One Of Yosemite National Park's Most Adventurous Trails Is A Hard Hike With Rewarding Views

The beauty of Yosemite National Park is unmatched. The 750,000-acre expanse of protected land attracted an incredible 3.8 million visitors in 2023. Some come for a great camping experience or to see wildlife like deer and bears. Others come to climb Half Dome or Cloud's Rest for some scenic viewpoints. However, Yosemite National Park is also famous for another natural feature: waterfalls. There are many in the park, like the famous Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Vernal Falls, and Wapama Falls, though the exact number of falls at any given time varies by rainfall and snow melt. One of the park's most adventurous hiking trails takes you to a really beautiful one called Rancheria Falls. 

This isn't a stroll down a country lane. It's around a 13-mile out-and-back trail and is considered to be moderately challenging. Whether you choose to take this long path in a single day or camp overnight near Rancheria Falls, this hike has some incredible views, from the falls themselves as they cascade along the granite formations to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (seen above). There is some important information to know before you go, so let's explore the Rancheria Falls hike in Yosemite National Park. 

What to know about the hike

At the time of this writing, reservations are required to enter the park from mid-April through the end of October, between 5 a.m. and 4 p.m., unless you have a camping/lodging or Half Dome reservation. In addition, there is a $35 fee per vehicle unless you have an America the Beautiful pass, which you can get here. You will pay the same fee per person if you're traveling on foot or by bike.

Rancheria Falls is an incredibly pretty hike and not particularly high in elevation (starting at 3,728 feet and gaining an additional 800 feet), so it's very popular. If you don't mind company, visit between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but if you do, you can try it out during the snow melt (April through October) when all the falls will likely be gushing with water. If you see water crossing the Wapama Falls Bridge, turn back or you could be swept off by the current. 

The trail starts off fairly easy, but it's rocky as it goes along. You'll also be walking next to or through water for the entire hike, so make sure to wear sturdy hiking boots and bring poles if you need more stability. Yosemite National Park has a lot of wildlife, some of which can be dangerous. You may see rattlesnakes on the hike or even bears. Stay far away and give them space as you're in their territory. There is also poison oak along the trail, so keep an eye out to avoid it. 

The Rancheria Falls hike

The Rancheria Falls trailhead is on the northwest side of the park, near the Big Oak Flat entrance. (You'll see it in the upper left square on the Yosemite trailhead map.) It begins on the south side of O'Shaughnessy Dam where you'll find some parking and restrooms. You'll have a lovely view of the Hetchy Hetch Reservoir as you cross, which is gorgeous for pictures. You'll go through a tunnel in the granite and then to the trail junction, where it begins to get rocky and a bit steep. 

The scenery is so arresting that, even if you consider yourself an expert hiker, you might want to take two days and backpack in and out. That way, you can spend some time sitting and admiring the view and splashing in the falls. (If you want to stay at the trailhead before or after, there is a Backpackers Campground right there.) At the turnaround point of this out-and-back trail is a campsite (by Rancheria Falls) that is often open. You can pick an open fire ring and pitch your tent (with a valid wilderness permit that you can get here). Make sure you have a bear canister for your food, or you might get some unwelcome visitors at night.