We are happy to share this staff pick content from the Yosemite Conservancy member Carolyn Botell, who hiked to the top cascades of Chilnulna Falls and gratefully offered some insights of this famous and beautiful Southern Yosemite hike in Wawona.
The hike to Chilnualna Falls has been on my “must do” list for quite a while. Located near the south entrance to Yosemite, Chilnualna Falls is a series of waterfalls totaling 690 feet. The trail is not particularly steep, but it is a steady uphill climb. This is a great day hike (about 8.5 miles round trip), with views well worth the effort. I highly recommend it and can’t wait to hike it again.
As you climb the trail’s winding switchbacks, you will find new vantage points at each turn. There are places where you can see down to Wawona Meadow and up to Wawona Point. The trail also offers glimpses of the creek and the fall, with the music of the creek providing a welcoming sound. The path winds in and out of tree cover, (mostly oak and pine), so you’ll have a perfect balance of sun and shade, no matter what time of year you visit. If you’re hiking this trail in winter, keep your eyes open for birds. I saw two pileated woodpeckers on this hike!
To reach the trail, locate the Wawona Store on Hwy 41. Drive north, crossing a bridge over the Merced River. About 100 yards after the bridge, take your first right, turning onto Chilnualna Falls Road. In roughly 1.5 miles, the trailhead parking lot will be on your right. There are pit toilets at the trailhead parking lot. After you park, walk back up Chilnualna Falls Road and hike another 100 yards to reach the trailhead. Take the right fork for hikers (the left fork is for horses) and enjoy a series of scenic views, passing several smaller cascades.
After a few miles of long switchbacks, you will reach a series of steep granite steps. Rounding a corner at the top of these steps, you will arrive at the upper fall, with cascades and pools below. The area is lined by rock shelves, perfect for a picnic lunch in the sun. Although it’s tempting to lean out to catch glimpses of the lower fall, please stay back from the edge. It is a sharp drop, and the rocks are slippery.
Tips for the Trail:
The Chilnuala Falls Trail is fairly strenuous, with a relentless climb. Make sure you’re in good shape and allow plenty of time to get back before nightfall (about 4-6 hours). Better yet, hike with a flashlight just in case you need to return to your car at dusk. Pack plenty of snacks and water for the long hike.
This hike is enjoyable at any time of year. If you go in spring, Chilnualna Falls will be at “peak flow,” which is an impressive sight. You will also find three streams crossing the path in spring – look for log crossings to stay dry.
If you choose to go in winter, watch out for ice from the waterfall spray, particularly at the top of the trail and on the granite stairs. If it has been a snowy year, you may want to bring strap-on cleats for your boots, and walking poles or sticks. Days are also shorter in winter, so allow time for the return trip and keep up a good pace.
Submitted by: Carolyn Botell, Yosemite Conservancy Theater and Programs Promotion Assistant