By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It’s our second day in Yosemite National Park.
I am surprised at how much we could cover on our first day in Yosemite National Park, spent hiking in Yosemite Valley. This is the most popular and iconic part of this vast park, the size of Rhode Island, but the three trails we chose – Mist Trail, John Muir, Mirror Lake – haven given us a really good sense of the park, despite its size. Since we need to leave the area for San Francisco, 200 miles away, by 4 pm, we cleverly find a hike (thanks to the Tenaya Lodge concierge) that starts from just inside the South Gate, in the Wawona section, thereby cutting out 1 ½ hour drive each way jut to get into Yosemite Valley at the center of the park. We plan this out very well: the Chilnualna Falls Trail is just about 6 miles from the Tenaya Lodge, and is much, much, much less crowded – and yet, we meet some wonderful people from Australia and other places.
It is also sufficiently long hike to take about five or six hours – exactly the amount of time we have, and, we discover, offers dramatic, close-by views of the cascading Chilnualna Falls, the sweeping vistas of the southern Yosemite, and wonderful diversity of the landscape, as the trail winds through a variety of terrain and habitats. Our choice proves brilliant.
We start out in the village of Wawona (you pass a general store so if you need supplies, this would be a great place), turn onto Chilnualna Falls Road and park at the trailhead (there are restroom facilities here).
This hike is billed as strenuous – mainly for a fairly steep, nearly mile-long beginning, that includes narrow, high stone steps (with the reward of a gorgeous cascading waterfall). Then it is a steady upward (though mostly gradual) climb for about 4 miles, with a 2,400-foot elevation gain to an altitude of 6,600 feet – that’s what makes the hike tough.
The Chilnualna Falls, which fortunately for us is one of the less known and visited falls (and not accessible by car), consists of five large cascades that slide through and over large granite rock formations – almost like the ruins of a fort, parts of which we get to climb.
At various points we come across the cataracts, up close, and each time, the sound and view is dramatic.
Finally, we come to a beautiful scene where the Chilnualna Falls comes to a ledge before going over a ridge. Here, we sit along some flat rocks right beside the water, and look over the forest and distant mountain peaks of the southern Yosemite and the Wawona Dome.
From here, you can continue on to get to the top of the fall (as well as connect to several other trails that go all the way back to into Yosemite Valley), but considering our time schedule (and looking out at rain clouds flowing in), we head down after a lovely picnic along side the cascading Chilnualna Creek.
Most of the trail is along the ridge so you have dramatic views of the creek or valley. Some of it crosses through meadow, so there is wonderful variation. The views of the rushing water and waterfalls are surprising and dramatic.
One of the nicest aspects of this trail, as compared to yesterday’s hikes on the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail, are the opportunities to appreciate some magnificent trees and flowers. After about a half mile (and the first cascade), the trail leaves the creek and heads up switchbacks through manzanita, oak and mixed conifer forest. In the spring, the hillsides are full of Mountain Misery – a spreading plant with beautiful white blossoms, which we get to see. In among the Mountain Misery you may well see Hartweg’s Irises, Indian Pink, Golden Yarrow, Narrow-Leaved Ceanothus, Utah Serviceberry and several more showy flowers. Some of the side seeps might be blooming with Seep Spring Monkeyflowers and perhaps Sunflowers.
The upper cascades of Chilnualna Falls are quite beautiful in high flow, and in the early season they will be flanked with Azaleas, Mountain Pride Penstemmon and Dogwoods, Pussypaws and others.
We don’t necessarily realize it, but we are also passing through territories of deer, coyote, mountain lion, and black bear. There are birds, as well, but we are a bit early to see the western tanager which can be spotted from May through September.
Finally, as we near the top, we have views over to Wawona Dome and finally of the falls themselves.
We have to climb down a little from the trail to these broad slabs so we have a beautiful view of the falls. It is a perfect place for our picnic lunch.
Coming back is much, much easier – basically a gentle downward slope, and you are looking out at the scenery. Even the obstacles are no concern because we have already done them.
We are down to the steep part when it begins to rain. There are a couple of obstacles – like leaping over flowing water (thank goodness for my hiking sticks!).
We make it all the way back just in time for it to rain in earnest, adding to our feeling of physical satisfaction and accomplishment. All in all, an 8.2 mile hike that takes from 10 am to 3:40 pm.
What I love most, after completing this trail, is how different the experience has been from the previous day’s hike in Yosemite Valley – the vegetation, the meadows, the general landscape – and how surprisingly gorgeous the falls and the creek, and especially, the peacefulness without the crowds.
Preparation: bring enough water (2 water bottles) and prepare for changes in weather: bring rain poncho and plastic bags to cover cameras from rain or mist; rain poncho; snacks, moleskin for blisters, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, camera, extra memory card and battery, cell phone, an extra layer in case it gets cool. I have also found hiking sticks extremely helpful.
For non-hikers, non-DIYers, Tenaya Lodge offers a Yosemite Tour Package, via mini-bus, that includes lunch and narration, and guarantees waterfalls and wildlife and seeing the most popular sights of Yosemite. (Offered May 1-Nov. 30; from $575 spring, $685 summer, $555 fall; call 888-514-2167 or Tenaya Reservations directly at 559-692-8916).
Tenaya Lodge, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623, 800-722-8584, tenayalodge.com.
To plan your visit to Yosemite National Park, https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm, https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm.
Great information for planning your hike at these sites: http://yosemiteexplorer.com/trails
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