Carlon Falls was a strangely-shaped waterfall that had that rare characteristic of flowing year-round, which was quite a statement to make since most waterfalls within Yosemite National Park couldn’t make that claim. It had modest height (say around 35ft or so) but it was wider than it was tall with a sloping shape that tapers off to the far side of the South Fork Tuolumne River. In addition to its unusual shape, the potholed granite bench near its plunge pool created little pools and a calm section where the river wasn’t raging. So it provided an opportunity for us to take a dip (or at least cool off our feet) and cool off from the heat of a hot Summer’s day, which can really come in handy when most of Yosemite’s other waterfalls wouldn’t be flowing late in the Summer and into the Fall. As for timing for photos, the best lighting appears to happen in the early to mid afternoon as we were looking against the sun in the morning and the shadows would grow too long too late in the afternoon.
A real quirky thing about the hike to get here was that its trailhead was situated outside the National Park boundary (in Stanislaus National Forest), and I suspect it’s this strange attribute that makes this falls pretty unknown to most visitors to Yosemite National Park. In fact, we only became aware of this hike while doing the drive to Hetch Hetchy one day and made it a point to come here on a subsequent visit. Speaking of which, we’ve done this hike a couple of times – once in 2004 and another time in 2017. And between these visits, there appeared to be quite a change in the experience as much of the terrain was affected by a fire that swept through the area in 2013. So we had to deal with more deadfalls as well as a couple of pretty badly eroded sections that made this trail a little harder than it was on our first time around.From the signposted Carlon Falls Trailhead (see directions below), we followed a pretty obvious trail along the north bank of the South Fork of the Tuolumne River. My Mom and I saw many people on the opposite side of the river playing in the calmer parts of the river as there was an Upper Carlon Day Use Area and campground over there. However, if you’re starting from there, it’s best to backtrack to the Evergreen Road and then swing back around to the north side of the river, which was where the well-maintained trail to the falls was. And as there didn’t seem to be such “play” areas on our side of the river, we pretty much continued amongst the well-shaded forested trail as it proceeded through a trail maze marking our re-entry into Yosemite National Park wilderness barely 0.1 mile from the trailhead.
Beyond the maze, we saw even more evidence of fire damage from black-barked trees and deadfalls that we had to go over or around. There was also some building remnants that the trail went right through. Yet even with the fire damage, the trail remained serene and well-shaded as it would proceed this way for about the next mile or so. The pace went pretty quickly because this stretch was pretty much flat and it followed along the South Fork Tuolumne River for almost the entire way. With the scenery pretty much staying like this for this stretch, we also noticed little things like a hole in the ground by the trail at around 0.6 miles from the Yosemite boundary as well as one short stretch where the trail went up a steep eroded embankment before descending back down along the main trail again.
At the end of the long, flat forested stretch that dominated the majority of the Carlon Falls hike to this point, the trail then made a fairly steep and persistent climb of around 500ft or so. During this climb, we were now able to look down at a bend in the South Fork Tuolumne River before the trail gingerly traversed a fairly badly eroded section of trail as a slippery dirt slope was angled right into a few deadfelled trees. There were a couple of trail forks in this section, and it was advised to keep left at the fork (which we did) instead of going straight down at the right and then try to scramble back up to the main trail again. Afterwards, the rest of the trail was a bit narrower and involved trying to avoid false paths leading to our right towards the South Fork Tuolumne River while also climbing up and down undulating steep and rugged spots that we never recalled seeing before on our first experience in 2004.
Each of the “false paths” leading to the South Fork Tuolumne River actually resulted in spots where it was possible to play in the river though caution would still be necessary in the high runoff periods when the river would be rushing with whitewater. Trying to boulder scramble directly to the end of the trail from these false paths was too rugged and rough so it was best to backtrack and regain the main trail to proceed further to the falls. Thus, we kept left at each of the false path forks for the remainder of the hike until we eventually made a final steep descent leading right down to the base of Carlon Falls (I didn’t recall having this steep descent the first time here in 2004). It took us about an hour to get to this point, which was said to be around 2 to 2.25 miles. So the inviting water was a welcome relief before making the return hike, which ended up taking around 30 minutes on a quick pace without stops.
From the Big Oak Flat Entrance, drive a mile north on Hwy 120 to the signed turnoff to Mather and Hetchy Hetchy on Evergreen Road on the right. About a mile along Evergreen Road, look for a pullout on the north side of the bridge near the Carlon Day Use Area sign. This pullout is where the Carlon Falls Trail begins. However, since there was only room for about four or five cars at this trailhead, it was also possible to park in one of the picnic areas on the other side of the bridge for the Upper Carlon Picnic Area or Lower Carlon Picnic Area, then walk back to the trailhead at the north side of the bridge to get started.
For some context, the Big Oak Flat Entrance was 45 minutes from Yosemite Valley (24 miles) going west along the Hwy 140, then ascending the Big Oak Flat Road up to the Hwy 120 and the Big Oak Flat Entrance. It’s another half hour drive to get from say the Yosemite West condos to the foot of Yosemite Valley itself. Note that the Carlon Falls Trailhead was about 8 miles drive (20 minutes) south of the Hetch Hetchy Entrance to Yosemite National Park and over 6 miles (15 minutes) south of Mather.
On a grander scale, it would typically take us about 6 hours to drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite Valley via Fresno, Oakhurst, and Wawona, among others. From San Francisco, it would take us about 4 hours to drive directly to the Big Oak Flat Entrance.
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