Waterwheel Falls

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

About Waterwheel Falls

Hiking Distance: 16 miles round trip
Suggested Time: at least 14 hours

Date first visited: 2004-05-30
Date last visited: 2004-06-05

Waterfall Latitude: 37.92727
Waterfall Longitude: -119.45829

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

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).

Waterwheel_Falls_004_06052004 - Waterwheel Falls
Waterwheel Falls

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.

However, 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.

Waterwheel_Falls_069_06052004 - Contextual view of the profile of Waterwheel Falls
Contextual view of the profile of Waterwheel Falls

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.

One Hike, Many Waterfalls

LeConte_Falls_007_05302004 - The waterwheels on LeConte Falls
The waterwheels on LeConte Falls

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.

Waterwheel_Falls_074_06052004 - Profile of the big waterwheel
Profile of the big waterwheel

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.

Waterwheel_Falls_042_06052004 - Approaching the bridge over Return Creek further downstream of Waterwheel Falls
Approaching the bridge over Return Creek further downstream of Waterwheel Falls

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).

Our Marathon Hike Strategy

You may ask: how was it possible to pull off such a long hike in one day?

Waterwheel_Falls_073_06052004 - Looking into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River from Waterwheel Falls in June 2004. We turned around before going too deep into this canyon
Looking into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River from Waterwheel Falls in June 2004. We turned around before going too deep into this canyon

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.


Waterwheel Falls resides in Yosemite National Park near Mammoth Lakes in Mono County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Tuolumne_Meadows_002_06052004 - Tuolumne Meadows shortly after dawn.  We had to be early risers and stick to the plan in order to successfully pull off what turned out to be a 22-mile day hike
Tuolumne_Meadows_004_06052004 - A log structure surrounding what we think is Soda Springs
Tuolumne_Meadows_011_06052004 - Even though there was no time to waste, we still had to pay attention to the trail, especially where it was all granite like this section where we had to look for rock cairns
Glen_Aulin_004_06052004 - Looking back up towards Tuolumne Falls
Glen_Aulin_008_06052004 - Morning rainbow at the White Cascade (or Glen Aulin Falls)
LeConte_Falls_015_06052004 - We had time to re-visit the waterwheels of LeConte Falls
Waterwheel_Falls_008_06052004 - Just in time to see the double rainbow caused by Waterwheel Falls
Waterwheel_Falls_045_06052004 - Looking up at the mist thrown up by Waterwheel Falls from the bridge at Return Creek
Waterwheel_Falls_046_06052004 - Looking downstream at the Tuolumne River from our turnaround point
Waterwheel_Falls_049_06052004 - Hiking back over the bridge crossing Return Creek
Waterwheel_Falls_050_06052004 - Sign indicating that we had 11 miles to go
Waterwheel_Falls_065_06052004 - Profile view of Waterwheel Falls
Waterwheel_Falls_081_06052004 - Looking down at the big waterwheel of Waterwheel Falls
LeConte_Falls_025_06052004 - Distant profile of LeConte Falls as we were ascending the trail
Mattie_Falls_007_06052004 - On the calm section of trail as we bypassed California Falls (having seen it the previous week)
Glen_Aulin_Falls_027_05302004 - Back at White Cascade with afternoon rainbow
Glen_Aulin_025_06052004 - Back at Tuolumne Falls with nice afternoon rainbow
Glen_Aulin_031_06052004 - Mom crossing over the footbridge traversing the Tuolumne River
Tuolumne_Meadows_012_06052004 - Finally made it back to the trailhead near Lembert Dome

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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Tagged with: tuolumne, mariposa county, high country, yosemite, tioga, sierra, california, waterfall, glen aulin, waterwheel, tuolumne meadows

Visitor Comments:

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Glen Aulin Hike (Waterwheel Falls) August 2, 2008 10:00 pm by Mike Gregg - I've never been on a hike more than a mile or two, but I found your site and was inspired to go out to Yosemite and do the Waterwheel trek via Glen Aulin from Tuolomne Meadows. I did it in one day as well, and had a great time. The only downer was that my… ...Read More

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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning 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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