Carlon Falls

Yosemite National Park / Stanislaus National Forest / Groveland, California, USA

About Carlon Falls


Hiking Distance: 4-4.5 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 90 minutes

Date first visited: 2004-04-23
Date last visited: 2017-06-17

Waterfall Latitude: 37.8031
Waterfall Longitude: -119.84362

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Carlon Falls was a strangely-shaped waterfall that had that rare characteristic of flowing year-round.

That was quite a statement to make since most waterfalls within Yosemite National Park couldn’t make that claim.

Carlon_Falls_17_076_06172017 - Carlon Falls
Carlon Falls

As you can see in the picture above, 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.

That definitely came in handy when most of Yosemite’s other waterfalls wouldn’t be flowing late in the Summer and into the Fall.

Carlon_Falls_009_04232004 - Morning light when we first saw Carlon Falls back in April 2004
Morning light when we first saw Carlon Falls back in April 2004

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.

Hiking to Carlon Falls

A real quirky thing about the Carlon Falls hike was that its trailhead was situated outside the National Park boundary (in Stanislaus National Forest).

I suspect this strange attribute made 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 noticed a trailhead with a sign for “Carlon Day Use Area” along the way.

Carlon_Falls_17_009_06172017 - The Carlon Falls Trail approaching a trail maze marking the boundary between Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest
The Carlon Falls Trail approaching a trail maze marking the boundary between Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest

So far, we’ve done this hike twice – 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.

Overall, this hike was about 4 or 4.5 miles round trip with a net elevation gain of about 100ft.

Carlon_Falls_17_099_06172017 - Mom going around one of the eroded sections of the Carlon Falls Trail during our June 2017 visit
Mom going around one of the eroded sections of the Carlon Falls Trail during our June 2017 visit

Most of the hike was flat, but there was a steep 500ft stretch before the trail then undulated and reduced its net elevation gain at the end.

It took us as little as 2 hours on our first visit and as much as 3 hours on our second visit (likely because we spent time soaking and enjoying the scenery more on that second visit).

Carlon Falls Trail Description – the mostly flat stretch

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.

Carlon_Falls_17_017_06172017 - The Carlon Falls Trail meandered through a burn area as evidenced by these black-barked trees that still provided pretty good shade
The Carlon Falls Trail meandered through a burn area as evidenced by these black-barked trees that still provided pretty good shade

If you happened to be 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.

Anyways, there didn’t seem to be such “play” areas on our side of the river so it was pretty much all hiking.

Thus, 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.

Carlon_Falls_17_108_06172017 - This looked like the foundation or remnants of some kind of structure that was once here along the Carlon Falls Trail
This looked like the foundation or remnants of some kind of structure that was once here along the Carlon Falls Trail

There were also some building remnants that the Carlon Falls 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 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 mile-long stretch, we also noticed little things.

Carlon_Falls_17_026_06172017 - Come kind of mysterious hole that we noticed along the Carlon Falls Trail during our June 2017 visit
Come kind of mysterious hole that we noticed along the Carlon Falls Trail during our June 2017 visit

For example, we noticed 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.

Then, the trail gingerly traversed a fairly badly eroded section as a slippery dirt slope was angled right into a few dead-felled trees.

Carlon_Falls_17_042_06172017 - After a long stretch of flat hiking, the Carlon Falls started to climb in earnest towards its latter part
After a long stretch of flat hiking, the Carlon Falls started to climb in earnest towards its latter part

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.

Carlon Falls Trail Description – trying to avoid false paths at the end

Beyond the steep climb and the eroded sections just above them, the rest of the Carlon Falls Trail was a bit narrower.

It involved trying to avoid false paths leading to our right towards the South Fork Tuolumne River.

Meanwhile, we had to climbing up and down undulating steep and rugged spots that we never recalled seeing before on our first experience in 2004.

Carlon_Falls_17_047_06172017 - Mom ducking under one of the fallen trees on the trail to Carlon Falls, which were among the new hazards that we encountered that we never had to deal with the first time we were here in April 2004
Mom ducking under one of the fallen trees on the trail to Carlon Falls, which were among the new hazards that we encountered that we never had to deal with the first time we were here in April 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.

Had we chosen to go on one of these paths, we still would have had to exercise caution due to the high runoff conditions we encountered in June 2017 as the river rushed with whitewater.

Trying to boulder scramble directly to the end of the trail from these false paths was too rugged and rough.

So after scouting out some of these false paths, we backtracked to regain the main trail before proceeding further to the Carlon Falls.

Carlon_Falls_17_087_06172017 - Mom dipping her sweaty feet in one of the potholes besides the plunge pool of Carlon Falls
Mom dipping her sweaty feet in one of the potholes besides the plunge pool of Carlon Falls

Thus, we kept left at each of the remaining 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.

Note that I didn’t recall having this steep descent the first time here in 2004, which kind of tells you how much things can change over the years.

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 us around 30 minutes on a quick pace without stops.

Authorities

Carlon Falls resides in Yosemite National Park, but its trailhead resides in Stanislaus National Forest near Groveland in Tuolumne County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service and the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit the National Park Service website as well as the National Forest website or Facebook page.

Carlon_Falls_17_003_06172017 - Initially the Carlon Falls Trail seemed to meander through a pretty healthy and intact forested area during our June 2017 hike, but it wouldn't be long before we would get into the burn areas. This photo was taken in June 2017, and the next several shots were taken from that visit
Carlon_Falls_17_013_06172017 - Early in the June 2017 Carlon Falls hike, we were able to look across the South Fork Tuolumne River towards the commotion on the other side where people were playing in the river by the Upper Carlon Picnic Area
Carlon_Falls_17_024_06172017 - Much of the first mile of the Carlon Falls hike followed along the mostly serene South Fork Tuolumne River
Carlon_Falls_17_028_06172017 - Approaching a section of the Carlon Falls Trail when the flat first mile of the hike wasn't by the South Fork Tuolumne River and instead went through forested terrain surrounded by tall trees providing ample shade and serenity
Carlon_Falls_17_033_06172017 - This was example of one of the deadfalls that we had to climb over while hiking the Carlon Falls Trail in June 2017
Carlon_Falls_17_038_06172017 - After the first mile or so, the Carlon Falls Trail then went through a more persistent ascent like what's shown here from our June 2017 hike
Carlon_Falls_17_040_06172017 - We climbed high enough in that persistent ascending stretch of the Carlon Falls hike to be able to look down towards a bend in the South Fork Tuolumne River
Carlon_Falls_17_045_06172017 - After getting to the top of the ascent during our Carlon Falls hike in June 2017, Mom then had to go around the trail erosion and deadfall to our right by keeping left on the higher ground
Carlon_Falls_17_051_06172017 - Beyond the apex of the persistent climb during our June 2017 visit, we were now confronted with many false trails on our right that led to various sections of the South Fork Tuolumne River. So we kept left at these forks to continue closer to Carlon Falls
Carlon_Falls_17_056_06172017 - One of the false trails led me down to this view of an intermediate cascade on the South Fork Tuolumne River, but I could see the Carlon Falls further upstream from here
Carlon_Falls_17_062_06172017 - Partial view across the Carlon Falls and its plunge pool during our June 2017 hike as we now had to descend towards it
Carlon_Falls_17_070_06172017 - There were already a lot of people (particularly one Hispanic family) that were already enjoying Carlon Falls during our visit in June 2017
Carlon_Falls_17_072_06172017 - Contextual look at the Carlon Falls and afternoon rainbow backed by tall pine trees during our June 2017 visit
Carlon_Falls_17_082_06172017 - Mom dipping her sweaty feet in one of the potholes besides the plunge pool of Carlon Falls during our June 2017 visit
Carlon_Falls_17_092_06172017 - There was an attractive rainbow continuing the slant on Carlon Falls at this time in the late afternoon on a hot early Summer's day in June 2017
Carlon_Falls_17_093_06172017 - Looking back at the final descent leading down to the Carlon Falls and swimming hole area during our June 2017 hike. I didn't remember needing to make this descent when we came here in April 2004
Carlon_Falls_17_097_06172017 - Mom starting to descend this stretch when we had our fill of Carlon Falls in June 2017 and headed back to the trailhead
Carlon_Falls_17_101_06172017 - Mom going up the last part of the climb on the return hike from Carlon Falls in June 2017, and then we had primarily downhill and flat hiking the rest of the way
Carlon_Falls_17_106_06172017 - Mom hiking back along the Carlon Falls Trail flanked by the South Fork Tuolumne River in our June 2017 hike as the sun was waning in the late afternoon
Carlon_Falls_17_111_06172017 - Mom on the home stretch of the Carlon Falls hike as we were about to end our June 2017 excursion
Carlon_Falls_001_04232004 - Just to give you an idea of what the hike was like in April 2004, here's look at us going over a fallen tree as the trail meandered by the South Fork Tuolumne River. This photo and the remaining photos in the gallery were taken from that day
Carlon_Falls_002_04232004 - Looking towards the South Fork Tuolumne River along the Carlon Falls Trail during our April 2004 hike
Carlon_Falls_004_04232004 - Looking down at the South Fork Tuolumne River in april 2004. Notice the difference in the scenery back then compared to June 2017 earlier in the photo gallery
Carlon_Falls_005_04232004 - Just to give you an idea of what it was like back in april 2004, here's a look straight ahead at Carlon Falls with some intermediate cascade in front of it
Carlon_Falls_012_04232004 - View of Carlon Falls from the end of the trail in April 2004. Notice that log in the bottom of this picture was definitely not there in June 2017
Carlon_Falls_013_04232004 - Portrait view of Carlon Falls at the end of our April 2004 hike
Carlon_Falls_021_04232004 - Another look across the log that was not there when we came back in June 2017 towards the Carlon Falls on our April 2004 hike
Carlon_Falls_028_04232004 - Looking up at Carlon Falls from further downstream in April 2004 with an intermediate cascade fronting it
Carlon_Falls_029_04232004 - After a little further scrambling downstream along the South Fork Tuolumne River in April 2004, I got this look over more intermediate waterfalls with Carlon Falls looking tiny way in the distance
Carlon_Falls_043_04232004 - Even more zoomed in look at more cascades further downstream of Carlon Falls in April 2004
Carlon_Falls_044_04232004 - Looking at some of the fallen tree obstacles that we had to deal with back on our April 2004 return hike from Carlon Falls

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Carlon Falls was accessed outside Yosemite National Park even though the waterfall itself was within its boundaries.

From the Big Oak Flat Entrance, we drove a mile north on Hwy 120 to the signed turnoff to Mather and Hetchy Hetchy on Evergreen Road on the right.

Carlon_Falls_17_002_06172017 - The trailhead for Carlon Falls on the north side of the bridge over the South Fork Tuolumne River along Evergreen Road
The trailhead for Carlon Falls on the north side of the bridge over the South Fork Tuolumne River along Evergreen Road

About a mile along Evergreen Road, we looked 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.

If we did that, then we’d have to walk back to the trailhead at the north side of the bridge to get started.

Carlon_Falls_047_04232004 - The Carlon Day Use Area Trailhead when we first did this hike back in April 2004
The Carlon Day Use Area Trailhead when we first did this hike back in April 2004

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.

Right to left sweep of the main Carlon Falls before going left to right as I followed the shape of that falls


Right to left sweep of some intermediate cascade just downstream of the main falls

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Tagged with: evergreen, stanislaus, yosemite, hetch hetchy, big oak flat, sierra, california, waterfall, tuolumne county, groveland



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Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

Carlon Falls found! August 18, 2009 3:14 pm by Barry R - Carlon Falls was a great find because it was a hot Saturday. We needed a place to swim near our camp (5 miles outside the west gate), but didn't want to fight the crowds inside Yosemite National Park. We almost had the place to ourselves! ...Read More

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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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