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.
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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Since 1962 (Rancheria Falls) I have been coming to Huntington Lake since 1962 (bragging rights, which long time visitors are apt to tell anyone who will listen). We usually stay a …