Summary: A great walk to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley, the Chilnualna Falls Trail climbs steeply up past multiple cascades. Nice swimming holes and views at the top.

As we’re staying at Fish Camp at the southern end of Yosemite on our road trip through south-west USA, I’m doing the Chilnualna Falls Trail – a lesser-known Yosemite hike near Wawona. I didn’t see a single person on the trail, which was a nice change from the crowded Yosemite Valley in the morning. It turned out to be a pleasant walk, although the waterfalls were far less spectacular than the photos I’d seen when the river is in full flow (May/June).

The trail starts ascending almost immediately, reaching the Lower Chilnualna Falls after 0.2 miles (0.3km).

It’s a picturesque waterfall, but nothing like the torrent of water you’d see after the winter snow-melt.

The trail climbs up past the waterfall, past a sign that denotes the start of the Yosemite Wilderness (the trail continues all the way to the Yosemite Valley, just over 25 miles / 40km away on foot).

The first mile is a constant ascent, with not much to see until an informal vantage point is reached, which provides a nice outlook over the Wawona Valley.

After this first lookout the vegetation changes a little, and there’s a number of Manzanita – an evergreen shrub or small tree that’s characterized by smooth orange or red bark and stiff, twisting branches.

As the Chilnualna Falls Trail gains altitude, you start to see Wawona Dome poking above the trees. (There’s no trail to the top of the granite peak, but it’s a relatively easy off-track route off the Chilnualna Falls Trail.)

One of the nicest sections of the trail is where it levels out (a little) and crosses a wide meadow, with tall pine trees towering above.

There’s soon another viewpoint offering a great view of Wawona Dome and Wawona Valley.

The trail then starts climbing a bit more steeply, as it enters slightly denser forest again.

A number of switchbacks leads to another nice view from the Chilnualna Falls Trail.

The very last section of the trail traverses an open granite section along the edge of the ridge, with some of the best view out over the valley below.

The Chilnualna Falls Trail reaches a wide platform at the top of the falls.

While the water flow is fairly low, it does make the many small pools and cascades upstream of the main waterfall perfect for a swim – or to dip your feet in, as the water is very cold.

Although I have no plans to go another 20-odd miles to Yosemite Valley, I continue a bit further up the trail – which continues to ascend. There’s no shade along this section, although it’s now fairly late in the day and not too hot.

The trail passes another viewpoint, with more unobstructed and sweeping views.

Just next to the track is another nice set of pool along Chilnualna Creek – it would be a good place to find a shaded spot for a break if the pools just above the waterfall are busy. Which is not the case today – I haven’t seen a single other person on the trail.

I head back down the trail, and rock-hop up the creek towards another waterfall I can see a short distance upstream.

It’s fairly easy going, until my progress is halted by a small (unnamed) waterfall that drops off a vertical rock face.

Heading back down is a lot quicker than the way up, with the late afternoon sun providing some nice photo opportunities at the same lookouts I stopped at earlier.

The “out and back” Chilnualna Falls Trail took just under four hours (including exploring Chilnualna Creek) – with a full day you could head to the top Wawona Dome – or add a longer loop that goes further up the creek. It would definitely be a hike better done in May/June at the peak of the winter snowmelt – although be prepared for some wet-feet creek crossings.

Getting to Chilnualna Falls Trail

The Chilnualna Falls Trailhead has a parking area located about two miles (2.3km) up Chilnualna Falls Road, which is off of Wawona Road. The trail starts from the parking area on the opposite side of the road.

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