From Tuolumne Meadows the river flows roughly
being impounded for eight miles at 3,783’ in the infamous
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Hetch Hetchy is a large lake created for both
power production and as the water supply for San Francisco. Requiring
an act of congress to create, The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is still an
issue of controversy
Since 1915 it has submerged a valley loved by John
to Yosemite Valley in unique scenery, and richer in history. Because of
the high water quality in the Tuolumne River, the water
doesn’t need treatment before being piped to San Francisco,
so there is a ban on swimming and boating in the reservoir.
Hetchy valley before the
First descended by Robbins, Montgomery, Lake,
1983, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne quickly gained a reputation as a
section of river better accessed by a backpack than kayak.
“All in all we ran seven good rapids, hiked about as many
miles with our boats and all swore that we would never go back. The
consensus was that the guidebook is right, a backpack is the best way
to see the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.” – Seven
. Combine this
reputation with questionable legality, and this section of river has
not seen too many descents.
During our West
about the Grand Canyon of the T to veteran Dustin Knapp, who remarked
that it was a run he would do again, and thought the ideal flow was
around 1,200 cfs, over double what the Seven Rivers crew had.
We had an incredible mix of beta on top of all
Reports of “clean fifty footers” and “all
the best whitewater is in the first four miles” among many
“don’t bother, it’s not worth
it” recommendations. The best beta we received was that it
was of considerable import for us to pass by Glen Aulin before eight in
A run of this magnitude and logistical
requires far more
planning than your average weekend trip, and we sorted out details the
week before when not diverting ourselves with the South
. Flows were
looking perfect, we had a shuttle driver set up, plenty of food and
full moon. With many things lining up, people still backed out,
dropping the our group to a small team, fellow
paddlers Ben Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic
myself were the only ones still willing to risk it. Most groups put on
at four or five in the morning to escape notice.
Deciding to take advantage of the full moon, we
later start than
planned and arrived in Tuolumne Meadows at a cold one in the morning.
While unloading gear it became obvious that earlier in the day when one
group member had accidentally stepped on their tub of margarine, it not
only covered their foot, but also all of our paddles, not the best
alternative to paddle wax. Besides the slippery paddles, we ran into no
problems getting ready and once on the water it quickly became apparent
that the full moon near the horizon wouldn’t help us too much
due to the heavy forest on the river banks. We quickly cruised to one
very scary, very dark class II rapid, and were glad when the river
started meandering through the open meadow. Views of the river coursing
through meadows backdropped by moonlit granite domes made us stare in
silence while drifting downstream.
It was apparent that we had plenty of water,
and in two hours we had floated down at least four miles to the first
major slide, and opted to camp rather than try to deal with rapids in
the dark. While still in our boats we were surprised to find ourselves
wishing for pogies, and once out of the water it became even more plain
how cold it was, however due to the cold weather and good gear we were
relieved to find all our base layers dry, and quickly slipped into our
summer sleeping bags and curled up for a few hours of sleep.
cold, early morning start for Ben and Chris on
our first true day of the GC of the T.
I awoke at first light, gazed over at Chris and
desired to return to slumbering. Any other run and I gladly would have,
even with a long day ahead, but motivated to escape possible
confrontation and fines, we knew an early start was necessary, so we
all geared up after only two hours of sleep and portaged the first
rapid because it simply looked too cold for this time of day. Cruising
through the meadow after the rapid, frosted grass confirmed our
suspicions about temperatures.
way too early and
cold to deal with margarine
on my paddle”
The sun had still not risen when we approached the
of a series of
wide, long, low angled slides. Motivated simply by desire to make time
Ben would give them a quick scout and route us through while he took
some quick video and stills.
slides were all long and fun, but
we were pretty focused on
avoiding any large holes and staying warm. Chris Korbulic in a wake up
Four or five slides into it, and feeling good
river, we came
to the first large cataract, Tuolumne Falls. One quick look at the size
of both the horizon line and rocks in the landing had us take a few
quick scenery shots and portaging on the left.
Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic
enjoying the view and sharing
feelings at Tuolumne Falls.
Tuolumne Falls led into a few more class IV drops
as the map and
our knowledge predicted, we were at the brink of White Cascade and just
above Glen Aulin. Our internet scouting had made White Cascade look
like one of the possibly navigable drops based off this less than
tenable source. Upon arrival, the combination of the sheer size of the
falls and lack of time to properly scout had already ruled it out, let
alone the impossible shallow landing.
During our portage we nearly ran into an occupied
campsite, and quickly
worked our way around trying to make as little noise as possible. We
knew we were right above Glen Aulin and wanted to avoid all people. We
only got on the river for a short amount of time before paddling up to
the bridge at Glen Aulin, happy to note it was only seven in the
morning. Wanting to move past as quickly as possible we
didn’t give the Glen Aulin slide any kind of a look before
making another quick portage down the left, happy to be past the Ranger
station and awed by more superb meadow scenery.
Stookesberry in the Glen Aulin
It’s common knowledge that below Glen
“waterfalls” on the Tuolumne River, although they
are actually gigantic slides. The first of these is California Falls,
another that we assumed might be possible via the ever dubious internet
the meadow in tight knit formation, the impressive
horizon line had us scouting in no time, and portaging almost as
Stookesberry taking in California
All of the large slides and falls in the Grand
are larger than pictures would lead you to believe. The size of the
Grand Canyon is so impressive that the drops don’t appear so big,
but they all lose a minimum of one hundred feet, and most
considerably more. Granite slabs made portaging easy, and at the bottom
of California Falls we ferried to the left side of the river where we
could put our boats out of view and enjoy some much needed breakfast
Korbulic and the author ferry
across below California Falls.
California falls as viewed from near our breakfast camp.
views are equally
While digesting we walked down to check the slide
found another large slide that contained a sketchy pothole and gigantic
hole at the bottom, so after our nap we made another quick portage.
Once again we drifted through fantastic meadow scenery, only too soon
to be at another large horizon line where Chris saw someone fishing.
Chris signaled us into an eddy on the left where
out of view,
and once assembled in the eddy we discussed our options. We still
wanted to avoid any contact with people, but the trail and fisherman
were on river right, and from where we were the left side looked like
an undesirable portage. Facing that fact that we would run into at
least a few people, we paddled down and started a friendly conversation
with two hikers. Both were quite friendly and we talked about the hike
and scenery, wished them a good day with a parting word to please not
mention us to anyone they saw, and they were kind enough to share that
an hour or two ago they had passed two rangers heading down river.
Le Conte Falls.
Taking this into consideration we portaged around
knew to be Le
Conte Falls, one of the most unique slides I have ever seen. Both Le
Conte and Waterwheel Falls feature the phenomenon known as
“water wheeling” where on impact the water deflects
so hard that with any breeze it is blown back up to the pool above the
falls. These rooster tails have to be seen to be believed, this one at
Le Conte was thirty to forty feet high.
largest rooster tail I have ever
We used the trail to portage, put in at a gorgeous
site located in
a meadow between Le Conte and Waterwheel, and soon enough were at the
equally impressive Waterwheel Falls.
Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic
with Waterwheel Falls in good form.
over Ben Stookesberry’s
shoulder into Waterwheel
Falls, it also falls into a thin crack and makes two ninety degree
turns, very unusual.
High gradient continued on for half a mile below
until the confluence of Return Creek, where we were able to put back on
and run one larger boulder garden into our first true class V of the
trip, a series of sticky ledge drops. We were surprised by the
continuous nature of the Tuolumne, and after some short boogie water
were at another quick scout, and checking the time deemed it
appropriate for a lunch break. Taking time to relax in the sun and soak
up the scenery, we knew we had been making good time and the river
looked manageable below, so we took one more quick nap to make up for
the nights lack of sleep.
All along we had hoped to push to the top of Muir
day, and although we had already put in a lot of work, we still had a
long ways to go, so we didn’t nap too long, and refreshed by
sleep and food we slid back into the riverbed and started making our
way downstream through some fantastic rapids.
Korbulic on the lead in to a
Korbulic boofing one of many
Chris surfing the final hole in the
Only too soon the read and run starting getting
aggressive boat scouting with the occasional scout was now too dicey,
between the sieves rearing up and increased gradient.
Stookesberry running one more
Optimistic that we would be in the river again
portaging at river level, but after a hundred yards it was apparent
that portaging over the large rocks was dangerous due to heavy leaf
cover on top of loose rock, and the gradient was steep for a
considerable amount of river, so we had to risk it and hit the
convenient yet painfully obvious trail.
A view of what we portaged, one half mile long
strewn affair with
plenty of big holes, which at lower flows is supposed to be manky and
occasionally underground, so we weren’t missing anything here.
the realized perfection of a
Sugar Pine Cone.
Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic speculate on our location and how
much longer before we should drop back down to river level.
Hot and tired from the hike we chose to return to the river a little
too early, and ended up running and portaging a few marginal rapids.
author somewhere in the marginal
mix of rapids.
To our gratitude the river eased up after a
and we ran more high quality class IV down to an extended scout.
One long rapid and small, but high volume
waterfall led to
confluence with Cathedral Creek, one of the most beautiful tributaries
I have had the pleasure to watch fall into any river. Exhausted, we
considered camping across from Cathedral Creek, but our desire to
finish the day with a few good rapids joined with our initial goal of
Muir Gorge had us opt to push through a little further.
Korbulic running the beautiful
Ben on the same.
Stookesberry at the base of
Cathedral Creek, this just shows the
bottom two of four large waterfalls on Cathedral Creek.
The confluence marks the start of one of the
rapids we ran on
the trip. Starting off with a boulder garden that would be IV+ on its
own, and class V on many rivers, the water then enters directly into a
long hole-studded slide, before turning ninety degrees into a large
boulder garden. The key moves would be staying upright while making a
strong right to left squeeze between a large lateral wave-hole backed
up by an undercut rock, moving to the left channel on the slide, only
to move back to an eddy on the right at the bottom. I think at any less
flow and the river would have gone underground at the boulder garden,
as even at high flows it was apparent that underwater sieves were
I planned to run the entrance and slide, exiting
left of the
large hole at the bottom of the slide, but not so far left as to get
blown down the boulder garden. It was apparent the boulder garden went,
and was simply a rapid that would have to be dealt with as there was no
perfect line through the convoluted mess. Entering the top boulder
garden I quickly realized that the whole thing was a lot larger and
more powerful than it had looked like from shore. The top section was
very fast, and thankfully I had no problems with the top over head
height lateral wave-hole. With time to collect my thoughts in the brief
slack water above the slide, I started trying to gain momentum back to
the right so that when I punched the bottom hole of the slide I would
resurface moving towards the eddy. The second I hit the slide I was
again taken aback by just how strong the current was, as my attempt to
drive more to the right availed me of nothing, I straightened out for a
small rooster tail at the bottom and skipped through the hole, now with
no other option I dropped into the boulder garden, which was filled
with large but thankfully soft holes that let me through to scramble
out on river right and give a thumbs up, and get ready for Ben to come
Stookesberry, below the Cathedral
Creek slide and entering the
With Cathedral Creek in the background, Ben finishes up the run out to
the large rapid, under half of the gradient/rapid is pictured here.
To our relief we entered a short meadow below the
rapid, meandered through its beauty, and at the bottom a small rapid
led into what we could see was serious drop in elevation, a turn of the
corner and a serious gorge. We were assuaged when we realized that this
was the infamous Muir Gorge and that our long first day was over. Not
willing to take the risk of pushing downstream to find a suitable
campsite, we backtracked several hundred yards to safety on an island
in the middle of the river, made a quick dinner and were already asleep
long before the sun was down. We were all glad to have made it so far
and planned to expend our extra time fully scouting Muir Gorge the next