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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yosemite Hike 2013: Waterwheel Falls

Clearly, I don't walk the talk.

This year I did not follow my very own training schedule before our trip to Yosemite. I even committed the worst offense of feet everywhere: I didn't break in my brand new boots before leaving. Thankfully though, they were a perfect fit and I didn't have any problems with them--not even one blister in the 16/17.4/ 20 miles we hiked (the exact miles are unclear, but I'll explain that later). My trouble was getting my feet to move.

I could go on about the various reasons I didn't do any training, but they're really just excuses. The true reason boils down to laziness and inertia, and boy did I pay.


Pitiful Yosemite Falls this year.
It's been such a dry year (it rained in California all the way up until December, when the great spigot in the sky decided to shut off and stay off); there was very little water in the falls. The snow had all but melted and Yosemite Falls was a trickle, barely visible at times. The one bonus was the river was about 10 degrees warmer, which made swimming much more enjoyable, albeit a bit more shallow. It also seemed to be affecting tourism; there were actually vacancies at most of the lodges and cabins in the valley. That never happens in the summertime in my experience.

The valley this year, hot and dry (as viewed from
Glacier Point); note the absence of snow on the higher peaks.













Mark gave me a book about the history of Yosemite after our first trip there together, and he's been regretting it ever since. It's packed with pictures from the old days in the park and also lists its unusual features; it's where I first saw a picture of Waterwheel Falls. I pointed it out to him and said "I want to go see that!" He said it was too far, it would have to be a backpacking trip. I wasn't convinced. So when he asked me back in May what the big hike was going to be this year I said Waterwheel. I researched it and my hiking book said it was 16 miles round trip and only 400 feet elevation gain/loss. We had done 14 miles last year, all uphill with a gain of 3000 feet, so how hard could it be? Indeed.

Tuolumne Meadow, 7:00am
So on the appointed morning, we got up at 5:30am and drove out of the valley and up Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows, the jumping off point for the hike. It was at least 20 degrees cooler up there--Tuolumne Meadows is at 8000 feet, 4000 feet above the valley. We parked the truck and started down the trail around 7:00am. The first thing we saw was a metal sign: Waterwheel Falls 8.7 miles. What??? The guide book lied.


Upper meadow on the Tuolumne River

The trail starts out fairly flat, going across the open meadow then up a short rise to meet the Tuolumne River. We followed the river for five miles in cool, beautiful morning light, all by ourselves save for a few backpackers that were packing out that morning. We crossed a footbridge at the top of Tuolumne Falls and made our way downhill to a viewpoint.


Tuolumne Falls

From there we made our way to Glen Aulin, a backcountry "camp" with tent cabins for the lucky few who score reservations there. Win a spot in one of these and you have the luxury to saunter the trail slowly and have a bed and meals waiting for you when you get there. We ate our granola bars with grubby hands and looked longingly at the "campers" who were no doubt eating pancakes and sipping coffee out of clean mugs.

The trail, ever so subtly taking us downhill into the canyon.

California Falls
The trail splits off from there; Waterwheel Falls is about 3 miles downstream from the fork. We followed the river down the gorge, passing California Falls and LeConte Falls on our way. We saw only four other people during this part of the hike; all backpackers on their way through. Mark kept asking me if I remembered what the falls looked like--there weren't any signs on the trail so you have to know what you're looking for. I assured him I did, I'd been looking at the picture so often it was burned into my brain. Just when we thought we might have passed it, there it was.


Waterwheel Falls gets it's name from the unusual granite formation it flows over. It's a granite dome, scrubbed smooth by glaciation. Somewhere along the way big pits have formed and as the water flows down the dome it hits the bowl-like holes and spits up into the air. If the water is high and fast enough, it actually circles back on itself forming a "waterwheel".

Waterwheel Falls

Rooster Tail where a waterwheel would be in a wet year.
Since it was a low water year, it was more of a "rooster tail" but it was pretty cool all the same. We crawled out as close as we felt was safe and took some pictures and a little movie (to prove we actually made it).

At that point it was 11:30 and it was pretty hot sitting on the open granite in the sun. We decided to find a shady spot to sit by the river and maybe soak our feet while we had some lunch. That was when I realized just how far downhill we had gone.

The 400 foot elevation loss the book noted was just to Glen Aulin (and it wasn't just one little slope--we gained and lost 400 feet several times over in that stretch). The last 3 miles to the falls was all downhill. I prefer not to go uphill in the second half of a long hike, I'd rather get it over with in the cooler morning when I actually have energy. We had left our GPS trail unit in the truck thinking we wouldn't need it so I've no idea how far down we had descended, but it was too much. Way too much.

We climbed back up the side of Waterwheel and LeConte, finding a nice place to sit and eat our beef jerky/apple/power bar lunch. It was beautiful. So beautiful it would have been nice to just lay back and take a nap. Unfortunately, it was past noon and we still had at least 7 more miles to make it back to the truck, then an hour and a half drive to get back to our campsite in the valley.

Our lunchtime view: LeConte Falls

Up, and a little down, then up, a few hundred feet of flat, then up some more. It got to the point where I could only look at my boot tops and concentrate on moving one, then the other. Why didn't I train? How could I have been so stupid? We stopped and had another apple at the top of Tuolumne Falls. I understand why people swim at the top of waterfalls in Yosemite. The pool of water is so tempting when you're exhausted and your sweat has solidified into dirty salt crystals on your arms legs and face.

This guy was mocking us, I have no doubt. I could hear the tiny sounds
of laughter at our expense as we (slowly) passed him on the trail.

After that snack we were in a little better shape. I wouldn't exactly call it a second wind, but we made pretty good time back to the truck, especially when it came into view across the meadow. I can really sympathize with the pack horses that clod up the trails then break into a sprint when they spot the barn.

The first thing we did when we reached the truck was open up the camper and grab the first cold drinks we could find, gulping them down. Nothing tastes better than cold lemonade after drinking lukewarm plastic water for 9 hours. Thankfully the traffic was light on Tioga Road and we made it back to camp by 5:30pm, just in time to jump in the river and wash the grime off before dinner.

A lucky shot--just happened to be sitting in front of this flower
holding the camera when this guy showed up.

I think hikes are a little like childbirth; after the pain fades you start thinking "hey, I'd like to do that again." That's what I'm thinking now, maybe in a high water year. But I'm also thinking I will not ignore the training part this time. Especially since I looked up this hike on the YosemiteHikes.com website when we got back home and they have the trail length listed at 20 miles.

I'll see your 20 and raise you two blisters...