Rancheria Falls

Sierra National Forest / Huntington Lake / Fresno County, California, USA

Rating: 2.5     Difficulty: 2
Rancheria Falls in full context

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INTRODUCTION

Rancheria Falls was a surprisingly popular waterfall in the heart of the Sierra National Forest near Huntington Lake. Given how out-of-the-way it was from the typical Yosemite route via Fresno, it blew our minds just how busy the hike to get here was. We imagined that most visitors to this area during our visit were Central Valley weekenders looking for recreational opportunities at both Shaver Lake and Huntington Lake, and that this impressive waterfall was the perfect excuse to do something more Naturesque with the family. Indeed, as you can see from the photo at the top of this page, it was said to be 150ft high though when we first showed up here back in 2002, we only managed to get right up to the main drop without figuring out how to earn this full contextual view. In any case, it was a pleasant and easy hike, and it was easy to see why this trail was quite popular, especially for a place that seemed a bit off the beaten path at least as far as the Sierras were concerned.

Our hike was a pretty straightforward 2 miles round trip from the trailhead (see directions below) to the base of the main drop of Rancheria Falls. The trail gently ascended amongst a lot of impressive pine trees as well as some blooming wildflowers adding a bit of color to the scene. Where the tree growth had opened up, we noticed some granite peaks (the kind we'd associate more with Yosemite National Park) in the distance. Our most recent visit here in July 2016 followed a very severe drought throughout California so we could see evidence of dead pine trees as bark beetles managed to get into the sickly trees that were unable to create the sap to keep them at bay due to the lack of moisture. Aside from the brown trees resulting from this condition, the scenery here was otherwise mostly green.

The hike was mostly quiet as we wouldn't be hearing Rancheria Creek until almost the very end when the trail made a bend and meandered right up to the base of the main 50ft drop of Rancheria Falls. From this spot, it was hard to get an all encompassing view, and the steep and rocky terrain ensured that we'd have to be content with the limited view of the falls from the official trail's end. However, we did notice quite a few younger individuals who continued scrambling further to get up to the steep top of the waterfall. That said, I did notice further back on the main trail a trail-of-use that descended to a rock outcrop that produced the photo opportunity you see at the top of this page. Indeed, this contextual view of the falls made it clear that there was way more to the waterfall than the limited view you get from the official trail, and it made me wonder whether the 150ft height figure might be underestimating it a bit.

As far as lighting was concerned, both times we visited this waterfall were at the height of the day from late morning to high noon. Under these lighting conditions, the sun was pretty much right on top of the falls, which made viewing and photographing it a bit challenging. I'd imagine that if we were to time our visit for better lighting conditions, then mid- to late afternoon would probably produce better backlighting. We've never had the opportunity to stick around late enough to test this theory, but maybe one of these days when we'd stick and better enjoy the lakes here, we'll give it a try.

When we returned to the trailhead in the late morning, this was when we realized just how popular Rancheria Falls was as we'd encounter large groups of people of all ages heading to the falls. Indeed, we noticed plenty of families with kids as well as seniors doing this otherwise quite easy hike. Even when we made it back to the trailhead parking, we were amazed at how full it was, especially when we were only one of about a half-dozen or so cars here when we first showed up. Anyways, when all was said and done, we had spent under 90 minutes away from the car, but easily less than an hour of this time spent was hiking the trail itself. We simply took our time and enjoyed both the scenery as well as the impressive waterfall display as everything about our experience here literally coerced us into slowing down and just enjoying ourselves.

Perhaps the hardest thing about reaching this waterfall was the somewhat rough dirt road lasting for about a mile away from the Hwy 168. I didn't recall the road being this rough when we first made our visit back in 2002, but then again, things can change over time and perhaps my memory wasn't very good from 14 years back. In any case, you read a little more the drive down below in the directions.




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PHOTO JOURNAL

Very close to Rancheria Falls was the impressive Huntington Lake. We weren't sure if it was manmade or natural, but judging by how many boats were on it, people were having fun and didn't careVery close to Rancheria Falls was the impressive Huntington Lake. We weren't sure if it was manmade or natural, but judging by how many boats were on it, people were having fun and didn't care
On the fairly long and twisty drive up from Fresno to Huntington Lake, we encountered Shaver Lake, which was also an attractive granite-fringed lake with some recreational activities, tooOn the fairly long and twisty drive up from Fresno to Huntington Lake, we encountered Shaver Lake, which was also an attractive granite-fringed lake with some recreational activities, too
The familiar trailhead parking for the short hike to Rancheria FallsThe familiar trailhead parking for the short hike to Rancheria Falls

Dad about to start the hike to Rancheria FallsDad about to start the hike to the falls

Dad on the well-forested and easy trail to Rancheria FallsDad on the well-forested and easy trail to the falls

Closer look at some of the wildflowers in bloom along the Rancheria Falls TrailCloser look at some of the wildflowers in bloom along the trail to the waterfall

The Rancheria Falls Trail meandered amongst some impressively tall pine trees, but as you can see here, quite a few of them were brown from the bark beetles taking over given the drought conditionsThe trail meandered amongst some impressively tall pine trees, but as you can see here, quite a few of them were brown from the bark beetles taking over given the drought conditions

Where the vegetation opened up a bit along the Rancheria Falls Trail, we noticed some nice granite peaks in the distanceWhere the vegetation opened up a bit along the waterfall trail, we noticed some nice granite peaks in the distance

Further along the hike to Rancheria Falls, we noticed these rocks next to the trail, which perhaps hinted at the geology necessary for Rancheria Falls to happenFurther along the hike, we noticed these rocks next to the trail, which perhaps hinted at the geology necessary for Rancheria Falls to happen

Dad rounding a bend where it was now veering towards Rancheria FallsDad rounding a bend where it was now veering towards the falls

Before getting all the way to the end of the trail, I noticed a trail of use leading down to a rock outcrop yielding this attractive view of Rancheria FallsBefore getting all the way to the end of the trail, I noticed a trail of use leading down to a rock outcrop yielding this attractive view of Rancheria Falls

Zoomed in look against the sun at the main drop of Rancheria Falls with some people at the end of the trail providing some scaleZoomed in look against the sun at the main drop of the falls with some people at the end of the trail providing some scale

If not for some trees in the way, this would probably be by far the best view of Rancheria FallsIf not for some trees in the way, this would probably be by far the best view of Rancheria Falls

Continuing on the main trail towards its end at the base of the main drop of Rancheria FallsContinuing on the main trail towards its end at the base of the main drop of the falls

Looking right at the main drop of Rancheria Falls, which appeared much tinier here than it did further back along the trailLooking right at the main drop of Rancheria Falls, which appeared much tinier here than it did further back along the trail

Looking downstream from the base of Rancheria FallsLooking downstream from the base of the falls

Mom and Dad waiting for me to start hiking back to the trailheadMom and Dad waiting for me to start hiking back to the trailhead

Dad and Mom hiking alongside some interesting rocks and cliffs flanking the Rancheria Falls TrailDad and Mom hiking alongside some interesting rocks and cliffs flanking the trail

The scenery as we were now hiking in the opposite direction, where we could see more of the sickly trees succumbing to bark beetlesThe familiar trailhead parking for the short hike to Rancheria Falls

More attractive wildflowers blooming alongside the trailMore attractive wildflowers blooming alongside the trail

Back at the Rancheria Falls Trailhead, but now it was quite full of carsBack at the trailhead, but now it was quite full of cars

For a trip down memory lane, here was Rancheria Falls in high flow back in early June 2002For a trip down memory lane, here was Rancheria Falls in high flow back in early June 2002


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VIDEOS OF THE FALLS


Sweep upstream to downstream then back towards Rancheria Falls from an informal lower vantage point


Upstream to downstream sweep then back of Rancheria Falls from the end of its official trail


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DRIVING DIRECTIONS

Rancheria Falls was near Huntington Lake, which was roughly 72 miles northeast of downtown Fresno or 62 miles northeast of the suburb of Clovis. We'll pick up the driving directions from downtown Fresno since that would be the obvious hub of activities in this part of the Central Valley (including access to the south entrance to Yosemite National Park).

From the junction of the Hwy 99 and Hwy 41 near downtown Fresno, we took the Hwy 41 north for about 2.5 miles to its junction with Hwy 180 east (towards Kings Canyon National Park). Once we were on the Hwy 180 eastbound, we then took it for a little over a mile before taking the Hwy 168. We then followed Hwy 168 all the way into the Sierra National Forest (it stopped becoming a freeway shortly after leaving Clovis at around 11 miles after leaving Hwy 180). The road became narrower and more curvaceous (though people were still going pretty high speed) the further into the forest we went.

At around 50 miles, Hwy 168 skirted by the attractive Shaver Lake. At around 18 miles further north of Shaver Lake, Hwy 168 skirted around the east shore of Huntington Lake. It was around here that we had to keep an eye out to our right for a forest service access road (8S31) that was very easy to miss. In fact, both times we went looking for Rancheria Falls, we had missed this turnoff. Anyways, I recalled that there was a brown forest service sign when heading north, but when heading south (after overshooting the turnoff), there was an obvious sign to our left for Rancheria Falls (why didn't they have this sign in the northbound direction?).

Anyways, once we got off Hwy 168 and onto this forest service road, it immediately became unpaved. The road had a few rough spots, which might be a bit of a problem for low-clearance passenger vehicles, but it's totally doable with care. After around a mile off the highway, the road became paved again when we finally made it to the signposted trailhead for Rancheria Falls. There were a handful of marked parking spots, but we did notice some folks parking along the shoulder further up the hairpin bend in the road when all the marked spots were filled.

Overall, this drive took us about 75 minutes from downtown Fresno though I'm sure it could easily go up to 90 minutes depending on the pace of traffic along the Hwy 168 as passing lanes and the courtesy of slower drivers to pull over and let people pass were quite limited.




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ITINERARIES

For more information about our itineraries involving this waterfall, check out the following links.




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MAP OF THE FALLS



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TRIP REPORTS

For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.




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TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES





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NEARBY WATERFALLS




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