For a waterfall as big as Illilouette Fall (said to be 370ft tall), I thought it was rather strange that it had a tendency to elude most of the millions of visitors to Yosemite each year. But then again, we're talking about Yosemite here, where large waterfalls seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. So I guess the relative obscurity of this waterfall was probably more circumstance and positioning than anything else.
In terms of positioning, it turned out that this waterfall was situated at the head of a narrow canyon formed by Illilouette Creek. However, the waterfall faced away from the opening of the canyon so that, by itself, limited the number of places that it could be seen. Indeed, perhaps the best place to view it was from a cliffhanging lookout on the Panorama Trail where I know we had to test our fear of heights to get a full view of it. Otherwise, it could only be seen in profile from a distance from the John Muir Trail or even North Dome. And any other views of the falls were primarily partial or blocked.
It's said that the waterfall's name (note that the convention is to drop that last "s" in "Falls" again) was actually a bastardization of a Miwok saying for something that sounded closer to "Too-lool-lo-we-ack." Somehow it became the French-sounding Illilouette (which is not French, by the way), and it's also said the meaning and origin remain unclear despite this anecdote.
Every time we've visited this waterfall, it was during the Spring. Thus, we always saw it in high flow. However, I've read in the literature that this waterfall really loses its vigor towards the late Summer and Autumn months where its flow degenerates into thin sheets sliding down the vertical canyon wall. So I'm guessing that you'd probably want to time a visit to the snowmelt period to get the most bang for your physical effort and time.
Since we've highlighted a couple of different ways to view Illilouette Fall, we'll describe them individually below. That way, you can choose which excursion you can go for as well as figure out other logistics while planning your visit.
To attain the closest and perhaps most satisfying view of Illilouette Fall, we had to hike the first two miles (4 miles round trip) of the Panorama Trail starting from Glacier Point. Glacier Point is at the end of Glacier Point Road (signpost G11) and is typically a very popular and busy viewpoint. It's also worth noting that at Washburn Point (signpost G10 on the Glacier Point Road), it's possible to get a partial view of Illilouette Fall though it's pretty blocked by trees.
Now while the 4-mile round trip distance may seem modest, the reality was that we had to partake in an upside down hike losing about 1200ft in elevation. Therefore, we had to get back all that elevation on the return to Glacier Point. Moreover, we were hiking at elevation (Glacier Point was said to be about 6600ft) so the air was a little bit thinner as well.
From Glacier Point, we had to find the start of the Panorama Trail. As we were walking towards the Glacier Point lookout, we turned right instead of left as we were facing Half Dome. Eventually, we reached the dirt trail as it went through an area once burned by fire so we didn't get much tree cover. Throughout this section of the trail, we were almost constantly able to see the rounder backside of Half Dome, the Giant Stairway of Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the rest of the mountains comprising the Clark Range. I believe this section of trail gradually descended for the first mile over maybe a pair of very long switchbacks.
In all but one instance that we've done this hike, we've seen deer. This led me to believe that the trail may not be that heavily used despite its close proximity to a place as famous as Glacier Point. Of course, it also meant that the experience was tranquil and we definitely felt the restorative powers of Nature sink into us with each passing minute we spent on the trail.
After the one-mile point, we reached a trail junction. We stayed left at the trail junction to descend towards Illilouette Creek. This marked the start of the steep descent where we had to negotiate at least a half-dozen or more switchbacks. Even though we were able to see part of Illilouette Fall on the way down, which hastened our pace to get down to the lookout faster, we knew that these switchbacks would be pretty painful on the way back up.
Ultimately we reached a point on the descent where the terrain got less steeper and we noticed some spur trails veering towards the cliff. It turned out that those spur trails led to the precarious lookout overlooking a frontal view of Illilouette Fall. We definitely had to exercise caution at this overlook because there were no guardrails and the surface sloped towards the vertical dropoffs. This was why I'd say you definitely need to supress your fear of heights in order to get far enough for a satisfactory view of the waterfall like you see photographed above.
Aside from the impressive and somewhat scary view of the waterfall, it was also possible to capture both Illilouette Fall and Half Dome in the same photograph (see photo at the top of this page). I recalled that this wasn't possible with our old point-and-shoot cameras, but it was with a mild wide angle lens on a DSLR camera.
Since this lookout was not signposted, we thought it was pretty easy to miss if we weren't paying attention. However, we did realize that if we ended up at the footbridge crossing Illilouette Creek, we'd be upstream from the waterfall so that would mean we went too far to see its front.
This marked the turnaround point for us as the view of the waterfall was our goal. However, on a separate hike, we managed to continue on the Panorama Trail past Illilouette Creek, which eventually joined up with the John Muir Trail. The Yosemite Falls page described that section of the hike in detail. Meanwhile, the Nevada Falls page and Vernal Fall page described the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail to wrap up the hike, which terminates at the Happy Isles Nature Center (overall loss of 3200ft from Glacier Point).
As added motivation to do the entire 8.5-mile Panorama Trail, there's also another opportunity to see Illilouette Fall again. However, that won't be until we would be on the paved last mile between the Vernal Fall footbridge and the Happy Isles Nature Center. Indeed, the view of Illilouette Fall (which is about 1/4-mile from the Vernal Fall footbridge) would be in profile at an angle.
In order to realize the full 8.5-mile one-way shuttle hike, we managed to arrange to have one car parked at Curry Village while we drove up to Glacier Point first thing in the morning. If that's not a logistically palatable option, there's also a Hiker's Bus though reservations would be necessary due to the limited amount of space.
Including this option to see Illilouette Fall was really my excuse to talk about the North Dome and Indian Rock Trail. The very distant view of the waterfall from here was similar to that of the John Muir Trail in that we still got profile views of it. However, the waterfall wouldn't be the destination or goal in this excursion as it was really more about summiting North Dome while also being able to see Half Dome through the span of a rare natural arch (i.e. the Indian Rock Arch).
The trailhead for the shortest path to North Dome is located on the Summer-only Tioga Road (Road 120). We had to look for a fairly large car park or pullout besides the road near signpost T19.
Once we found the right car park, we then embarked on the long, nearly 10-mile trail (which includes the out-and-back spur to Indian Rock). Combined with the altitude (we were probably close to 7000ft or 8000ft) plus the undulating nature of the hike, it was pretty tiring.
Eventually, we reached the final descent towards North Dome, which was where we were beginning to see the profile of Illilouette Fall. Ultimately, the descent then became an ascent up the slope of North Dome until we reached its summit. Once there, we not only continued to get a distant view of Illilouette Fall, but we were also able to get a very frontal view of the face of Half Dome as well as a top down view into Yosemite Valley.
When we had our fill of North Dome, we headed back towards the car park. But on the way back, we then took the 1/4-mile spur to Indian Rock. That was where we climbed onto the rock itself, then sat and scooted our way towards the back of the span of the natural arch before us. And upon gazing through the span, we could see the face of Half Dome fronted by trees right through the span. Come to think of it, how many people do you know that can say they've seen Half Dome through the span of a natural arch?!?
Illilouette Fall pretty much sat tucked away between Half Dome and Glacier Point. So we'll describe to you our preferred route to get all the way to Glacier Point from Los Angeles since that seems to be the most logical place to best experience this waterfall.
First, we had to get out of Los Angeles by going north on the I-5, then shortly after descending into the Grapevine, we then took the Hwy 99 (instead of the I-5) to get through Central Valley and eventually to Fresno. Once at Fresno, we then took the Hwy 41 towards the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park, and then we continued on this road (now Wawona Road) leading to the Chinquapin Junction (roughly 30-45 minutes from the entrance; near Yosemite West). At that point, we turned right onto Glacier Point Road and continued for the next 30 minutes or so to the road's end at Glacier Point.
Overall, I'd imagine this drive would take about 6 hours.
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