July 26 – 28, 2016
Roundtrip distance: 19 miles
Here’s a familiar story: Chris and I backpacking in Yosemite National Park but never reaching our destination of Waterwheel Falls.
We first attempted to reach the falls in 2012, but walked 14 miles on the wrong trail.
Our second attempt was in 2013 with Julia and Andrew—we walked through knee-high water on a flooded trail, were caught in a thunderstorm, and mosquitoes ate us alive—all for naught (aside from good family memories).
Which brings us to present day, our third attempt at reaching Waterwheel Falls. This year I hoped for a new ending to the old familiar story, so we tried again.
We heaved packs onto our backs and headed out from Tuolumne Meadows.
This time Joseph traveled with us, his first time in the high country.
Julia came too.
I tried to look at the trail anew, from Joe’s perspective—from the peaks and pinnacles, to the never-ending monochromatic granite, I saw God’s handiwork in all the familiar sights.
After miles of walking, we made camp hidden behind a thicket of pines. We pitched our tents near a grove of quaking aspens atop dormant grass.
We were at the doorstep of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Waterwheel was within reach. Maybe the third time’s a charm, I thought.
The next morning we set out on familiar ground towards the falls enjoying the flora and fauna along the way.
We walked passed California Falls at the top of the steep gorge then continued downhill towards Waterwheel.
Just off trail passed Le Conte Falls was a perfect spot for a rest. We sat next to the water on flat granite slabs. Being mid-summer, the river had lost its depth but not its bracing cold.
Joe brought a collapsible fishing rod and tossed a line in the water.
Chris and Julia would have been happy to stay at that spot all afternoon. I urged them to continue on.
Switchbacks led us down a twisted rocky path. Looking through the trees towards the river, I thought I saw a small waterwheel. The others were ahead of me, so I called them back. We left the trail to investigate.
There were no signs or markers identifying the area as Waterwheel. If we had not been looking for it, it would have been easy to pass because the waterwheels were almost nonexistent. I have read that they could reach heights of up to 30 feet.
Out on the granite slope, we chose our steps carefully. The wet sections were extremely slippery and in the bright sunlight it was difficult to discern the wet from the dry granite.
You can feel John Muir’s passion for the area when he said, “For miles, the river is one wild, exulting, on-rushing mass…gliding in magnificent silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge boulder-dams, leaping high into the air in wheel-like whirls…singing in exuberance of mountain energy.”
Joe told me he was expecting to see an actual wooden wheel in the water. I explained to him that water surges down the granite slopes then hits deep pockets and circles back on itself forming a waterwheel effect. Since we were there late in the season, the waterwheels were barely forming.
I can only imagine huge plumes leaping high into the air. Still, the roar of water shut out all other sound. It was powerful and the view spectacular. I was so pleased that we finally wrote a new ending to the story: we made it to Waterwheel Falls!