good timing for that image. However, in retrospect, I think it would have been interesting to start earlier to have more time to linger at the lush suspended meadows above Sunnyside Bench, and arrive in the morning to also see the rainbow in the mist.

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  1. Russ Bishop says:

    Great post QT. I imagine you get great views of the Lost Arrow from there as well.

  2. Ray says:

    Thank you QT, let’s do this before the Falls dry up.

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