Rancheria Falls appeared to us like a series of waterfalls and cascades each with apparent spots to take a dip in the cold water and cool off. From what we could tell, there wasn’t a singular waterfall that we could pin down and proclaim it to be the named waterfall.
In order to access the falls from the trailhead at the O’Shaughnessy Dam, we had to hike 14 miles round trip with 1500ft elevation gain, which would take us the better part of a whole day. It turned out that there really wasn’t an opportunity to swim until we reached these falls so perhaps that was what made them so significant, especially considering how hot it could get in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Although the waterfalls themselves weren’t spectacular like most of the other waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, this hike really gave us an excuse to experience a taste of some of the backcountry scenery of the Hetch Hetchy area beyond what most visitors would do (which was to hike to only Wapama Falls and back).
For the trail description of the first 2.5 miles, see the Wapama Falls page. We pick up the trail description from beyond the Wapama Falls footbridges.It turned out that after Wapama Falls, there would be no close contact with water for over the next 2.5 miles. This stretch of trail went in and out of some much needed shade (given the heat and dryness of the valley), but what really taxed us was the elevation change. Indeed, we ended up climbing about 1200ft in this stretch over a combination of switchbacks and straight uphills.
To offset some of the physical (and mental) exertion, we were also treated to unusual views of the reservoir as well as direct views of Kolana Rock. When we looked back towards the dam, we were able to see both Tueeulala Falls (which was barely flowing on our visit) and the bottom part of Wapama Falls both spilling adding to the reservoir. And as we proceeded to go further on the trail, we were also starting to see the headwaters of the reservoir, which was not visible from the dam given the bending nature of the valley.
Finally at about 2.5 miles from Wapama Falls, the trail descended some switchbacks before it finally traversed Tilltill Creek over a pair of footbridges. This downhill stretch would become the only uphill stretch on the return, but it was a significant enough elevation change that it also made the return hike a bit more challenging. Anyways, immediately below the bridges traversing Tilltill Creek, we saw an impressive 40-50ft waterfall, but it was certainly not Rancheria Falls.Reinvigorated by the close encounter with rushing water and the cooling spray from the creek, we then had to climb up some more switchbacks immediately beyond the bridges. At the top of this short climb, the trail flattened out and after about a half-mile from Tilltill Creek, we started to hear and see the lower cascades of Rancheria Falls.
The first cascade dropped in a few small plunges before sliding down a slanted granite sheet providing an apron-like characteristic. We saw a pair of young male hikers zoom past us and went straight for the pool at the base of this waterfall so I wondered whether that apron might also act like a natural waterslide or if those dudes were just going there to spend lots of time in the water.
Further up the trail, we reached a fork where the path on the right led to the Rancheria Falls campground. This was a primitive backcountry camping area that apparently had a reputation of black bears that were particularly adept at stealing food from backpackers. Since we only dayhiked here, we can’t say much more about what it would be like, especially with the bears, but we could easily envision how much of an ideal location this spot was.
Anyways, as we walked through the open spaces of the camping area, we then reached the shores of Rancheria Creek where we noticed another slanting cascade barely visible in profile to us before the river twisted and face us in a short pair of split drops. Although I couldn’t get a satisfactory photo of this section of the falls, I considered this to be the second main cascade or waterfall belonging to Rancheria Falls.
Back on the main trail, we continued to go uphill passing by the Tilltill Valley Trail junction and remaining on the Rancheria Falls trail (bearing right). The path remained close to Rancheria Creek until the trail eventually crossed it over a footbridge. Before reaching the footbridge, we could see the next series of cascades tumbling below the bridge. And when we stood on the footbridge, we looked upstream to see a few more small cascades and falls tumbling towards us.
Beyond the bridge, signs indicated that it would eventually reach Pleasant Valley, which was deep in the wilderness. However, this footbridge was our turnaround point. As mentioned earlier, it was pretty much all downhill on the way back except for the climb beyond the Tilltill Creek footbridges. I also recalled seeing a rattlesnake slithering across the trail near the backpacker’s camp, which was the first time I ever had a close encounter with the venemous reptile (attesting to hot and arid climate of this region).
Just to give you an idea of the time commitment for doing this hike, we started around 9am, but we didn’t finish until at least 5pm.
Since Rancheria Falls shares the same trailhead for both Tueeulala and Wapama Falls, see the Wapama Falls page for driving directions.
As mentioned earlier on this page, for a trail description of the first 2.5 miles from the dam to Wapama Falls, see the Wapama Falls page.
For some context, Hetch Hetchy would take us around 7 hours of driving from Los Angeles via Fresno, Oakhurst, Wawona, and Yosemite Valley. From San Francisco, it would take us roughly 4 hours of driving directly to Hetch Hetchy via Mather.
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