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: -119.6142

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Sardine Falls (also called Sardine Creek Falls) involved a little bit of an adventure for my Mom and I given that we had to get our feet wet in icy cold water while doing a little bit of route finding since the “trail” was kind of ill-defined in spots. The hike itself was not officially marked, and we had our doubts about whether we were up for this adventure given it was one of the last waterfalls we had visited after being waterfall-fatigued on a waterfall-laden visit to Northern California. Fortunately, the hike was not all that tough, and it just took a little persistence and will power for reasons you’ll see shortly. The payoff? Well, as you can see from the photo at the top of this page, we were treated to a very worthwhile 75ft falls (possibly higher due to additional drops and cascades further downstream). In fact the falls was so well-positioned that we were even able to glimpse it from the road backed by mountains still clinging onto their remnant snow along the Sonora Pass Highway. But aesthetics aside, 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.

We started off from an unmarked pullout at Sardine Meadow (see directions below). The only hints that we could leverage 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. 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 sandals or just 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 damage.

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

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. At some point, the tracks because dirt trail, and eventually, the “road” stopped near a hill, where the trail narrowed even more while it was clear that further progress had to have been on foot. The uphill 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) and even 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. Eventually, we were able to hike all the way to the base of the main drop of Sardine Falls after 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. 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 though from a very different (and more direct) perspective 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. The going on the return was much easier, and we even chose the more overgrown paths that we had avoided on the way up when the trail forked or it was more obvious to rub elbows with the bush. 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.

Overall, we had hiked around 2.5 miles round trip, which took my mother and I a little over two hours to do (including the photo stops and the time spent changing shoes for the one big creek crossing). Our visit was during late June on a typical snowpack year so depending on the conditions, the waterfall’s size as well as the associated creek crossings could be more or less than what we had experienced. I suspect that the timing of our visit was such that it was probably close to the height of the early Summer snowmelt as much of the high altitude snow around us had pretty much melted.

Sardine_Falls_019_06242016 - Somewhere close to where we had to turn the car around (from overshooting the proper pullout and trailhead), we spotted this deer
Sardine_Falls_020_06242016 - At the correct pullout for 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 - 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_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 hike towards the edge of Sardine Meadow after crossing Sardine Creek
Sardine_Falls_052_06242016 - When we reached this hill, the 4wd tracks ended and we pretty much followed a fairly well-used foot trail
Sardine_Falls_061_06242016 - In one stretch, we took a detour (avoiding a bush scramble) and skirting Sardine Creek where some surprise cascades and minor waterfalls like this one appeared
Sardine_Falls_080_06242016 - This was a crossing of one of Sardine Creek's segments as we were getting very close to Sardine Falls
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_099_06242016 - This was about as close to Sardine Falls as we were going to get
Sardine_Falls_117_06242016 - After having our fill of the base of Sardine Falls, we scrambled around for other alternate views
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 allowed us to experience the high alpine scenery once again
Sardine_Falls_150_06242016 - It seemed to be much easier and faster on the return hike than on the way in
Sardine_Falls_157_06242016 - 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 to the parked car along Hwy 108


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, but for a 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.

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 wasn’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. 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.

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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