Hike to Chilnualna Falls in Yosemite National Park
For a lesser-traveled waterfall trail, Chilnualna Falls offers a shady and misty challenge.
Named “leaping waters” by the Paiute and pronounced “Chil-noo-al-na,” Chilnualna Falls is a series of five large cascades over granite formations above the Wawona Basin. On the southern edge of Yosemite National Park, it’s one of the lesser-traveled waterfall hikes with views that are just as magical as the more popular Vernal and Bridalveil falls. The shaded singletrack through a pine forest climbs to the top of the falls, where you’ll be drawn in by the sound of the frothy stream falling over the cliffs. Consider this hike for a peaceful and charming respite from the busyness in the rest of the park.
This trail is long and steep, winding more than 8 miles and gaining more than 2,000 feet in elevation one way, making it a more challenging pursuit. Consider your abilities before setting out for this hike, but remember that you can always turn around if it gets too tough. If so, stopping at a series of lower falls near the trailhead will make your trip worthwhile.
Where is Chilnualna Falls?
Chilnualna Falls is located in the southernmost part of Yosemite National Park closest to the Wawona area. It’s near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which is home to the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree. You can reach the falls by traveling north from Fish Camp, Calif, a small settlement located near the park’s South Entrance or 28 miles south from Yosemite Valley.
Where Should I Park to for Chilnualna Falls?
About an hour south of Yosemite Valley on Wawona Road, you’ll turn left on Chilnualna Falls Road. From the turn off, the trailhead is located two miles near the end of the road where there are several small dirt parking areas near the trailhead. The largest lot fits about 20 cars. You’ll pass several lodges and vacation rentals, so avoid parking in private lots. The trail then starts along Chilnualna Creek, which is across the road on your right side as you approach. (Download a park map)
How Long is the Hike to Chilnualna Falls?
The Chilnualna Falls Trail is an 8.2-mile out-and-back hike. It is considered strenuous because of the length and 2,400 feet in elevation gain. Depending on your pace, fitness level, and time spent on breaks, plan to spend 5 or 6 hours on this hike.
At the trailhead, the trail forks. Right is for hikers only, while left is for horses. The hikers-only path adds a few bonus cascades. Both paths rejoin after a quarter mile. After walking along Chilnualna Creek for .5 miles, you’ll encounter a series of switchbacks. The trail is well maintained and has stone steps during some of the steepest sections. Expect to cross several streams. Once you rise out of the trees, you’ll get panoramic views of the valley and granite formations in the Wawona Basin. The trail strays away from the falls, but watch your step and keep an eye on kids: Mist during higher water levels can create slippery conditions on the rocks, especially near the top. Keep a generous buffer of space between you and the edge.
Can You Swim at Chilnualna Falls?
Because of the multi-story falls and roaring flow, it is unsafe to swim just anywhere along the stream, although swimming in Yosemite National Park is allowed in most bodies of water. For about half the hike, the Chilnualna Falls Trail runs parallel to the Chilnualna Creek, where there are safe pools of gentle water to swim in. There’s also a popular local swimming hole just south of the trailhead off Wawona Road in the South Fork of the Merced River.
With peak flow in May, enter the water with caution. It’s always smart for kids and adults alike to use flotation devices because natural water flows can be unpredictable.
What’s the Difference Between Chilnualna Falls and Other Falls in Yosemite?
Unlike some of the other waterfalls in Yosemite, you won’t be able to see the entire falls from the top or from a distance because of the twists and turns in the rock walls. But hikers agree that one of the best views is three-quarters of a mile from the top, where the dense stream pours over the cliff edge. The rest of the time, you’ll only see bits and pieces during your hike.
Chilnualna Falls is also located farther south in the park compared to other falls. Most, including Yosemite, Sentinel, Ribbon, Horsetail, Brideveil, Nevada, Vernal and Illilouette falls, are clustered in Yosemite Valley.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Chilnualna Falls?
This hike is accessible year-round, but the water is at peak flow in late spring to early summer. This is also when the hike is most crowded. However, it’s less popular than the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley. Summertime brings extreme temperatures up to 90°F, while winter highs usually hover around 50°F with lows in the 30s.
Because of afternoon storms, it’s better to start hiking early. Be aware of storm clouds and lightning, especially in the summer, and don’t be ashamed to turn around if the weather turns. If you’re playing in the water when conditions shift, get out immediately.
What Should I Bring on My Hike to Chilnualna Falls?
Wear sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots because this dirt trail features rocks, stone steps and steep sections as well as stream crossings and slick parts because of mist from the falls. Bring enough water for each person. At least a liter for every two hours of hiking is a good rule of thumb. Pack snacks and a lunch, since your hike will span several hours.
Leave pets, including service animals, behind because they are not allowed on this trail. Also, even though Yosemite has bears, bear spray is not allowed anywhere in the park.