Illilouette Fall

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

About Illilouette Fall


Hiking Distance: 4 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 2-3 hours

Date first visited: 2002-06-01
Date last visited: 2011-06-02

Waterfall Latitude: 37.71415
Waterfall Longitude: -119.56135

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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.

Glacier_Point_070_06022011 - Illilouette Fall seen with Half Dome
Illilouette Fall seen with Half Dome

So I guess the relative obscurity of this waterfall was probably more circumstance and positioning than anything else.

Illilouette Fall – positioning, nomenclature, and timing

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, which limited the number of placese 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 on the John Muir Trail or even from North Dome.

North_Dome_061_07062002 - Distant view of Illilouette Falls as seen from North Dome
Distant view of Illilouette Falls as seen from 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 so 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.

Illilouette_Fall_021_05212004 - Illilouette Fall in pretty high Spring flow back in May 2004
Illilouette Fall in pretty high Spring flow back in May 2004

So I’m guessing that you’d probably want to time a visit for 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.

Experiencing Illilouette Fall – hiking part of the Panorama Trail to its best view

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.

Glacier_Point_007_06022011 - Partial view of Illilouette Fall as seen from Washburn Point
Partial view of Illilouette Fall as seen from Washburn Point

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 1,200ft in elevation.

Therefore, we had to get back all that elevation on the return hike to Glacier Point.

As a result, we were hiking at elevation (Glacier Point was said to be about 6600ft) so the air was a little bit thinner as well, and all that conspired to make this a deceptively strenuous hike.

Illilouette_Fall_012_05212004 - Full context of Half Dome and the Giant Stairway as seen along the Panorama Trail en route to the Illilouette Fall
Full context of Half Dome and the Giant Stairway as seen along the Panorama Trail en route to the Illilouette Fall

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.

Glacier_Point_054_06022011 - Context of the Panorama Trail with the Clark Range seen in the distance en route to the Illilouette Fall Lookout
Context of the Panorama Trail with the Clark Range seen in the distance en route to the Illilouette Fall Lookout

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 and well-used 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.

Illilouette_Fall_016_05212004 - Deer at the trail junction near the start of the steep part of the descent to Illilouette Fall
Deer at the trail junction near the start of the steep part of the descent to Illilouette Fall

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.

Illilouette_Fall_004_06012002 - Illilouette Fall seen partially from its closest lookout due to suboptimal positioning as a result of my fear of heights back in June 2002
Illilouette Fall seen partially from its closest lookout due to suboptimal positioning as a result of my fear of heights back in June 2002

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).

Illilouette_Fall_024_05212004 - Full view of Illilouette Fall taken in April 2004
Full view of Illilouette Fall taken in April 2004

I recalled that this wasn’t possible with our old point-and-shoot cameras, but I did manage it 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.

Illilouette_Creek_001_06012002 - Looking upstream at the Illilouette Creek from the footbridge upstream of the Illilouette Fall. If you find yourself here, then that means you went past the waterfall's best lookout
Looking upstream at the Illilouette Creek from the footbridge upstream of the Illilouette Fall. If you find yourself here, then that means you went past the waterfall’s best lookout

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 3,200ft 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.

Vernal_Nevada_Loop_013_06032011 - Illilouette Fall's profile seen from the John Muir Trail
Illilouette Fall’s profile seen from the John Muir Trail

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.

Experiencing Illilouette Fall – distant view from North Dome (Difficulty: 4.5)

North_Dome_073_07062002 - Context of Illilouette Fall and North Dome
Context of Illilouette Fall and North Dome

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 wasn’t the destination or goal in this excursion.

Indeed, it was really more about reaching the summit of North Dome while also being able to see Half Dome through the span of a rare natural arch (i.e. the Indian Rock Arch).

Indian_Rock_026_07062002 - Half Dome seen through the Indian Rock Arch
Half Dome seen through 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 trailhead parking area or pullout besides the road near signpost T19.

Once we found the right parking spot, 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 7,000ft or 8,000ft) plus the undulating nature of the hike, it was pretty tiring.

North_Dome_018_07062002 - Looking down at the summit of North Dome
Looking down at the summit of North Dome

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 trailhead.

Indian_Rock_017_07062002 - Looking up through the span of the Indian Rock Arch
Looking up through the span of the Indian Rock Arch

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.

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?!?

Authorities

Illilouette Fall resides in Yosemite National Park near El Portal in Mariposa County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Glacier_Point_089_06022011 - Some residual snow obscuring the path to the Panorama Trail during our visit in June 2011
Glacier_Point_047_06022011 - Crossing a creek on the Panorama Trail. I think this creek might be responsible for the ephemeral 'Glacier Point Falls'. This picture was taken in June 2011 which was a high snowpack year
Glacier_Point_052_06022011 - Looking down towards Vernal Fall from the Panorama Trail during our June 2011 hike to Illilouette Fall
Glacier_Point_056_06022011 - Looking back along the Panorama Trail towards the backside of Half Dome on our June 2011 hike to Illilouette Fall
Glacier_Point_071_06022011 - Looking down at Illilouette Fall from its main lookout in June 2011
Glacier_Point_079_06022011 - Context of Illilouette Fall and the backside of Half Dome in June 2011
Glacier_Point_084_06022011 - Tree that became part of the Panorama Trail during a recent visit in June 2011. It just goes to show you that conditions change as I had never recalled seeing this in any of my previous visits
Illilouette_Fall_001_05212004 - Looking down towards Nevada Fall from the Panorama Trail during our May 2004 hike to Illilouette Fall
Illilouette_Fall_004_05212004 - Looking towards the Giant Stairway during our May 2004 hike to Illilouette Fall
Illilouette_Fall_013_05212004 - During our May 2004 hike to Illilouette Fall, the Panorama Trail had this fallen tree obstacle that we had to get through
Illilouette_Fall_026_05212004 - Full view of Illilouette Fall during our May 2004 visit
Illilouette_Fall_036_05212004 - Looking back at the final descent towards the Illilouette revealing a partial view of it as we were headed back up to Glacier Point during our May 2004 hike
Illilouette_Fall_002_03202004 - Profile view of Illilouette Fall from the John Muir Trail as seen in March 2004
Illilouette_Fall_001_06012002 - Partial view of Illilouette Fall
Illilouette_Fall_005_06012002 - Looking towards Illilouette Fall from the John Muir Trail during our Panorama Trail hike in June 2002
North_Dome_Trailhead_002_06042004 - The North Dome trailhead by signpost T19 along the Tioga Road. We did this hike back in July 2002
North_Dome_Trailhead_001_06042004 - A trail sign indicating that we did indeed find the right place to hike to North Dome
North_Dome_002_07062002 - A snowflower seen along our North Dome hike back in July 2002
North_Dome_004_07062002 - A bonus of our North Dome hike back in July 2002 was that we got an in-your-face view of Half Dome
North_Dome_010_07062002 - Descending to the summit of North Dome in July 2002
North_Dome_012_07062002 - Full context of North Dome and the descent to get there during our July 2002 hike
North_Dome_014_07062002 - Looking over Basket Dome towards Clouds Rest during our North Dome hike in July 2002
North_Dome_021_07062002 - Looking towards the head of Tenaya Canyon during our hike to North Dome in July 2002
North_Dome_022_07062002 - Frontal view of Half Dome from North Dome in July 2002
North_Dome_031_07062002 - Looking down into Yosemite Valley from the summit of North Dome in July 2002
Indian_Rock_003_07062002 - Looking up at the Indian Rock Arch during our hike to North Dome in July 2002
Indian_Rock_011_07062002 - If you're hiking to North Dome, it's worth this side trip to Indian Rock Arch, which is the only place you can see Half Dome through the span of a natural arch
Indian_Rock_011_07062002 - Getting even closer to the Indian Rock Arch during our hike to North Dome in July 2002
Indian_Rock_027_07062002 - Looking through the Indian Rock Arch towards Half Dome during our North Dome hike back in July 2002
Indian_Rock_030_07062002 - Looking towards some of the Yosemite High Country scenery from the Indian Rock Arch on our North Dome hike in July 2002

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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.

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.

Top down sweep starting from Half Dome and ending at Illilouette Falls


Fixated on the falls from its only direct viewpoint


Sweep from right to left starting at Illilouette Fall and ending at a partial view of the Giant Stairway


Bottom up sweep of the profile of Illilouette Falls from the John Muir Trail near Happy Isles

Tagged with: yosemite, mariposa, illilouette, merced, half dome, california, waterfall, glacier point, washburn point, panorama trail, north dome, sierra



Visitor Comments:

Ill-e-lu-wan-nee January 18, 2015 2:37 pm by Janene Waggoner Flad - My dad and I hiked these trails many times in the 1940s 1950s. We were told the Indians pronounced it I Ill- e - lu- wan- née. The trail from Happy Isles all around the three falls is breathtaking. Anyway, I was 7 years old the first time we hiked these trails. Adults complain about… ...Read More

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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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