The Tuolumne River is located in the state of California, in the United States, where it rises in central Sierra Nevada in Yosemite National Park, flowing generally westward through the foothills to its confluence with the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley, near Modesto. The section of the river starting immediately below Tuolumne Meadows and ending just shy of Hetch Hetchy Valley is known as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Here, the riverbed forms a dramatic staircase through much of thirty-three miles, resulting in a series of dramatic waterfalls. Perhaps the greatest of these is the 800-foot Waterwheel Falls, the largest waterfalls on the Tuolumne River.
At the Waterwheel Falls, the river dashes down an inclined surface and strikes a series of small ledges causing the water to deflect away from the rock surface in great arches, like waterwheels. During the high-water season of early summer, columns or waterwheels, of water can rise 15 to 20 feet high.
In the 1874 edition of “The Yosemite Guide Book”, the waterfalls were referred to as “Rocket Cascades”, but this name was probably unofficial because it did not appear on any maps. In 1904, William F. Bade suggested the name “Fountain Cascade” for this spectacular granite slope down which the Tuolumne River runs. While describing the falls, he came close to giving the falls its current name – “a pall of misty smoke through which bombs of spray and fantastic water-wheels are hurled with titanic energy”, he wrote in 1905. The name “Waterwheel Falls” first appeared in 1911.
Waterwheel Falls is often mistaken with LeConte Falls, located upstream, which also features waterwheels albeit of smaller sizes.
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