Southern Yosemite: Chilnualna Falls

May 24th-26th, 2003
Distance: 15mi
Elevation Gain: 4250ft

Red=backpacking, days 1 and 3
(4.6mi 2600ft each)

Blue=day hike, day 1
(1.3mi, 600ft)

Green="day hike," day 2
(4.5mi, 1050ft)

This was a Stanford Outing Club trip led by Arturo Crespo.

Trip Participants: Arturo (leader), Arun Sharma, Chris Jacobs, Johnny Ng, Li Moore, Liz Pang, Louis Perrochon, Carine and Roman Marxer.

The original plan was to do the loop around Buena Vista Peak (35mi). I was worry about early season conditions as we had a very late heavy snow falls (at the end of April) and very high temperatures. My concerns were pot-holing snow (so we carry snowshoes), avalanche danger, and high water levels. It happened that this las factor was the critical one (together with a person getting sick the first day), and this trip turned into a leisure 15mi backpacking trip.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Lower Chilnualna Falls

After meeting the group at the Ranger Station by the Wawona hotel in Yosemite National Park, we got our wilderness permit and we did the short drive to the Chilnualna Falls trailhead. Just a few meters from the trailhead, there is an outstanding view of Lower Chilnualna falls (the top can be reached in less than 20 minutes). I would higly recommend this short hike to casual visitors of Yosemite National Park.

Picture by Arturo Crespo

The hike to Upper Chilnualna Falls is strenuous on a trail that starts in the forest, but after half-way up becomes exposed and sunny. From the trail, there are stunning views of the forests around Wawona, as well as the tiny hamlet of Wawona (a private community within the park, not to be confused by the hotel).

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Upper Chilnualna Falls

Chilnualna Falls is the highest waterfall outside the valley and, although dwarfed by Yosemite Falls, it's 240 foot drop are breathtaking. A well worth day hike from Wawona (specially in the early season) that avoids all the valley crowds.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Easy creek crossing

Soon after Upper Chilnualna Falls, the trail branches. We followed the right (North East) branch that required an easy creek crossing. Despite this being an intermittent creek, it was carrying enough water to justify crossing on a big log. This crossing was heralding the much more trickier river crossings that were awaiting to us.

Soon after crossing the creek, intermittent snow (at 6500ft) started appearing, but it was easy going and the trail was quite obvious. After 0.5 miles, we reached our first "real" creek crossing. Just a quick look confirmed my fears that the crossing was going to be impossible. After regrouping, we explore a little bit looking for a log that could be used to cross it, but every log we found was under the very fast, very cold, high water of the creek. Not being able to cross, we decided to continue cross country, parallel to the creek, with the hope of rejoining the trail later upstream (the trail goes back to the West bank after 1.5mi).

While we were hiking cross country, we found a person that looks very familiar to me. After talking for a while, I realized that I read his website, The Backcountry, while planning this trip. Last year, he tried the loop that we were attempting, but he was stop by heavy snow. This year, he was trying again, a little bit later, but it was now high water what was threatening his trip.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Bear's garlic a.k.a. Ramp (the green grass in the picture)

As we were hiking, we were surprised to smell garlic. I tried to find out where the smell was coming from, but I couldn't find the source. Eventually, Louis found that the small came from the grass in the picture (which Roman identified as Bear's garlic). Later, I found that Bear's garlic is a European plant and we we found was actually a close relative, native of North America, called Ramp.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Base Camp

At about 6800ft, it was obvious that the person in our group that was already lagging behind was getting sicker. After an attempt of lightening his load (by distributing his gear among everybody), we gained a few more vertical feet, but he was getting worse. It looks to me like a classical case of dehydration combined with altitude sickness and exhaustion, so we decided to set camp. After scouting for a while, Liz and Louis found an incredible spot: complete with a firering, views of a cascade and easy access to a small creek. We set up camp, made the sick person as comfortable as possible and decided to go for a day hike.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Buena Vista Peak

For the day hike, we went cross-country trying to reach the ridge that borders the Chilnualna creek drainage to the West. While hiking uphill, I entertained the group with a lesson about identifying Sierra pine trees. After some scrambling and fun hiking, we arrived to a ridge with a nice view of Buena Vista Peak. Although the original plan was to hike around it, this was the only view we got of it.

Day 2: A backpacking push turned into a day hike with packs

On the second day, I thought it was going to be possible for us to get to one of the lakes near Buena Vista peak. The big unknown was if the river crossings, further upstream, were going to be easier (i.e., not impossible) than the ones we had found. Also, the person that got sick was much better, so we lifted camp, loaded our backpacks, and headed North. We didn't know that later that day we were going to go back to the very same camp where we were starting from...

Picture by Arturo Crespo

Picture by Arun Sharma
Chilnualna Creek crossing

The plan was to hike to a fork of the Chilnualna Creek. Although, we would have to cross the "main" creek, maybe the volume of water was lower. Unfortunately, when we got there, we realized that the creek was far too dangerous to ford. After looking around, we found a log across the creek. I first crossed the creek, without my packs, to check out if it was do-able and safe. The log was slippery due to the water spray from the very fast creek, so I didn't allow people to walk, although the only one that was brave enough to insist on walking was Liz (but at the end I was able to dissuade her of doing it). Given that this crossing was quite dangerous, we also had 2 people down the stream by two eddies where people most likely will be carried out if they would fall into the water.

After getting everybody safely to the other side, I crossed back, got my pack and crossed the creek on the log to join the group.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Chilnualna Creek Snowy banks

After crossing the creek, we hike on snow until we found the trail heading to the lakes. After a leisure lunch, we reached the split between the trail that goes to the lakes and the trail that circles back to Chilnualna Falls. There was some concern about the speed of the group and how fast we were able to go back the following day, so we changed our plan and decided to do the small loop. Unfortunately, this new plan would involve yet another two creek crossing which we didn't know if it was going to be possible or not.

After an enjoyable hike through the forest, we arrive back to Chilnualna Creek, which was much smaller than further downstream (and in my opinion could have been somewhat-safely ford), but we decided to be conservative and go back to previous night camp through the log that we crossed before (meaning that I was going to cross the log 6 times!!!).

Picture by Arturo Crespo

Picture by Li Moore
Chilnualna Creek crossing

How deep was the snow?

While hiking parallel to the creek back to the log, we found a significant amount of the snow, so we downed our snowshoes and enjoy the snow. A highlight was Carine showing us how to "ski" with a snowshoes, a feat that some of us tried to imitate with limited success.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Chris's Lightweight Shelter

Back to camp, Chris decided to work on his lightweight shelter, while the rest of us just basked in the sun and enjoy the scenery. [For the record, Chris's shelter survived the night.]

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Dinner time near cascades

Day 3: Going home

The last day, we woke up at a late time for the short hike out to the cars.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Beautiful Chilnualna Creek

The hike down almost felt as if we were in a different trail. The views were amazing and very quickly we were greeted by the impressive Chilnualna Falls.

Picture by Arturo Crespo
I'm the king of the world!

Picture by Arturo Crespo
Rainbow on Upper Chilnualna Falls

We stopped for an early lunch at the Falls when we got treated of an impressive double rainbow produced by the mist of the waterfall. A perfect ending for a very enjoyable trip.

Do you want more Pictures? Follow these links:
Arturo's Pictures
Arun's Pictures
Chris' Pictures
Johnny's Pictures
Li's Pictures (requires ofoto registration)
Louis' Pictures
Roman's Pictures

© 2003 Arturo Crespo