Will the real Waterwheel Falls please stand up?

Picture: Waterwheel Falls (?), Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Waterwheel Falls (?), Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park, California

Just over a week ago I drove to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. I arrived at the Glen Aulin / Lembert Dome Trailhead parking area at about 9:15am. A bit more than an hour later, I hit the trail on what would be an 18 mile hike to Waterwheel Falls. This was going to be the first of two very long, strenuous solo-day hikes, with the second being an attempt to summit Half Dome a few days later. And I’m using the term “Day-Hike”, especially to Waterwheel Falls, fairly loosely.

You see, my plan was, after hiking 9 miles downhill to Waterwheel Falls, I would shoot the falls at sunset, and then hike back alone through the forest at night. And that’s exactly what I did. The hike started with a nice stroll across Tuolumne Meadows, after which I had to take off my boots & socks, and cross Delany Creek in thigh-deep cold water. The trail then continued mildly downhill toward a place called “Halfway Meadow”, which is ironically located halfway between Tuolumne Meadows and the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Once past this meadow, you continue down a progressively steeper trail toward Glen Aulin, and the trail turns from nice forest floor to what’s known as ‘cobblestone’ trail, with each stone lovingly hand-placed by a member of the Yosemite Trail Crew.

After passing Glen Aulin, the trail continues down toward the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. This is where the confusion begins. A mile apart from each other are three distinct falls; California, Le Conte, and Waterwheel. Yet there is some widespread confusion, with both Le Conte and Waterwheel often being referred to as the (real) Waterwheel Falls. Part of this confusion is that many say the “Real” Waterwheel Falls is located past the ‘commonly known’ Waterwheel Falls (above). I can understand the confusion, having past a large cascade style fall a mile above this spot, which I understand many might consider as the less photogenic Le Conte Falls. Plus, there is also one extra falls marked on the NGS Topo map past Waterwheel Falls, and is simply marked ‘Falls’. This (also) less photogenic fall does have a singular ‘waterwheel’, and as one online argument has it – if it’s to be believed – must be it because it’s called “Waterwheel (Singular) Falls”. However, I don’t necessarily buy that argument. “Waterwheels (Plural) Falls doesn’t sound like the name you’d use just because a fall has more than one waterwheel. “Waterwheel” could easily imply multiple waterwheels. All that said, and despite the unnamed fourth fall on the map, I believe that this is likely to be Le Conte Falls. Of course, if it is Le Conte Falls, it should probably be renamed to Waterwheel Falls because of its many spectacular spraying waterwheels caused when the rushing, cascading river slams into a rock obstruction.

Still, to resolve this dilemma and confusion, and make sure I’ve got accurate caption information for my upcoming book, I’ve placed a number of calls to some lead curatorial personnel in Yosemite, and hope to get some more definitive information as to which is the ‘real’ Waterwheel or Le Conte Falls.

After shooting sunset here, where I got a new portfolio shot – which I’ll show in another upcoming post, I packed my gear and hit the trail for the return hike. I did loose the trail a couple times in the dark, which took a few minutes each time to rectify. I also had to (re-)wade barefoot through a 1/4 mile of flooded trail. I saw two bears on my return hike. OK, technically I didn’t really see the bears as much as I saw the two huge green eyes staring at me, reflecting the light of my headlamp. The first bear was about 80 yards away on a slope above California Falls, and when that thing took off running across the slope, its speed was downright impressive. The second bear I saw as I came around a corner, about 30 yards off to my left in the trees. Hiking alone, I was usually yelping out “Hey Bear!” as I came around blind corners. This bear didn’t run so I give it a few “Scoot!” shouts and banged my hiking sticks together before it slowly walked off. Considering I had food in my pack, I took a few looks backwards every few yards to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

Then within a few miles of the trailhead, I again had to remove my boots and socks and re-cross the Tuolumne River Delany Creek, which was now a little higher, and felt a lot colder; in fact it was downright freezing, not to mention the air temperature had dropped to about 39 degrees. It took about 20 minutes of drying my feet and keeping them wrapped in a towel before I could get them back in my boots. After what was a very long day. I got back to my truck at 2:05 am, which is technically ‘the next day’ after I started my “day” hike.

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8 Comments on “Will the real Waterwheel Falls please stand up?”

  1. Richard Wong Says:

    Crazy hike Gary. Could you have spent the night by the waterfall instead of risking it in the dark and cold?

    BTW, I think you meant to spell “lose” not “loose”. 😉

  2. Youssef Ismail Says:

    Great story Gary. I don’t think I would have been as calm as you encountering bears at night. Looking forward to the portfolio photo.

  3. Robert Teague Says:

    This shoulds like such great fun … although, I’m not sure I would have done the night hike.

  4. Peter L. Says:

    Gary: I’m a bit confused. If you started out from the Glen Aulin/Lembert Dome Trailhead parking lot, you shouldn’t had to wade across the Tuolumne River. You would had to ford Delaney Creek though (or find a log that crossed it). That’s what you probably crossed.

    Richard: For Gary to spend a night camped over there, he would have had to secure a Yosemite Glen Aulin->Cold Canyon/Waterwheel (pass through) Wilderness permit for that date. At times, those permits can be hard to obtain since that’s a very popular backpacking route.

  5. enlightphoto Says:

    Thanks, Peter; You’re right, it was Delany Creek. I’ve corrected that. And yes, also correct with regard to responding to Richard. I chose to do the hike as a Day Hike so I wouldn’t have to worry about a permit. I did carry a bivy bag, emergency blanket, and some extra layers just in case I lost the trail or was too exhausted and had to stay out overnight. (File under: If Les Stroud can do it, so can I) – Good thing I didn’t have to though, at 8000+ feet, it was darn cold… especially the next morning.

  6. Jim Lundgren Says:

    Beautiful blur on the water. Just long enough to give direction but still feels powerful. I have to admit I love hiking after sunset. I love that last light of twilight before you switch your head lamp on…until I lose my way of course 🙂

  7. David Sanger Says:

    Nice stroll Gary…. what’s next?

  8. David Leland Hyde Says:

    Wow, Gary, now that I’m getting to know you more through your blog, I’m not so sure that your falling off a 40 foot cliff a few years ago was a complete fluke. As I remember from our conversation about it, it was dark and unavoidable, but perhaps it was also your karma catching up with you after going on so many harrowing excursions. I realize you are careful and practice good backcountry caution, but you are certainly also quite an adventurer. You ought to be on that photography TV show rather than that guy who over-dramatizes his relatively low risk escapades. Either way, you certainly do “get the shot” as they say. By the way, I have a strong sense that the backwoods men and women of the early Sierra Club knew those Yosemite water falls pretty well. Le Conte falls is of course named after an early Sierra Club leaders. The Sierra Club or the Yosemite Association may also know more about which falls is which. I know my father made a photograph in 1975 of Waterwheel Falls with a rainbow. We have not developed this photograph digitally but it appears in “The Range of Light,” if anyone was lucky enough to find a copy before the used copies went up to nearly $100.

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