This less-traveled single track on the southern end of Yosemite National Park visits thundering cascades and one of the longest falls in the park outside Yosemite Valley. Unlike the challenging waterfall hikes at the heart of the park, the strenuous rating on Chilnualna Falls Trail comes from its length, not its pitch. Beyond a steep section along the cascade at the start of the trail, the single track is steady and surprisingly gradual, gaining 2,200 feet over 4 miles. If an 8-mile round trip hike is more than you are looking for, do not pass up seeing the cascades that parallel the start of the trail. Hike to the top of the stone steps along this daunting stretch of Chilnualna Creek, and then return to the trailhead for a highly enjoyable half-mile hike. The full trail explores a charming forest on the way to Upper Chilnualna Falls where it connects to more trails delving into the Yosemite backcountry.
Beginning from the parking area at the end of Chilnualna Falls Road, walk a short distance east to the trailhead. There is a stock trail angling to the left. Be glad you aren’t a horse, and take the single track toward the sensational string of cascades. In no time at all, you will be standing alongside a raucous chain of pour-overs. The creek absolutely thunder in the spring, when snow melt swells the banks. The trail separates from the creek to reach the upper waterfall, so absorb the cascade, and any mist that hits you, before moving on.
A switchback of stone steps leads to a reunion with the stock trail. Head to the right and continue up the trail. There are not further junctions until you reach the waterfall.
Through the trees to the left, a view appears over the pine-covered basin containing Wawona. Two-thirds of a mile from the junction, there are logs bridging a seasonal creek crossing. About two tenths of a mile farther, the trail comes within eyesight of Chilnualna Creek, running parallel to this frothy channel for another 0.15 miles. Footpaths heading down to the rapids offer a short detour. The main trail moves away from the creek, avoiding it for the rest of the climb to the falls.
After crossing two more seasonal tricklers, march up a flight of stone steps to an area of exposed granite that offers fine views down the canyon carved by Chilnualna Creek. Across the creek is Wawona Dome, a 6,899-foot prominence with steep rock walls that reverberate the sound of the tumbling water.
The trail continues in and out of shade, traveling through a pine forest decorated by ruby-trunked Manzanita trees. Some wildfire damage is evident, but whether you are hiking over dirt, rocks, or a soft bed of pine needles, the environment is seductively sylvan.
Half a mile past the open granite area, and 2.75 miles from the trailhead, you will start to hear and see Upper Chilnualna Falls. Tall pines around the trail and a rock trench sheltering the waterfall obscure any clear view of the falls. The volume of the waterfall increases as you hike, along with your frustration that an unobstructed view is not available. Each time you near what might be a clean shot of the falls, the teasing trail turns up a switchback away from the creek.
The best view of Chilnualna Falls comes three-quarters of a mile from the top. A sizable seasonable stream pours over the trail from left to right, providing its own waterfall that is undeniably pleasant if not as impressive. This liquid conduit clears the forest below, providing the broadest window of Chilnualna Falls.
Chilnualna Falls dumps off the rim of the canyon and channel north down a jagged trench under the direction of a bold rock that obscures a head-on view. Another quarter mile up the trail, dense trees obscure an almost perfect perspective of the falls. After a few final switchbacks, the trail straightens out and crosses rock steps on an outcropping north of the falls. Even from the top of the Chilnualna Falls, you do not get a full view of the chute because of the way it angles off the cliff. Instead there is a grand panorama of the valley below.
Above the falls, the trail switches past smaller cascade, coming to a trail junction that allows backpackers to trek farther. Alder Creek, Bishop Creek, Bridalveil Creek, and Westfall Meadow can be reached en route to Glacier Point Road to the north, and Buena Vista Lake, Crescent Lake, Johnson Lake, and Buck Camp can be reached to the east. A wilderness permit is required for all overnight adventures into the Yosemite Backcountry.
For day hikers, take a moment to look over the falls (without getting too close to the edge), and return the way you came. On the way down, you will notice more views of Chilnualna Falls than you saw on the way up (unless you looked over your shoulder a lot). The trail is enjoyable in reverse, as you stride back to the cascade and down to the trailhead.
This hike to Chilnualna Falls should be considered moderate for its steepness and strenuous for its length. The trail crosses south facing slopes and is one of the first to be free of snow in the spring. It is a pleasant hike that time of year when the waterfalls are full. The trail passes in and out of shade and can become quite hot in the summer. Carry lots of water and avoid hiking at mid-day. This long gradual trail offers a peaceful escape from the crowds in Yosemite Valley. An entrance fee is required to access Chilnualna Falls Trail in Yosemite National Park. Bathrooms and bear boxes are provided at the trailhead. Be bear safe and have a great hike!
To get to the trailhead: From Highway 41, 28 miles south of Yosemite Valley and 4.8 miles north of the south entrance to Yosemite National Park (just north of Wawona Hotel and Golf Course), head east on Chilnualna Falls Road. Drive two miles, passing Redwoods in Yosemite Lodge to the end of Chilnualna Falls Road. Follow signs for the trailhead parking area, down the hill to the right.
Trailhead address: Chilnualna Falls Road, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Trailhead coordinates: 37.548391, -119.633691 (37° 32′ 54.20″N 119° 38′ 01.28″W)
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