Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River

Jun 20, 2003

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Michael and I had a free weekend for a trip to the Sierra, but as often happens we didn't have a plan on what to climb or where to go. One of the problems in formulating a plan is that I've already climbed a bunch of the peaks Michael is interested in climbing, and if I want to climb them a second time I want to do them as a dayhike which is usually to Michael's distaste. One of the leading candidates was Vogelsang (which I had climbed) combined with Fletcher (which I had not) as a dayhike, not grueling, but still challenging. In the midst of this back and forth email, Matthew wandered in via email with a suggestion to hike Tuolumne Canyon as a dayhike. That had been on my list for some time, and I was quite eager to do it. By careful planning, I found it was possible to combine both ideas on the same weekend, if one can count Friday as the weekend (I don't work on Fridays, so I always count it). Since Michael couldn't take off work on Friday, Matthew and I planned the long hike for that day. Michael would drive up separately and join us the next day.

Matthew arrived at my house in San Jose promptly at 2a, having very little sleep that night. I had gotten up early (5a) Thursday morning and gone to bed at 8p so I could get some rest. I drove Matthew's Outback all the way to Yosemite to allow him more rest, but he didn't catch a wink the whole drive. Either my conversation skills were positively riveting, or Matthew just can't sleep well in a car. We stopped in Oakdale to refill, and I found in the GasMart that Starbucks now sells their caffeine-ladden Frappuccinos in a larger size. I had already consumed several of the smaller bottles that I had brought in a cooler, so needless to say I was hopped up enough on a sugar/caffeine combo that I had no trouble driving at all.

Our plan was to drop me off in White Wolf, hiking east up the canyon. Matthew would drive to Tuolumne Meadows and hike in the opposite direction, then I would pick him up afterwards back at White Wolf. When we arrived at the White Wolf turnoff, we were slightly dismayed to find the gate closed. Rats. We had heard it was closed earlier in the month, but thought it ought to be opened by now. It wasn't a serious problem as it only adds another mile and a half or so to a 30 mile hike. What difference could it possibly make? Several other cars were parked at the gate entrance, most likely backpackers we guessed. I had my day pack all ready to go the night before, so it took only a minute to drop me off and say goodbye to Matthew. I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of abandonment that I hadn't expected, and didn't feel like I had any time to prepare for. Was this going to be fun or an epic mistake? Matthew got back in the car and drove off before I could decide, and by then it didn't matter. The feeling subsided and I headed off down the road to White Wolf.

It was nice cool morning, just after 6a, and the sun had not yet risen. It was expected to be a warm day, so I was hoping to avoid the sun as long as possible. I jogged as I headed down the road, taking advantage of good footing to move at a faster pace. All was quiet in the fields alongside the road, a chilly dew hanging onto everything green. When I reached White Wolf I found a lone car with its occupant in the campground, how he got in through the locked gate was a bit of a mystery. I left the road here, heading out on the trailhead that heads first east, then north at a junction with the main trail. Though the ground was mostly flat here, it was quite swampy and I danced around the trail trying to keep my socks and tennis shoes from getting wet. I was no longer jogging, but I wasn't exactly successful at keeping dry. 30 miles in wet feet didn't sound very inviting to me, and I wondered if my shoe selection had been appropriate. After a few miles the swamps relented and I was once more hiking on dry ground. This was the worst of the swampy sections I would find for the day as it turned out. The sun rose in the east just before 6:30a, first touching the treetops, then filtering down to the forest floor. A few colorful wildflowers were found along the trail, though not as many as I would find later in the canyon.

Eventually the trail starts heading downhill when I reached the rim of the Tuolumne Canyon. It was not a dramatic rim as in Yosemite, but a more gradual one, though it did afford some decent views. At a junction with the Hetch-Hetchy Trail, I noted the Tuolumne Meadows sign indicating 26mi to go. That sure seemed like a very long way. The trail took a northeast slant as it made its way down to the bottom of the canyon. The sun was higher now, and I found the south-facing canyon wall didn't afford me the shade from the sun that I was hoping it would. And it got noticeably warmer the further I descended, a combination of more sunlight and lower elevation doubling the effect. Where I could look down to the canyon below I wasn't so impressed by the views, particularly looking downriver. Pate Valley looked pleasant enough, sitting at a junction of two major tributaries. About a third of the way down the side of the canyon I came across a lone backpacker stopped at a side stream. He was heading up the way I'd just come down and asked about directions to Yosemite Valley. Aside from the question sounding odd, his head was swarming with mosquitoes that made me nervous. I had heard they were bad this year, but this was the first I'd seen of them - and they looked nasty. We spoke only briefly before I jumped on a log and across the stream - I didn't want to stop long enough to give his mosquito friends a chance to latch onto me. As I continued down I put some DEET on my exposed face and hands. The rest of me was covered (long-sleeve T-shirt, long pants, hat) and I was happy to not get a single bite the whole day.

Sometime later I came out of the woods among some granite slabs that the trail cuts through (dynamited, of course) with some small streams trickling down the faces. I stopped here where I had nice view of Pate Valley below and filled a water bottle in the stream. I carried two bottles with me, but never had more than one full. With practically the whole route following water courses it didn't seem necessary to overload on water weight. I had a granola bar while I rested for a few minutes and continued on. By the time I reached Pate Valley at 9a, a mysterious and magically distant place that I had seen on the maps and heard mention of many a time, I could not figure out why anyone would bother to camp here. True, it was the junction of two major branches of the Tuolumne as well as the junction with the trails that follow the rivers, but there was little in the way of views, it was hot, and the mosquitoes seemed to have the run of the place. The nicest feature was the grand river flowing by, and I suppose that combined with some flat ground makes it inviting to the backpacking crowd. I met an elderly couple here, probably in their 60s, heading in the opposite direction. They didn't seem to have anything nice to say about Pate Valley either - so much for backpackers liking this place. The few minutes I stopped to talk to them was the only time I stopped while in Pate Valley, for fear that the mosquitoes would latch onto my trajectory. Only 21 miles to go. After I crossed the bridge here taking me to the north side of the river, there were some swamps encountered just past the junction with the trail wildly overgrown, but it didn't slow me down much at all. In fact the flowers found here were the most intricate and beautiful I found all day. This point marked the low point along the route - it was all uphill from here. I was actually looking forward to the climb really, hoping the air would cool as I gained altitude. It occurred to me that it might be hot as hell down here by the time Matthew reaches it. That in fact was the case. While I doubt the temperatures reached 100F as he claimed, I had little doubt that with the mosquitoes and mugginess it would certainly feel like it. Matthew reported that the heat sapped his remaining energy just as he would have to begin the climb out of the canyon - and this led to a significant slowdown at the end of the hike. As for me, it was still morning, and I was now hiking a pleasant section that followed close to the river. The canyon here is not steep, but the water flows busily by in a noisy series of shallow cascades, flowers lining parts of the banks.

Where the trail climbed high above the river, I stopped to admire the views. I had expected steep granite cliffs like Yosemite Valley, but found very little of it. Instead, it more resembled a younger Kings Canyon, a deep V-groove cutting the main channel, with side streams cutting smaller V's off to the side. The streams cascaded down from the rim above rather than fall in giant leaps as in Yosemite, but it was no less grandeur. I fancied the adventures one might have in climbing the side canyons following the streams on the south-facing walls. Far less accessible than Yosemite Valley, these side canyons are probably very rarely visited.

The trail crossed two side streams (one of them is Register Creek) that came down the north side of the canyons, both of them dropping sharply in steep cascades that rumbled through the surrounding forest. They had cool (cold, actually) and enchanting pools and small falls that invited me to linger momentarily to enjoy the cool spray that permeated the air. Though not high-water time of year, it was still higher than average, and crossing Register Creek took some measure of route finding and balance to find and then cross wet logs that provided a way across. Though not difficult, with a full backpack (as that elderly couple were carrying) it would certainly become a greater challenge, and their prowess grew proportionately in my mind as I considered they must have done just this earlier.

Above Register Creek the trail begins to climb steeply as it bypasses Muir Gorge. It did indeed grow somewhat cooler as I climbed higher, though not as much as I'd hoped, and very little breeze to help things along. 3hrs out of Pate Valley I began to wonder when I might run into Matthew coming the opposite direction. I had an hour headstart on him, but he would be travelling all downhill to Pate Valley, so I suspected we might meet close to the middle. Though I had been thinking about, it caught me off guard when I rounded a turn in the trail and found Matthew not 10 feet in front of me. I had been hiking six hours now and Matthew five. He had been making pretty good time and there was little chance I would complete the rest of the route in the same five hours. But I set that as a goal with the expectation it would probably take an hour longer still. We only exchanged a few sentences and photos before heading separate ways. This part of the trail has some great views of the cascades coming down the southside walls. At the top of Muir Gorge, a small stream makes its way down from the Ten Lakes area around Colby Mtn. The trail at this point is quite high above the river, and offers a swell view looking up the canyon.

Further up the trail I was enthralled with the spectacular view of Cathedral Creek cascading down a side canyon. The headwaters from this creek come from the small lake and semi-permanent snowfield found in a hidden amphitheater on the north side of Cathedral Peak - it would make a fine adventure to follow this creek up to Tioga Road. Eventually the trail makes its way back down to the river where I enjoyed the cooler temperatures and roar of the cascades.

Shortly before reaching Return Creek I passed a group of three backpackers, the first persons I found going the same way as myself. I stopped at the creek for some pictures and a short rest while the three, two men and a woman, all in their twenties, went out in front again. Other hikers, now mostly dayhikers, were making their way down from Glen Aulin to enjoy the views. Above Return Creek is probably the most picturesque part of the whole canyon, a series of falls (really more like cascades than falls) whose roar reverberates through the canyon in a deafening thunder. There are three named falls on the map leading up to Glen Aulin, but I found these hard to identify precisely. Perhaps if I studied the map a bit more closely (I don't think I looked at it more than three or four minutes the whole day as I found the route-finding rather trivial) or spent more time among them it would have been more obvious, but there seemed to be many series of cascades with the named ones just being the prominent of the bunch. The first is named Waterwheel Falls which I thought to be an odd name for a waterfall. But then I saw a cascade where the water shot down in a narrow, shallow channel, slammed into a rock 80-100ft lower after the water had picked up considerable speed, and sent a spray of water up into the air. In fact there were two such features on this smooth granite waterslide, and the effect made them look like the spray coming off the paddlewheel of an old riverboat steamship - which I surmised is where the name Waterwheel came from (turns out I wasn't correct on this).

The headwall aside the falls is steep, and the trail makes a series of switchbacks to gain altitude, exposed to the sun and unfortunately blocking the breeze that was felt elsewhere. I passed the three backpackers again on my way up, and began to find even more dayhikers along the trail. This upper section is definitely more well travelled. Above Waterwheel is LeConte Falls, though again it is more of a cascade. The canyon walls on the north side close in starting at LeConte Falls, vertical granite walls rising up 2,000ft to Wildcat Point above. The last named water feature before Glen Aulin is California Falls, roaring down right next to the trail. Above here, I came to Glen Aulin, a mile-long stretch of nearly flat meadow (it seems obvious that there was a lake here at one time in the past with the outlet at California Falls). The trail was underwater in places, making it hard to navigate. I followed a threesome of dayhikers in front of me who were also making their way through the swamp. Not being too careful at one log crossing my left foot slipped in, completely waterlogging that shoe and foot. Oh well, only five more miles to go...

Despite the presence of the High Sierra Camp, the Glen Aulin area is truly beautiful. There are several water features in the immediate area (White Cascade and Tuolumne Falls) that offer cool respites, and the views around the canyon and up to the cliff walls are excellent. The closer I drew to Tuolumne Meadows the greater grew the traffic on the trail. While Matthew had seen about eight parties when he came through in the morning, I came across about twenty. Around the top of Tuolumne Falls I was treated to a glimpse of the high peaks to the east on the Sierra Crest, but that was just a teaser as the view soon fades behind a ridge. But even better was the view of the Cathedral Range to the south as I finally reached Tuolumne Meadows. I had felt pretty good for the first 25 miles, but these last five since Glen Aulin were showing I was about run out. I was rather happy there wasn't yet another five to go. In the vicinity of Soda Springs I stopped to check out the springs and the buildings here. What looked like a half-finished log cabin was a protection for the main spring that comes out of the ground here, and first drew the attention of visitors more than a hundred years ago. Inside was a small series of pools with water coming up from the largest. A sign above it indicated the source of the water is drinkable, but people or animals may have contaminated the pools. I looked at the pools, at the sign, back at the pools. Curiosity won over fear, and I scooped up a handful of it to drink. Naturally carbonated, it tasted like ... soda water. Who would have guessed? I took a second drink mostly due to the novelty of it rather than because I enjoyed the taste, then went on. I heard a mother and daughter move in to check it also, with a remonstrance from the mother warning the daughter to not drink the water. Fear wins over curiosity that time.

I hiked across Tuolumne Meadows towards SR120, enjoying the views in all directions. What a fine afternoon up here indeed. Though I heard a few visitors complaining about the nasty mosquitoes, I didn't get a bite and saw but a handful though my DEET had worn off long ago. I found Matthew's car at the highway exactly where he had described it, and the first thing I did was get out of my shoes and into a dry pair. My feet were white and wrinkled, looking as though they were deciding whether to go for full-on trenchfoot. Giving them air did a world of good. Even better, no blisters. I was now sold on these expensive wicking socks (Ultimax) and vowed to use them on all my long hikes. Keeping out of the water would probably help even more. It was just before 6p, having taken just under 12 hours for the 30+ miles. Not the ten hours I was unrealistically hoping for, but fair nonetheless.

Now I needed to retrieve Matthew. I was pretty sure he wasn't going to be done hiking yet, even within the next hour. I drove to the Tuolumne Lodge to see if I could get a quick shower but the sign indicated I was several hours late for visitor-use hours. Drats. I then drove on to White Wolf, arriving around 7p. To my surprise, the gate was open and I could drive all the way in. Even better, the dinning room at the lodge there was open. I waited about 30 minutes for Matthew, then decided to get dinner at the lodge before they closed at 8p. Though the food is pricey, the service was great and the food pretty damn good considering I thought I'd be settling for granola bars and beef jerky. The lodge had just opened this afternoon, and I was lucky to be there for opening night. Normally advance reservations are needed for dinner since it is a popular pasttime, but the crowd was low and half the tables were empty. I wasn't worried about Matthew being late, as it had taken him some four hours longer on our Rose Peak hike of a similar nature, but he had been making good progress when I last left him and thought he'd be out by now. The restaurant closed with still no Matthew, so I got an ice cream bar at the small store there as a bonus treat. I was quite stuffed by the time I finished, and Matthew came strolling in some ten minutes later. He was too late for dinner, but at the prices didn't seem to mind, and he was just able to get a fruit bar as a finishing treat before the store closed as well.

Matthew had brought lots of food with him, and he ate some of this while I drove us back to Tuolumne Meadows. We were supposed to meet Michael for our hike the next day, but the meeting place we'd chosen (Tuolumne Campground) was not yet open for the season. So instead we drove to the trailhead parking lot near Tuolumne Lodge and slept out in the woods not far from our car. We would meet up with Michael in the morning in the parking lot - right now we were both just interested in getting some well-earned rest...


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