An Easy, Family-Friendly Hike to a Spectacular 150-Foot Waterfall Near Huntington Lake
Residents of the Central Valley have long escaped the oppressive summer heat by heading up into the western Sierra Nevada during the hotter months of the year. Only about an hour and a half from Fresno, gorgeous Huntington Lake lies at 6,950 feet above sea level. This is high enough to leave the 100+ degree temperatures and the haze of pollution far behind. The lake is accessible by paved road and is ringed with numerous campgrounds and private resorts, making it a popular destination for campers, boaters, fishermen, and other visitors.
Whether you drive up for the day or camp at one of the area’s many lakeside campgrounds, you won’t want to miss this short, easy hike to Rancheria Falls. Less than two miles round trip and only 200 feet of elevation gain, it’s suitable for hikers of all ages and abilities. You will have to drive on a short stretch of dirt road to reach the trailhead, but it’s well-graded and suitable for regular passenger vehicles. Just drive slowly and watch out for minor obstacles.
Your reward at the end of this brief hike is an up-close and personal look at Rancheria Falls, which drops 150 feet through a narrow canyon in a series of shorter drops. Below the falls, Rancheria Creek continues down the steep, narrow canyon before turning to flow into Huntington Lake. Together with Big Creek to the south, Rancheria Creek is one of the main feeder streams into Huntington Lake.
Don’t confuse this Rancheria Falls with the other Rancheria Falls in Yosemite National Park to the north. That waterfall, located northeast of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, is much smaller and requires a round-trip hike of nearly 13 miles. It’s usually done as an overnight backpacking trip.
The Sierra National Forest was originally established as the Sierra Forest Reserve in 1893. At the time, it covered over six million acres and was the largest such forest in California. By 1908, the forest had been reduced to its current 1.2 million acres, with the remaining lands being designated as part of Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks, as well as the Inyo, Toiyabe, and Stanislaus National Forests. Today, the Sierra National Forest encompasses lands on the western side of the Sierra Nevada from the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park all the way to the northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.
Huntington Lake, an artificial reservoir, was constructed in 1912 as part of the ambitious Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. Water from Florence Lake, another reservoir on the San Joaquin River in the mountains to the east, flows underground through the Ward Tunnel, emptying into Rancheria Creek at a powerhouse on the lake’s east side. You can see the water flowing out of the end of the tunnel from near the Eastwood Visitor Center, a Forest Service facility on Kaiser Pass Road at the east end of the lake. The lake has seven Forest Service campgrounds (now administered by private contractors) and several private resort facilities. Sailing and fishing are popular summertime activities. In the winter, Highway 168 is open to nearby China Peak Mountain Resort, a ski area.
The short trail to Rancheria Falls was designated as the Rancheria Falls National Recreation Trail in 1980. The National Recreation Trails (NRT) program was established in 1968 and works to preserve unique trails throughout the United States. Over 1,148 trails throughout all 50 states have been designated under this program.
Distance: 1.7 miles round trip
Elevation gain/loss: +200’/-200′
Hiking time: About 1 hour
Permits and fees: None required
Maps: While you really don’t need a map to follow this short, straightforward trail, the Kaiser Peak 7.5’ quadrangle offers the best depiction of the terrain surrounding the trail. The trail itself, however, is not shown, so we recommend that you download the GPX file below and print it out together with a digital topographic map product.
Best time to go: While Highway 168 is open throughout the year, the dirt Rancheria Falls Road (8S31) is closed during the winter months (generally late October through early May). If you don’t mind walking up the road, you can usually still reach the falls on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The trail is snow-free and at its best during the summer months. Expect patches of snow along the route in early summer. Wildflowers seem to peak during mid-July in most years.
From Fresno, take Highway 168 north for 66 miles. Continue 1.1 miles past the turnoff for China Peak Mountain Resort, then turn right onto unpaved Rancheria Falls Road 8S31. A sign along the highway for ‘Rancheria Falls National Recreation Trail’ makes this turnoff easy to locate. The dirt road switchbacks uphill for about 1.2 miles before reaching the paved parking lot for the falls. The road is rough, but passable for regular passenger vehicles if you drive slowly and carefully. The lot has space for over a dozen vehicles, but fills up quickly on the weekends. There is also a restroom with pit toilets located here.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N37-14.956, W119-08.989. Elevation 7569’
The hike up to Rancheria Falls begins at the northeast corner of the parking lot, adjacent to the restroom. The trail is very wide here and remains so almost all the way to the falls. Just beyond the trailhead, cross a small wooden bridge over an unnamed creek and enter an open, shady forest of red fir and white fir. The wide trail climbs very gradually, following a northeastern course as it traverses a north-facing slope well below the unseen summit of Black Butte (8592’). Look for a variety of wildflowers along the route, particularly in the small openings in the forest cover. In late spring and early summer, the snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is also commonly seen near the base of fir trees. This blood-red flowering plant has no chlorophyll, relying on mycorrhizae (fungi) in the soil for nutrition. Unfortunately, you’ll also see many dead trees along the trail that have succumbed to the bark beetle infestation that has devastated the conifer forests in California following the recent five-year drought.
At about 0.7 miles from the trailhead, you’ll know you’re getting close as you can start to hear the roar of the falls up ahead. The trees thin out, and the trail reaches a viewpoint overlooking the steep, narrow gorge of Rancheria Creek below you. The trail curves right here, and you can see the falls just ahead through the trees. Follow the narrower path down along a steep slope to its end at a broad viewpoint at the base of the main drop of Rancheria Falls.
The falls are 150 feet high in total, and can be as wide as 50 feet across during spring run-off. There are three tiers in total, with the primary (highest) tier being about 60 feet high. A jumble of huge boulders beyond the end of the trail makes access to the top of the falls very unsafe, so enjoy the view from here. If you’re careful, you can also scramble below the trail on wide rocks for a closer look at the middle section of the falls. Rancheria Creek springs from high on the south-facing slope of nearby Mount Givens, and drops down a narrow canyon below the falls to merge with Midge Creek before curving westward to empty into Huntington Lake in about another mile. Rancheria Creek and Big Creek on the south side of Black Butte are the main feeder streams into Huntington Lake. Looking down the gorge of Rancheria Creek from the base of the falls, you can make out the path of Kaiser Pass Road on the hillside to the north.
When you’re ready, retrace your steps 0.85 miles back up the trail to the trailhead. No permits or fees are required for this hike. The trail is very popular with visitors camping at nearby Huntington Lake, and the trailhead parking can fill up quickly on summer weekends. Get an early start if you want to avoid the mid-day crowds. At the same time, be aware that lighting conditions for photography are better at the falls later in the day.
- Rancheria Falls Trailhead features a paved parking lot and a restroom with pit toilets. There are no other facilities located here.
- No permits or fees are required for this hike.
- Dogs on a leash are allowed on the trail. The Forest Service discourages bringing horses due to the large number of hikers using the trail. The trail is open to mountain bikes, but it’s not a good idea unless you come at a time when it’s not crowded with hikers.
- This is an excellent trip for children, although you should keep a close eye on them at the base of the falls. The trail is suitable for strollers.
- Bears and mountain lions inhabit this area, but you’re unlikely to see them. Exercise caution when scrambling on the rocks at the base of the falls.
Also in the Area
You’ll definitely want to visit the nearby Indian Pools Trail behind China Peak Mountain Resort while you’re in the area. While it doesn’t have an easily accessible waterfall, it does visit some lovely pools along Big Creek and is only two miles round trip. On the north side of Huntington Lake, a network of trails provide access to the 22,000-acre Kaiser Wilderness. The most popular trail is the Potter Pass Trail that visits both Upper and Lower Twin Lake, as well as smaller George Lake.
There are seven Forest Service campgrounds located on or near the shore of Huntington Lake. We stayed at Kinnikinnick Campground during our visit and recommend it highly. While it isn’t right on the lakeshore, it’s only a quick walk across the road. Sites are very spacious, and the campground is a little quieter than some of the other sites.
Campsites at Kinnikinnick Campground and the other six sites near the lake can be reserved online on the Recreation.gov website. The campgrounds around Huntington Lake are managed by a private contractor, California Land Management. Before you can occupy your site, you must check in at their office, which is in a small trailer adjacent to the Eastwood Visitor Center. Follow Highway 168 above the south shore of the lake to its far east end, then turn right onto Kaiser Pass Road. The office is on the right, just past this junction.
If you’d prefer not to camp, there is a lodge at China Peak Mountain Resort. Standard hotel rooms are available at The Inn at China Peak, or you can rent a condominium. The resort is open year-round. On the north shore of the lake, Lakeshore Resort has 28 rental cabins, ranging from one to two bedrooms and accommodating parties of up to six people. The resort also has a general store, a sandwich shop, a small restaurant, and a saloon – all located on Huntington Lake Road. While you probably won’t work up much of an appetite hiking to Rancheria Falls, the saloon makes a great place to finish off a day of exploring the local area with a hamburger and a beer.
Your first stop for an update on current conditions or other information should be the Sierra National Forest website. They have more details about the trail on their Rancheria Falls National Recreation Trail page. Although you don’t need a permit for the hike to Rancheria Falls, the High Sierra Ranger Station is a good place to stop in for the most up-to-date information about the area. It’s located at 29688 Auberry Road, Prather, California 93651, on Highway 168. You’ll drive right by it on the way up to the trailhead, so be sure to drop in. You can also call them at (559) 855-5355.
There aren’t nearly as many hiking guidebooks covering this area as there are for the popular national parks to the north and south. However, Best Short Hikes in California’s South Sierra, published by The Mountaineers, has a good description of the route. It also covers many of the other trails in the area, including longer trips into the nearby Kaiser and Dinkey Lakes Wilderness Areas. Although it doesn’t cover the Rancheria Falls Trail, we also highly recommend Sierra South, which is published by Wilderness Press. This classic guidebook focusses primarily on backpacking trips, but also includes numerous shorter hikes that can be done in a day. Among them is the very popular Potter Pass Trail up to George Lake in the Kaiser Wilderness, which starts just a few miles away up on Kaiser Pass Road.
If you’d like a quick peek before you go, the Rancheria Enterprises webcam offers views across Huntington Lake from near the northeast corner of the lake.
Soberanes Fire Prompts Closures and Evacuations in Northern Big Sur
After five years of unrelenting drought in California, it was pretty much a safe assumption that the 2016 fire season would be one of the worst in recent memory. Although it’s only late July and the wildfire season still has many more months to run, that assumption has proven largely correct so far. Here on the Central Coast, the largest and most significant wildfire is the Soberanes Fire burning in the northern reaches of Big Sur in Monterey County.
The fire began in the Soberanes Canyon area in Garrapata State Park on July 22, 2016. As of today (July 27th), it’s already burned 23,688 acres, destroyed 20 homes, and, tragically, resulted in one fatality. The fire is currently only 10% contained, although hopefully this will improve quickly over the next few days. While the bulk of the fire is burning in the uninhabited Big Sur backcountry, the fire has nonetheless also resulted in numerous evacuation orders and warnings for residents in the area, including the southern portion of Carmel Highlands. Smoke from the fire has drifted over a large area, including down the Salinas River valley all the way to my home in Paso Robles – 85 miles away.
For hikers, campers, and other visitors, this is simply not a good time to come to Big Sur – at least not the northern part of the area. While Highway 1 and the many local businesses along it remain open, most state parks and a good portion of the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest are currently closed, and will probably remain so for quite a while even after the fire is fully contained.
Los Padres National Forest: There is an Emergency Closure Order for the Monterey Ranger District that covers all of the National Forest lands from the Pine Ridge Trail north to the northern boundary of the forest. Be sure to check the current Emergency Closure Order map before visiting.
California State Parks: ALL state parks between Point Lobos State Natural Reserve near Carmel and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south are currently closed, including the following:
As with any wildfire, the situation on the ground can change rapidly and information is updated frequently. For the latest information, consult the following official sources:
Stan Russell’s Big Sur blog is also an excellent source and is updated frequently with the latest information.
Also, here’s an interactive map of the current fire perimeter:
Finally, I should note that the southern portion of Big Sur, including Limekiln State Park and the Silver Peak Wilderness, are currently open with no restrictions. While it’s unlikely that the Soberanes Fire will burn far south enough to affect these areas, the potential for a new fire can’t be ruled out. Call ahead to confirm the current conditions before your visit, and be sure to follow the current fire restrictions.