Hiking to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne & Waterwheel Falls in Yosemite National Park
If you are backpacking to Glen Aulin (which should be on your bucket list), then you must make the trek into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and see the three waterfalls it has to offer as well. 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 fantastic hike.
- 7.5 miles round trip (20 miles if you are not at Glen Aulin)
- 1,000 feet of elevation
- Must be at Glen Aulin already or it is an extra 12 miles to get there and out
- This information is from my hike in 2016
The trailhead for this hike leaves right across the bridge from Glen Aulin Campground, deep in the heart of Yosemite’s backcountry.
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 rocks that overlook the campground and which were my favorite part of 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’s 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 when you are heading back up since you see the waterfalls in their proper direction.
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 in, you will want to continue along the trail and go 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 roadside stops on this trail. At about the 2.5-mile mark, you will start heading down a series of steep switchbacks and will see LeConte Falls on your left.
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.
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 the wheels, but the waterfall was lovely 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 will head back up the way you came, back to Glen Aulin campground. You will be gaining about 1,000 feet on the way out, so be sure to take your time and admire the views you get to see.
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 Waterwheel Falls when the wheels are going and be sure to leave a photo in the comments.