Paddle Yosemite

Forget the trails, float through the Valley

By Haven Livingston

Paddlers with Sentinel Rock in the background (Dave Steindorf).

Paddlers with Sentinel Rock in the background (Dave Steindorf).

Recently a select group of Yosemite visitors soaked in views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and every other stately Yosemite Valley landmark. This sightseeing tour happened without setting foot on a trail or driving a car, and no, they weren’t looking at Google Earth either. They were floating down the Merced River in kayaks and rafts. I was honored to be among them, and now that the rules have changed, you can do it too.

Back in September 2013, I reported for ASJ on the potential for Yosemite National Park to open access to paddling on Park rivers for the first time in over 40 years as part of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers Wild and Scenic Management Plans. The paddling population was anxiously hopeful for the final outcome. Allowing paddling would be a tiny, yet important component of the grander plan to preserve the outstanding and remarkable values of this Wild and Scenic River. With a total of fifteen years and 21 million dollars invested into it, the Merced River Management Plan is complete and the final outcome for paddling is an open river! Well, at least when there is enough water to float.

“We want to embrace paddling, we want it to work, and we want it to be successful and that’s what this whole day is really about,” said Yosemite National Park Chief of Staff, Mike Gauthier on the morning of the inaugural paddle. Gauthier is an outspoken advocate for paddling in the Park and joined us in an inflatable kayak all the way down to Pohono Bridge take-out.

The welcoming committee at the river’s edge consisted of Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher and Chief Ranger Kevin Killian, while our group spanned the range of paddling history from Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne first descensionist Richard Montgomery to long standing ARTA nonprofit manager Steve Welch, lifetime river advocate Bob Center and American Whitewater’s Dave Steindorf, with all sorts of river enthusiasts and advocates in between. Neubacher wasn’t exactly jumping up and down in excitement like some of us were, but he was supportive nonetheless, going to the extent of signing a special use permit for us the morning of our float since the final compendium (the actual rules and regulations for the Park) had yet to be completed.

“To open up the river was an effort, but a worthwhile effort as long as we can protect the values that the Park and Merced River Plan were established for. I think we are furthering the advocacy of protecting the Park with you all being here,” Killian said. “There’s a lot to learn today and it represents that the Park is committed to figuring out a way to keep the river open to providing boater access and making it as hassle free as possible.”

The established put-in for the Valley float starts from Clarks Bridge near the stables. Take out locations will be determined after the Park Service observes what paddlers’ habits are. The Service is also being a bit laissez faire about permitting. A self-registration may be installed at the put in, but for now, the park is relying on the self-policing of paddlers to make sure we keep things tidy, quiet and in reasonable sized groups. Issues will be addressed if they arise.

Steindorf lauds the Yosemite staff for keeping an open mind and encouraging discussions throughout the entire planning process. “They made it easy to sit down and talk about possibilities,” said Steindorf. Talking about the issue may seem like a given, but discussing paddling in Yellowstone National Park has been made into a taboo topic by the superintendent there. This may change with proposed legislation by Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis that would require the park to at least study and reconsider their management of non-commercial paddling. Yosemite’s staff was silent on this topic, but it’s clear they feel eyes watching them in their process to see what effect it may have on the push for paddling in the other “Y” park.

Out on the water, it was impossible not to fall into a Yosemite Valley trance. At the low water level, the river was a perfect conveyor belt on which to kick back, stare up in amazement and forget about the rest of the world. For over six miles the vistas are stunning and uninterrupted by stop signs and pedestrians. Pocket beaches dot the shores and enticed at least a couple of paddlers in our group to take a nap on the fine granite sand.

The bridge at El Cap meadow provides an easy exit to the Class I reach. Those of us who continued on past the meadow were treated to unfettered views of Leaning Tower and Bridal Veil Falls and a handful of fun Class II-III boulder hopping rapids, which at higher water become Class III-IV. Missing our take out just downstream of Pohono Bridge would mean almost certain death or at least a horrendous beat down. Of course there are a few gnarly paddlers out there who will love hop scotching through this Class V-V+ section that follows as the river drops dramatically out of the park between car sized boulders and log jams.

For first time visitors, a trip down the river could be considered the perfect one day introduction to Yosemite – away from the crowds, soaking in all the sights, and drifting into the peacefulness of the old time Valley. For grizzled paddlers, it’s worth trading the whitewater for the most scenic one day paddle you may ever do. In fact, it’s a good thing there aren’t any rapids, they would be too distracting from the scenery!

A view of Half Dome (Dave Steindorf).

A view of Half Dome (Dave Steindorf).

Paddlers on the Merced (Phil Boyer).

Paddlers on the Merced (Phil Boyer).

Phil Boyer stoked to see El Cap from the river (Haven Livingston).

Phil Boyer stoked to see El Cap from the river (Haven Livingston).

Paddlers on the Merced (Phil Boyer).

Paddlers on the Merced (Phil Boyer).


Something else Class V boaters can look forward to soon: the opening of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne! Come prepared for a Class V take out: from Pate Valley a 3,700 ft elevation gain over 1.3 miles leads to another 3 miles hike to the road. Find the most up to date info at AmericanWhitewater.org under “Rivers.”

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