Chilnualna Falls: Yosemite National Park is the fifth post in my “The American West” series about a National Park-themed camping road trip I took in early summer, 2015.
California, here we come
With Zion behind us and one of our longest driving days ahead, we set out early to cross Nevada and reach Yosemite in good time. We drove towards Vegas, made a pit stop at McDonald’s, and continued on our way to the northwest following Highway 95. In Tonopah, NV we turned directly west to bee-line it to the Yosemite area. Crossing the border into California, our vehicle was checked to ensure we weren’t bringing in anything we shouldn’t. Don’t worry, this just means fruits and vegetables grown in places without the same regulations as California. The state of California is a huge agricultural producer and is very protective of this resource.
After passing California’s customs, it was a short drive to the Mono County area on the east side of the mountains. The area is named after Mono Lake, which is actually something called an Endorheic basin. Instead of freshwater, the relatively large Mono Lake is briny. Normally, all water finds its way to an ocean through rivers, aquaphors, or other means. The water that drains into Mono Lake has no outflow from the lake, so it sits in the basin and takes up salts and minerals from the ground.
Finding Our Campsite
Once past Mono Lake, we realized that we had no camp selected for our time in Yosemite. We had looked into a little but had not selected an actual site. Luckily for us, we found a wonderful set of campgrounds in the June Lake area. The June Lake Loop camping area had plenty of sites available for us, and came complete with some much-needed shower facilities! Dry shampoo can only do so much.
There are several campgrounds on the June Lake Loop, and we were lucky enough to find a spot just off the lake in the Silver Lake campground in the area. It may start to sound repetitive, but this was yet another beautiful campsite. Although not as mystical as Onion Creek, this campsite’s surroundings were just as serene and beautiful. An easygoing evening and some of that wonderful scotch made for a restful night before our big day at Yosemite.
The next morning we made our way through Tioga Pass up to the east entrance to Yosemite. The trip from our campsite to the park entrance was only about 45 minutes with the short line at the gate, which we expected. What we did not expect, however, was the amazingly long drive we had within the park itself. It took us about 2 hours to reach the other side of the park, Wawona, not only because of the road construction in the middle of the park but also because it’s simply just a long ways away.
So, with a much-delayed start, we began our 8-mile hike in the late morning up to Chilnualna Falls. The weather was great, our timing late, and we were both a bit scared of meeting fate (via mountain lion)… so the hike was exciting! What can be said about hiking at Yosemite that hasn’t already been said? The beginning of the hike to Chilnualna Falls was relatively easy-going, gradual hills studded with massive trees with patches of ascending steep and narrow rock steps. Within the first 20 minutes, we began to hear rushing water and soon found our first waterfall. This waterfall was tucked away behind a wall of stone protruding from the hillside.
After a short photo shoot, we continued on our way still fresh and ready to hike. As the hike continued, we had to keep reminding ourselves to keep talking. We were told to keep a light conversation going, not too loud, not too quiet, in order to forewarn any wild animals in the area that we were approaching. The logic behind this made sense, so we figured it would probably be a good idea to heed this advice. We stopped for lunch after hiking a while longer, as it was already afternoon!
Progressing up the trail, the surroundings became more alpine and coniferous trees took over the forest. More and more often, we found ourselves looking over the valley below and trying to imprint it into our brains. As usual, the photos didn’t do it justice. Yosemite is worth all the hype it gets, the area is an absolute wilderness outside of the park’s main facilities.
Higher and higher we hiked, as the landscape became more rocky and bare. After about 4 hours of leisurely hiking up the mountain, we hurried through the home stretch to the top. During that last segment of the hike, we constantly felt as if Chilnualna Falls was right around the corner, though it always seemed to move further away. Finally, we reached the falls, and we were not disappointed. In this case, hard work certainly paid off, and the frigid snow melt stream was a refreshing treat.
Hopefully, those photos can give you some sort of idea of what Chilnualna Falls is like. If not, you’re in luck! I also recorded some video of our hike up from the cliff at the bottom of the series of waterfalls to the top.
But wait, there’s more! Beyond this first waterfall, there is another set of waterfalls and even a mountaintop (and very, very cold) pool which we proceeded up to. I adventured to boulder up the stone walls of the lake for the sake of the photos, so you better appreciate them.
At this point, we had been on the trail for a loooong time, and we began to think of the timetable for the rest of the day. If we hiked quickly, we could be at the base of the trail by sundown, but then we still had that long drive through the park to get back to the east side and then another 45 minutes or so through Tioga Pass in twilight and then darkness. We booked it back down to the car and started the drive back to our campsite.