Alder Creek Falls probably gets my vote as the truly "secret" or "hidden" waterfall of Yosemite National Park. It has an unsigned trailhead, requires an eight-mile round-trip out-and-back hike, and hardly exists in the literature. It's also a pleasant 100-150ft waterfall (just a guess) so it's no slouch as far as legitimate waterfalls are concerned.
I can vividly remember this waterfall and the hike to get to it. That's because I not only proposed to my wife here, but we also had our very first close encounter with a bear just moments afterwards! Talk about a memorable proposal story!
The overall hike is about 8.2 miles round trip with most of the 1000ft elevation gain in the first 3/4-mile. Towards the end of the first mile, we reached a trail junction where we continued to the left. At this point, the trail flattened out and meandered for quite some time amongst the silence and serenity of the forest. I could remember hearing the wood thumping from woodpeckers as well as birds chirping and singing away.
Eventually, we reached a part where we could see remnants of some old railroad tracks. We not only saw wooden planks crossing our path, but we also noticed some steel cables off to the side as well as a stretch of trail that might have been cleared or blasted to make room for the tracks (as evidenced by the rubble flanking the path). It wasn't until after we went through the railroad remnants did we finally start to hear the rushing waters of Alder Creek (roughly 4 miles from the trailhead).
Ultimately, as the trail got closer to Alder Creek, we were able to see the impressive Alder Creek Falls making its impressive drop into a forested canyon below. Due to the presence of those trees, we were never really able to get a totally clean look at the waterfall (though we still did see most of it). The trail continued further along the rim of this canyon eventually going past the top of the waterfall, but that was our turnaround point as we had no interest in continuing on towards Deer Camp or other backcountry spots.
On a second visit with my parents, we actually found a steep descent along some very loose boulders leading us into the canyon where we at least got in front of the main drop of Alder Creek Falls. However, after having done it, I'd have to say that it was definitely not for everyone and could be very dangerous (especially given the instability of the loose boulders we relied on). I'll let you decide from looking at the photos below if you think it's worth the risk or not.
All in all, both times I partook on this hike, it took us around 4 or 5 hours total. The path was well shaded so we never really felt uncomfortably hot despite the length of the hike.
To get to the rather hidden trailhead from the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park, drive north on Hwy 41 for about 4.2 miles past the Wawona Campground. There is a large hairpin turn near the usually dry Mosquito Creek. Look for a yellow 25mph hairpin turn sign which is a useful landmark just before the hairpin turn of interest.
There may be a Mosquito Creek sign at this hairpin turn (which was the case when I first visited the waterfall in May 2003), but the sign was gone on subsequent trips in 2005 and thereafter. The hairpin turn has pullouts on either side of the road, but the trail begins on its east side (so if you're on the west side of the road, be careful when crossing because oncoming cars can't see you at this blind turn). You'll know you're on the right trail when you see a wilderness sign as well as signs showing distances, especially one for "Alder Creek."
For some context, to get to Wawona (within Yosemite National Park) from Los Angeles, we'd typically drive on the I-5 north to the Grapevine, then Hwy 99 north to Fresno (taking us between 3-4 hours of driving). Next, we'd take the Hwy 41 from Fresno through the smaller towns of Coarsegold, Oakhurst, and Fish Camp before reaching the hamet of Wawona after about 66 miles (90 minutes drive). Overall, the entire drive would take us roughly 4.5 to 5 hours.
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