Chilnualna Falls

Chilnualna Falls: Yosemite National Park

In The American West, Travel by Tom @ Abroad American17 Comments

 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.

Chilnualna Falls

The Tunnel View Overlook is beautiful spot overlooking the river and valley below, tucked in between mountains.

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.

Chilnualna Falls

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.

Chilnualna Falls

Our first waterfall sighting on the Chilnualna Falls trail! We heard water rushing nearby but couldn’t see it until coming around these huge stone walls.

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.


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  2. Looking at all these photos really wants me to check out the Chilnualna Falls when I eventually get to Yosemite. Love them! Keep on smiling 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks for the encouraging words Danik! Chilnualna is definitely NOT the most popular hike at Yosemite, but that doesn’t mean anything since Yosemite has the Half Dome… but regardless, Chilnuala was essentially deserted compared to the rest of the park, as most tourists stick to the central area. It’s a bit out of the way because of that, but man, it was almost as if we had the trail to ourselves!

  3. The US has so many awesome hidden gems. I’ve been to Yosemite but have not seen these falls, I would love to sometime. I’ll have to make another trip sometime 😉

    1. Author

      Yes! You’ll have to – as I said to Danik in the other comment, it’s definitely “off the beaten path” (excuse the pun…) for Yosemite. Most people don’t get around to Wawona, let alone these falls, but that makes them all the more special! We practically had the trail to ourselves, and what a trail it is! Cheers – and may you get back to Yosemite soon 🙂

  4. I remember my way to Yosemite. I drove from Reno so opposite way and somehow no-one told me that some of the mountains roads might be close due to snow and it was in April! So I had to drive around and spend less time in the park. Although I loved that place! I haven’t hike to much and I haven’t camp there but it was still amazing to see a little! I am glad I haven’t met a bear, Ive seen many signs informing there are around!

    1. Author

      Haha yea – even in June of 2015 (during the big drought), the top of Tioga pass still had packs of snow around, and was pretttty chilly!

      Glad you still got to see it, though! I bet it was a bummer when you rolled up to a closed mountain pass :/

      The bears are cute little buggers, as long as they’re just about the distance away from me that you can see in my upcoming Yellowstone post 🙂 We came upon on on the trail there, and luckily it was just an adolescent, and entirely uninterested in us. Just gotta keep a chat up as you walk along, and keep bear spray with you!

      Hope you get back someday, it’s a magical place, really. Cheers!

  5. As avid outdoorspeople, hiking the Yosemite National Park has always been one of our greatest dreams. Waterfalls, pine forests, rock formations—everything here is paradise for us. We hope we can get a US Visa so we could fulfill this dream.

    1. Author

      I hope you do too then! Yosemite really is worth it. If you want some more massive forests too, I’d suggest the Northern Californian coast, all the way up to Seattle. The whole coast is absolutely magnificent!

  6. Ugh YES! Yosemite is sucha dream of mine. Your pictures are amazing, the nature there is so GRAND (if that makes sense) ha. Coming from Scotland, sure we have big mountains, but nothing like this. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Author

      Oh, yes, I totally get what you mean. It’s so grand in that nearly every outlook and panoramic point makes your jaw drop to the ground. My pictures can hardly do it any justice!

  7. Chilnualna Falls is quite a mouthful! Is the water at the summit of the trail drinkable as well? Cool fresh water sounds perfect after a long hike. I must spend more time in the park next time instead of rushing to Vegas!

    1. Author

      hehe. I’m glad someone finally said it, cause we thought the same thing! We determined the best way to remember the name was to break it into an expression. “Chill, Nualna!!” lol. I would assume the water is potable because I drank it, and I didn’t die. I didn’t get sick either. It’s probably all good, don’t quote me on that though – I would probably always recommend some sort of filter system, but when you’re this high up (or if you’re in Iceland…) there’s probably no need.

      This park beats the pants off Vegas. I’m not a huge fan of Vegas anyway, so this park is a GREAT alternative 🙂

  8. Never heard of Chilnualna Falls but I guess it would be getting less attraction than some of its main counterparts. Still, the landscape and waterfalls are still pretty nice and worth checking out. It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of people in this area either, which sounds like a dream spot if you’re wanting a peaceful hike.

    1. Author

      I think the lack of people, especially compared to how packed the major attractions in the park were, was the best part of it. The hike was awesome. From the dense forests of massive trees down at the foothills to the sparsely forested top, it was just sight after sight of beautiful nature.

  9. National parks are always great to visit. Your detailed description and many pictures make Chilnualna Falls hike easy to follow. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Author

      Thanks!! It’s a great hike indeed. A little longer as far as day hikes go – but still, a wonderful and very much un-crowded hike in the very popular and crowded Yosemite. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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