LeConte Falls starts off as mostly a long series of featureless cascades until its main drop. In its main drop, the Tuolumne River slides down a fifty-degree slope with potholes backed by rocks. The result is water thrown up as it tumbles towards the bottom resulting in the illusion of waterwheels. In a strange twist, this was one of the few waterfalls we’re aware of where we care more about how high up the water was being thrown as opposed to how far down the water fell!
Given the presence of its waterwheels, many people mistake this waterfall for Waterwheel Falls. How do I know this? Well after my Memorial Day backpacking trip in 2004, I got home and downloaded my GPS waypoints onto the digital topo map. You could imagine my disappointment when I found out that we were short of the real Waterwheel Falls by less than a mile! So, I did what any waterfall nut would do and went back the following week… (click here to read more about my Waterwheel Falls escapades).
Now in all fairness, I don’t blame anyone for getting this waterfall and Waterwheel Falls confused. After all, you could make the argument that this waterfall has sections that look more like waterwheels than the giant “wheel” on Waterwheel Falls. Heck, even Ann Marie Brown got it wrong in the 2nd edition of her book.
This waterfall is roughly a half-mile further downstream of California Falls (or at least 3 miles from the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp). By now, we would have passed by Tuolumne Falls, White Cascade (or Glen Aulin Falls), and California Falls. You can read the trail description leading up to LeConte Falls by visiting their respective pages in order.
Now beyond California Falls, the series of whitewater rapids and cascades continued while the trail descended alongside it as if it was trying to keep up. There were lots of giant boulders and trees blocking satisfactory views of this cascading stretch as we were only able to see bits and pieces of the Tuolumne River during this stretch. I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t know what you were looking for, it’d be hard to tell where California Falls ends and where LeConte Falls begins.
Fortunately, we eventually got to a part where there was a fairly obvious spur trail leading to the left taking us through a shady grove of trees and putting us right in the middle of the sloping LeConte Falls. And it was here that we were able to look down towards the series of lower waterwheels that mades this waterfall stand out. The only thing we had to watch out for was the slippery granite and relatively steep slope of this vantage point.
To give you some context, this hike is accessible when the Tioga Road has been mostly snow free, which also means we would be able to access the trailhead from Mammoth Lakes (roughly an hours drive; Hwy 120 turnoff from Hwy 395 is just south of Lee Vining). Mammoth Lakes is roughly 5 hours drive from Los Angeles via the Hwy 14 and Hwy 395.
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