Yosemite's Chilnualna Falls offers remote beauty

Park has several great waterfalls off beaten path.

May 11, 2011 

This is the time of year when everyone and their uncle flocks to Yosemite Valley to view waterfalls at their gushing best.

And for good reason. Iconic falls such as Yosemite, Bridalveil and Vernal, plus lesser-knowns such as Ribbon, Sentinel and Snow Creek, are big right now and will only get bigger once we get several consecutive days of hot weather.

But the valley doesn't own a monopoly. There are plenty of waterfalls in other areas of the park that while not as majestic offer the additional enticement of solitude. In a place as popular as Yosemite, that's a pretty fair trade-off.

Located in the Wawona area, Chilnualna Falls is a prime example of an off-the-beaten-path waterfall, even if it's really not all that far from the highway. The falls aren't exactly a secret, but they're also seldom overrun with crowds.

So lace up those hiking shoes and from the trailhead at the end of Chilnualna Falls Road climb about 200 yards to the first of many encounters with Chilnualna Creek, which houses a series of beautiful cascades.

Before long, the trail becomes less steep while ascending through a forest of ponderosa pines and incense cedars. The pungent scent of bear clover, which blooms in abundance, bombards your nose while the sound of gushing water fills your ears.

At 2 miles, the trail reaches a small clearing with a commanding view of Wawona Dome. From here, it's mostly level until you approach the first of a dozen switchbacks. Keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Chilnualna Falls high above on the cliff wall.

Soon, the entire length of the main falls comes into view, albeit from a distance. A rocky traverse then brings you almost to its very brink, which tumbles some 240 feet into a small, confined chute.

After climbing 2,400 feet in 4 miles, it's tempting to turn around here. But continue another quarter-mile until the trail emerges above a splendid 60-foot cascade. About 100 yards to the right of the granite-lined trail and alongside the creek is a great area for relaxing and swimming (only in summer when flows are mellow).

Due to its relatively low elevations and some exposed sections, parts of the trail can get broiling hot. So hike while it's still cool or be prepared to carry (or treat) plenty of water.

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresno bee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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