Waterfall Wonders in the Eastern Sierra

First Falls on Big Pine Creek. COURTESY PHOTO


The Eastern Sierra Nevada has a lot: scenic vistas, solid camping opportunities, an angler’s paradise — and waterfalls aplenty.

“Some of our beautiful falls can be seen from vista points along mountain roads that will take you well into the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada,” according to the Bishop Visitors Center. “Many more can only be seen from hiking trails within our national forest and wilderness areas. That means a visit to a wild and scenic waterfall in the Sierra Nevada is an extraordinary experience … You could spend a day, a week, a month, or a lifetime here and every experience will be unique and enchanting.”

Some waterfalls can be seen from the roadway or a parking spot, others require a more extensive walk to reach.

“A trip to an Eastern Sierra waterfall can be a solitary experience, a romantic getaway, or a family, fun adventure. It all depends on what you or your group need and want,” the Visitor’s Center states. “A quick drive up to a viewing site can be an easy and delightful side trip on a long journey. A lengthy hike or overnight camping trip requires experience and planning. A short hike should also be suitably planned so that all hikers are properly clothed, equipped, have enough snacks and water, and in good enough shape for a couple of miles at altitude.”

Backcountry waterfalls are generally only accessible in summer and hikes may take a half-day, full-day, or multiple days – depending on which you choose and how you plan your adventure. A late summer or autumn adventure can still offer spectacular views of waterfalls. Late-blooming wildflowers or the changing colors of autumn leaves nearby a perennial tumbling waterfall are magical.

Here are a few to consider visiting, according to the Bishop Visitor Center.


Darwin Falls, Death Valley

Best seen during the fall and winter months (Death Valley summers are understandably brutal), Darwin Falls offers an awesome sight. It does require a hike to reach.

Darwin Falls is in Death Valley National Park about 50 miles east of Lone Pine. It is a series of falls and cascades on Darwin Creek, which is one of only four perennial streams in all of Death Valley NP. The lower fall is visible after a hike of about one mile, with a little over 500 feet of elevation gain. It is a surprising oasis in this vast, dry country. It’s best to visit this area during the cooler, winter months. Although the hike is fairly easy with the first .7 miles being fairly flat, it is hot and sunbaked. The final quarter-mile is in the treed, riparian area and the trail climbs about 500 feet. Remember you’ll be walking back along this trail too. All in all, it’s a hot, dry hike so cover up and take plenty of water.

From US-395 turn east onto CA-136 just south of Lone Pine. Follow the road, which becomes CA-190, for 49.1 miles. At the bottom of a winding grade below Father Crowley Vista Point turn right onto an unmarked dirt road, known as the Old Toll Rd. Stay on this road for 2.4 miles until you reach the trailhead parking lot. Continue on foot along the trail.


Lone Pine Creek Waterfall, Whitney Portal

Located in the majestic entrance to Mount Whitney, the waterfall is a big cascade and series of small falls drops down Lone Pine Creek. A 20-minute drive of 11.8 miles west of Lone Pine will deliver you to the busy parking lot, hiker trailhead, and campground. Because of its location and the activity it generates, climbing in the Mt. Whitney area requires a permit.

As such, finding a parking space on a good summer day can require a little patience, but it will be worth the wait. The main falls, a long, large cascade is obvious from the south-western end of the parking lot loop. It can be heard before it is seen.


First Falls and Second Falls, Big Pine

Want that iconic image of water under a bridge? First Falls at Big Pine Creek presents that opportunity.

These falls are located along Big Pine Creek about 10 miles west of Big Pine. From US-395 turn west on W. Crocker Ave. Follow the road, which becomes Glacier Lodge Rd., for 10.5 miles to where it ends at the trailhead parking area.

The hike to First Falls is an easy quarter-mile hike with less than 200 feet of elevation gain. The trail crosses this impressive cascade over a wide, sturdy wooden bridge. It’s a popular photo spot with all the elements for great people and nature pics.

Second Falls is another location on Big Pine Creek, a hike of nearly two miles further down the same trail as First Falls. It’s also a good workout to reach because it’s 1,000 feet hike.

These two hikes make a wonderful later summer afternoon hike of a 4-mile round trip. The creek is alongside much of the trail with intermittent views of the cascade. The sounds of the burbling creek and powerful cascades will accompany you as you hike.


Mist Falls, Bishop

This waterfall, near Bishop, can be seen from the roadside and offers a must-see for anyone doing a drive through the area. The falls themselves are located on private property so it’s really a from-the-road spot.

From the center of town follow W. Line St. toward the Sierra Nevada. This paved road wanders up into the Bishop Creek Canyon, where year-round adventure awaits. A 20-minute drive of 17- miles on the road to South Lake will get you to Bishop Creek Lodge. Less than a half-mile further is an obvious turnout that provides a lovely view of Mist Falls.

In autumn the changing colors of the large groves of aspen in this canyon make this an incredibly picturesque scene.

The streams and lakes in this canyon are world-renown for fishing.


North Bishop Creek in the fall. PHOTO via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS



Crater Creek Falls near Mammoth Mountain offers a rewarding day hike. COURTESY PHOTO


Cardinal Falls, Bishop

Another roadside vista, Cardinal Falls is located 17 miles from Bishop at the Cardinal Village Resort and near old Cardinal Falls mining area along US-168 W. on the road up to Lake Sabrina.

This waterfall cascades down a narrow chute from the hanging valley above, in which North Lake sits. It falls into the deep valley below, where the village and mine are located, then cuts down the canyon into Bishop. The long view of this cascade is seen from the roadside turnout across and well above the valley below. It’s a stunning vista of canyons and crags, and forests and streams.

The cascade is fullest in spring when the winter snowmelt runs into North Lake and high over the rim into this chute. It is perennial and for some summers the flow remains strong. The falls might be best in autumn, when the aspen groves in the valley below are changing color. In winter this road is plowed up to the village of Aspendell and on a sunny winter day, the icy falls will sparkle from this vantage point.

A closer look at the falls requires some hiking from the Cardinal Village Resort parking lot. To get to the falls on foot, follow the trail from the other end (south) of the resort toward the old mine site. The trail branches off to the waterfall. It’s not long, but it will require a bit of rock scrambling to get close to the cascade. One way the trail is a little over half a mile with about 250 feet of elevation gain.


Minaret Falls, Mammoth Lakes

Both a roadside selection and a climbing opportunity, Minaret Falls offers some great sights in a deep canyon.

The towering Minarets, the iconic features of this town that can be seen from miles away, are most majestic from the Minaret Vista. It’s a sweeping view of the massive backcountry to the west and down to the valley below. The large waterfalls and cascades that flow into the valley from numerous creeks are barely seen as the scale of this vista is supremely impressive.

A good roadside view of the Minaret Falls is in the heart of the valley from the Minaret Falls campground. Access to the campground in a private vehicle is only possible when camping here during the summer months, mid-June through Labor Day. During this period day-trippers must take the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile shuttle bus into the valley from Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center.

Once you’re down in the Reds Meadow / Devils Postpile area this is an excellent moderate hike of just under 3-miles roundtrip. It does have some elevation gain and loss in each direction, so hikers should be prepared with snacks, water, layers, sunscreen and good hiking shoes.

The hike begins at the visitor center and skirts around Soda Lake and crosses the San Joaquin River. At a half-mile, it joins up with the Pacific Crest Trail and heads to the falls viewpoint one mile further.


Crater Creek Falls, Mammoth Lakes

Looking for a hike to go along with a waterfall? Crater Creek offers both. The hike begins at the Rainbow Falls trailhead and passes by the lower Rainbow Falls before heading down canyon along the trail designated as Fish Creek trail. It parallels the San Joaquin which cuts into the landscape below as granite ridges rise to create deep, narrow canyons. The trail flows alternately through the forest and out onto massive granite blocks.

Crater Creek begins east of this valley near the south side of Mammoth Mountain. On its way to the San Joaquin, the waters of Crater Creek plunge over the massive granite benches that delineate these canyons. The view of this falls is from the brink of the drop and just off to the side. Both views provide a grand view of it plummeting over a near-vertical cliff. Be extra careful of sand, water, or ice on the granite as a slip here could have very serious consequences.

The roundtrip hike is just under 9-miles with a little over 3,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss. It’s a big day … and it’s a big falls.


Be safe

The Bishop Visitor Center also cautions safety above anything else.

“Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Cell phone reception is limited or non-existent in many of the places described above,” the Visitor Center states. “Study the maps, download GPS tracks, and take paper maps as a backup. Pack layers for sudden changes in weather, extra food or plenty of snacks, take plenty of water or a water filter, and carry a flashlight or headlamp.”

Above all, stay on the designated paths and don’t attempt cross-country unless some is required.

An additional note includes the possibility that some waterfalls might be low or not as active after a low snow or dry winter. If you hike into the backcountry in early spring do not cross ice bridges over creeks or falls. Note too, that water follows the path of least resistance and sometimes a designated trail becomes a temporary stream.