Hiking to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne & Waterwheel Falls in Yosemite National Park

If you are backpacking to Glen Aulin ( it should be on your list) then you must make the trek into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and see the three waterfalls it has to offer. The most popular of these three is Waterwheel Falls, but you will pass the other two on your way there.  Here is all the information on this amazing hike.



  • 7.5 miles round trip
  • 1,000 feet of elevation
  • Must be at Glen Aulin already or it is an extra 12 miles to get there and out

Getting There

The trailhead for this hike leaves right across the bridge from Glen Aulin Campground, deep in the heart of Yosemite’s backcountry.

The Trail


The trail heads out and over a small hill covered in granite and at the top the views into the canyon are fantastic. This is an especially great spot to watch the sunset from.


You quickly head down the other side and meet up with a river you will be following the entire time.


This area gets you close to the massive granite rock that overlooks the campground and which was my favorite thing about staying in the area.


The next half mile is relatively shaded as you walk through a small forest with the river on one side and the granite walls on the other.


What makes this trail so amazing is that you are walking through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne which is one of Yosemite most beautiful attractions, and it easily lives up to its name.  For me and my friend Alex, who was with me, the sheer beauty of this area is almost better than the valley.


The trail continues along this flat portion before starting to head down towards California Falls.


Since you are doing this hike in reverse, you will see California Falls from above before hiking down and seeing the falls themselves. Some of the best views are as you are heading back up, since you see the waterfalls in their proper direction.

California Falls


California Falls is a series of cascades with each forming its own waterfall. This is how all three of the falls you see on this trail are.


Depending on when you go in the season, that will dictate how close you can get to the water. We went late in the season (September), and the falls were not flowing that hard which let us get closer for photos.


After taking it all in you will want to continue along the trail deeper into the canyon.


At this part of the trail, canyon walls are becoming one of the main attractions as they are sheer and stunning.


The trail continues downhill past a few unnamed waterfalls which would be destinations in and of themselves outside of Yosemite, but which are just road side stops on this trail. At about the 2.5-mile mark you will start heading down a series of steep switch backs and will see LeConte Falls on your left.

LeConte Falls


LeConte Falls is one long, impressive cascade, but it can be hard to get a good view as there is no real viewpoint for it.


This is also one of the steepest areas of the trail, and you drop a lot of elevation as you proceed.

Waterwheel Falls


From here it is about a half mile to the top of Waterwheel Falls, known for the wheels it creates as the water plummets into the hewn granite.


It wasn’t flowing enough for us to see these wheels but the waterfall was nice to see.


The real highlight though was the view continuing into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The photos can’t do it justice; it is just so vast and unreal, I was blown away.


Since the water level was low, we were even able to sit here and just enjoy the views. You can walk down to the base of the falls, but I didn’t do that since the flow wasn’t very impressive.


After taking it in, you can head back up the way you came, back to Glen Aulin campground. You will be gaining abut 1,000 feet on the way out, so be sure to take your time and admire the views you get to see as you need breaks.

If you want to read about backpacking Glen Aulin you can do so here and be sure to watch the video below to understand more about the trip.

Let me know if you have seen it when the Waterwheels were going and be sure to leave a photo in the comments.

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About JoshMc

Thanks for checking out the blog, I am happy to be sharing my adventures with you! You can get to know me by reading my about me, which includes a video and additional information on the site, myself and my full disclosure. Also, follow along on Twitter here or read all of my posts on this blog here.