Sardine Falls

Sonora Pass / Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California, USA

About Sardine Falls


Hiking Distance: 2.5 miles round trip; some scrambling
Suggested Time: 2 hours

Date first visited: 2016-06-24
Date last visited: 2016-06-24

Waterfall Latitude: 38.30841
Waterfall Longitude: -119.62205

Sardine Falls (also called Sardine Creek Falls) was a high elevation waterfall that definitely took our breath away.

Not only did it feature an attractive 75ft drop (possibly higher due to additional drops and cascades further downstream), but my Mom and I had to go on an adventure to experience it.

Sardine_Falls_099_06242016 - Sardine Falls
Sardine Falls

Our adventure started at a trailhead that was already in the thin air at 8,000ft.

We also had to get our feet wet in icy cold water while doing a little bit of route finding since the “trail” crossed a high-flowing Sardine Creek, and it was ill-defined in spots.

Indeed, the hike itself was not officially marked, and we had our doubts about whether we were going to be successful.

Fortunately, as you can see in the photo above, our persistence paid off.

Overall, the hike ended up being 2.5 miles round trip, and it took my Mom and I a little over 2 hours to do it.

Sardine_Falls_001_06242016 - Contextual view of Sardine Falls from the Sonora Pass Highway
Contextual view of Sardine Falls from the Sonora Pass Highway

Our visit just so happened to have been timed for the peak of the snowmelt, which probably explained the marshy and high-water conditions that we had experienced.

But at the end of the day, sometimes it’s the adventure combined with the reward that makes the experience so memorable, and we can definitely attest to that in this case.

Sardine Falls Hike Description –

Sardine Falls was well-positioned enough that we did notice it backed by mountains still clinging to snow from the Sonora Pass Highway.

So we knew we were in the right neighborhood to start hiking towards it.

Sardine_Falls_172_06242016 - Looking across Sardine Meadow past a 'No Motor Vehicles' sign as we got started on our hike to Sardine Falls
Looking across Sardine Meadow past a ‘No Motor Vehicles’ sign as we got started on our hike to Sardine Falls

We started off from an unmarked pullout at Sardine Meadow (see directions below).

The only hints that we could leverage about this starting point were a couple of signs – one saying “No Motorized Vehicles” and another saying “Be Extra Careful With Fire”.

From here, we followed some faint tire tracks probably from a 4wd vehicle that essentially blazed the “trail” here.

The tracks passed through Sardine Meadow with some parts of it depressed enough to form puddles and mud.

Sardine_Falls_040_06242016 - Mom enduring the icy cold water of Sardine Creek on this crossing with shoes off
Mom enduring the icy cold water of Sardine Creek on this crossing with shoes off

Barely 10 minutes into the hike through the meadow, we encountered a crossing of Sardine Creek.

This particular crossing caused us to take off our hiking boots, then wade across the ankle-deep stream in water sandals or just going barefoot.

The water was icy cold, and had the crossing been any longer than it was, then it might not have been doable without inflicting additional pain and possible frost-bite damage.

Beyond the creek crossing, after putting back on our wool socks and hiking boots, we then continued following the tire tracks, which were once again pretty obvious to follow.

Sardine_Falls_052_06242016 - Mom continuing to follow the dirt tracks that eventually became more of a foot trail on the way to Sardine Falls
Mom continuing to follow the dirt tracks that eventually became more of a foot trail on the way to Sardine Falls

At some point, the tracks became dirt trail, and eventually, the “road” stopped near a hill.

By this point, the trail narrowed even more while it was clear that further progress had to have been on foot.

The uphill onto the hill was mild, but since this hike was taking place at 8,000ft, I could see how it could be taxing had we not been acclimated to the altitude.

Anyhow, beyond the hill, we meandered through more conventional trail as it skirted Sardine Creek in spots (even revealing some unnamed informal cascades).

Sardine_Falls_061_06242016 - Passing by a side cascade backed in the presence of some attractive mountains as we continued to get closer to Sardine Falls
Passing by a side cascade backed in the presence of some attractive mountains as we continued to get closer to Sardine Falls

The trail branched where there was some overgrowth (where we had a choice of whether to go through the overgrowth or take the more open path – they both led to the same place).

Throughout this stretch, we were treated to nice views of attractive mountains (some of them with a reddish color) still clinging onto snow while also contrasting with the deep blue skies in morning light.

Roughly 20 minutes or so beyond the hill, we encountered another minor stream crossing before we were finally starting to see Sardine Falls.

In order to improve our views, we had to cross parts of a segmented Sardine Creek, where we managed to keep our feet dry though we needed to find some rocks or fallen trees in the creek to do so.

Sardine_Falls_080_06242016 - Mom about to cross part of Sardine Creek to get closer to the Sardine Falls
Mom about to cross part of Sardine Creek to get closer to the Sardine Falls

Eventually, we were able to hike all the way to the base of the main drop of Sardine Falls.

We had to climb up a pretty steep scramble just to get up to a part where the waterfall had cut a slit through a rock at its base.

While we were enjoying the falls, we noticed some refreshingly fragrant mint smells, and it turned out that they came from wild mints that were growing in bunches near the falls.

After having our fill of Sardine Falls from this spot, we scrambled a little more for more direct views of the falls.

Sardine_Falls_082_06242016 - Finally making it to the front of Sardine Falls
Finally making it to the front of Sardine Falls

The photo you see at the top of this page was the result of that effort.

I’m sure we could have tried to figure out a way to cross another segment of Sardine Creek while keeping dry to get even closer to the waterfall.

That would have yielded a very different (and more direct) perspective of Sardine Falls than earlier, but we were pretty content to not do that.

And so after having our fill of the falls, we returned the way we came.

Sardine_Falls_117_06242016 - Mom looking back at Sardine Creek as we were trying to figure out what was causing all the mint smell around Sardine Falls. It turned out that there were wild mints growing here!
Mom looking back at Sardine Creek as we were trying to figure out what was causing all the mint smell around Sardine Falls. It turned out that there were wild mints growing here!

The return hike was much easier, and we even chose the more overgrown paths that we had avoided earlier on since they were more direct and we knew where we were going now.

Once again, we had to change shoes and wade across the initial Sardine Creek crossing before regaining the faint trail across Sardine Meadow.

But that was the last obstacle we faced before finally regaining our parked car.

Authorities

Sardine Falls resides in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Bridgeport in Mono County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Sardine_Falls_019_06242016 - Somewhere close to where we had to turn the car around (from overshooting the proper pullout and trailhead for Sardine Falls), we spotted this deer
Sardine_Falls_023_06242016 - The sign indicating 'No Motor Vehicles' fronting the Sardine Meadow where we started our hike to Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_027_06242016 - This was the small brown sign saying 'No Motor Vehicles', which helped signal to us that we had found the right place
Sardine_Falls_029_06242016 - Mom traversing Sardine Meadow while trying to follow some old tire tracks
Sardine_Falls_031_06242016 - During our hike through Sardine Meadow, we encountered some muddy sections like this one
Sardine_Falls_033_06242016 - Mom continuing to follow the tire tracks in Sardine Meadow on the way to Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_038_06242016 - This was the crossing of Sardine Creek where we had no choice but to go right through and get our feet wet
Sardine_Falls_044_06242016 - Mom continuing the Sardine Falls hike towards the edge of Sardine Meadow after crossing Sardine Creek
Sardine_Falls_050_06242016 - Mom continuing along a dirt track beyond Sardine Meadow as we continued to pursue Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_053_06242016 - Another look towards some pretty high-altitude mountains on the way to Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_068_06242016 - Mom continuing to route-find her way towards Sardine Falls knowing that it's in those mountains up ahead
Sardine_Falls_085_06242016 - Approaching Sardine Falls as we could now see it in all its glory
Sardine_Falls_093_06242016 - Mom going up a steep part of the trail leading right up to the small plunge pool near the slit in the rock at the base of Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_134_06242016 - Our last look at the Sardine Falls before we had to hike back to the car
Sardine_Falls_136_06242016 - All around the base of Sardine Falls, we were breathing in the intoxicating fragrance of wild mint leaves like this one
Sardine_Falls_138_06242016 - Mom crossing over one of Sardine Creek's segments again as we started to hike back to the car
Sardine_Falls_146_06242016 - The return hike from Sardine Falls allowed us to experience the high alpine scenery once again
Sardine_Falls_149_06242016 - Mom heading back to that hill where the 4wd tracks ended as we were heading back from Sardine Falls
Sardine_Falls_150_06242016 - It seemed to be much easier and faster on the return hike from Sardine Falls than on the way in
Sardine_Falls_157_06242016 - Mom back at Sardine Meadow
Sardine_Falls_160_06242016 - Mom switching shoes once again after enduring the lengthy and very cold Sardine Creek crossing barefoot
Sardine_Falls_165_06242016 - Following the faint 4wd tracks back across Sardine Meadow to the parked car along Hwy 108

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We visited Sardine Falls during a long drive south along the Hwy 395 from South Lake Tahoe.

However, on a more typical visit, I’d imagine people would be staying around Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining, or Bridgeport (the latter being perhaps the closest town of any significance).

So we’ll describe the driving directions from Bridgeport.

Sardine_Falls_008_06242016 - Distant view of Sardine Falls as seen from the Sonora Pass Highway
Distant view of Sardine Falls as seen from the Sonora Pass Highway

Heading north from Bridgeport we continued along Hwy 395 for just under 17 miles to its junction with the Sonora Pass Highway (Hwy 108).

Turning left onto Hwy 108, we then drove for about 12 miles as the road passed some kind of military base before climbing steeply eventually leading up to Sardine Meadow at nearly 9,000ft in elevation.

There weren’t any signs indicating Sardine Meadow, but it was roughly 3.5 miles past the turnoff for the Leavitt Falls Vista.

The pullout at Sardine Meadow where we started hiking had a couple of tell-tale signs.

Sardine_Falls_020_06242016 - Context of the pullout off the Sonora Pass Highway where we stopped the car and started hiking to Sardine Falls
Context of the pullout off the Sonora Pass Highway where we stopped the car and started hiking to Sardine Falls

One sign was a short and brown and said “No Motor Vehicles” while the other was a reddish sign that said “Be Extra Careful With Fire”.

You’ll know you’re in the right area if you can see Sardine Falls from the road.

But if you happened to see a sign saying something to the effect of “Elevation 9,000ft”, then you’ve gone too far.

For a geographical frame of reference, Bridgeport was 85 miles (1 hour and 45 minutes) south of South Lake Tahoe via the Hwy 207 and Hwy 395 while it was 54 miles (just under an hour’s drive) north of Mammoth Lakes along Hwy 395. Mammoth was roughly 300 miles or over 5 hours drive from Los Angeles.

Back and forth sweep starting from an angled view of the top of the falls then following it down the slit before panning downstream before swinging back to the falls again


Most direct view and sweep of Sardine Falls before we panned along the water's trajectory all the way downstream then panned back to the falls at the conclusion

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Tagged with: sonora pass, humboldt, toiyabe, national forest, bridgeport, lee vining, mono lake, mammoth lakes, topaz lake, south lake tahoe, california, mono county, sierra, waterfall



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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