Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River: 10/17/09 - 10/25/09

Trailhead: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Min El. : 3,873 ft Max El. : 10,300 ft
Duration: 8 Days El. Gain: 16,200 ft El. Loss: 15,900 ft
Distance: 93 Miles Difficulty: Strenuos Off Trail %: 10

Overview: The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is a rival to Yosmite Valley in many ways. After just a moment walking through its graces, it is obvious why John Muir fought so hard to prevent the flooding of Hetch Hetchy. The hike I describe here is a rather long, roundabout way of getting there, but it does bring you through some amazing scenery. Neall Lake, an unbelievably cool alpine lake tucked away in a large bowl of granite, is a destination in itself.

If you don't have the time for the full circuit, there are several options you have for getting there. You can start the trip from Glen Aulin, which is an easy hike from Tioga Pass Rd (Highway 120), or you can drive up to Harden Lake and start from there. The disadvantage is that both of these options involve either out-and-back hiking, using two vehicles with a pick up and drop off at each end, or hitch-hiking.


Elevation Profile

Day 1 : Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Min El. : 3873 ft Max El. : 6845 ft
Night 1 : Above Rancheria Falls El. Gain: 3200 ft El. Loss : 200 ft
Miles: 6.5

I parked my car at the Hetch Hetchy backpacker's lot at around 12 pm after getting past the ranger at the entryway. She had been quite thorough with her checkout. It was the only time I've ever been asked to open my backpack and show my bear canister. She also warned me of an impending storm and told me I'd probably be rained upon for the next two days, which unfortunately turned out to be true. Overall, she was a really nice and informative lady: a quality ranger.

By the time I got all packed up it was around 1:30, so I got a fairly late start. The trail that takes you over the dam , through the tunnel, and around the reservoir was actually surprisingly cool. Some really nice waterfalls and viewpoints can be found within the first 4 miles or so, and there are only modest dips and rises in the elevation.

After the impressive view of Rancheria Falls , the trail takes no time in bringing to you a mad amount of switchbacks. They take you through some nice oaks and dogwoods from about 4500 ft to 6500 ft. By the time I reached the top of the switchbacks, I was out of water and eagerly anticipating the next creek shown on the map. My pace was also getting a little faster due to the thunder and lighting to my west. I got to the creek on the map, but it was bone dry. I imagine it had plenty of water in September, but now, late in October with the last rainfall happening some weeks back, there was none.

The clouds were really thickening , so my goal was to get to the next source of water and then set up camp before the lightning was overhead. That didn't quite work out. It started to drizzle and that drizzle turned into a downpour. Then, very abruptly, the thunder got so loud and so intense that I nearly pissed myself. One string of claps lasted a full twenty seconds, sort of like when you take 50 packs of thunderbombs and put them in a plastic bucket and then drop a pack of lit matches in. That was followed pretty quickly by some spectacular lightning bolts directly in front of me, spectacular enough to make me take out my tent, set it up, get inside, and curl up on top of my thermarest.

It was about 5:30 pm when I set my tent up and around 6:15 the lightning and thunder stopped. The rain was a light drizzle, so I decided to keep my camp there and walk south until I met the next creek on the map in hope that there was some water in that one. Luckily, this one had a little flow going; loud enough for me to hear despite the fact that it was completely hidden by a massive wall of cottonwoods . I filled my bottles and made it back to camp just before the sunset.


Day 2 : Pleasant Valley Min El. : 6845 ft Max El. : 8570 ft
Night 2 : Pleasant Valley El. Gain: 2000 ft El. Loss : 1900 ft
Miles: 8.5

Unlike the ephemeral, 2 hour storms that occur almost daily in the Sierra Nevadas during the summer months, the early fall storms like to linger around. It drizzled consistently all night and into the next morning with a few breaks here and there. At around 10 o'clock, the clouds broke apart and I got a nice taste of sunshine. It didn't last long, though. When I got to about 7500 feet, I could see a huge curtain of clouds sweeping over the trees in front of me. Even though I was a little peeved about the idea of a full day of precipitation ahead, it was one of the coolest cloud formations I've ever watched; like something out of a Stephen King novel.

Within a few minutes, the whole sky was overcast and the rain began once again. At around 8000 feet it turned into sleet and then at 8500, it was pure snow . While it climbs gradually, the trail here changes back and forth from open meadow areas to semi-dense pine forests, with little groves of aspens here and there. It was really enjoyable to see the snow falling amongst the pines, watching the green canopy transform into a white blanket. I started singing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland", but soon realized I only knew the first verse and chorus, so I decided it better to just whistle. I stopped for lunch under a huge sugar pine, bundled up, and just listened to the sound of the falling snow.

For about a half an hour I really enjoyed just sitting under the shelter of the pine tree and watching the snow fall, but eventually I started to get cold despite my full layers and hat and gloves, so I started on what would be a lovely descent down the switchbacks into pleasant valley. The snowfall and clouds were dense enough to keep my gaze from wandering away from the slippery rocks on the trail, which was probably a good thing. But it was a pity because I knew from reading and talking to the ranger that Pleasant Valley below had one of the finest aspen groves in all of Yosemite.

The snow turned back into rain when I finally descended to about 7600 feet; a nice, hard rain that just did't seem to falter. I followed the trail through some rich Aspen groves and stopped to enjoy their beautiful yellow leaves from time to time. Eventually, I was greeted by a large pool of water below a smooth waterfall in Piute Creek where the trail seemed to dead end. I could tell that the day and a half of rain had made the creek swell quite a bit, but I was pretty sure that this wasn't a place to cross even at a low water level, so I backtracked. I found a branch of the trail about 400 yards back that deviated south so I followed this until it hit the creek. I could clearly see a trail on the other side of the creek, and from where I was standing on the west bank it looked like the deepest it would get would be about crotch level-with not much of a current at all-so I decided to take off the boots and go for it. And yep, turns out it came up to about torso level. My backpack tried to stay about the water with its natural buoyancy, but I defintely forced it down near the very end so I could make the last few steps.

When I got to the other side, I found some shelter under a set of big Yellow pines and unzipped the lower compartment to see if my sleeping bag was still dry. I gotta hand it to Arcteryx, their bags really are waterproof. My sleeping bag and all the other crap was still water free. My clothes and boots, on the other hand, were soaked through, and I was cold as bejeezus. It was around 4:30 and the rain had subsided to the point where I couldn't tell if it was a drizzle or drops falling from the tree branches above. So I set up my tent and spent nearly an hour getting a fire going by finding some low lying branches on the surrounding pines that would still light. There was tons of wood right around my camp, but it was all soaked. What a crappy fire that turned out to be. Still, I got dry enough to sleep cozily through the night.


Day 3 : Rodgers Meadow Min El. : 6856 ft Max El. : 9250 ft
Night 3 : Neall Lake (Spectacular!) El. Gain: 2700 ft El. Loss : 300 ft
Miles: 7.0

A bright blue sky greeted me in the morning and made me quite happy. A few of my things still needed some drying, but I was fine to start on the ascent out of Pleasant Valley with some wet undies. The trail up offers some really spectacular views back down on Pleasant Valley and Table Lake and through several nice groves of Aspens on its way from 6800 feet up to 8000 feet.

I stopped for lunch where the trail flattens out at 8100 ft at the first nice set of granite boulders I could find. There's nothing quite like gigantic slabs of granite to dry your stuff out. It took about two hours for everything to get dry since the air temperature was only about 55 F or so. Afterwards I continued up the trail, which brought me through some pine forests out into Rodgers Meadow. I gotta admit, I was rather taken by this meadow. The granite wall to the east had some beautiful green moss formations that contrasted nicely with the red heather coating the meadow floor.

One thing was for sure: I was moving incredibly slowly relative to other hikes I've done, largely due to the rain and snow falling during the previous two days, and now because of the layer of snow covering the ground. Around 9000 feet it got to about one or two feet deep. I was planning on making it up to Rodgers Lake before I set up camp, but boy am I glad I decided to check out Neall Lake ! It's gotta go down as one of my top five favorite Sierra lakes. It was a .2 mile detour that was well worth every soggy-boot step.

Yes, my boots were still pretty much soaked through from the last two days. So when the sun started setting, my body temperature dropped accordingly, which prompted me to collect more soggy firewood. Getting the fire lit was enough of a struggle to make me miss most of the amazing Alpenglow on the eastern face of the perfect cirque bowl that nestles in Neall Lake. I set up camp right basically on top of the trail that ran adjacent to the lake. I figured since I hadn't seen anybody today or the day before, I wasn't likely to have guests coming tonight. It was a nice, flat, soft ground. But damn, did it get cold.


Day 4 : Benson Pass Min El. : 8417 ft Max El. : 10,300 ft
Night 4 : Matterhorn Canyon El. Gain: 1500 ft El. Loss : 2300 ft
Miles: 13.6

When I woke up, I could tell this would be a perfect morning to sit on the granite slabs on the northern shore of Neall Lake and just stare as the sun tried to peak over the eastern wall. The reflections put me in a state of hypnosis that was only broken by the occasional trout gracing the surface. This would be a gold mine if one were so inclined to make a fish dinner. I was so taken by Neall Lake...I think it would be a great destination for a four or five day trip. Without the bad weather, you could probably make it up on the second night with a few extra hours of sunlight during the summer.

After some breakfast I started my ascent up toward Roger Lake, which was damned spectacular in its own right. From Roger Lake, one has to climb steadily north to a pseudo-pass. I lost the trail during this northward ascent and decided I'd just try to find the easiest way over and down to Smedberg Lake. This turned out to be non-trivial, as the potential paths for descent on the north side were covered in some very hard snow with a nice slick layer of ice on top. I hadn't brought my snowshoes or crampons because I'd read that snow doesn't generally stick in Yosemite until mid-November. I'm pretty certain now that they were only talking about elevations in the valley or lower Yosemite Valley (4000-7000 ft) because there were buttloads of it everywhere above 8000 ft, and this was only mid-October.

I eventually determined the best bet was to head far east and cut north towards an enormous wall and descend in a northwest fashion from there. It worked pretty well after I found a nice gully that sloped down with some solid hand holds along the way. After getting down to Smedberg, I stopped for lunch. Again, I saw hordes of fish and wish I had alloted more time to just sit there with my rod and pull dinner out. But instead, I decided to go ahead and try to get over Benson Pass so I had some daylight left to get down below 8000 ft on the other side before I set up camp.

I'm not going to lie, Benson Pass is nothing spectacular. The picture linked above is about the coolest thing I saw. The view to the southeast looks pretty cool in this picture, but that's mostly because somebody had left some tracks coming up it. I couldn't tell how old they were, but based on the fact that I hadn't seen anyone for the last three days, I'm guessing they were older than that. The descent down into Matterhorn Canyon might have been enjoyable if it weren't for the fact that with each step I sunk into about 1.5 feet of snow. I was damned glad when I got to 8400 feet after some major switchbacks and found a spot where I could set up camp. The descent from 10,400 ft down to 8400 meant I'd be sleeping in 25 degree weather instead of 15 degree weather. I knew it was gonna be a damned cold night so I slept with my water filter in my sleeping bag, which kept it from freezing like my Nalgene bottles.


Day 5 : Miller Lake Min El. : 8300 ft Max El. : 9700 ft
Night 5 : Virginia Canyon El. Gain: 2000 ft El. Loss : 1700 ft
Miles: 10.8

This was one of the coldest mornings I've ever experienced; cold enough that the water in my Nalgene bottles developed ice chunks within minutes after filling them. Every time I had to use my fingers to open a zipper or find something in my bag they got numb enough that I couldn't feel them. Yeah, I know I'm being a sissy since it would be a lot worse in an Alaska winter or in Siberia or some furiously cold place like that, but it felt damned cold. And since I hadn't seen anybody in in the last three days, I had no reservations in expressing my distaste for the cold weather by cursing at the top of my lungs into the cold, thin air. That actually helped me deal with it quite well.

Aside from the cold, my campsite was gorgeous. The lighting in the meadow and dim glow on the east facing mountains made it a great place to sit and eat breakfast. When I got wrapped up in watching the meadow and forgot how cold it was, I realized my oatmeal was getting consistently harder as it froze and coagulated.

The hike from 8400 feet up to Miller Lake at 9600 was pleasant; some mild switchbacks through gigantic pines. I lost the trail, but fortunately it's not too tough to find your way to Miller Lake. I stopped for lunch and dried my stuff out on some granite benches next to the lake. The condensation in my tent had soaked my sleeping bag pretty well and my socks and boots were just downright nasty. Miller Lake was pretty, but not worthy of a separate trip or anything like that. Near its outlet the travel was lovely, though.

Getting down to Virginia Canyon afterwards was a real pain in the ass. The switchbacks down the western side of the canyon face toward the north and are bathed in shadows, so the snow had no problem building up to two or three feet. So my progress was slow and wet. When I finally got to the bottom (8500 ft), I decided to call it a day around 4:30 at the point where the trail intersects Return Creek, so I still had about 2 hours of sunlight left. I was feeling damned dirty and even though the creek was frigid, I got a nice bath in. The benefit of not having seen anyone for four days was that I felt completely fine in swimming butt naked and lying out on a granite boulder to airdry. I got to wondering about what a ranger would do if he or she caught me. I'm not sure about the laws regarding nudity in national parks, but my guess is most would just pretend they didn't notice.


Day 6 : Tuolumne River Min El. : 7200 ft Max El. : 9100 ft
Night 6 : Waterwheel Falls El. Gain: 400 ft El. Loss : 2300 ft
Miles: 11.4

Day 5 of no sight of any human beings. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen anybody else out on these trails. It's kind of nuts to think about how underutilized Yosemite is during the fall. I guess people just don't like the thought of snow or cold when they camp. Certainly the adverse conditions make the overall trip a little less comfortable, but the fall colors and stillness really make it worth every bit of suffering-if you can call it that.

The trip down Virginia Canyon was ok, but I imagine for someone hiking the whole Pacific Crest Trail, it's more of a nuisance since it doesn't offer many spectacular views. It does have one enormous meadow where you can see far off into the distance both north and south. This is really the only portion of the trail between the junction at the northern end of the canyon and Glen Aulin that sticks out in my mind.

Glen Aulin, on the other hand, is a fine place to take in the sights. I stopped for quite a while to gnaw on a frozen Clif bar while I soaked my feet in the Tuolumne River and stared at the falls at the High Sierra Camp. I was positive I would see somebody here, but it felt like a ghost town when I actually arrived. The whole establishment had been shut down for the winter and there wasn't a single person to be found about. Since the bathrooms were locked (that's the only reason I would have stayed there-so I could enjoy sitting on a toilet instead of up against a rock when I had to go number 2 in the morning) and it was only about 3:00 pm, I decided to keep on hiking and enter the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.

Let me tell you, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne was worth every second of hiking and discomfort I experienced over the last six days. It is absolutely stunning. And there are certainly easier routes into it-ones that would only require a two or three day trip if you parked a car at your endpoint and did a one way hike- then the one I took. So don't let my long trip in discourage you.

I was immediately struck with awe when I saw the size of the granite peaks and sheer walls to the south. I had arrived just in time for the brilliant horizontal sunshine, which made the cottonwoods appear as if they were on fire. During the next 2.5 hours, I made it about 3 miles along the canyon and every quarter mile or so, there was something fantastic to behold. Huge pools in the Tuolumne River with abundant schools of fish, a plethora of waterfalls, and awesome granite features are continuously brought into view. After my three miles, it was starting to get dark so I found a nice little nook off the trail towards the river where I could set my tent up. The picture doesn't do it justice, but that granite wall just towered above me and made it a super campsite.


Day 7 : Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Min El. : 4220 ft Max El. : 7280 ft
Night 7 : Pate Valley El. Gain: 400 ft El. Loss : 3400 ft
Miles: 12.0

I was in for a real treat today with the remaining throws of the canyon ahead of me. The trail along the canyon makes its way gracefully through small, flat valleys and more waterfalls while it slowly descends. There are plenty of stretches where you can see for miles downward and observe the canyon walls narrow into deep gorges.

After a few miles of dilly-dallying down the trail, I came to a sign posted to a pine tree that warned of a recent forest fire that had taken place further down the river. It said to watch out for falling branches and to avoid smoke inhalation and whatnot. Since I couldn't smell any smoke, I assumed that the sign had been left there some time ago. This turned out to be true, and I was afforded the opportunity to walk through several recently burned forests. Man, was this cool. The air had a thick smell of ash and the space had a feeling of empty stillness to it that I won't forget.

At one point about 6500 feet above sea level, the granite walls on the south side of the River spring up several thousand feet behind these enormous pines. I was simply blown away by this scene and probably spent 20 or 30 minutes just sitting and staring at it, trying in part to figure out a way to convey the scene with a picture...turns out I couldn't really do it. I ended up taking another nice nude swim and basking in the sun for a few hours right around this spot. When the sun wasn't blocked by clouds my body felt absolutely perfect in comfort. Afterwards I continued and found that so many fantastic views over the middle stretch of the canyon that it's hard to keep a good pace. I ended up stopping frequently just to take them in.

Heading west on the trail took me consistently downhill until a point about 8 miles in from Glen Aulin, where you have to climb some switchbacks north to avoid Muir Gorge. In total it's not more than about 400 or 500 feet of gain, though. Even when you get down to about 5500 feet and the vegetation turns to Oak and Manzanita, the scenery is something else. More huge pools of water at the base of waterfalls coat the way. I decided I wanted to make it to Pate Valley so that I could start my day climbing back to 7000 ft instead of descending for a few miles, so I picked up my pace near the end. Pate Valley is a pretty cool area with lots of great looking spots to camp and fish, but I kept going until there wasn't any daylight left. Six full days and nobody to be found except me. I was talking to myself quite a bit and it was getting kind of lame having to listen to my own voice.


Day 8 : Harden Gardens Min El. : 4050 ft Max El. : 7700 ft
Night 5 : Virginia Canyon El. Gain: 4000 ft El. Loss : 3800 ft
Miles: 23.0

I woke up ready to tackle the 4000 foot elevation gain ahead of me. My legs were feeling strong and thanks to my stubborn requirement of stopping to empty my shoes every time a piece of debris had made its way in to them, I was blister free. The first 1500 feet of the ascent was stitched with switchbacks and some nice views of Pate Valley, and there were water sources where the map said they'd be, so that was a good thing. And when I passed 6000 ft above sea level, lo and behold, I saw people!! The first time in almost seven full days! It was two older guys, maybe mid-50s and one of their sons. The older guys told me that they'd done the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River three times before since they loved it so much and I could see why.

After shooting the breeze for a little bit, I hiked ahead and stopped at a gorgeous vantage point of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. While I enjoyed a Powerbar looking down at it, the same dudes caught up and stopped to take a peak as well. I took a nice photo of them and started off again. I decided I'd try to make it up to Harden Lake for lunch and then just chill out and fish there for the entire afternoon. After all, my return wasn't scheduled for two days, so I had an entire day to make the 12 mile descent back to Hetch Hetchy tomorrow. The hike up to Harden Lake brought me through Harden Gardens, which had some lovely Aspen clusters (apparently these trees are connected beneath the soil in large clusters and you can tell which trees are a member of a given cluster because their leaves all change color at the same time).

The good news is that I made it up to Harden Lake around 1:30 and was ready to destroy my lunch. The bad news is that it was one of the lamest bodies of water I've ever seen. It was maybe a 100 yard circle filled with one or two feet of water and big old boulders. No way I could pull fish out of here and no way I wanted to camp here. So I decided I'd turn on the jets and try to hike all the way out before sundown at 6:30. That made about 12 miles in 4 hours.

Let me tell you, if you're planning on taking the southern route that I did from Pate Valley to Hetch Hetchy, don't do it for about three years or more. There was a forest fire several years ago that decimated the forests and the entire floor has been coated with wild rose bushes. The trail hasn't been worked on since then, so you basically have to walk through a sea of thorns up to your eyes for 3 or 4 solid miles. I eventually gave up trying to clean the blood off of my legs and arms and just booked through it. The nice thing is that the bushes give off a beautiful fragrance to offset the mild pain from the cuts. The ranger told me that the trail would be repaired eventually, but three years is my estimate for how long it'll take them to make it usable again.

After arriving at Smith Meadow, which also wasn't anything to write home about, I took a break to eat another Powerbar and realized I'd have to really high-tail it to cover the remaining 7 miles in 1.75 hours. During the rapid descent, I found myself jogging quite a bit, which wasn't that bad with the weight reduction of my bag due to the depletion of my food supply. When the sun got really low, the low-lying trees put on a nice show and I even caught some great Alpenglow. The last four miles before the trail empties you out onto Evergreen Rd. were surprisingly lovely. Part of the trail runs alongside a creek covered with colorful dogwoods and cottonwoods and pines. I should say, though, that both my GPS and map lied about when the trail and road actually merge. It was about .7 miles further north than where both said it would happen. And I was really glad to see the paved road since there was no sun left.

I hiked the last 1.5 miles to the Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Campground with a big smile on my face. I was just damned psyched to have some drinkable running water and a real toilet. The highlight of this trip was definitely the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. If you haven't seen it, put it on the list of things to do in Yosemite.