World Waterfall Database

Wapama Falls

Tuolumne County, California, United States

Status: Cataloged
This waterfall has been surveyed by members of the World Waterfall Database.

Detailed Info

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.
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<br />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.
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<br />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 Naming

Wapama Falls is the Official name of this waterfall.

Has also been known as:

  • Hetch Hetchy Falls

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.

Photo 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.

Location & Directions

Coordinates:   37.967305, -119.765505
Elevation:   5300 feet
USGS Map:   Lake Eleanor 7 1/2"

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.

View this location in Google Earth
Wapama Falls is marked with the large icon in the center of the map. Up to ten additional waterfalls (if any) may be marked as well, with links below.

Other Nearby Waterfalls

Additional Waterfalls which occur within 5 miles of Wapama Falls
No additional waterfalls were found within 5 miles.

By The Numbers

The information presented in this table is meant to help identify and clarify the physical aspects of the waterfall for comparative purposes. While we try to ensure this information is as accurate as possible, sometimes it will prove necessary to either estimate or flat out guess at certain characteristics where either enough information isn't readily available, is not known, or we were not able to confirm a given trait upon surveying. This information may be changed at any given time to ensure accuracy.

Total Height

The Total Height listed for the waterfall represents the difference in elevation from the top of the uppermost drop, to the bottom of the lowermost drop of the waterfall, including all stretches of interstitial stream in between. Stream between two tiers of a waterfall is counted in its overall height regardless of whether or not that section of the stream would be legitimately considered a waterfall on its own right, were it to be isolated. Waterfalls with only one drop will of have the height of only the single drop listed here.

Tallest Drop

The Tallest Drop figure represents the height of the largest single drop within a multi-stepped waterfall. Waterfalls with only one drop will have the total height of the waterfall repeated here.

Num of Drops

The Number of Drops in a waterfall is a tally of the total number of distinct drops which make up the waterfall. Stretches of interstitial stream in between two or more distinct drops of a single waterfall are NOT considered to be distinct drops of the waterfall unless the section of stream in question would otherwise qualify as a waterfall were it to be isolated.

Avg Width

The Average Width of the waterfall represents the breadth of the waterfall from bank to bank under typical flow conditions, or if the waterfall has been Cataloged, under the conditions which it was most thoroughly surveyed. Often this number will be approximated because of a lack of approachability to many waterfalls. We often utilize Google Earth to measure the width (where imagery is of sufficient quality and resolution to allow it.

Maximum Width

Maximum Width represents a hypothetical measurement of roughly how wide a waterfall could get during peak streamflow or flood conditions. For smaller waterfalls, this figure will generally not differ much from the Average Width measurement, but for broader waterfalls - especially those that feature a crest that isn't constricted - this figure can at times be consideraby larger. Like the Average Width measurement, this measurement will take into account the difference in width at the top and bottom of the waterfall as much as possible, but will often be made based on the width of the crest of th falls alone.

Pitch

The Pitch of a waterfall is an estimated - often very roughly - measure of the average slope or steepness of a waterfall. The Pitch figure only takes into account sections of stream which are actively falling. Pools or stretches of level stream in between two or more successive drops of the falls will not factor in this figure. As an example, a waterfall which features two truly free-falling leaps separated by several dozen yards of flat stream will have a Pitch of 90 degrees. Similarly, a waterfall with two drops separated by a pool, one with a true free-falling drop, and one with a Horsetail type fall will average the two, so while the Plunging drop has a Pitch of 90 degrees, if the Horsetail drop has a Pitch of 45 degrees, the total Pitch will be roughly 67 degrees.

Run

The Run of a waterfall is a measurement representing the total linear distance on the ground between the top and bottom of a waterfall. This figure is not often easy to establish with a high degree of precision and as such will often be estimated. Waterfalls with a longer Run will usually either be less steep, often cascading type waterfalls, or will feature multiple steps separated by shorter stretches of a more gradual gradient streambed.

Form

The system of classification of waterfall forms we use is a heavily modified derivative of the classifications outlined by Greg Plumb in his "Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest" books. While plumb uses eight distnct forms, we wanted further granularity and opted to break down the hierarchy twofold: first based on the overall pitch of the waterfall, and then based on what shape the fall takes as it makes its descent. There are five primary Categories of falls in this system: Plunge, Horsetail, Steep Cascades, Shallow Cascades, and Rapids. Additional deliniation is then applied depending on characteristics such as the breadth of the falls, whether it splits into two or more channels, whether it falls in multiple successive drops, etc. For more information on our waterfall form classifications, see the Help page.

Watershed

The watershed which a waterfall occurs within, if it is specified, will be based on the ultimate distributary watercourse to the ocean. For example, Washington's Palouse Falls occurs along the Palouse River - which is a tributary to the Snake River, which is itself a tributary to the Columbia River, which ultimately enters the Pacific Ocean, so Palouse Falls would then fall within the Columbia River watershed. Streams which empty directly into the ocean, or into a minor basin which then empties to the ocean will often have this field left blank.

Stream

The name of the watercourse which the waterfall occurs along. If the watercourse is not known to have an officially or colloquially recognized name, this field is left blank.

Avg Volume

The volume of water present in the stream at the location of the waterfall. This is often the most difficult figure to pin down because accurately measuring streamflow is not a simple process. We will rely on USGS data as much as possible, and attempt to take into account seasonal fluctuations in stream levels if possible. There is no guarantee that this figure will be accurate, and in cases where there is no USGS data to use, it may be a very, very rough estimate at best.

Source

If known, the primary source of the watercourse which produces the waterfall will be listed here. This is helpful in determining whether a waterfall may flow more consistently during certain periods of the year - streams which originate in Springs, Lakes, or Glaciers will often flow more consistently throughout the year than those fueled by simply Runoff. The source of the stream may also be either unknown or undetermined.

Flow Consistency

A rough estimation of how many months out of the year the stream which produces the waterfall will actually hold water. The vast majority of waterfalls featured on this website will technically be truly perennial waterfalls (those that flow all year long), but some may see their flow dwindle greatly in the late summer months. This figure will not take into account the winter months when the waterfall may freeze, because in such cases the waterfall will very often be inaccessible. Entries which specify a Flow Consistncy of 12 Months should in general have an acceptable flow at any time of year (but may be better during certain periods - see below).

Best Flow

A general estimate of the best period of the year during which time the falls will be considered at optimal conditions, or flowing at their best. There may be variance within the range specified where the flow will be better or worse, but visiting at any time in the range specified (if available) will generally present the waterfall in its best light.

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Key

Cataloged Icon
Cataloged
Waterfalls which are Cataloged we have visited and surveyed in person. Statistical information should be quite accurate (for the most part), and exact measurements will often be available (information is not guaranteed to always be up to date). Detailed information, directions, and photographs will almost always be available.
Confirmed Icon
Confirmed
Confirmed Waterfalls are known to exist, should be relatively accurately mapped and geotagged, and the statistical information available will often be dependable. If height information is presented, it may be estimated but should be accurate. Directions will not likely be available.
Unconfirmed Icon
Unconfirmed
Unconfirmed Waterfalls are often marked on a published map, but we have yet to confirm the exact location and / or whether or not its stature is significant enough to qualify for listing in the database. Statistical information may be estimated and may be inaccurate. No directions.
Unknown Icon
Unknown
Waterfalls marked as Unknown are either suspected to exist based on heresay or a hunch, or we have received unverified information suggesting a waterfall may exist near the location provided but cannot corroborate it in any way. Geodata may not be accurate, the location may not be known at all, and statistical information will be estimated and highly inaccurate.
Inundated Icon
Inundated
Inundated Waterfalls have been submerged beneath lakes or reservoirs, usually a result of impoundment of a river behind a dam, and most often no longer functionally exist (there may be rare exceptions). We maintain records for these features out of historical importance.
Subterranean Icon
Subterranean
Though not common, some waterfalls can be found entirely underground within cave systems. Access to subterranean waterfalls can vary from easy via developed walkways to requiring a high level of extremely technical spelunking skill, including familiarity with ropework and a distinct lack of claustrophobia.
Disqualified Icon
Disqualified
Waterfalls which have been marked as Disqualified do not have the necessary stature or features to qualify as a legitimate waterfall according to our criteria. We will maintain records for entries with this status where the feature is well known and / or may have been historically referred to as a waterfall at some point in time.
Posted Icon
Posted
Posted Waterfalls are known to exist, and we may have a large amount of information associated with them, but are located on private property and are not legally accessible to the general public. Accessing waterfalls with this status should not be attempted without first being explicitly granted permission of the property owner.
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