Hiking Wapama & Rancheria Falls | Yosemite National Park
Hiking Wapama Falls & Rancheria Falls |Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Hiking Wapama & Rancheria Falls: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 3,844
Distance: 14 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,275
Hike Type: Day-Hike
Difficulty Level: Moderate (to Wapama Falls) Difficult (to Rancheria Falls)
Food Storage: The National Park asks you to remove any scented items from your car. Bear boxes are available at the entrance station but are not available at the day-use trailhead.
Restrooms: Pit Toilets are available just before you reach the day-use parking area (on your right).
Cell Service: None
Crowd Factor: Significantly less than Yosemite Valley, but expect to share the trail to Wapama Falls with many others, particularly when the falls are surging. Beyond Wapama Falls, the crowds will thin out.
Permit: None needed for a day-hike. Overnight backpacking permits are required.
Special Note: The entrance to Hetch Hetchy closes at 5:00 p.m. (seasonally adjusted for daylight hours, but confirm with the park). It will remain 5:00 p.m. for all of 2021. Factor this in if you are planning a day-hike.
Date Hiked: 3/27/2021
As frequent visitors to Yosemite, it may come as a bit of a surprise that prior to this trip, we had only ever visited Hetch Hetchy once. This section of the park is less well-known than iconic Yosemite Valley and as such receives a fraction of the visitors. It also has a complicated history, as the decision to dam the water here and send it the San Francisco Bay Area has long been disputed. For those willing to make the hour or so drive from the valley, Hetch Hetchy provides some classic Yosemite features, including the stunning Wapama Falls.
We decided to plan a day hike to visit Wapama and Rancheria Falls in early spring when we knew the water would be flowing. This time of year is ideal for Hetch Hetchy as the area tends to get a good amount of sunshine melting out any possible snow. Visiting Wapama Falls requires good timing because if the falls are flowing too strongly, they can overtake the bridge along the trail, making it unsafe to cross. Be sure to always confirm conditions with the park ahead of time and do not attempt to pass the falls if they are flowing across the bridge.
Another factor to keep in mind when planning your trip is that the Hetch Hetchy entrance gate closes every night. This can change depending on the season, when we went it was 5:00 p.m., so be sure to check conditions before your visit. If you do not make it out in time, you may be issued a citation, and you may also be locked in for the evening.
Hiking Wapama & Rancheria Falls
The hike to Wapama and Rancheria Falls begins at the end of Evergreen Road which dead ends at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Before beginning your hike, it’s easy to see exactly where you’re heading as you pull into the parking area. When the water is flowing, Wapama falls is clearly visible across the O’Shaughnessy Dam as you start your hike. Begin by crossing the dam, then you will walk through a tunnel that is modestly lit. When we visited it was wet and I found it much easier to navigate with my headlamp on the way back.
From the beginning, the trail is flat and easy, with the first bit of uphill coming at 0.75 miles. It’s a light and steady climb up to the first seasonal waterfall just under a mile in. Here you also get a small taste of the quintessential Yosemite granite steps – there turned out to be a lot more than we had expected!
You’ll quickly come to a junction where you’ll want to head right towards Wapama Falls and Rancheria Creek. Here the trail flattens out again after having gained just over 200 feet. At this point you will lose sight of the falls as you make your way around and towards them, but there will be plenty of views of the reservoir and Kolana Rock along the way.
At a little past two miles, Wapama Falls comes back into view, and then trail begins a steady descent as it makes it’s way towards the falls, which you can see to the north. You’ll finally reach the falls and the bridge at 2.6 miles with about 340 feet of gain. For those planning to end their hike here, there are some rocks where you can enjoy the falls and a snack or lunch a bit further ahead. During our early spring visit, the falls were rushing!
We enjoyed some photos here and then continued on knowing that we needed to keep a good pace to make it back by 5:00 p.m. before the gate closed for the day. The trail descends a bit more before climbing into a shady section of the trail. Since the majority of the trail to this point was in the sun it was an unexpected and welcome change.
Around the 4 mile mark the trail flattens out quite a bit, and you have almost completely left the damn behind as it is out of sight. At 4.75 miles, you’ll start to descend again, heading down several switchbacks, so keep this in mind on your way back.
A little under 6 miles and after more descent, you’ll cross the Tiltill Creek Bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge you’ll encounter a series of switchbacks as the trail continues to make its way up towards the falls.
At 6.5 miles you can see a lower cascade of the falls across to the south. We saw some backpackers who had decided to set up their camp here in what looked to be a pretty nice spot.
Continuing on, the map showed that it was about another 0.5 mile or so, beyond the campgrounds that are listed to the right of the trail, to the view of the falls. Despite having rested very little to that point, we tried to make it to the official end of the trail and another view of the falls. Unfortunately, a bushy tree had fallen and was completely covering the trail with no access points to cross, and with Manzanita all around on both sides of the trail, there was no clear way around. I actually couldn’t even tell it was the right direction until Julie pointed it out to me – it looked like the trail had just dead-ended. Frustrated and tired, we decided it was not worth the effort to power through the Manzanita and began to turn back.
The return trip was mostly uneventful as we retraced our steps as quickly as we could in order to make it to the gate by 5:00 p.m. We took a brief rest to inhale our lunch, so by the time we arrived at our car we were pretty exhausted. This was probably the first hike Julie and I have ever done where we took essentially zero breaks, and in combination with the rough, granite terrain we could feel it! On the way home we stopped at the Evergreen Lodge Tavern and enjoyed burgers and beers on their patio to wrap-up our day on the trail.
Final Thoughts on Hiking Wapama & Rancheria Falls
Hiking to Wapama Falls is absolutely worth your time, especially if you can visit during the spring and early summer when the falls are at their peak. Both Julie and I agreed that Rancheria Falls was not really worth the extra effort, so we would not recommend doing it as a day hike. Rancheria Falls just doesn’t compare to Wapama Falls, or anything else you might encounter in Yosemite Valley.
If you do plan to do this hike as a day-trip, we recommend starting as close to the 8:00 a.m. gate opening as you can, particularly since much of the hike is exposed. Backpacking it could be a better option as well, if you plan to go further than Rancheria Falls, or plan to do a loop that includes Laurel Lake and Lake Vernon.
Overall, we were glad we got to experience this side of Yosemite and in particular, Wapama Falls!