Illilouette Gorge

Sun, Oct 20, 2002
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Monty and Michael had had enough scrambling around with me the last two days, and decided to do some clean rock climbing over at Church Bowl today. I on the other hand had less interest in sitting around with a rope in my hand and decided to go check out Illilouette Gorge. If one climbs the JMT out of Happy Isle a few times, it's hard to miss the steep canyon near the first bridge (where one first views Vernal Falls) that rises up on the southeast side of Glacier Point. I had wondered for some time if this gorge could be climbed up to the Panorama Trail, but had found no beta to know if it was possible. I knew that Illilouette Falls would be found at the head of it, and that it was likely unclimbeable (a 370ft fall, nearly straight down), but I expected (hoped) I'd to be able to find a way out on one of the other sides at the head of the gorge.

A little before 8:30a I was on my way from Curry Village, having left the other two just rising in our cozy little tent cabin (though the beds are hardly cozy). At happy Isle I stopped near the Nature Center to read the signs describing the huge rockfall that had come down a few years earlier, killing one hiker and damaging the Nature Center. The height of the fall was well over 2,000ft, and the devastation wrought by the crash impressive. Most of the trees in a hundred yard wide swath that marked the blast zone were forcefully knocked to the ground like matchsticks, all lined up in the same direction facing towards the river. Very few were actually touched by rock - most were simply blown down by the rush of air that the fall created (similar to what happens in certain types of fast-moving avalanches).

I hiked the stock trail that starts just south of the Nature Center and follows between the service road to the west and the Merced River to the east. I missed the sign that said "No hikers" which probably explained why I was the only one on the trail all day, even though the main trail across the river was quite busy. The trail passes a large water tank (thus the service road), then three bridges that cross Illiloutte Creek before the creek joins the Merced. After the second bridge I turned right off the trail and headed up the gorge.

The forest envelopes the lower part of the gorge, thick piles of leaves and other organic material matted between and over the boulders that make up most of the forest floor. A short distance from the trail I found a nice flat spot that would hold a few sleeping bags nicely and an old tshirt that had been abandoned - a nice rogue campsite in the Valley if I ever saw one. I knew there were climbing routes on the east side of Glacier Point though this side is currently closed to climbers due to the unstable nature of the rock here. Still, I angled away from the creek and towards the Glacier Point cliffs in hopes of finding a use trail that might be helpful in negotiating the gorge. In this I was partly successful. It may have been that there were just fewer bushes and trees growing along that edge, but I found it easily navigable and with only a bit of imagination one could make out bits and pieces of a route through here. If that's indeed what they were, it was evident that they had seen little use in recent years, and the forest was slowly retaking the path.

Climbing up one has a fine view looking back on Half Dome's SW Face, which stays in view pretty much the entire way. Halfway up the gorge narrowed and I was climbing the large boulders in the streambed itself - this was pretty easy too with the low water found in the fall. This was actually highly enjoyable climbing around the boulders and the bits of stream that were still flowing. Cool emerald pools and lovely cascades are found through much of the route where the water flows. By 10a I was nearing the top of the gorge and could see the sun now shining brightly into it up ahead. Another half hour and I was there, the impressive waterfall still in the morning shade, making quite a roar as it crashed into the pool at its base. I must be quite a sight indeed during the spring melt! A small hanging valley is found at the top of the gorge, in an idyllic setting. The spray from the falls allows grasses to grow thick between the rocks more than a hundred yards from the base of the falls. As one gets closer, the air is cooler and laden with moisture, ferns growing in the shadier and wetter places.

Not long after arriving here, I began to look around for routes to climb out. Those on the east and south sides were easy to rule out - vertical cliffs. I had no climbing gear, just a pair of tennis shoes, so I wasn't looking for anything harder than class 4. The sunny west side seemed to offer the best chance, though the options there seemed limited as well. My first attempt was to follow a grassy crack that ran up about 1/4 of the way up the wall, and maybe offered alternatives after that, though it was unclear from below. I started to make my way up, carefully choosing my steps, using whatever I could find for handholds. More often than not these were small branches of bushes or even little tufts of grass. It was not reassuring. As I got to the top of this I found the way above blocked by a bit of holdless rock with a trickle of water running down, keeping the rock wet and slimy with algae. I traversed right a short distance but found the rock soon looking like class 4 with sand and debris on the questionable slopes. I was up over 300ft, enough to give me pause when looking down, but still along way to go. I decided this way was too dangerous, especially alone.

As I turned to begin retracing my steps, I noticed I was nearly even with the top of the falls across the canyon from me. I also noticed a small crowd of spectators had gathered near the top of the fall and they were all intently watching me. Seems I was providing some entertainment for the hikers along the Panorama Trail. I wondered if they were taking bets on whether I'd fall. I probably looked like some lost idiot who didn't know where the hell he was going (quite possibly true, too). I paused to take a picture of the small group there before I started to descend. It took a long while to do this safely, and by the time I neared the bottom the onlookers had gotten bored and left. Once down, I took a short break to walk to the base of the falls and check things out there. It was shady and cool, and where I was getting too warm earlier, I was now finding it much too cool for my comfort level. I watched the falls tumble from high above and then into the pool below. I washed my face and hands and took a nice drink of the cold water of the pool. Walking back from the falls, I could see north through the opening in the gorge as far as Mt. Hoffmann, the sun brightly lighting the background in comparison to the darkness in the shade.

After this break I made a second attempt at climbing out of the gorge. I followed the canyon downstream a short way, examining all possible routes up the west walls as I went. I found what seemed like the last likely spot up a short side canyon. I climbed out of the brush and up onto some class 3 slabs and grassy ledges with a good deal of exposure below. I made my way up a bit further this time, reaching a height just above the top of Illilouette Falls. But this amounted to only about 2/3 of the height I needed to climb to get out of the gorge on this side. Further progress at this point was questionable. It seemed I might be able to traverse right across an exposed grassy ledge, but it was a bit scary and the far side of the traverse had no guaranteed exit and looked like it might end in a cliff. Drats. I decided I had taken the solo adventure as far as I was comfortable with at this point, and turned around. It me some time to reverse the route and descend back to the relative safety of the canyon bottom. Once there, I made my way down following more closely to the creek this time, enjoying the bouldering and the myriad pools and cascades found here.

It was about 2p when I returned to Curry Village, grabbed a hot shower and then headed home. It had been a very enjoyable half day adventure. I'd like to return again in the future, perhaps approaching from above and rappelling down into the gorge on the same side I had tried to climb out on. Now I just need to find a few foolish souls to follow me for that one... :)

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