The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is a hike from about Lembert Dome to White Wolf following the Tuolumne River through a canyon. It is, roughly, a 26-mile backpack (or 31 or 44, but who’s counting?). It will take at least a one-night stay, but I don’t know why anyone would want to do it in less than a three night trek. This isn’t so much a wish list hike as it is a pipe dream. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to take the hike. First off, I’m not in shape for that strenuous of a trek. And, if ever I was to get in such shape (which isn’t completely impossible, however unlikely), I don’t have any friends or relatives that could take such a lengthy trip. So, I thought I’d do a “virtual” .hike via Google Earth[i].
Sights along the way will include Lembert Dome (of course…you’re starting from there), three named waterfalls, at least two others and, maybe, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Okay, Okay, Okay. Let me start off by pointing out that I make no claims on what you’ll find on this trip, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. I was recently reading the memoirs of an early 20th Century park ranger that said part of this trip (Pate Valley, in particular) had a high concentration of rattlesnakes and bears. I don’t know. The closest I got to the ground over there was about 600 feet in altitude via Google Earth. You may find bunny rabbits or vicious puma in the crevices. Check with the rangers. The purpose of this post is to THINK about having a good time. Actually DOING this is an entirely different deal. I am not the authority I’d be listening to if this was a real option. ‘nuff said.
You will be leaving from the parking area near Lembert Dome and head out, west, along the Pacific Crest/Tioga-Yosemite Trail. This is actually a paved road (see above marked in yellow. Click on the image for a bigger picture) for a short while called the Yosemite National Park Road[ii] and connects with Tioga Road at one end, but going the other way (where you want to go), it makes a T connection to the right (at about a quarter of a mile), which you will want to pass. A little later (another third of a mile), you will come to a fork in the road and you want to take the fork to the right. Shortly after that, you leave the road, which by now appears to be a dirt road. It makes a T connection with the Pacific Crest Trail. You will turn right onto the trail.
Alternatively, take the blue road just a bit north (toward Dog Lake) then make left about .2 of a mile continuing on the blue road until you connect with the Pacific Crest Trail. You can see the difference in the above screen shot. The yellow road is paved and uninteresting while the blue road romps through the woods. The blue road connects at a junction, but keep going, maybe two tenths of a mile to another junction. Take the left fork (the right one takes you north to Young Lakes).
I’m not sure which one of these trails I’d actually take. The yellow road is probably pretty flat, so it would be easy to walk, but then there is nothing to really see, except turning back to look at Lembert Dome. The blue road looks flat and it has trees, so that’s nice, but there seems to be fewer views than on the open road. Regardless of the route you take, about 2 miles after the junction of the flat and treed route, you’ll come to a bridge that will take you across the Tuolumne River at Tuolumne Falls. At this point, you’ll be traveling down the south side of the river, viewing the White Cascades. This section follows the river except for a small detour around a dome about a third of a mile after the bridge and then back to the riverside. At just short of a mile from the bridge (about 4.4 miles from the trailhead at Lembert Dome), you come to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp and another trail junction. This might be a good stop for the night[iii]. Or not.
At the junction, turn right and cross over the bridge at Glen Aulin Falls and then right and the next junction for Glen Aulin Camp, or turn left at that junction to continue the hike. It is about 13 miles until the next junction at Pate Valley. You are now on the north side of the river and looking at the falls. After, about a mile and a half, you’ll come to California Falls. Then another mile and a half Le Conte Falls (which appears to be more like a cascade). About a half a mile further is Waterwheel Falls (see the mid-hike screen shot, below).
That will be a wrap on the “big name” waterfalls, but there are still about 5 more miles of canyon to follow before it opens up at all and a total of 10 more miles to the next junction. I was looking for a place to camp along the way at about 7 miles out and it is difficult to tell if there are any places at all. Just beyond the half way point, there seems to be a meadow area, but it is on the other side of the river. There is some tree cover on the Northside, just across from the meadow, that may make a good camp. It would be ideal, if it works out, because first off the next morning there is some cliff-climbing we have to face. The climbing will be for, maybe a mile, and then another three to three and a half miles to the junction. There is a bridge at the junction that will take you to the “south” side of the river again, though at this point, the river is running more south than west. Actually, there are two bridges, as the river is split around a tiny rock-dome, creating an island. The first bridge gets us onto the island and the second bridge takes us to the south side of the river.
This would make a good camp for the third night. There is a meadow just a few hundred feet north of the junction.
Now, this is where it gets kind of interesting. After leaving this junction, heading southwest, you are following the river for about a mile and a half. The river then turns west and the trail continues southwest toward Harden Lake. After 5.7 miles the trail goes south for about 2.5 miles then at the junction, the trail to the right takes you are at White Wolf Camp (see the yellow trail on the end-trail screen shot, below, marked as Original Trail).This makes it about a 28 mile hike. You could, if you still feel energetic, go all the way to Harden Lake. Maybe you could camp at the lake for the fourth night. It then goes south for about a mile where it catches the service road to White Wolf Camp, which is about a mile after that and the end of the trail. This alternative is just a bit shorter, but will take an additional night.
Alternatively, instead of leaving the river, you continue to follow it for a bit over a mile until it runs into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (see the blue trail). Of course, if you did that, the Park Service would be pretty despondent with you, especially if you got hurt or killed (but then, if you did get killed, I wouldn’t sweat the Park Service). First of all, they wouldn’t know where you are, because it is not on the trail you told them when you got the wilderness permit (all back packing requires a wilderness permit).
Actually, for real, it’s not like going off trail is prohibited. There are a number of reasons for obtaining a wilderness permit. None of them include prohibiting you from having a good time. They have a quota system for the number of people on a trail at a time so that everyone can feel the “full out of doors” without the feeling of being on a conveyor belt. Also, they need to limit the traffic so the trail won’t get pulverized by the millions of little feet that pound on it year after year. And, also, if you and/or your party do get lost (or killed), they have an idea where to find you (or your remains). You can, if you tell them roughly where you want to trek, go “Cross Country”, which is, basically, blazing your own trail. However, you should have a backup plan, and tell them what that is, as well, when you are providing details for the wilderness permit. As we’ll see, it is quite possible, the route may be impassible. That means you’ll have to back track and, in this case, either take the northern route to Hetch Hetchy or run down to Harden Lake and then cross over to Hetch Hetchy that way. Or, throw in the towel altogether and complete the hike in one of the two ways, we’ve already suggested.
The wilderness “permit” carries the connotation that you are given permission, the alternative being that you can’t do the hike. As a park ranger told me, they are not there to inhibit your enjoyment of the park. Primarily, they want to control the number of people on a trail at any particular time to keep it from over crowding or, more specifically, over use with the camping, and trenching and the like. Permits are required for all backpacking, but only one “day hike” (that’s the Half Dome trail).
Incidentally, you really need to consult with the park service for details on what is and is not recommended (or under what circumstances they are recommended). Things change all the time. You have to talk with them, anyway, about the wilderness permit, so what’s the harm? In addition to some useful information, the actual mechanics of getting a wilderness permit are available on-line at www.NPS.gov/yose.
But, hey. This is a virtual hike; we can do what we want on it. And, son of a gun, a closer inspection shows that “trail” looks kind of grueling (don’t you just love Google Earth?). You have some pretty tall cliffs on both sides of the reservoir. So it is quite likely, you’ll need “rock climbing” gear and expertise to get much further. That isn’t really all that surprising; San Francisco chose this valley because it was a large mountain vessel into which they could store water. Consequently, the cliffs on each side are requiring you climb them. Plus, somewhere along the way, you’ll want to camp for your 4th night. It seems kind of “fun” on Google Earth, but it isn’t all that realistic (not to mention safe). So I didn’t even calc out the distance.
If you want to get real, though, then we have Son of Alternatively. Instead of going southwest along the river; head northeast (see the light green trail). It is about 5 miles to the next junction at which point you turn left, passing Table Lake after another 3 miles (and, maybe, set up camp for the 4th night). After two more miles, you hit another junction, take the left and it’s about 10 miles to the next junction very near Rancheria Falls. But that is 12 miles in a day…Jeffy don’t play that. So, where to camp….There’s a spot about half way to Rancheria. We can stop there.
Okay, final day. It’s about five miles to the Rancheria Falls Junction, then 5.25 miles to the Dam. From here, you call the paramedics and have them air lift you back to Lembert Dome to pick up your car. Total damage; five nights, six days and our hike became a 44 mile trek. The good news for me is that I will no longer need to buy hiking shoes, as this hike would have worn my feet down to the ankles.
[i] I have taken the liberty of augmenting some screen shots created with Google Earth. But you would probably want to use your own copy of Google Earth to explore for yourself.. On my copy, the red trails are provided by Google Earth, itself. The other colors and the yellow labels are my augmentation. You can, as of this writing, download Google Earth for free, from http://www.google.com/earth/download/ge/agree.html. You will also want, handy, a topo map of the area.
I alternate back and forth between two maps. The first is the National Geographic Trails Illustrated (206) Copyrighted 1987 and revised in 2000. You can get the maps at the park or order it through the National Geographic site at http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/category/maps/travel-and-hiking-maps. then search for Yosemite.
The second is Topographic Map of Yosemite National Park and Vicinity. Copyrighted at various times starting in 1982 (my version is the Fifth Edition, Second Printing July 2000). It accompanied a hiking book, Yosemite National Park: A Natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails by Jeffrey P. Schaffer, Wilderness Press, Fourth Edition, Second Printing, July 2000.
[ii] That’s not really helpful as, according to Google Earth, all the roads, paved or not, that are off of Tioga are called Yosemite National Park Road. I think this is more of a statement rather than a label.
[iii] But you’ll need to plan WAY ahead for that. Reservations are taken on a Lottery basis. Lottery Applications are taken from Sept 1 to November 1, 2015 (and, I imagine, about the same time frame each year) for the following season, which runs from about mid-June to mid –September. Currently the rates are $174 per night, which includes a dinner and a breakfast. You will get notified in the spring of the following year as to whether or not you have the option.