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A hike through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne captures the essence and history of big Yosemite water
Words by Leonie Sherman • Photos by Bill Crum
Since I live on the coast and love the mountains, my summer officially begins when the park service opens the Tioga Road. And there is no finer way to celebrate this seasonal event than a hike through California’s own Grand Canyon.
The section of the Tuolumne River starting immediately below Tuolumne Meadows and ending just shy of Hetch Hetchy is known as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The riverbed forms a dramatic staircase through much of thirty-three miles, resulting in fantastic plumes and cascades of ferocious whitewater.
Some call this an extreme hike. It’s true that if you slip and dislocate your shoulder, you’d better be prepared to eat your most industrial-strength painkillers and hike yourself out. In May or June you’re more likely to encounter a rattlesnake or a hungry black bear than a fellow hiker. Since rangers are not yet on patrol, there will be occasional obstacles blocking the trail.
But there is a trail the whole way between Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf. The route is rugged and involves a lot of elevation change, but you definitely won’t get lost. A walk through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne will take you past thundering waterfalls, across roaring creeks, on top of polished slabs and into the heart of one of the most contentious conservation battles in the history of California.
This hike is all about water. Prepare to be constantly sprayed by the mist swirling off the river and the waterfalls. You will cross deep creeks which were snow just hours earlier. You will walk across snowbanks that obscure the trail. You will wade through a hundred yards of tepid standing run-off.
On an ordinary hike you might zone out on the trail beneath your boots. As you hike along the Tuolumne River the water will hold your gaze. You’ll be mesmerized by the endless variety of shapes and forms. Soothed by the placid pools. Entranced by the patterns of foam. Deafened by the constant roar of it. Perplexed and a little scared by the violent force. Boggled by the sheer quantity of it.
There are other things to look at along the riverbank. Starving marmots, emerging from winter dens, still manage to appear plump. Twisted juniper trees, clinging tenaciously to house-sized boulders. Sheer granite cliffs gleaming in the sun.
But always the water demands your attention, literally smacking you in the face. The plumes rise hundreds of feet in the air, ghosts of liquid made vapor, rising like fog, dissipating against cliffs and forests, then melting back into the sky.
Whether you start the hike at White Wolf or Tuolumne Meadows depends on your knees. Do you want a mellow downhill cruise with a brutal 3500 ft elevation gain on your last day? Then start at Tuolumne Meadows and hike downstream. Would your prefer to start with a steep 3500 ft descent and then face a gradual uphill hike over the next 20 miles? Start in the west at White Wolf.
Timing depends on your goals. Three days will give you time to enjoy the scenery. Four days will allow breaks for swimming and lounging. A push to complete the hike in a single day will give you something to brag to your friends about.
I like to go with the flow and take my time, so I started at Tuolumne Meadows and planned for three days. My feet quickly went numb in the icy runoff of the first creek crossing, which enabled me to wade through ensuing snowbanks in my bare feet.
About five and a half miles in, we encountered Tuolumne Falls, roaring and foaming down a drop of 100 feet…impossible not to stop and gawk. Just downstream is another furious pitch of water, the White Cascade, which is about 75 ft. tall.
At Glen Aulin there is a stout wooden bridge spanning the Tuolumne River. This is the perfect spot to sit and dangle your feet over the rocky whitewater, enjoy a snack and gaze up at White Cascade.
The real action is in the next few miles of river, where California, Le Conte and Waterwheel Falls occur in rapid succession, each more thrilling than the last. California Falls drops about 120 ft over three sliding stages. The fourth of the Grand Canyon’s waterfalls, Le Conte Falls, drops 250 ft and contains several hidden potholes, forming enormous standing waves of water.
The final and largest waterfall along the Tuolumne River is called Waterwheel, and it drops between 400 and 800 ft depending on whom you ask. The true drama is not about vertical drop but how high up the water flies. The massive waterwheels formed by the hidden potholes rise up to 300 ft in the air.
My companion and I decided to make camp here, about twelve miles from Tuolumne Meadows. We found a secluded camping spot sheltered from the falls. We deposited our gear but couldn’t even set up camp, drawn back by the sound and the fury, the throbbing violent spectacle of Waterwheel Falls.
We returned to our campsite only to carry all our belongings back to within view of the falls. A flat granite shelf was to be our bed that night. The roar and the mist made peaceful slumber impossible, but you can sleep when you’re dead.
The next day we followed the swirling river for another six or so miles before detouring up and around a particularly dramatic and impassable short section. Then we continued the gradual rocky descent to Pate Valley, a delightful meadow filled with wildflowers, not yet beseiged by mosquitoes. At 4300 feet the temperature was mild and we passed an exhausted evening by a small campfire, counting stars and our blessings as the day ended.
From our campsite we could see the edge of a glacial valley that is completely flooded by the O’Shaughnnessy Dam, forming the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. The gleaming blue body of water looks peaceful from four miles away, but belies its turbulent history.
After a major earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906, the city applied to the Department of the Interior to gain water rights to the glaciated valley in Yosemite’s northwestern corner. An Act of Congress is required to dam a river within a National Park. In 1913, bowing to the unquenchable thirst of a growing population, Congress passed the Raker Act, authorizing flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Now the valley floor lies submerged by water that deposits an ugly ring visible on the smooth polished walls rising thousands of feet above the surface. The reservoir slakes the thirst of some 2.4 million Californians downstream, as well as providing electricity for San Francisco.
The damming of this pristine valley represented the first major loss for John Muir’s young environmental group, the Sierra Club. The Raker Act broke John Muir’s heart; he died just a year after it was passed.
The 3000 ft climb out of Pate Valley demands an early start and mental preparation. Shirts and packs were drenched in sweat by the time we crested out, around noon. We enjoyed the mellow grade over the final five miles that brought us out to White Wolf.
We slogged out the final two or three miles to the Tioga Rd, our hearts filled with glad tidings from our three-day communion with the essential element of our crowded state.
The Muir Gorge
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine walked into the Hetch Hetchy Ranger station and asked for some advice on a nearby section of the Tuolumne River called the Muir Gorge.
The ranger looked straight at him and replied carefully, “Oh, I don’t know, I never heard of any place like that.”
What the Ranger didn’t want my friend to know about is a narrow chasm along the Tuolumne River about 15 miles from where he was standing. Less than a kilometer long, the Muir Gorge is reputed to be a canyoneer’s Shangri-La, featuring “amazing waterfalls and blue green pools as narrow as 20 feet across and bounded by granite cathedrals many hundreds of feet high.” The modern trail through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne avoids this section entirely, detouring along a high bench.
John Muir and Galen Clark made the first ascent of this gorge, starting from Hetch Hetchy, sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s. In his book The Yosemite, Muir recounts jumping from one submerged boulder to another, battling a raging current and witnessing torrential waterfalls. But he provides no beta at all for those wanting to navigate this treacherous section of river.
Nobody saw the Muir Gorge for another fifty years. Sometime in the 1930s, famed Sierra mountaineer Norman Clyde brought a Sierra Club trip on an expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Ansel Adams, Jules Eichorn and Marjorie Farqhuar were part of this second group to ever experience the Muir Gorge. Upon completion, they are rumored to have declared it “a Sierra destination as worthy as any of the peaks.”
An Internet search yields scant hard beta about this obscure canyon. A group repeated the daring feat in the 1970s and you can find a photo of a guy in denim cutoff shorts and tube socks standing above a short fall with gleaming sapphire pools beckoning at his feet. Other than that, swirling mists of speculation.
The website sierracanyoneering.org provides the most technical information available. They suggest bringing a pile of gear, including a 60 m rope, locking carabiners, climbing helmets and a wetsuit. The canyon is rated 2-C2 R VI *****, whatever that means. They recommend at least 3 days to complete the adventure. The website reports that the canyon is only semi-technical and an experienced canyoneer can descend without a rappel.
But they don’t provide a route description. That’s only available to members, and membership is by invitation only. You won’t find it in any guidebook. I’ve interrogated East-side acquaintances and can’t find anyone who even knows of anyone going down the canyon in recent memory. There’s probably a very good reason for this.
I’ll be attempting a descent in mid-September with some seriously skilled friends. For now, the Muir Gorge remains shrouded in mystery for me. In high season, when the Sierra can seem full of jostling crowds, I am comforted by the thought that there are still blank spots on the map. — LS