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Wapama Falls
   Tuolumne County, California, United States

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This waterfall has been surveyed, mapped and measured in person by the World Waterfall Database.
Photo of Wapama Falls Wapama Falls is the second most powerful waterfall in California after Yosemite Falls and have been rightly dubbed "the Yosemite Falls of Hetch Hetchy". The falls occur along Falls Creek as it chutes and plunges towards Hetch Hetchy Lake, dropping about 1,300 feet. From below and even from the O'Shaughnessey Dam, it appears that Wapama Falls consists very distinct steps, however the falls are actually one continuous fall which begins as a long horsetail pitched at about 60 degrees, which then becomes less steep in a concave manor, and then before flattening out entirely pitches into a nearly vertical fall of about 375 feet, which explodes into a tempest of spray on a slope of nearly house-sized boulders where the creek flows the rest of the way into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Because Falls Creek possesses one of the largest drainage basins in the upper Tuolumne River watershed it flows powerfully for the majority of the year, and retains the most flow of any of the major waterfalls in Yosemite (with the exception of the falls on the Tuolumne River itself) throughout the year, though like all waterfalls in Yosemite National Park will exhibit seasonal fluctuations in volume. Visitors who attempt to hike to the falls too early in the season will find the trail closed because Falls Creek will actually spill over the bridges which cross below the base of the falls. Even when the trail is open, the deluge of spray ejected by the falls can literally be blinding at times - though exceptionally refreshing on a hot summer afternoon.

When Falls Creek runs high with snow melt, a portion of its volume spills into another channel about a quarter mile above the top of Wapama Falls and forms the neighboring Tueeulala Falls. Both Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls have been said to have been truncated by the construction of the O'Shaughnessey Dam and Hetch Hetchy Lake. While it is certainly true that the lake flooded portions of Falls Creek below each of these waterfalls, neither Tueeulala Falls nor Wapama Falls were altered or shortened in any way by the construction of the dam. Estimates of the height of Wapama Falls have often stretched as high as 1,700 feet under the assumption that part of the falls is submerged, but this is a gross exaggeration as the difference between the top of the falls and the lake is only about 1,500 feet, and the final 160 feet (at least) of that elevation change represents talus cascades which do not qualify as part of the waterfall.

HISTORY AND NAMES


  • Also Known as: Hetch Hetchy Falls
  • Wapama Falls is the Official name of this waterfall

Hetch Hetchy Valley is said to have been discovered by westerners in 1850 by a hunter named Nathaniel Screech (some sources credit discovery to his brother Joseph), though Native Americans had used the valley for summer hunting and gathering grounds for perhaps 5000 years prior. Wapama is a name from the Miwok Indians, but the meaning of the word is not immediately clear. Perhaps through poor interpretations of John Muir's writings at some point, the falls have occasionally been known as Hetch Hetchy Fall, though in Muir's book "The Yosemite" he plainly refers to it as "...the great Hetch Hetchy Fall, Wapama..." so the name was certainly known at least as early as 1870 when Muir made his first visit to the valley.

Our thoughts


We've said this about a lot of waterfalls, but it rings particularly true in the case of Wapama Falls: pictures do not do this waterfall justice at all. It is an absolutely immense cataract, on par with many falls found in western Norway even. If Yosemite Falls didn't exist, Wapama Falls would without question be considered the best waterfall in California and would likely have been a major basis for the creation of Yosemite National Park on its own (and perhaps would have saved the Hetch Hetchy Valley from being flooded). Unfortunately there are only so many ways to see Wapama Falls, and the easiest ways don't allow a very complete view. It is possible to view the falls from the opposite side of the lake, but there are no trails in the area and Poison Oak is said to be quite profuse in the area, so attempting to achieve a better view does not come without hazards - it may in the end be worth it though.

Location and directions


Wapama Falls is found in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park. From Groveland take Highway 120 east for just over 22 miles, or from the Big Oak Flat entrance station to Yosemite National Park go west for one mile, to Evergreen Road and turn north, following signs pointing to Hetch Hetchy. Follow the road for 10 miles to Camp Mather, then turn right at the T-intersection - still following the signs - for another 6 miles to the parking area at the O'Shaughnessey Dam. The bottom of the falls can be seen in tandem with Tueeulala Falls (if it's flowing) from the dam over a mile and a half distant. Closer views require a moderately easy hike which begins by crossing the dam and heading through a tunnel blasted through the cliff. About a mile in to the hike, head right at the junction and continue another mile and a quarter to the footbridges at the base of the falls. The best views are had immediately before the first footbridge, but walking across all of them is highly recommended - if only to cool off in the spray of the falls.

Wapama Falls is shown in the center. Additional nearby waterfalls (if any) can be found in the list below.

Additional Nearby Waterfalls


Name of Waterfall Distance
Tueeulala Falls 0.46 mi / 0.73 km
Hetch Hetchy Falls 0.69 mi / 1.1 km
Falls Creek Cascades 1.4 mi / 2.24 km
Tiltill Falls 2.29 mi / 3.67 km
Lower Rancheria Falls 2.59 mi / 4.15 km
Middle Rancheria Falls 2.73 mi / 4.37 km
Rancheria Falls 3.12 mi / 5 km
Upper Frog Creek Cascades 3.22 mi / 5.14 km
Lower Frog Creek Cascades 3.77 mi / 6.04 km
Eleanor Creek Falls 4.17 mi / 6.68 km

 

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Photo of Wapama Falls Photo of Wapama Falls Photo of Wapama Falls

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Photography tips


First and foremost, when hiking to the base of the falls, other than visiting late in the year (September or later) expect spray to be a significant problem. At best the spray will require a wipe-shoot-wipe type of technique to ensure your lenses stay free of water spots, but at worst it may be so heavy that photography is simply not an option (and you will know it if this is the case). The best view of the falls from the trail is immediately upon reaching the first footbridge - going further along the trail to the other bridges will cause the upper section of the falls to become more obstructed by the cliff. The falls face south and will see direct sunlight for most of the day.

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User comments


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