Yosemite National Park is often associated with huge crowds, traffic jams, and lots of waiting to share your wilderness experience with far too many people. If your interest is in distancing yourself from the hordes of families heading up to Little Yosemite Valley and Clouds Rest, then the Grand Canyon Of The Tuolumne River may be for you.
The Tuolumne River runs roughly 30 miles from Tuolumne Meadows down to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Hetch Hetchy, called “the other Yosemite Valley” by America’s most well-known, beloved naturalist, and Sierra Club founder John Muir, was flooded in 1923 by the O’Shaughnessy Dam. It is widely accepted lore that the construction of this dam broke Muir and he died one year later.
Cutting a path through some of the most beautiful, uncrowded, and classic terrain in one of America’s favorite national parks, the Grand Canyon Of The Tuolumne can be hiked west to east, or vice versa. In the author’s opinion, the former choice is the best way to go if you are thru hiking the 33 miles. Going west to east allows you to save the best for last, with ever increasing beauty and a much gentler ascent. Once you drop the nearly 4000 feet in the first 13 miles (the majority of which is in done in a knee busting three miles), you gradually ascend 20 miles past tight walls, thundering waterfalls, and a sea of granite to eventually finish in Tuolumne Meadows. This is a much more enjoyable experience compared to a gradual decline from gorgeous granite and cool weather into burn areas and high temps, finishing with the painful 4,000’ switchbacked ascent back up to Whitewolf parking lot. When you are hiking west to east, the scenery just gets more spectacular around every turn as you walk towards it, as opposed to walking with your back to it and having to look over your shoulder for quick glimpses of what could possibly be creating such a terrific racket.
Different parties apply different hiking strategies, completing it between one and four days. Four days affords you the time to really soak it in, to stop and swim and enjoy all of the four named waterfalls of the Canyon. Three days works well too, you can still stop and smell the flowers, but need to maintain a healthy pace to stay on track. Two days seems like a waste to me, you’re so focused on getting from Pate Valley to Glen Aulin that you rarely have time to stop, and you’re carrying a big pack full of stuff that you will only use once. If you’re going to carry a 25-30 pound pack, why not add just a couple more pounds of freeze dried food, scale your hiking back to a leisurely 8-10 miles per day, and enjoy what this beautiful canyon has to offer. I’ve seen people so wiped out at Waterwheel Falls that they didn’t even stop to admire one of the most violent and thunderous waterfalls in America. The final option is to do it in a day. While seemingly very daunting and committing, this is commonly done in about 10 hours. No heavy pack, just you and your trail shoes rapidly covering terrain and playing hopscotch over rattlesnakes. What could possibly go wrong?
Ultra runner Dr. Peter Clark “For the light and fast crowd, the canyon makes a diverse and spectacular push in a day, although often one is reduced to a power march by the rocky and steep terrain. The Pate Valley section and White Wolf switchbacks are quite runnable . There is enough water that a single 16 oz water bottle or small hydration vest is sufficient. If you’re going for speed (current Fastest Known Time held by Leor Pantilat is 13:38 for the car-to-car loop without shuttle. ) then east to west is best as the majority of the trail is downhill. If time is no object but doing it in a day push, go west to east to avoid cooking like a bug on a griddle on the steep granite sun exposed switchbacks up to White Wolf.”
The waterfalls of the canyon are unique in many ways. They don’t come cascading off some grand precipice and explode into a million rainbows and dancing fairies. These falls all crash down 30-50 degree slabs at a weighty flow rate of over 4,000cfs in the spring (the highest recorded being 5,518 cubic feet per second (156.3 m3/s) in 1983). They create a swirling mist of pulsing vapor erupting hundreds of feet in to the sky that simply boggles the mind.
Starting from the west, on day two, comes the river bottleneck at Muir Gorge. While not technically a named waterfall, it marks the true beginning of the canyon. Soon after that, the falls begin to come in rapid fire succession. The biggest and most ferocious of them all comes first, the mighty Waterwheel Falls. Believe me when I tell you that this thing is powerful. At over 600’ tall, the water comes in, out of a long stretch of flat water, and immediately accelerates into a torrent of living snowmelt before hitting a deep pothole with such fury that it creates a massive and terrifying waterwheel over 30 feet tall. One of my favorite features about Waterwheel is how close you can get to it. You can literally stand 3 feet away from the waterwheel and the savagery is both terrifying and inspiring. One feels noticeably small as the massive granite slab rumbles under their feet. There also happens to be three very nice camp sites and a great stretch of flat water (some of the only fishable flatwater in the canyon) for some catch and release brown and brook trout fishing right at the top of the falls. This acute combination of savagery and bliss makes this my favorite spot to spend the night and enjoy how wild and alive this canyon truly is.
Next comes LeConte Falls, just a quick mile upstream. LeConte is essentially a smaller cousin of Waterwheel, shorter and a little less intimidating, but a worthy stopping point for a few pictures and to soak your feet. A couple more miles brings you to California Falls. Again, maybe a smaller cousin of LeConte, but no less beautiful. From here you keep ascending up the gradual incline until you finally reach Glen Aulin. Glen Aulin is a bustling backcountry camp sporting big yurt-style rental tents that people can ride a horse to for their version of a “wilderness experience.” There’s also a separate camping area for personal tents with access to bathrooms, water, and communal fire pits. I tend to avoid the place, but for those with young children, or lacking the gear or experience to thru hike the canyon, it is a good basecamp to day hike down to Muir Gorge and back to see the power of all the falls first hand. Past Glen Aulin, on the final push out, you come to White Cascade and then Tuolumne Falls. Both spectacular in their own right, but often dismissed after the grandeur of the lower three. It’s a good spot to stop for lunch and notice the difference in water volume as you near the headwaters of the Tuolumne River.
The last three miles out are great, your pack is light, you are at just under 9,000’ and finishing your journey into the highest alpine meadow in California. Peppered with granite domes and many pointed ridges and peaks, one almost forgets that they are nearly done with one of the least traveled and diverse hikes in Yosemite. We also saw a noticeable and relieving lack of rattlesnakes compared to the seven that we saw in the first two days.
After a final dip in the river in Tuolumne Meadows, don’t forget to drop into the Tuolumne Store or Meadows Grill and rest your feet with a well-earned beer or coconut water. There you can chat with many of the Pacific Crest Trail thru hikers. Tuolumne marks a sort of middle point for them as they started at Mexico three months earlier, and will finish at Canada in another three months. They are always happy to talk with a fellow backpacker and toast you and your great experience. It is the perfect finale to an unforgettable pack trip.