Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass (Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, UT)

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, May 2021

Stretching for more than a dozen miles through south-central Utah, the dark, undulating narrows of Buckskin Gulch are a sight to behold, a wonder of the American Southwest. Considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world, Buckskin Gulch is part of the Paria Canyon drainage in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a BLM-administered area that spans the border between Utah and Arizona. The most popular access is via the Wire Pass Trail, itself boasting a narrow slot canyon. While Buckskin makes for a popular backpacking destination, the write-up below describes a 10-mile out-and-back day hike through Wire Pass and three scenic miles of Buckskin Gulch. (Note: The turnaround point is somewhat arbitrary—and the stunning beauty of the canyon makes it difficult to know when to stop—but 5 miles each way makes for a good, full-day hike that sheds the initial crowds and captures some of the canyon’s best narrows.)

(Note: Conditions vary dramatically in Buckskin Gulch. While often filled with muddy pools, the upper portions of Buckskin Gulch are sometimes—as of May 2021, for example—nearly bone dry. Check on local conditions before departing—and never enter the slot if there is rain in the forecast: flash floods, while infrequent, would be deadly in this canyon, where there are limited avenues for escape. Also, a day-use permit is required to hike Buckskin Gulch; they are unlimited and available at the trailhead, but it’s best to book online if you don’t have exact change ($6/person).)

Highlights

  • Longest slot canyon in the world
  • Spectacular narrows stretching for miles and miles
  • Crowds dissipate beyond the initial set of narrows (ending at 2.8 miles), giving hikers solitude in the awesome slot

Lowlights

  • Increasingly crowded destination, popular with tour groups
  • Risk of flash floods and often filled with muddy pools
Map of Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass, Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument; created using alltrails.com.

The hike

The hike to Buckskin Gulch begins at the Wire Pass Trailhead, located just north of the UtahArizona border along the unpaved House Rock Valley Road, about 8.4 miles south of U.S. Route 89. (Note: The conditions of this road vary widely, depending on the season. While snowy winter conditions could make the drive impassable, for much of the year the 8.4-mile stretch is relatively easily doable with a standard sedan. Although the road continues south from Wire Pass TH into Arizona, eventually connecting with U.S. Route 89A, this section is generally rockier and sketchier; I recommend accessing from the north. Check the latest road conditions here.) The House Rock Valley Road has historically straddled two jurisdictions: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) to the west, and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to the east. (Note: That is, until the Trump administration cut the size of GSENM in half, leaving this section unprotected.) With Vermilion Cliffs is the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, a more than 112,000-acre tract that extends from here all the way to Glen Canyon to the east. (Note: After 3.5 miles, the road passes a parking area for the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead; note that this, despite its name, is NOT the start of this hike; while eventually leading to the same place, the upper reaches of Buckskin Gulch take longer to traverse and are not as scenic as the lower sections beyond Wire Pass.) At 8.4 miles, after seemingly driving in the middle of nowhere, visitors will perhaps be surprised to see a large and often bustling parking lot on the right; this is Wire Pass Trailhead.

Even the drive along House Rock Valley Road reveals stunning geology, with sedimentary rock layers spanning the Permian to early Jurassic periods (roughly 300-150 million years ago). Like the nearby Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park, the multihued Cockscomb runs north-south and is another example of a monocline, a wrinkle in the earth that produces a fold with one steep side and one more gradual. The Cockscomb is topped with newer rock (I mean, it’s still around 200 million years ago) from the Moenave and Kayenta formations, here taking on reddish and peach hues. Below these layers are the Chinle formation (with its characteristic green, tan, and even violet-colored clays) and Moenkopi (crumbly and a deep red), both dating to the Triassic period. Finally, the mostly desolate hillsides off to the west give way to occasional canyons where the even-older Kaibab limestone and White Rim sandstone reveal themselves. (Note: The latter layers form the top of the Grand Canyon Rim.)

The show-stopper, however, is the Navajo sandstone, an early Jurassic (180 million years ago) layer responsible for most of the area’s slot canyons and stunning features such as the often-photographed feature known as “The Wave.” The House Rock Valley Road begins to cut into this layer as it approaches the Wire Pass Trailhead, with the high, cream-colored walls of The Dive visible to the east and reddish knobs of the Coyote Buttes area to the southeast. Buckskin Gulch is not visible from the trailhead, but the beautiful Navajo sandstone beckons.

The Wire Pass Trailhead has two large parking lots and a check-in kiosk where hikers can sign the trail register and acquire their day passes. This is also the starting point for hikes into the North Coyote Buttes area, which requires a highly-coveted permit that offers access to features such as The Wave.

From the trail register at the southern end of the parking area, look east across the road to the find the start of the Wire Pass Trail, which traverses a sandy sagebrush plain and then drops into Coyote Wash, a usually dry arroyo with sharply cut banks. Hikers can stay in the wash all the way to Buckskin Gulch, but technically the trail continues onward up the right bank for a brief moment, passing through a cattle gate at around 2/10 mile. Shortly thereafter, the trail drops into the wash for good.

Sandstone knobs near Coyote Wash

It’s perhaps hard to believe that Wire Pass will soon narrow to a thin slot, as the opening stretches of the hike are wide open in the broad sun. After tracing a right-hand bend, the drainage then cuts around to the left. After another left, a narrow but signed track leads off to the right; this is the spur for Coyote Buttes and The Wave. The route to Buckskin continues in the wash as the scenery around becomes more variegated and interesting: spiraling knobs, ruddy walls, and pinyon-dotted benches.

Entering Wire Pass slot canyon

At around 1.1 miles, the drainage is full of small boulders and flirts with narrowing, but after a short stretch, it opens up again. Finally, at around 1.3 miles, the walls begin to rise on both sides and Coyote Wash dramatically narrows. This is the start of the Wire Pass Slot Canyon. The smooth walls, streaked with cross-bedding, are multi-hued with deep oranges, reds, and pinks.

Within minutes of entering the slot, hikers encounter the hike’s biggest obstacle: a chockstone and 7- to 8-foot drop, littered with twisted branches. This obstacle has frequently evolved, as hikers have developed different methods for surmounting it: stacking rocks and debris, developing crude handholds, installing ropes, or—as it was in May 2021—a well-crafted and durable ladder. In any case, unless visiting right after a flash flood, chances are that somebody before you has developed a way to tackle the descent. (Note: That said, if the ladder is unavailable, this could be tricky—there’s no shame in turning around, although it would certainly be disappointing not to make it to Buckskin Gulch.)

Wire Pass slot canyon

Beyond the chockstone, the canyon opens up for a brief moment, and the walls are brilliantly streaked with incremental layers. The sunny enclave soon gives way to claustrophobia again as the slot narrows to arm’s length. By 1.7 miles, Wire Pass opens up to high walls and the confluence with the bigger Buckskin Gulch, the highlight of the hike.

Wire Pass confluence with Buckskin Gulch

On crowded afternoons, the confluence of the drainages is likely to be teeming with people, as it seems to be the turn-around point for many guided hikes and casual day hikers. But the best is yet to come. Even as Buckskin runs both north and south from here, heading right (south) is the better move as it boasts the most impressive views of the fluted and multi-hued canyon walls. (Note: Before entering Buckskin, look off to the right for a large and impressive set of petroglyphs carved into the high wall.)

Start of Buckskin Gulch

Following a towering wall streaked with desert varnish on the left, Buckskin Gulch narrows quickly to a slender slot. Though slightly wider than Wire Pass, this initial stretch of Buckskin is strikingly beautiful as the drainage gradually cuts deeper and deeper into the Navajo sandstone.

Varnished walls of Buckskin Gulch

Smooth, sandy traverses are interrupted occasionally by boulder-choked floors, although there are no serious obstacles to speak of in the subsequent mile. The canyon averages less than 10 feet wide for much of this section, with each turn revealing more spectacular and mysterious passages.

Incredible sculpted walls of Buckskin Gulch
More fluted sandstone
Striking colors

At one point, the undulating walls briefly give way to a sheer vertical face with a blocky alcove. Beyond, the canyon narrows further, making the passage darker and darker. At a point perhaps ¾ mile down Buckskin Gulch, the walls come so close to each other that they nearly touch, trapping a smattering of debris at a point at least 15 feet above hikers in the wash.

Incredible colors of Buckskin Gulch
More narrows
Dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch

At 2.8 miles, the slot suddenly opens up, revealing the full sun again. This is a common turnaround point for day hikers, but curious travelers can continue farther down-canyon. The subsequent stretch features very high walls but a wider and brushier canyon floor.

Buckskin Gulch opens up

After 1/2 mile or so, Buckskin Gulch does what it does best: it narrows again to a fluted slot, as scenic as the last. These narrows are relatively abbreviated, however, with the canyon opening again (at least by Buckskin standards) a little after mile four.

Another open section in Buckskin Gulch

At about 4.5 miles, hikers reach a canyon straightaway interrupted by massive boulders, requiring travelers to scope out a way around the gargantuan blocks. In general, plan to stay to the right—although not too close to the right wall, where the path cliffs out—at one point climbing amid the greenery to find a 5-foot notch that requires careful footing to descend. From here, the boulder obstacles continue but become easier to bypass. After about 2/10 mile, the canyon floor clears, and hikers can get on with admiring the scenery again.

Near the end of the boulder section

The hike’s darkest and arguably most alluring narrows lie just ahead, with the canyon walls carved with deep pockets of undulating dips and juts. (Note: This section may have deep pools under some conditions.) The endless beauty makes it hard to turn around, but hikers will reach the 5-mile mark amidst these narrows.

Dark, third set of narrows

Spend as much time as desired admiring the beautiful slot, then return the way you came. Doing Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass in reverse, there are bound to be views in different light and features you did not notice on the way in, making the return journey just as enjoyable as the entry hike.

Incredible canyon walls

At the confluence, bear left and return via Wire Pass, exiting the slot past the ladder and finishing the slog back through the open sun. Aside from the dreariness of the final mile in the hot sun, this is, all in all, an unforgettable hike that will leave hikers itching for more slot canyon magic.

Final pic of Buckskin Gulch
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Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America* and an iconic destination in California’s Yosemite National Park. The entire height from base to crest can be tackled via the very strenuous Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, one of the most challenging day hikes in the park. Hikers who tackle the relentless switchbacks and 2,700 feet in elevation gain are rewarded with outstanding vistas of Yosemite Valley, as well as views of Yosemite Creek as it flows over the rim of towering granite cliffs, beginning its two-step drop to the valley below. The difficulty of this hike should not be underestimated: aside from the arduous elevation gain, the rocky traverse is often slippery as loose sand and the spray of the falls make sturdy hiking boots a must. (*Note: There is some dispute over this. Some surveys record Colonial Creek Falls in Washington State at 2,568 feet, and there are some minor, seasonal spills in Hawaii and British Columbia that technically are taller than Yosemite Falls.)

Highlights

  • Satisfaction of having climbed the entire height of North America’s tallest waterfall
  • Fantastic views of Upper Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Valley

Lowlights

  • Brutal ascent and even more difficult descent as sandy, slippery rocks produce ample opportunities for twisted ankles
  • Surprisingly crowded for such a strenuous hike
  • Somewhat obscured views of the falls from the top
Map of Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Figuring out where the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail starts can be a challenge on its own. While shuttle stop #6 offers access to Lower Yosemite Falls along Northside Drive, the route to Upper Yosemite Falls actually begins more than a half-mile farther west. The best option is to get off the free park shuttle at stop #7 (Camp 4) or park in the Lodge Day-use parking next to Yosemite Valley Lodge. (Note: Starting at Lower Yosemite Falls is possible but requires a half-mile hike along paved paths to reach the Upper Falls Trailhead.)

The hike begins at Camp 4, the famed climbers’ hangout, where there is a small sign indicating the way (northwest) to Upper Yosemite Falls. Walking across the campground and into the mixed conifer forest leads to a junction with the Valley Loop Trail, where hikers should bear left, then stay right at the subsequent turn less than a minute later. Here a sign indicates that it is 3.4 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls. This is not quite right (it’s about 3.1 miles from this point, according to my track), but it gives hikers a marker: only 3 miles to the top isn’t so bad, right?

Yosemite Falls Trail

Think again. Between here and the top are dozens of rocky switchbacks and relentless steps covering 2,700 miles in elevation gain, or around 900 feet per mile. The climb is no joke, and the switchbacks begin right away. The first section is nicely shaded by conifers and live oaks, with the first relatively unobstructed views not really encountered until 6/10 mile, when hikers can peer down at Yosemite Valley and the Merced River. Across the valley to the south are (from west to east) Cathedral Spires, Glacier Point, and Half Dome, the latter visible only after climbing more switchbacks when the trail finally gains an angle looking east.

View of Yosemite Valley toward Cathedral Spires

At 9/10 mile, after about 1,000 feet in elevation gain, hikers reach Columbia Rock, a small, railed viewpoint that is the turnaround point for a significant proportion of hikers. From here one can see up the valley to Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon, and the Little Yosemite Valley area, with higher granite peaks beyond.

Half Dome from near Columbia Rock

Beyond Columbia Rock, the trail continues to climb up sandy slopes for about 1/10 mile before it mercifully levels off for about a half mile. Bearing northeast along the base of granite walls, the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail even descends briefly in a couple places, reaching the hike’s first views of Upper Yosemite Falls at 1.25 miles. Here the spectacular waterfall (at least in spring and early summer) free-falls 1,430 feet, then tumbles down a set of cascades and culminates with a lower drop of 320 feet. Many hikers, content with what is perhaps the hike’s best view, turn around here, sparing themselves the remaining, brutal ascent.

Upper Yosemite Falls

The aforementioned ascent begins in earnest at around 1.45 miles, winding its way up toward a crack in the northern wall of Yosemite Valley, between the falls and Eagle Tower (7,290’). The switchbacks in this section are particularly slow-going, as the sandy (and often wet) steps demand patience and careful footing. Many hikers will need a rest at every few turns amid the relentless climb. A pair of excellent views of Yosemite Falls offer nice places to stop for a snack, after which the trail rounds a corner into the side drainage, leaving the falls obscured from view.


Now returning to near-full sun, the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail ascends the notch and, finally, around 2.8 miles, begins to briefly level off. Following a small drainage on the right, the hike crosses it at 2.9 miles and the route forks. Heading left leads to Eagle Peak (7,779’) and then Yosemite Creek Trailhead, while the more popular track bears right toward the top of the falls and Yosemite Point (6,410’).

View from near the top of the rock cut

The next stretch can be confusing to follow, but footsteps generally lead east-southeast toward the cliff’s edge, with a second junction reached at around 3 miles. Stay right, descending through a narrow notch between granite outcrops, then come out to a rocky expanse with panoramic views of Yosemite Valley. This is the most popular place for hikers to stop for a snack or lunch break and admire the vistas.

Yosemite Valley from the overlook

The trail is not yet done, however. Follow the signs indicating the way to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, and a narrow path leads over the lip of the granite surface and down stony stairs, equipped with metal railings to assist with the partially exposed descent. The trail ends at a small platform situated on a ledge overlooking the flow of Yosemite Falls.

Peering down Upper Yosemite Falls

It is somewhat difficult and requires an awkward angle to see the lip of the falls, and Lower Yosemite Falls is obscured by the mist and cliffs below. However, this windy spot offers the satisfaction of being able to look down the entire length of North America’s tallest waterfall.

View from descent to final platform

Heading back up the stairs, hikers can explore the surrounding outcrops for views upstream from Yosemite Falls, as well as different vistas of Yosemite Valley. Visitors can see southeast beyond Half Dome toward Mount Starr King (9,092’) and other peaks of the High Sierras.

Southward views from the ledge at the end of the trail
Cascades on Yosemite Creek above the big drop

Once ready, return the way you came, back to the junctions and creek crossing, then brace yourself for a slow and not-so-fun descent. Heading downhill is arguably more difficult than the ascent, with lots of opportunities for slipping on the slick rocks. Take your time, stopping for breaks, as you descend the three miles and 2,700 feet back to the start of the hike.

View from top of Yosemite Falls

This is an all-day affair: most hikers will be too tired to do another big hike on the same day as Upper Yosemite Falls.

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Lower Yosemite Fall Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

At 2,425 feet, Yosemite Falls is widely heralded as the tallest waterfall in North America* and an iconic destination in California’s Yosemite National Park. During its high-water season in spring, the roar of the two-tiered falls can be heard across Yosemite Valley, while hikers in close vicinity can feel the spray of the mist. The 1-mile Lower Yosemite Fall Trail is a paved, wheelchair-accessible track that leads to the base of the falls and crosses several streams before looping back to the start. (*Note: There is some dispute over this. Some surveys record Colonial Creek Falls in Washington State at 2,568 feet, and there are some minor, seasonal spills in Hawaii and British Columbia that technically are taller than Yosemite Falls.)

Highlights

  • Views of North America’s tallest waterfall
  • Pleasant shade in mixed conifer forest
  • Short, easy, and wheelchair-accessible hike

Lowlights

  • One of the most crowded destinations in Yosemite
  • Very limited parking
  • Limited views of the more impressive Upper Yosemite Falls
Map of Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, Yosemite National Park

The hike

The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail begins and ends at the Lower Yosemite Fall shuttle stop (stop #6) in Yosemite Valley. Early arrivers can park right along the curb near the stop, while all others will be relegated to taking the free shuttle—or walking from elsewhere—to the trailhead.

From the bus stop, facing north, take the paved walkway heading straight, into the woods and away from Northside Drive. After about 75 yards, bear left and take the bridge over Yosemite Creek, where a clearing in the dense conifers offers the hike’s first views of Upper Yosemite Falls, the tallest and most impressive of the two tiers.

Upper Yosemite Falls from bridge over Yosemite Creek

Continuing to the creek’s west banks, the path crosses over a second, smaller bridge and then forks, with public restrooms just ahead. Bear right, then right again a minute later, following the wide track northward, with both tiers of the waterfall now in sight. The straightaway briefly splits in two, but the two paths soon reconnect as parades of visitors make their way toward the iconic falls.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

At about 4/10 mile, the incline steepens to about a 14% grade, which is technically not wheelchair-accessible but probably still doable for most wheelchairs with assistance. The path rises to another bridge leading over Yosemite Creek, offering a closer view of 320-foot Lower Yosemite Falls (the Upper Falls are temporarily obscured from view). This is a popular area and often extremely crowded, unless one arrives very early or late in the day. After crossing the bridge, the now-narrower trail continues eastward, winding around conifers and large boulders. After passing a huge granite chunk on the left, the trail splits, with the Valley Loop Trail continuing left, while the route back to the start heads right.

Lower Yosemite Falls

From here the path traverses a number of pleasant boardwalks, skirting the alluvial deposits of Yosemite Creek. At 8/10 mile, bear left, crossing another bridge over a stream, then bear left again, emerging back out into the open at a point just west of the shuttle stop. To complete the loop, bear right and return to the start, completing the one-mile walk.

Massive boulder along Lower Yosemite Fall Trail
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Carlon Falls Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Carlon Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

Starting just outside Yosemite National Park, the Carlon Falls Trail is off the usual tourist track but features a lovely, 30-foot waterfall along the South Fork of the Tuolumne River. Mostly level as it hugs the north banks of the river, the trail climbs abruptly near the end, culminating at the multi-tiered falls, punctuated by small pools that could serve as summer swimming holes. Unlike many other waterfalls in Yosemite, Carlon rushes year-round, making this is a nice destination in the fall when streams elsewhere in the park have dried to a trickle. The very pretty, 3-mile hike is worth a stop for those en route to and from Yosemite Valley along the Big Oak Flat Road.

Map of Carlon Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Reaching the trailhead in California’s Stanislaus National Forest requires turning off Big Oak Flat Road onto the north-bound Evergreen Road (a.k.a. Route 12), just over a mile north of the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station in Yosemite National Park. Evergreen Road snakes roughly eastward for a mile, then crosses a bridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, where there are three separate parking areas, which can be somewhat confusing. Eschewing the turnoffs for the Upper and Lower Carlon Day Use Areas along the south bank, proceed across the bridge and park in the small lot on the right – it is marked “Carlon Falls.” (Note: If full, park in one of the day use areas.)

From here, a narrow trail plunges immediately into the thick conifer forest. With the river on the right, the Carlon Falls Trail (a.k.a. South Fork Tuolumne River Trail on some maps) enters Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Wilderness after 1/10 mile. As the trail roughly parallels the South Fork on the right, the river proceeds through sections of relative stillness and steady flow. The undergrowth is dotted in places with green horsetail reeds, a bamboo look-alike found in riparian zones across North America.

South Fork of the Tuolumne River

After stepping over a short, shin-high wall (remnants of an old structure?) at 2/10 mile, the trail turns abruptly rockier and more rugged for a brief stretch before settling back into a pleasant track blanketed with pine needles. As the trail follows the floodplain, occasional deep pools can be seen along the river.

After more than a mile of pleasant walking across relatively level terrain, the trail cuts left and ascends to clear a high point at a bend in the river. As the river narrows and the still waters turn to rapids and cascades, the trail becomes suddenly steep, climbing a very rocky slope to clear some high bluffs. Then the narrow path lurches downward to clear a ravine, followed by an unmarked fork. While the most obvious path continues right to the banks of the stream, the onward route to the falls actually bears left, ascending sharply up another rock outcrop. This section requires a short scramble that may require the use of hands to propel oneself. (Note: It is far from the technical, however.)

Cascades below the main falls

About 1/10 mile later, hikers embark on a “choose your own adventure,” as paths head off in two directions again. Heading right leads down to the river, where onward progress requires some scrambling over boulders and cutting through scrub. Staying left is easier but climbs again. Head left to mount a spot where one can begin to make out Carlon Falls.

By now it is obvious that the cascades drop in several installments, but the primary waterfall is a 30-foot drop straight ahead. Descend where possible and weave amid the boulders and granite slickrock to a spot where hikers can access the pool just below the falls. The rushing waters fan out across a span that can be as much as 50 to 60 feet wide.

Carlon Falls

After enjoying the falls, return the way you came. The moderately-difficult hike should take between 1-3 hours to complete, depending on pace and how much time one spends at the falls.

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Merced Grove Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Merced Grove, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

While Mariposa Grove is the most spectacular of the bunch, Yosemite National Park also sports two other small groves of giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees. Tuolumne Grove near Crane Flat receives a steady stream of visitors, but the lesser-visited Merced Grove is arguably more impressive. To reach this stand of towering giants, hikers descend about 500 feet in elevation from Big Oak Flat Road to the Moss Creek drainage, ending at an old cabin at 1.6 miles set amid the epic trees.

Map of Merced Grove Trail, Yosemite National Park

The hike

Commensurate with its relative popularity, the Merced Grove Trailhead has a very small parking lot situated off Big Oak Flat Road, between Hodgdon Meadow and Crane Flat in the western reaches of Yosemite National Park. There are restrooms and bear lockers at the trailhead. From the parking area, follow the wide track as it treads south and then west, skirting a burned area on the left, charred by one of the area’s many recent wildfires. After 6/10 mile of mostly level walking, hikers reach a signed junction, with a smaller track bearing left.

Junction; left to Merced Grove

Take this turn and follow the onward trail as it begins a steady descent, skirting a dry ravine on the left. At about one mile, the initial gully leads to a larger drainage, where hikers can hear, and then see, Moss Creek. Still, the first giant sequoias do not come into view until about 1.4 miles, when the trail makes a left-hand bend to drop to near creek level.

Opening stand at Merced Grove

An initial grove of modestly large sequoias is nonetheless very impressive due to the high concentration of these dazzling, orange-hued trees. Just beyond, as the trail continues southward, hikers pass between two of the silent sentinels—look but don’t touch!—and skirts a third on the left.

Giant sequoias
Giant sequoias next to the patrol cabin

Finally, at 1.6 miles, the trail passes two more behemoths on the left, with an old park ranger patrol cabin off to the right. Although a few other sequoias are visible further south, this is the turnaround point for the moderately-difficult hike. (Note: The onward trail continues south to the park boundary.) Return the way you came, completing a 3.2-mile journey that should take 1.5-3 hours depending on pace.

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Tuolumne Grove Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

Giant sequoias, close cousins of coast redwoods, are the largest trees (by total volume) on earth and grow naturally only in 75 groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California. Three such groves can be found in Yosemite National Park: Mariposa, Merced, and Tuolumne. Situated partway down a north-facing slope above the North Crane Creek drainage, Tuolumne Grove comprises around two dozen mature sequoias and is a popular destination in the western reaches of Yosemite. The route to the grove traces a portion of the Old Big Oak Flat Road, an early tourist track that predates the park, before culminating at a double-loop around the small but pleasant stand of towering trees.

Map of Tuolumne Grove Trail

The hike

Parking at the Tuolumne Grove Trailhead—situated just north of the Crane Flat Junction along Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Road—can be a bit of a frenzy as popular demand for sequoias often outstrips the supply of available parking spots. Arrive early or late in the day to avoid the rush, checking out the array of informational waysides at the trail’s start before you begin. Here there is also an old sequoia stump that gives you the sense of the trees’ massive scale: mature sequoiadendron giganteum, some more than 3,000 years old, can grow up to 35 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet in circumference.

Sequoia stump at the trailhead

Real living sequoias are not yet visible as the wide, asphalted Tuolumne Grove Road (or Old Big Oak Flat Road) begins to snake its way down the forested slope. Instead, the landscape is dominated by sugar pines and white firs. The steady downhill is a pleasant and easy walk (but remember, you’ll be returning this way, recovering the 500-foot elevation loss on the way back). At 7/10 mile, the old road rounds a sharp left-hand bend, where an information wayside offers more historical detail on the 19th century Old Big Oak Flat Road.

Entering Tuolumne Grove

At 9/10 mile, hikers are formally welcomed to Tuolumne Grove with a large-scale map and an entry sign. But it is another 150 yards or so until hikers get their first glimpse of an orange-hued sequoia down in the gully to the left. A minute later, the trail drops to the base of the giant sequoia, likely the largest in the area, known as “Big Red.” Here there is also a junction, with the end of the Grove Loop popping out from the right. Stay straight on the main road.

Big Red at Tuolumne Grove

Beyond Big Red, the road drops steadily and then reaches a small picnic area (three tables) surrounded by wooden fences. This is the formal start of the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail, which actually comprises a brief circuit plus a short spur that connects back with the main road at Big Red. Follow the signs indicating to bear right from the road, then left at the base of a smaller sequoia, treading clockwise around the loop.

From here the trail enters the grove, skirting a pair of small sequoias and then crossing North Crane Creek, which is here relatively low volume. After traversing the stream, the trail rises steadily to a highland and bears right at the base of a huge fallen tree trunk. Levelling off, the trail bears east and south, following a second fallen tree, and then passes between three moderately large sequoias.

Sequoias at Tuolumne Grove

Just beyond, the trail drops to a massive fallen sequoia, revealing its wily root system and a hollow core. Curiously, for such large trees, sequoias have rather shallow roots, making them vulnerable to collapse amid heavy snow or wind.

Roots of a fallen sequoia

Follow the length of the tree as the trail courses onward and then drops back to another wooden bridge and the picnic area. Instead of getting back on the road, bear left on the Grove Loop continuation, a narrow path rising up the remains of an old paved track to the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree, a former drive-through tree that is now a carved-out stump. From here the trail rises to another pair of close-up sequoias but then drops back to the Old Big Oak Flat Road.

Dead Giant Tunnel Tree (aka the “Drive-Thru” Tree)

Bear left on the road and follow it uphill for 1.1 miles back to the start. What was an easy descent on the way down is now a difficult and steady climb of 500 feet back to the start. Allot 2-3 hours for the round-trip hike, a decent option for those heading in or out of nearby Yosemite Valley.

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Foresta Falls (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Foresta Falls, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

It is a testament to the spectacular bounty of waterfalls in California’s Yosemite National Park that terrific Foresta Falls is routinely neglected by visitors in favor of even taller and higher-volume waterfalls nearby. In perhaps any other park, the 60-foot Foresta Falls would be a centerpiece, yet the hike to this voluminous plunge lacks even a trail sign or description on the list of walks on Yosemite’s website. Starting from the small village of Foresta, one of three enclaves of private property in Yosemite, the short and easy walk to the base of Foresta Falls offers distant views of Merced Canyon and the foothills west of the park and ends at a bridge below the splendid waterfall.

Map of Foresta Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Foresta is effectively a small collection of cabins and vacation rentals in the western reaches of California’s Yosemite National Park, a short drive from the ever-popular Yosemite Valley. The small town was established in the late 19th century by squatters, who used the Big Meadow area for ranching and agriculture. Plans to establish a large summer resort at Foresta in the early 1900s failed, and the town remains a largely sleepy place with a few vacation rentals but no other commercial properties.

There is a turnoff for Foresta located about 6 miles southeast of the Crane Flat junction along Big Oak Flat Road, or 3.4 miles up Big Oak Flat Road from El Portal Road in Yosemite Valley. Follow the Foresta Road for about 2.5 miles, where the pavement ends. (Note: Set your GPS for “Lyell Way” to get closest to the trailhead.) Here, as the road turns to dirt, it ends abruptly at a sign reading “Road Closed Ahead Bridge Out.” There is a pull-off on the right, with space for perhaps 2-3 cars—likely not to be problem at this rarely-visited place. (Note: If the spots are full, simply park farther back along Foresta Road and walk to this point.)

Beyond the parking area, begin walking along the wide, dirt track, cutting through a burned area with many dead pines. The road roughly parallels the bustling drainage of Crane Creek, which one can hear—and then eventually see—off to the left.

Foresta Road leading toward the falls

After about ¼ mile of relatively level walking, hikers get their first open views of the meadows and Merced Canyon beyond, as well as a lovely set of cascades on the left. Here Crane Creek tumbles in quick succession through a group of pools and minor slides, a preview for the main waterfall to come.

Cascades along Crane Creek

Just beyond the cascades, hikers encounter a sign on the right denoting that hikers are entering the “McCauley Ranch Addition.” This property was previously owned by James McCauley, an Irish refugee who became an early pioneer of tourism in Yosemite, possibly the first person responsible for generating the famous Yosemite “firefall” at nearby Glacier Point. Beyond the sign, one gets a more open view of the scrubby plateau below, and an early but partly obscured peek at the main waterfall off to the left.

Meadows and Merced Canyon from Foresta Road

To reach the base of the falls, hikers will need to follow the road as it cuts northwest, descending gradually to a left-hand switchback at ½ mile. After this bend, the road continues southeast, down a straightaway, returning to Crane Creek. The trail is marred in part by the desolation of the forest burns, as well as telephone wires and a fence dating to the McCauley period. Finally, at about 0.85 miles, the road drops to a concrete bridge over the creek, with mighty Foresta Falls on the left.

Approaching Foresta Falls

The waterfall may not be Yosemite’s tallest or most spectacular, but the relative solitude and up-close view of Foresta Falls makes this one of the park’s most underrated destinations. When ready, hikers can continue farther down the road if they’d like (it eventually connects with Highway 140 in Merced Canyon) or return the way they came to complete a roughly 1.7-mile out-and-back hike.

Foresta Falls
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Mount Diablo via Macedo Ranch (Mount Diablo State Park, CA)

Mother’s Trail, Mount Diablo State Park, March 2021

Rising more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor, Mount Diablo (3,849’) is perhaps the most iconic peak in the East Bay, a behemoth for which the broader Diablo Range—which extends around 200 miles south into central California—is named. Most visitors reach the peak by way of the winding Summit Road, but the adventure-minded can instead conquer the summit by hiking from the base. The most popular base-to-summit route starts from Mitchell Canyon Staging Area to the north, gaining and losing 3,250 feet (net) on a 13-mile trek. A less-travelled alternative, however, leaves from the Macedo Ranch Staging Area, covering a nearly identical length with slightly less gain (3,200 feet). This option allows hikers to explore the mountain’s grassy south-facing slopes, complete with panoramic vistas of Concord Valley, San Francisco Bay, the Berkeley Hills, and beyond. This is a challenging hike that, like most long hikes in Mount Diablo State Park, should be avoided in the brutal summer months; in fact, the hike is most beautiful in spring, when the rolling hillsides are verdant and teeming with wildflowers.

Map of Mount Diablo summit hike via Macedo Ranch, Mount Diablo State Park (Check out the interactive map and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Macedo Ranch Staging Area in Alamo, California offers entrée into Mount Diablo State Park and is situated at the end of neatly-manicured Green Valley Road. The parking lot is graveled and spacious, with a $6 day use fee enforced. Pay the entry rate and lace up your boots before starting out on the long and difficult trek, 13.25 miles to and from the summit via a wide-ranging loop.

Macedo Ranch to Summit Trail via Wall Point Road (3.6 miles)

Setting off on the wide, dirt track heading east, follow the hiker/biker Wall Point Road as it snakes between gently rolling knolls, brilliantly green in winter and early spring. Gradually rounding a left-hand bend, the path ascends to a junction at 1/3 mile. Bear right, crossing to the other side of a minor ravine. Here Wall Point Road continues to ascend, rounding a sharp right-hand turn before cresting a saddle at 6/10 mile. The subsequent descent to clear an unnamed drainage is pleasant and offers the hike’s first views of Mount Diablo, still a distant summit at this point.

Gentle slopes near Macedo Ranch

Eventually entering a forest of wild oaks, the route forks again at 8/10 mile. Stay right on Wall Point Road, beginning the long loop portion of the hike. For the next two miles, hikers will be roughly following the length of Pine Ridge, a rocky and rugged striation that dominates the landscape between the southern trunk of Mount Diablo to the east and Diablo Foothills area to the west. Rising from the initial junction, the wide path reaches a crest and another fork at 1.2 miles. Stay left, traversing the scrubby, south-facing flank of Pine Ridge. As hikers gain another 500 feet in elevation en route to Wall Point (1,600’), they are rewarded with excellent views across the broad valley toward Las Trampas Ridge and the Dublin Hills.

Stony gulch along Pine Ridge

Following the windswept ridge for over a mile, the route briefly descends to a junction with the curiously-named Secret Trail; stay right, resuming the climb toward the southern spine of Mount Diablo. At 3.2 miles, look for a (signed) singletrack on the left; this is the Ridge View Trail, a steep cutoff route that connects Wall Point Road with the northbound Summit Trail. This rutted path climbs, sans switchbacks, an exposed slope, making this probably the steepest uphill of the entire loop.

Ascending steep Ridge View Trail

After gaining around 300 feet, the path briefly levels off at a nice rock outcrop with expansive vistas, a nice place to stop for a snack break. Beyond the outcrop, the trail descends to a junction with the Summit Trail, where hikers should bear left and cross South Gate Road. By now hikers have gained around 1,300 feet but are more than halfway, distance-wise, to the summit.

Descent to South Gate Road and Summit Trail

Summit Trail to Mount Diablo Summit (2.8 miles)

With more than 1,800 feet in elevation gain remaining, the Summit Trail proceeds northward, briefly paralleling South Gate Road. Climbing amid brushy chapparal and oak/bay woodlands, the Summit Trail passes the Sunset Picnic Area (where there is a restroom) on the left and crosses Summit Road. Follow the onward path, beginning as a paved track but quickly returning to gravel and dirt. Just past an intersection with the Junction Trail (stay right), hikers will pass the historic Mountain Home Site on the left. This was the site of a former, 19th century hotel that was situated along a tourist toll road constructed by Joseph Seavey Hall in the 1870s.

Summit Trail

Soon the onward trail passes back into the sun, and a sign on the left indicates the presence of chert, a reddish rock layer commonly found on Mount Diablo. Steps further is a similar sign for greywacke, a sandstone variety. Stay right at the junction at 4.75 miles, then cross Summit Road again, after which the landscape turns to largely short shrubs (taller trees struggle on this windswept slope).

Stay on the Summit Trail, now a singletrack, as it quickly parts with the wider Green Ranch Road and continues its relentless climb. At the Old Pioneer Horse Camp—which sports a water tank, picnic tables, and restrooms—continue left on the Summit Trail. The subsequent climb is steep but offers the best views yet as the patchy Black Hills come into focus to the south and east.

View of Black Hills from the Summit Trail

Stay right on the trail as it briefly intersects with the Summit Road again, then climb to Devil’s Elbow, a hairpin turn on the road situated at 3,480 feet. Here the Summit Trail joins with the North Peak Trail, which comes in from the right. With the summit observatory now in sight, the trail makes its final push up to the peak. First the route cuts west in the direction of a set of antenna towers, then meets the Summit Road again at 6.2 miles. Briefly follow the road east; as it splits into a one-way loop, look for the continuation of the Summit Trail. The rocky path cuts through a dense canopy of oaks, then passes a communications tower and ends, finally, at the parking area for the Mount Diablo Summit and Observatory.

Black Hills from the summit

Even as you fight through the crowds of people who, psshh, drove to the top, it is worth climbing the steps of the observatory to a viewing platform with panoramic vistas. On a clear day, hikers can see across much of California, including the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada to the east. To the south are the Black Hills, as well as the rest of the Diablo Range. A northward look is partly blocked by North Peak (3,557’), but hikers can see the Sacramento River Delta, as well as the Mitchell Canyon portion of the park—where a more heavily-trafficked base-to-summit route begins. To the west, of course, one can make out the San Francisco Bay, Mount Tamalpais, and Santa Cruz Mountains, with the Pacific Ocean beyond.

North Peak from Mount Diablo summit

Mount Diablo Summit to North Gate Road via Burma Road (4.4 miles)

Of course, given this a loop back to Macedo Ranch, the hike is only halfway done. Fortunately, the downhill route traces a different section of the park and is strikingly beautiful and relatively rarely travelled. Begin by making your way back across the summit parking area, down the Summit Trail, and across the length of the crowded Lower Summit Picnic Area. Continue to the end of the parking lot and look for a sign indicating the start of the Juniper Trail.

Once on the trail, the crowds disappear again, and the path plunges down a scrubby slope. Cross Summit Road again, then continue eastward as the Juniper Trail descends the upper reaches of Moses Rock Ridge. At around mile 8, stay left at the junction with the Moses Rock Ridge Trail, then descend sharply to Summit Road and the entrance to Juniper Campground. Bear right on the spur road leading into the campground, passing campsites on left and right.

Continue on Deer Flat Road as it passes a campground bathroom on the left and then returns to dirt, passing through a gate. Stay straight at the junction with the Juniper Trail continuation, following the wide grade as it skirts the west-facing hillside. As the various pines gradually dissipate, hikers are rewarded with excellent southward views.

At a saddle at around 8.4 miles, stay left on Burma Road, which snakes the north flank of Moses Rock Ridge before returning to the south. After peering north down Mitchell Canyon, the route begins a sharp and winding descent down the west face of the Mount Diablo complex. In the next two miles, hikers will shed nearly 1,800 feet in elevation.

Mitchell Canyon and Eagle Peak

Burma Road drops steadily for a half-mile before reaching a junction with the Mother’s Trail at around 9.4 miles. Bear left on this single-track, one of the steepest trails in the park. Just past its start, the trail passes a coy pond (a curious sight!) on the right and then proceeds with its relentless descent. The route is very steep until around 9.75 miles, when it briefly levels off; minutes later, the Mother’s Trail ends at a junction with Angel Kerley Road. Bear right and continue descending, merging again with Burma Road at 10.25 miles (stay left).

Descending Mother’s Trail

The subsequent section involves some of the most absurd downhills in the East Bay—devoid of any switchbacks, the dusty road drops at a near 45-degree angle down the hillside, requiring hikers to very slowly maneuver to avoid slips on the loose gravel. After two monster hills, the trail enters the Camel Rock area and crosses North Gate Road, nearly 11 miles into the hike.

Continuing the descent from Mount Diablo

North Gate Road to Macedo Ranch (2.4 miles)

By now, weary legs will be ready to be done, but it’s still another 2.4 miles back to Macedo Ranch. It perhaps does not help that Pine Canyon stands in the way, requiring hikers to descend Burma Road for more than a half-mile to the valley floor. At the junction with Stage Road, bear left, passing a (usually dry) pond on the right. Follow this wide and easy track for 4/10 mile, then bear right on Dusty Road, which climbs steadily through a shady oak woodland.

Descending Burma Road into Pine Canyon

At last, after nearly 12 miles of hiking, the road returns to the intersection where the loop portion began (left leads up Wall Point Road and Pine Ridge). Bear right at the fork, following the wide path down and then up over the opening saddle. From here the path drops to the initial junction, where hikers should bear left and follow the route back to the Macedo Ranch Staging Area.

Pine Canyon

All told, this strenuous hike clocks in at around 13.25 miles. For most hikers, it will take most of a day to complete.

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Fern Creek – Dipsea – Sun Trail Loop (Muir Woods National Monument, CA)

Fern Creek Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, April 2021

Sure the towering California redwoods are lovely, but Muir Woods National Monument on the Marin Peninsula has become almost comically crowded, mobbed by throngs of locals and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area alike. Visitors must now have advance reservations to park at the main entrance and wait in an often-lengthy line to pay the entrance fee at the small Visitor Center. Yet there are ways to experience Muir Woods while minimizing the hassles: the scenic loop hike described here starts along Panoramic Highway, dropping into the Redwood Creek drainage by way of the much less-crowded Fern Creek Trail. After a short spurt through the crowded gut of the park, the route then climbs the Dipsea Trail to the beautiful Sun Trail, which—as the name suggests—sports marvelous views of the surrounding hills. No reservations required—just lovely scenery in the world’s most famous redwood preserve.

Map of Fern Creek – Dipsea – Sun Trail Loop, Muir Woods National Monument (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

This 4.7-mile circuit begins and ends near the Mountain Home Inn along Panoramic Highway, situated about 1.5 miles north of the turnoff to Muir Woods National Monument. There are several parking areas around here, all on the left side. The preferred spot is actually across the street from the California Alpine Club (see map), a short distance southeast of the inn. A couple graveled shoulders allow for free parking just south of the club. (Note: If hiking on a weekend, arrive early, as most spots are taken by 9 or 10am.) Down to the west is the Redwood Creek drainage, which runs through Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais State Park.

Across from the Alpine Club, there is a clear dirt path connecting quickly with the Panoramic Trail. Bear left and follow this track for 300 feet or so to a subsequent junction, where hikers should bear right on the winding Canopy View Trail. After a series of steps and switchbacks, the route eventually settles into a southward descent, plunging into the shady forest where hikers will spend the next few miles. Amid the dense thicket of bay and oaks, small redwoods begin to dot the landscape, along with ubiquitous sword ferns, a staple of the Bay Area. At 0.35 miles, the trail forks again; head right on the Lost Trail, a steep route with a seemingly endless set of wooden stairs.

Shedding nearly 500 feet in less than a half-mile, the Lost Trail finally reaches the Fern Creek drainage at 8/10 mile, where hikers are greeted with another junction. With a long bridge off to your right, head left and follow the Fern Creek Trail for 4/10 mile, crossing the stream (on sturdy footbridges) twice. Here the redwoods grow larger and more impressive, hugging the banks of the flowing stream.

Fern Creek crossing

The Fern Creek section is the last bit of relative solace before catching up with the masses, who are mostly entering from the Muir Woods entrance. After crossing into the national monument at 1.1 miles, bear left at the junction with a paved path—the Redwood Creek Trail—which leads all the way to the parking area at the entry to the park.

Redwood sorrel dots the understory in Muir Woods

Following its namesake waterway, the Redwood Creek Trail encounters many of the largest trees in the park, some of which are found in the lovely Cathedral Grove. Lovely redwood sorrel blankets the understory (as well as ferns, of course). Hikers have the option of bearing right at Bridge 3 and following the west bank of Redwood Creek (this tends to be less crowded), but the quickest route is to continue straight, passing through Founder’s Grove en route to the café, gift shop, and Visitor Center on the left.

Gently stroll through the redwoods

From the Visitor Center, onward hikers should exit and cut across the accessible parking lot to a bend in Muir Woods Road, where one should stay right. Follow the path paralleling the road, then—at the sight of the main parking lot on the right, bear left, crossing the road toward the “administrative area,” which sports several ranger vehicles and warehouses. Here the marked Dipsea Trail bears off to the right, quickly leaving the road and following a partly graveled path back up a south-facing slope.

The trail gets gradually steeper as it ascends several staircases and briefly opens up at a very small parking area along Muir Woods Road at about 2.4 mile. Stay straight—cutting through the lot—resisting the temptation to head right on the wide but unmarked gravel road. Quickly the Dipsea Trail returns to single-track, following a mostly shady hillside in constant earshot of the road. At one point, the trail passes below a high reinforcing wall, followed by a short wooden boardwalk. From here it is another steady climb to a crossing of Muir Woods Road.

Poppies along the Sun Trail

The onward Dipsea Trail, just before ending at Panoramic Highway, reaches a trail junction at around 3.1 miles. Take a hard left on the Sun Trail, one of the highlights of the hike. This stunning single-track immediately rises to heights with open views of the Redwood Creek drainage, with the various ridges of Mount Tamalpais State Park beyond. In spring, the hills are dotted with poppies, lupine, and other brilliant wildflowers.

Sunny views from the Sun Trail
Spring wildflower bloom with Redwood Creek drainage beyond

After this exceptionally scenic section, the Sun Trail ends at the confluence with a graveled road, where hikers should briefly bear left. The onward road leads down to the Nature Friends Tourist Club, while the path—now a single-track again—continues right as the Redwood Trail. Passing behind the Tourist Club to the left, the shaded path meanders for a quarter-mile or so before continuing a surprisingly steep climb, eventually emerging back above the trees.

View from Panoramic Trail near the start

After intersecting with the Panoramic Trail at about 4.5 miles, bear left and continue back toward the initial pair of junctions: bear right at each, ascending back to Panoramic Highway, where the hike ends.

Allot 3-4 hours for this pleasant and moderately-difficult walk, beginning and ending near Mountain Home Inn.

Extra credit

There are several other nice redwood hikes in the area, including the nearby Dipsea-Steep Ravine Trail Loop (4.2 miles), Ben Johnson-Bootjack Trail Loop (6 miles), and Steep Ravine-Matt Davis Trail Loop (6.6 miles).

Posted in California, Marin, Moderate Hikes, Mount Tamalpais State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Rancheria Falls, Yosemite National Park, March 2021

In early spring, even as much of the Sierra Nevada remains blanketed in snow, the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite National Park is often snow-free, making it an attractive spot for early-season hiking and backpacking. One of the more popular routes is the 5-mile out-and-back to Wapama Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in California. Adventurous hikers can follow Hetch Hetchy Reservoir farther east to multi-tiered Rancheria Falls—a worthy destination for a long day hike or overnight backpack. The sun-soaked trail to Wapama and Rancheria Falls is mostly mild, with relatively limited elevation gain, but should probably be avoided in full summer, when temperatures at Hetch Hetchy regularly top 90 or 100 degrees. (Note: Hetch Hetchy is open daily from 8-5; backpackers must obtain a wilderness permit and park in the backpackers’ lot.)

Map of Hetch Hetchy to Rancheria Falls, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Hetch Hetchy Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park is of course most famous for a controversy in the early 20th century: after a fierce debate between preservationists (led by John Muir) and residents of San Francisco, Congress pass a law in 1913 that allowed for the damming of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. The result was the 430-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam and the 1,200-acre Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which continues to provide drinking water for the city of San Francisco today. Even as the river was dammed, the controversy over Hetch Hetchy helped propel support for the modern environmental movement.

Reaching Hetch Hetchy today requires a winding but entirely paved drive along the Hetch Hetchy Road, entering Yosemite National Park just north of the town of Mather, California. Backpackers should check in and acquire their permits at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance. (Note: While walk-up backpacking permits are free and easy to acquire during the winter season, advance reservations are recommended for trips from May-September. No permit is required for day hiking.) From the entrance, the road gradually descends into the Poopenaut Valley, ending in a one-mile loop that forms a circuit around the main entry area for Hetch Hetchy. Overnight backpackers should park in the lot at the start, while day hikers should continue clockwise around the one-way loop to the parking area overlooking O’Shaughnessy Dam. This is perhaps inconveniently named the Beehive Meadows/Rancheria Falls/Miguel Meadows Trailhead.

From the parking area, make your way across the concrete rim of O’Shaughnessy Dam to begin the hike to Wapama and Rancheria Falls. Off to your left, a look over the curvature of the dam offers an excellent view downstream, where the Tuolumne River continues its winding path down toward the Central Valley (where it is dammed again and eventually flows into the San Joaquin River).

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from O’Shaughnessy Dam

Off to the right, however, is the real show: a deep blue reservoir bounded on either side by towering granite cliffs. The prominent summit on the right is Kolana Rock (5,772’), situated across the reservoir from Hetch Hetchy Dome (6,197’). At least through spring and early summer, one can also spot Wapama Falls, cutting through a cleft to the west of Hetch Hetchy Dome. Next to Wapama is the much thinner Tueeulala Falls, which is only seasonal. It’s hard to argue, even with the controversy over the manmade reservoir, that this valley isn’t beautiful—and the vistas only improve as the trail continues north and west toward the waterfalls.

After crossing the dam, the wide route enters a dark and muddy tunnel; it is not long enough to require a headlamp, but watch your footing as the tunnel often sports small pools of water. Once out the other side, the graveled path passes an informational sign on the left with a map of the area. Most hikers will be heading to Wapama Falls, with anything beyond considerably less-trafficked. After first hugging the banks of the reservoir (supported by clusters of boulders below), the trail begins to climb mildly, in and out of scrubby pines and other vegetation.

The author at Hetch Hetchy

The first notable uphill at ¾ miles has some stone steps and leads to a wooden bridge, with a seasonally-flowing cascade on the left. The small falls are close enough to the trail to dip your head (refreshing on a hot day). Soon another, the trail to Wapama Falls reaches a fork, with the strenuous route to Beehive and Miguel Meadows leading left. Stay right as the route skirts several flat, open slabs of granite—quite popular with amateur photographers hoping to trend on Instagram. It is undoubtedly beautiful, of course, with hikers now able to see farther up the reservoir toward the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

After weaving in and out of several brushy areas, the now-narrow and rocky trail traverses a second seasonal stream at about 1.5 miles, with a multi-tiered waterfall above to the left (Note: The waterfall here is often confused from Tueeulala Falls—even on topo maps—but the real Tueeulala Falls is farther on. Some have called this “Hetch Hetchy Falls.”) The crossing is made easier by a few well-placed stone blocks. The trail thereafter, however, temporarily disappears, with few to no markers of onward travel. Keep heading roughly straight (along the flat granite), however, and eventually the well-manicured path will reemerge.

Looking east into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

After nearly two miles in mostly open sun, a shady stretch at 1.8 miles is a welcome sight. From here the trail drops a level down via a set of switchbacks. At about this time, Tueeulala Falls is visible up on the cliff to the left, although mysteriously it is unclear where the flowing water comes out (seeps into the rock? subterranean channels?).

Of course, these minor waterfalls are merely teasers for the main event—Wapama Falls—the roar of which becomes more and more audible as the trail approaches. After a rather steep and rocky descent at 2.3 miles, the trail reaches the first of a set of bridges at the base of Wapama Falls, where Falls Creek fans out into a minor delta. At the height of its flow (typically in May or early June), the volume of water at Wapama Falls is sometimes so high that onward passage is impossible. (Note: Don’t do it—several people have died trying.) Most of the year, however, the bridges are open, offering an up-close view of the various chutes at the base of the towering falls.

More than 1,000 feet, Wapama Falls is one of the top ten tallest waterfalls in California, and its high volume makes considerably more impressive than some nearby chutes that are taller but weaker. The main drop comprises a set of two powerful inundations cutting through a cleft high up along the granite cliffs, after which the water fans out in several directions. A set of five different bridges is required to traverse all the various branches; each offers an opportunity to get near to the falls’ cool spray. Down below, the falls end by pouring into the deep blue reservoir.

Wapama Falls and one of its offshoots

Being the primary hiking destination in the area, Wapama Falls is likely to be crowded, especially in summer or on nice weekends. But the crowds thin out considerably as the trail continues past the waterfall, narrowing and traversing a rock field before tracking in and out of more welcome shade. During the subsequent stretch, the entry route and dam gradually fade from view, and the path rounds a corner with better views up the Tuolumne drainage to the southeast.

Hetch Hetchy with snowy Smith Peak beyond

At 2.9 miles, the path ascends a set of switchbacks and then spends the next quarter-mile or so traverses a beautiful grassy shelf with excellent views of the reservoir and Kolana Rock. Ahead, one can begin to make out the drainages of Tiltill Creek and Rancheria Creek.

Beautiful grassy shelf along the trail
Peering out at Hetch Hetchy and Kolana Rock

Another uphill at 3.75 miles leads up another level, but the trail soon reverses course by dropping down a set of switchbacks at about 4.1 miles, followed by two more about 350 yards later. At 4.5 miles, the path crosses another seasonal stream with some minor falls.

Approaching the Tiltill and Rancheria drainages

Switchbacks mark the start of a steady descent to Tiltill Creek at 4.9 miles. At 5.1 miles, the trail traverses a set of bridges over the relatively high-volume stream. The creek sports its own rather impressive waterfall, though it is hard to see without a potentially sketchy scramble through the brush to the cliff’s edge.

Tiltill Creek Falls

From Tiltill Creek, the trail to Rancheria Falls climbs steadily, emerging out of the shady woods and back to a manzanita-lined knob between the two drainages. Just after cresting the ridge, a short spur on the right leads to the first views of Rancheria Falls—or at least a small part of it. Many call it quits at this spot, where the rushing water of Rancheria Creek spills rather gently over an apron of granite. Camping is also relatively popular in this area as well.

Lower Rancheria Falls from the trail

However, there is much more of the falls to see if one continues onward, following the trail as it bears east and then north. After passing a wooded area leading to other camping spots on the right, hikers briefly turn away from the sound of the stream, but then continue on an eastward path that is relatively level. (Note: As of March 2021, a large tree had fallen on the path here, requiring hikers to detour through the dense manzanita thicket to get around the obstacle.)

At about 6.2 miles, hikers reach another trail junction: the path left leads up a sharp slope toward Tiltill Valley, Lake Vernon, and beyond; the rightward path bears east toward Pleasant Valley (and eventually Tuolumne Meadows). Stay right, climbing to cross another seasonal stream and then reaching a footbridge over Rancheria Creek, the suggested turn-around point for the hike.

Part of Rancheria Falls up close

From the footbridge, hikers get an excellent view down the rushing waters of Upper Rancheria Falls, tumbling down a series of ledges to the forest below. With Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir visible in the distance, the area around the footbridge is an excellent place to camp for the night.

Not a bad campsite for the night!

All told, it is about 6.4 miles to this point from the trailhead; heading back would make for a nearly 13-mile day hike or relatively leisurely two-day trip.

Morning at Rancheria Falls
Along the route back
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