I’ve been coming to Yosemite National Park every summer since I was a kid thanks to a family cabin. I’ve been on all the more popular (and more congested) hikes in the Valley, yet the Chilnualna Falls hike in the quiet town of Wawona remains one of my favorites.
If you’re wondering where the heck Wawona is, you’re not alone. If you enter Yosemite through the south entrance, you drive right on past it (and its iconic Wawona Hotel) on your way to the Valley floor.
Too bad, because this place is full of surprises. Lucky for you, you’ve got me to share some of my favorites with you.
Chilnualna (pronounced "chill-na-wall-na" if you're wondering) Falls is a series of waterfalls located on the Chilnualna Creek. The complete hike is 8.2 miles roundtrip; the kid-friendly version we take is about a mile and features two cascades along the way. (To duplicate it, simply turn back before you reach the start of the switchbacks.)
So why is this hike one of my favorites? It offers few (if any) fellow hikers, stunning views and your choice of picturesque lunch spots year in and year out. So far, the explorers seem to enjoy it, too.
The best hikes for kids are those that offer a huge reward after not too much time. Notice I didn’t say effort. You’d be amazed what kids can do when promised some desirable reward at the end of the challenge.
The first half-mile of the Chilnualna Falls trail is great for kids because it’s short and offers a close-up view of not one, but two waterfall cascades. Along the way, there are even a few steps to climb, which kids seem to love.
The big explorer also loves being able to scramble over rocks with dad to find the perfect spot for us to enjoy lunch (although this year our plans were thwarted as you'll read later).
OUR NOTES FROM THE FIELD
The hubby and I have been enjoying this hike since our first trip to Yosemite after the big explorer was born. In fact, this is where he completed his first hike, making it a special spot for him.
Just a few minutes in and we could hear the rush of water, even if we couldn’t see it. In past years, the cascades are merely a trickle, so this was unusual. We soon discovered why – loads of water flowing right alongside the trail!
And just a little further up the path, we saw the lower cascade. Wow!
When we reached the second cascade, we weren’t disappointed, either.
This is where we usually hop along the rocks and sit down to enjoy a very up-close-and-personal view of the waterfall. But not this year! We had to settle for lunch along the side of the trail instead, which was breathtaking just the same.
From here, we decided to head off trail a bit to see what was above the second cascade. I was amazed to watch the big explorer take off as leader, making it look easy.
When we got to the next tier, we were greeted by the mist of yet another astonishing cascade of water.
We played here for a while before heading back down the trail. The kids kept busy chasing a butterfly and I sat marveling at seeing so much water in a spot that’s historically been little more than a trickle.
This hike was a great way to spend our first day in Yosemite. We saw proof of the unusually high water levels, chased butterflies and gawked at a ton of new-to-us wildflowers. Not bad for an easy stroll just minutes from our Yosemite home.
- Complete hike is a strenuous, 8.2 miles roundtrip; we make it kid-friendly by stopping a half mile in, before the trail turns away from the Chilnualna Creek
- Free dirt parking area right near the trail head
- No flush toilets available, but there are outhouses in the parking lot near the trailhead
- Trail is a dirt path that is not stroller friendly; if you plan to hike with toddlers, bring a backpack carrier
- Keep little kids on the inside of the trail – it gets steep quickly and narrows with a rather severe drop off on one side
- Start early to beat the heat. This is especially true during the summer, when the heat can be downright unbearable. Starting early is also a great way to beat any potential crowds, though there usually aren’t any.
- Take time out for lunch & nature play. This is the first year the water levels have prevented us from enjoying lunch on the rocks below the first or second waterfall cascades. In the future, it's safe to bet you can dip your feet in the water, skip rocks and enjoy the view over lunch.
FINDING THE CHILNUALNA FALLS TRAILHEAD
From the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, head left toward Wawona. You’ll pass the Wawona Hotel about 5 miles from the entrance. Continue over the bridge and turn right on Chilnualna Falls Road. Continue about 2 miles to the trailhead parking on the right.