Waterwheel Falls could very well be the most unusual waterfall in Yosemite. What made this waterfall so unusual was that it featured a big waterwheel (where water jumps into a groove or depression then gets thrown high in the sky as the water leaves the groove or depression before continuing downstream). Indeed, it was one of those rare waterfalls where we cared more about how far up the water was thrown instead of how far down it dropped.
And while LeConte Falls also featured waterwheels, that one had the quantity of small- and medium-sized waterwheels, but this one had the big massive one! If I had to guess I’d say its waterwheel could have approached 30ft in height (just from looking at trees closest to the waterwheel). Anyhow, there was no doubting that this was indeed the real deal, especially after comparing its GPS waypoint with my topo map.From what I can recall, signs near Glen Aulin say it was about 3.3 miles from there to Waterwheel Falls. However, below the last waterfall, we went as far as Return Creek where there was trail signage indicating we had gone 11 miles from Tuolumne Meadows thereby establishing the maximum distance we hiked (if we went by the signs here). So if one were to tally up the overall distance from Tuolumne Meadows at the start to this waterfall at the end, I’m guessing it’s around 20 miles round trip with 1900ft elevation loss. However, I admit that our notion of distance was probably a bit sketchy at this point.
The long hike passed by four main waterfalls on the Tuolumne River, which were Tuolumne Falls, The White Cascade (Glen Aulin Falls), California Falls, and LeConte Falls, respectively. Each of these waterfalls have their own detailed trail descriptions so if you’re interested in reading about what the trail was like to get up to LeConte Falls (the last waterfall prior to Waterwheel Falls), then please consult the content in those pages in order.So continuing the descent from LeConte Falls (which seemed to be easily confused with Waterwheel Falls due to it also having waterwheels), the trail descended rather steeply as we were able to get profile views of the sloping cascade along with its waterwheels. Eventually, the trail leveled off a little beyond LeConte Falls, but then it didn’t take long before we hit the next descent, which was even steeper than that of LeConte Falls. At the beginning of this descent, we were already directly above Waterwheel Falls, and according to our GPS track log, it was an additional 1/4- to 1/2-mile hike between LeConte Falls and Waterwheel Falls.
During our visit, we came just in time to see its massive waterwheel produce enough mist in the air to create a bright and full arcing rainbow. And while checking out the waterwheel from here was a treat, it was definitely worth continuing a bit more the descent on the main trail to get additional views of Waterwheel Falls as well as appreciate its context.
To remove any doubt that there were more worthwhile waterfalls on this day hike, my Mom and I actually made it to the bottom of this steep descent into the head of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. We would ultimately make it to a bridge over Return Creek though the whitewater on the Tuolumne River continued rushing further downstream.
Return Creek was our turnaround point, and a sign nearby indicated that it was 11 miles to return to the Tuolumne Meadows (meaning it would be 22 miles round trip if we were to start hiking back now). And just to give you an idea of how vigorous Waterwheel Falls was, we actually saw mist rising high above the trees as we gazed up the river from the Return Creek vicinity.
So in summary, we ended up partaking in a grueling 22-mile marathon (especially when done in a day as my Mom and I managed to do in June 2004). You may ask: how was it possible to pull off such a long hike in one day? Well, the strategy my Mom and I employed (besides getting an early start) was to go directly to Waterwheel Falls as soon as possible, then slowly make our way back up to the trailhead while enjoying the waterfalls on the return. The major waterfalls seen on the way back up also acted as rest breaks since the hike back was all uphill. Coupling the seemingly endless string of waterfalls and cascades with the backcountry beauty of the high country compelled by Mom and I to consider this excursion one our most memorable ever.
The trailhead for this waterfall is shared with that of Tuolumne Falls, White Cascade, California Falls, and LeConte Falls. But since this waterfall is a significant excursion by itself, we’re reproducing the directions given for the Tuolumne Falls page.
The Glen Aulin trailhead is about 7 miles west of Tioga Pass (where the Summer-only Eastern Entrance is) along Route 120. Although it can get a bit crowded here, we were able to find parking along the side of the spur road leaving Route 120 near Lembert Dome (near signpost T32). Additionally, if you don’t mind walking an additional mile, you also can park at the official backpacker’s permit station further east along Route 120 where there seems to be plenty of parking space. Day trippers may also consider parking in one of the pullouts near Tuolumne Meadows (signpost T29).
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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