Back to index Waterwheel Falls Hike
Trip Date:  08/19/2016

: 6.5 Miles

Vertical Gain: 1200'

Group Size: 2
Hike Rating:  Easy   Moderate    Hard   Strenuous
Waterwheel Falls Hike
Download GPX GPX for this trip
Waterwheel Falls Elevation Profile
Start Coordinates:   N 37 54.541, W 119 25.146 - Location of Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, 7 miles from the nearest parking area.     End Coordinates:   Same as Start Coordinates

Car Shuttle Req'd:   No Parking Directions:   Take Highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) into Yosemite National Park.  Parking for the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp is available at the Wilderness Permit office near Lembert Dome and there is other trailhead parking along the road.
Hazards of Note:   Significant elevation loss and then gain over the 3.5 miles out and then 3.5 miles back to Glen Aulin. Crowd Factor:   sModerate.  Glen Aulin is a popular destination within Yosemite, but Waterwheel Falls is a long hike out of the way for those heading elsewhere from the High Sierra Camp location.
General Notes:
From Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, take the first bridge to the north back across the river, and then turn right onto the Pacific Crest Trail.  There is then a junction just a couple hundred feet up the trail on the left, pointing to Waterwheel Falls a little more than 3 miles to the north.  Head up the small ridge past the sunset rock on your left which is popular with the overnight campers and the trail then heads down the granite along the east side of the Tuolumne River.  This is the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, which heads down for miles until it reaches the start of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir at the far end.  Across the river early on is the original location for the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, which was moved to the current location for a few reasons such as there incessant mosquitos during the early summer.  
After a mile you will reach California Falls, and then the trail begins to drop down along the river in earnest.  The rest of the way down to Waterwheel Falls is more of the same, until you reach the namesake location.

Looking back at the Glen Aulin bridge over the Tuolumne River near the very beginning of the hike. Glen Aulin bridge
After a short first climb up to 'Sunset Rock' south of the High Sierra Camp, the old location of the Glen Aulin camp can be seen just across the river.
Into the canyon 
The first part of the trail is very flat with little elevation change, following along the east side of the Tuolumne as it gently meanders along this section. Start of the canyon
Looking back up the river from the way you came offers no hint as to the raging river and drop in elevation which awaits not too much further ahead. Serene River 
After a mile the trail winds through some exceptionally large granite boulders which have fallen from high above, as well as this smooth granite 'ramp' on the east side of the trail. Granite 
Some impressive granite monoliths line the trail on either side as you pass through the ever-deepening canyon heading down to the falls. More granite
Halfway down the trail is California Falls, which can be heard from the trail but only seen partially through obscured views.  A small, but obvious use path off to the left will take you on a slight detour to a much better view of the falls.
California Falls 
Some of the granite in open areas along the trail have been smoothed by glacial movement to almost impossible smoothness. Smooth Granite 
Just about to the falls the canyon begins to drop off significantly, and many people have been known to mistakenly continue on down to the bridge over Return Creek 1/2 mile distant.  Here Mark is checking out the best place for us to hang out at the falls. Nearing the falls 
Just at Waterwheel Falls, the view further into the canyon is truly spectacular, and begs for further exploration in the area on a future trip.
Into the Canyon
A first glance at Waterwheel falls as we approached it from the east side.  Others in the area actually crossed the river before the falls and scrambled along the rocks on the other side of the river as well. Waterwheel Falls 
Although the water was a little low in late August, the waterwheel effect was still visible as the dropping water hit hard off flat ledges on the way down, bouncing back up and being caught by the wind coming up the canyon to effectively create the Waterwheel Effect the falls are named for. Closer look
After a long hike to Glen Aulin and then down this canyon, Mark found a nice spot for us to soak our feet before we turned around to head back up the 3 1/2 miles to camp. Upper part of falls
The upper section of the falls area, where we found a good spot to soak our feet before the return trip. Our soak spot
GPS Track of the full hike. GPS Track of Hike