Hiking for Clarity in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River

Fresh off the start of an exciting new relationship, a backpacker heads to Yosemite in search of answers and reassurance. But will he find what he’s looking for?

When I found out I would be traveling to San Francisco for a work conference, the first thought that I had wasn’t “I wonder what I’ll learn at the conference” but rather “where will I go backpacking before the conference starts?” The early-June timeframe made the still snow-bound High Sierras slightly less appealing, as after a long winter and a spring that never really arrived (as per usual) in my native Upstate New York, I longed to feel the warmth of the California sun. Having been to Yosemite National Park once before in early June when the waterfalls flow at maximum force and the meadows are so lush and vibrant they look like a giant golf green, I set my sights on returning, for more than a quick tourist tour this time. The most popular routes in and around Yosemite Valley didn’t make the cut, since I wanted solitude as much as beauty;. After some more digging, though, one area of the park seemed especially promising: The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. With visions of soaring granite domes and the crystalline Tuolumne River in my head, I immediately booked a permit with Recreation.gov for three nights of backpacking and spent the following weeks anxiously anticipating hitting the trail.

During those weeks, though, I was hit with an absolutely unexpected life change – I met someone. Someone unlike anyone I had met before. Someone that I very quickly realized could quite possibly not just be someone, but the one. Her name was Amanda, and even though she wasn’t traveling to California with me and I’d be backpacking solo, she would be on my mind so much it felt like she was there with me every step of the way.

On a warm and sunny June morning, I landed alone in San Francisco after saying goodbye to Amanda and headed east in my rental car to Yosemite .Before this trip, my only experience with Yosemite was in Yosemite Valley. Compared to the general chaos of a sunny day in the Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne immediately felt like an entirely different park. I only saw a handful of cars on my way in, and shared the trailhead with just a few other groups. As I set off from Tuolumne Meadows to commence my hike, just three weeks after meeting Amanda, she was all I could think about. A million thoughts and questions rattled around my head. What’s she doing today? Does she miss me? Will things be the same when I get back? This all quickly reminded me of one of the greatest blessings (and sometimes curses) of
solo backpacking: it provides all the time in the world to look inward, which has become exceedingly rare given all the distractions at our fingertips these days. Much of this trip was spent processing the emotions that I was feeling and questions that I had about this new relationship.

Inner turmoil aside, after just a couple miles of hiking it quickly became apparent that from a wilderness experience perspective, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne would give me precisely what I was looking for. The sweet smell of sunbaked pine trees filled my lungs with every breath, and the soothing warmth emanating from the granite I hiked over somewhat brought me out of my head and back to the moment at hand, although my emotions were still bubbling below the surface. After three miles of easy trekking, the trail reached the banks of the Tuolumne River, which would be my constant companion for the rest of the trip. Swollen with spring snowmelt, the Tuolumne ricocheted off car-sized boulders. In 1923, after much controversy (which is still ongoing to this day) the Tuolumne River was dammed to form the Hetch
Hetchy Reservoir, flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley in the process. The Tuolumne River is now the primary source of drinking water for the city of San Francisco, and when I took a shower in my hotel room in San Francisco after this trip ended, it was incredibly bizarre to think that the wild river I had just spent three days with was pouring out of the bathroom faucet.

An afternoon start to the trip due to the drive from San Francisco meant that my plans for the first day weren’t overly ambitious, and after a couple hours on the trail I arrived at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp and picked out one of the many dispersed tenting spots to spend the night among the pines. Setting up camp made me anxious. Not because of where I was camping or the presence of any danger, but because of something that I almost always feel on the first day or two of a solo trip after the day’s work is done and my tent is pitched: a crushing sense of loneliness and isolation, which I like to call the “post-pitch blues.” This time, though, my loneliness was exacerbated a thousand-fold by the burning desire to have Amanda by my side on this trip. Before I could get lost in the melancholy, I turned my sights to the one activity that can always bring me back to reality and requires my utmost attention: photography. I found a perfect spot to watch and photograph the sunset along the river a short way from camp and as the setting sun made the river sparkle like gold, I finally began to feel the sense of peace that had so far largely evaded me on this trip. Since the sky was completely devoid of clouds, after sunset I decided to stay out and photograph the starry sky. I kept my headlamp off and let my senses slowly adapt to the night. The roar of the river seemed even louder now, and I laughed to myself as I thought that a black bear could be doing a dance right behind me and I’d have no idea due to the cacophony For the first time all day the fact that I was all alone in the wilderness filled me with happiness. Content with my photos and feeling rewarded and renewed, I navigated back to camp and dozed off to the omnipresent sound of the river, eager to see what the next day would bring.

Dawn broke clear and cold and I made haste packing up camp to hit the trail and warm up. A successful first night in the mountains had put me in a better state of mind, and as I motored through a riverside meadow and heard the morning salutation of a songbird, I thought to myself “it just doesn’t get better than this.” Since my intended camp for the night was only three miles away, I took my time and enjoyed the scenery. Water was everywhere; In addition to the river, the closer I looked at the mountains, the
more small seasonal creeks and cascades I noticed, all tumbling down to ultimately join the Tuolumne.

While the scenery the day before was impressive, day 2 blew it away. The trail stayed close to the river and it seemed like every glance to the left revealed one of the most beautiful waterfall views I’d ever seen. After briefly veering away, the trail deposited me at an especially beautiful cascade known as California Falls, just 1.5 miles from the first night’s camp. The 10-foot, two-tiered gracefully slid over smooth granite, and red volcanic rock along the shore added some extra flare.

After a long break of lounging and photography, the next 1.5 miles flew by. When I reached my stopping point for the night, just past LeConte Falls, I descended a narrow spur to a quiet stretch of river where I pitched camp. This was the furthest point out on my planned itinerary; the next day I would retrace my steps back to the Glen Aulin area for one more night in the mountains before heading back to San

I felt in much more of a rhythm than I did the first day setting up camp, but once my site was established I couldn’t keep my thoughts from wandering back to Amanda. Even though she was nearly 3,000 miles away, she was so present in my mind it felt like I could turn around at any moment and she’d be right there. I again wondered to myself where our relationship would head, and what it would be like when I returned home, and many other questions that I didn’t have the answer to. And then, seemingly out of the thin mountain air, it hit me. A moment of clarity as crystal clear as the wild river I had been traveling alongside the past two days. Questions can’t always be answered when you want them to be, no matter how much you mull them over. And if they could, what would be the fun in that? Learning to live with the questions and the unknown is another example of how backpacking is analogous to life, and the same adaptability that the backpacker must flex when an unexpected storm or equipment failure changes the plan gives us an advantage when the trail of life hits an unforeseen obstacle. Since Amanda was also an avid hiker, having this shared passion made me even more hopeful for what our future together could hold, and I often daydreamed about the two of us exploring the wild corners of the world together with her Australian Shepherd, Maggie.

It felt as if the universe was rewarding me for the internal struggles I had grappled with over the past two days with this revelation, and damn did it feel good. I made the snap decision to take a celebratory swim, and quickly stripped down before plunging head-first into the aquamarine pool that bordered my campsite. The water was still frigid this early in the season, and it gave me a gasping jolt of energy. After drying off on the sunbaked riverbank, I geared back up and retraced my steps to LeConte Falls for an
evening photography session.

As sunset approached, I headed back to the top of the spur trail. I could see the calm bend of the river I had swam in earlier in the day after my moment of clarity, which made me smile. The sunset was unspectacular, but it didn’t matter, for my mind was free and clear and my spirit soaring. I didn’t know what the future would bring for me and Amanda, but that was ok. Accepting that fact was incredibly freeing, and it’s these moments of clarity that will always draw me to wilderness. There’s something about not just surviving, but thriving in the mountains that provides a level of clarity unattained by any other activity or environment. I of course didn’t know it then, but a year after returning home from this trip, Amanda and I would elope in the Adirondack Mountains, where we now often escape with Maggie to experience the restorative power and beauty of nature.

Trip Info

Hike it: For a leisurely three day immersion into this lonely corner of Yosemite that provides the best scenery that the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne has to offer, begin at the Glen Aulin trailhead on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and enjoy open meadow views with Unicorn Peak in the distance. After three miles through varied terrain, the trail reaches the Tuolumne River, which will be an almost constant companion for the remainder of the trip. After two more miles, the first major waterfall of the trip is reached, the aptly named Tuolumne Falls. At 5.3 miles from the trailhead, arrive at a junction with the Glen Aulin-May Lake Trail. Turn right to stay on the PCT, and in another 0.3 miles cross the Tuolumne River on a bridge, where shortly after a right turn and a wet ford of Conness Creek leads to the Glen Aulin High Sierra camp. While there are a number of campsites here, better sites can be found by continuing past the aforementioned bridge over the Tuolumne River and turning left towards Pate Valley on the north side of the river. Keep your eyes peeled for several campsites that are visible on either side of the trail, with easy access to the Tuolumne River for water and with views of soaring granite domes, a distance of 5.6 miles and 600 feet elevation loss from the trailhead. On day two, continue following the north shore of the Tuolumne River, and pause to take a refreshing dip in one of the countless swimming holes the river possesses to cool off from the Sierra sun. California Falls, a broad and sliding waterfall surrounded by granite and red volcanic rock, is reached after 1.5 miles. It’s only three miles and 1,000 feet of elevation loss from the first night’s camp to the second night’s camp, so there’s all the time in the world to linger at each waterfall. LeConte Falls, one of the highlights of the trip, is a mile past California Falls, and Waterwheel Falls is another half mile past LeConte. These falls are unique, as each of them displays prime examples of a “waterwheel” phenomenon where water flows into a groove or depression in the bedrock then gets thrown high in the sky as the water leaves the groove. If timed right, rainbows can often be seen in the spray. To reach the second night’s campsite, strategically located between LeConte and Waterwheel Falls, continue roughly 0.3 miles past LeConte Falls while keeping an eye out for an unmarked use trail on the left that descends down to a placid bend in the river with several shady campsites, complete with mountain views, in the trees. The next day, spend one more night in the vicinity of the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp like the author, or hike out to the trailhead if time is tight. Alternatively, if time and energy aren’t constraints, consider making this a shuttle hike by continuing 21 more miles to the White Wolf Campground, including an elevation gain of 3,600 feet over the final 8.5 miles as the trail climbs up and away from the Tuolumne River and Pate Valley before reaching the White Wolf Campground.

Getting there: To reach the Glen Aulin Trailhead from the Big Oak Flat Entrance on the west side of Yosemite National Park, take the Big Oak Flat Rd 7.6 miles to Tioga Road. Turn left onto Tioga Road and continue for 40 winding miles. Turn left onto Yosemite National Park Road at the Lembert Dome Parking area, and drive less than a half mile to the end of the road and park on the side of the road. If completing a shuttle hike from Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf Campground (or vice versa), dropping a car at each trailhead is ideal. If that’s not possible, however, public transportation options are available via Yosemite Guided Bus Tours and YARTS.

When to go: Late spring and early fall.EarlyJune was the ideal time for this hike, as the daytime temps were pleasant, the waterfalls were raging and fire danger was low. Avoiding the heat of summer is recommended, especially if completing the shuttle to White Wolf to avoid the long and exposed section of trail that ascends up from the Pate Valley to the White Wolf Campground.

Permit info: A Wilderness Permit is required and online reservations ($10 application fee) become available by lottery 24 weeks in advance. Any remaining reservations become available on a first-come, first-served basis after the lottery process is complete for that week’s reservations up until seven days in advance. Additional information regarding permits can be found here.

Rules and Regulations

  • Group size is limited to 15 people or fewer
  • Choose a previously impacted campsite at least 100 feet (30 meters/40 paces) from any water source or trail
  • All human waste must be buried at least six inches deep and at least 100 feet from water sources, camp areas, and trails.
  • Do all washing at least 100 feet from water. Do not put any soap in water, even biodegradable or natural soap.
  • Carry out all trash, including toilet paper. Do not burn or bury toilet paper or trash.
  • While wood fires are allowed in existing fire rings, fires are discouraged and are typically prohibited seasonally when fire danger is high. Pack a backpacking stove for cooking instead of relying on a campfire.
  • Proper food storage is mandatory. Allowed bear-resistant food canisters are required in all areas of Yosemite. Hanging or guarding food items is not permissible. Cleanup of food and debris if a bear gets your food is your responsibility. Report any bear incidents and sightings to the nearest ranger.
  • No pets allowed on trails except registered service dogs.
  • Fishing is permitted with a valid California fishing license. All pertinent California state fishing regulations apply

Map: Tom Harrison Maps, Yosemite High Country. Guidebook: Hiking Yosemite National Park, 5th Edition by Falcon Guides.

For the photographer: Countless waterfalls and mountain vistas make the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne a photographer’s paradise. A tripod is highly recommended to provide stability while taking long exposures on the order of a half to multiple seconds, depending on water flow and lighting, to render the moving water silky smooth. Other useful accessories include a polarizing and neutral density filter (to reduce glare and increase exposure time to facilitate smooth water, respectively) and a microfiber cloth to wipe potential waterfall spray from the camera and lens.

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