Yosemite National Park, California
Distance: 31 Miles
Traveled: White Wolf to Tuolumne Meadows
“For miles the river is one wild, exulting, on-rushing mass of snowy purple bloom, spreading over glacial waves of granite without any definite channel, gliding in magnificent silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge boulder-dams, leaping high into the air in wheel-like whirls, displaying glorious enthusiasm, tossing from side to side, doubling, glinting, singing in exuberance of mountain energy.
Every one who is anything of a mountaineer should go on through the entire length of the cañon, coming out by Hetch Hetchy. There is not a dull step all the way. With wide variations, it is a Yosemite Valley from end to end.”
– John Muir, The Yosemite
This hike can be summed up in two words: exhausting and magnificent.
I had been in Santa Barbara visiting family for a week, and on the drive back home to Colorado I had made plans to go backpacking. Unfortunately, ‘backpacking’ was just about as far as my plans went, though, as I found myself horribly undecided on where to go (and I feel that I should note that this is a surprisingly typical predicament for me).
I had 3 days set aside and two very different trips on my radar: driving to Zion to hike the West Rim Trail, or to Yosemite to hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. I went back and forth endlessly. I read and reread trip reports hoping something would sway me one way of the other. I scoured maps. Zion began to take the edge over the GCT, as I would be in Sierras in a few months to hike the John Muir Trail. The luck of getting a walk-up permit for the West Rim Trail was starting to look questionable at best, though. Zion had temps of over 100 degrees. The Tuolumne River potentially had incredibly dangerous river crossings (which I’m always weary of when solo). A nice coincidence working in Yosemite’s favor was that I had a friend hiking the PCT with her husband, and they were supposed to be in Tuolumne Meadows that same day, so there was great potential I could meet up with them as they passed through.
Even with my car packed up, I still didn’t know where I was going. So ridiculously torn. I convinced myself to get on the road without even knowing my destination – hoping I would be hit with an epiphany while backing out of the driveway. Nope. So I stopped to fill up with gas before getting on the freeway, and told myself that before leaving the station I would need to make a decision.
I’m still not sure what swayed me to make a decision, but I found myself typing “Yosemite National Park” into my cars navigation. I was Yosemite bound (and I think I knew deep down that was where I would end up the whole time, as I’m a complete sucker for the Sierras, which you’ll see more examples of in the next post).
Driving up 99, I watched the Sierras grow closer as I paralleled them on the eastern horizon. I started to get giddy. Through my windshield I could see nearly 100 miles in the distance, a tall ominous thunderhead building over the mountains. The closer I got to Yosemite, the more it became clear that I was headed right into it. As I rounded up Tioga Pass toward Tuolumne Meadows, the sky unleashed. I watched frantic, unprepared day hikers running for their cars. The rain was torrential, and the thunder was directly overhead.
The eerie thing about thunderstorms in the high elevations of the mountains is the sound of the thunder. It’s monstrous booms echo and ricochet off peaks and through valleys for miles and miles – and it always sounds remarkably more threatening and sinister than it does in the lowlands.
I pulled into the Wilderness Permit office parking lot and sat in my car for a bit admiring and loving the strength of the storm (surely only because I was dry in my car).
I always say of storms in the Sierras: “They don’t fuck around.” This one was no exception.
I hoped to text my PCT-hiking friends, but alas there was no reception. After picking up my permit I drove by the Tuolumne Meadows store and eyed up the backpackers huddled under the awning waiting out the storm, and sadly none of them were who I was looking for. I drove on. I found out later that they had already passed through and were back on the PCT north out of Yosemite when the storm unleashed on them and they were hailed on. You can read about their adventure here.
The GCT is a 33 mile one-way hike that follows the Tuolumne River from Tuolumne Meadows (8600 ft) down to Pate Valley at 4300 ft and then back up to White Wolf (7875 ft). It can be hiked from either direction, but all of my research said it was optimal to leave from White Wolf. Also, with it being early June and before the regular shuttles were running regularly, I was more apt to be able to hitchhike back to my car at White Wolf by ending in the touristy meadows. I was planning on finishing in 3 days, and there was only 1 bus running that day that could take me the 25 miles back to my car, and it left Tuolumne Meadows at 2:30. I had a goal: I needed to catch that bus. Unfortunately, that goal would end up nearly being the end of me.
Initially, 33 miles in 3 days seemed like a nice leisurely pace. But, my plans quickly changed. With waiting out the storm, and getting my pack organized I didn’t get on the trail until 6 pm. I had planned on making it 9 miles down to Pate Valley that day, but there with no spots to camp between Harden Lake and Pate Valley, and a potentially high river crossing that I wouldn’t feel safe doing after dark, I had no choice but to stay at Harden Lake that night – barely 3 miles in. Doing 15 mile days the other 2 days didn’t seem too horrible though – they would no-doubt be long days, but with the sun setting so late I figured I would be fine.
The next morning I was up before sunrise, had a quick breakfast and hit the trail by 6:30. It was shaping up to be a perfect day in the Sierras – the wildflowers were in bloom everywhere, birds were singing, sky was clear…I was strolling along through beautiful forest with floors covered in lush green ferns.
Soon after my departure from Harden Lake, the trail started heading down into the canyon. The views opened up both up canyon (the direction I was heading) and down the canyon toward Hetch Hetchy. The landscape was incredible, and it became clear how steep this nearly 4,000 ft descent over 6 miles would be. The temperature was perfect with a slight crispness – and then the sun hit, and everything changed. The heat from the sun was brutal. I stopped again to take off my layers, and continued down the ridiculously steep trail, thinking the whole time how people must be crazy to do this trail starting from the other direction and ending with this climb. At about that time I ran into two hikers heading up. I yelled down to them “I think you guys are headed the wrong direction!” and they laughed and agreed. I crossed over the first water crossing at Morrison Creek shortly thereafter without any issue – and this had been the crossing I was primarily worried about as just a couple feet from where you have to cross there is a small waterfall – but, fortunately, it was not a problem.
Though the water crossing was fine, I did something else completely dumb here – not filling up with water (or at least drinking a liter before moving on). The heat was baking, and I had been drinking the 1 liter of water I brought with me from Harden Lake liberally as I was assured that there was water “everywhere” along the trail. The heat got worse as the sun rose higher, and I realized I was almost out of water about 3-4 miles from Pate Valley where I would be meeting up with the Tuolumne River. I did come to a small seasonal stream at some point before reaching Pate Valley, but I definitely felt dehydrated. And I was exhausted. Both the heat and the dehydration probably added to it. I made myself eat something and drink a liter before moving on, but I was definitely still tired – and I had probably only gone about 5-6 miles at that point.
I had been warned two things before I set out on this hike – 1) Pate Valley can be hot since it’s elevation is so low 2) Rattlesnakes. Everywhere.
The trail finally met up with the mighty Tuolumne River and I crossed over the bridge and was officially in Pate Valley. It was so so hot. They did not lie. There was an incredibly inviting pool at the bridge, and I decided I definitely needed to get in and cool off. The water was glacially cold, and I didn’t have it in me to dunk my head, but just getting in was enough. I stopped for about 20 minutes, had another little snack and then set off again merrily on my way…and 8 feet later ran into my first huge rattlesnake on the trail.
Over the course of the rest of the trail I would probably run into about 10 rattlesnakes. In my entire life of hiking I have never actually encountered a rattlesnake while hiking in the sierras, so the fact that I saw this many was remarkable (though I did have a big one coiled up outside of my tent door at Lake Mojave many years ago…this incident is why I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to camp without a full-enclosed tent). I should also note that I was bit by a rattlesnake in Texas years ago, by stepping blindly into a bush at night – though I ended up in the emergency room, I was fortunate to not have gotten any venom. Your take-away from my experience should be: if you are doing this hike, be very careful where you step – if you get up to pee in the middle of the night, scour the surrounding area with your headlamp first.
By the end of the hike I was just stepping over rattlesnakes as if they were sticks, completely un-phased…
Leaving Pate Valley I still had about 10 more miles to go to make my miles for the day. And those 10 miles would be about 10 times harder than I anticipated.
The Tuolumne River after leaving Pate Valley was so much more magnificent that I imagined. There was so so much water. Water everywhere. Loud water. Raging water. Unbelievably beautiful water. Falling water. Meandering water. Clear water. Powerful water. Water that made you want to stop and swim. Water that stopped you in your tracks in awe. It seemed that around every bend was a scene more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the last. And the thing that struck me overall about the river was how powerful it was – the waterfalls were incredible. I have never seen anything like them – and there were so many waterfalls that I lost track. Any one of these falls would have been enough to be a destination of their own, and to see so many I felt nearly spoiled by nature. And the azaleas….oh, man….the azaleas. They were everywhere, and they were in full bloom, and for miles the trail would smell so sweet from them that it almost smelled like I was in a strawberry basket, or like walking into a Bath & Body Works. And the sound of the river – constant and lulling and loud. From such a remarkable distance you could hear the roar of the waterfalls – their roar shifting and changing as I climbed closer.
Initially the river and scenery were energizing, I was stopping to take photos and to admire every beautiful thing along the path – then at some point the heat became almost unbearable. Also, once the climb starts out of Pate Valley, the canyon walls narrow so that often there is nothing but the trail, steep granite, and the river – little place to stop off the trail. Finally at a point around high noon, I found a small (very small) shady flat beach right off the trail and had to stop and take little break. I was exhausted. I stopped for nearly an hour, trying to close my eyes and get a little sleep, when a group of about 5 hikers came around the corner from the other direction and told me to watch my step around the corner because the trail was overgrown and one of them almost stepped right on a rattlesnake that was sitting on the trail under the brush. One guy assured me he watched it move away – but still… (and they also mentioned how envious of my spot they were).
When I became motivated to venture back into the heat and start back on my way again, I soon reached the overgrown section of trail the hikers warned me of and was extremely careful poking around with my trekking poles – fortunately, I didn’t see any snakes. I couldn’t help but think that if I hadn’t stopped for a rest that I very well could have been bitten by that snake.
The rest of the day after that point was a bit of a blur. A long, hot, exhausting blur. There came a point where I was just walking and walking, I was sweating and sweating, and the trail relentlessly climbed up and up and up. Looking at the map and elevation numbers I truly didn’t think the climb from Pate Valley to Tuolumne Meadows would be that bad – afterall, 4100 ft over 20 miles shouldn’t be bad at all. The problem is that the canyon is incredibly narrow, and for a good portion of the hike you are actually no where near the river and its actually far below you. One minute you’re hiking next to it, and then the trail takes you up 500 feet to clear a steep granite wall. Or, looking at the map, it will look like the river is directly next to you, when it’s actually 100 feet below you and unreachable. By the end of the day my legs felt like they could climb no more. I figured from the map that I had to reach Register Creek before I could camp, I started to get nervous though because I had seen no places to camp. The canyon was so narrow that it had probably been about 4 miles since the last camping spot I saw – and I feared it would be another 4 miles before I saw another.
I finally reached the Register Creek crossing (which can be a dangerous crossing, but wasn’t too bad), and I hoped to find camping right there and there was nothing. Then the trail disappeared. This had been a bit of a problem in spots – the trail was overgrown and I lost it a bit, or the trail was flooded and I had to find it – but it was never that hard to figure out where I was supposed to go. This was a bit different. I was under the cover of a pine forest and the trail totally disappeared under the piles of pine needles and leaves. I had been climbing a bit and I could hear the river raging below me to my right. On this trail, following the river seems to be the safest bet, so I started to head closer to the river and it was a bit of a downhill – and it was getting pretty steep and just when I realized that there was nowhere further to go and the trail had to be back the other direction (because there was an 60 foot sheer cliff in front of me dropping down to the river) – I lost my footing in the leaves and slipped. There were 2 trees in front of me that I managed to throw my arms around to stop me from sliding off the cliff and when my fall was stopped I had one of those “this is how people die” moments. The leaves were so slick that I had to use my trekking poles to help myself scoot backwards back up to where I had sure footing again – jamming the poles in and scooting backwards inch by inch. I’d venture to say that was the “closest call” I’ve ever had in the wilderness. Truly, I very-well could have slid right off that cliff and I still count my blessings for those trees stopping my fall. I eventually found the trail back in the other direction…far from where I would have expected it to be.
I was so tired and so done with hiking at that point that all I was thinking about was camp, the next spot I found with water access I would stop. Unfortunately, looking at the map the trail moved far away from the river for a while, which meant it surely was taking me up and over a huge granite ridge – and it did, and it was a doozie. The sun was blaring, and the trail was completely exposed. I had come to learn that the sun reflecting off the granite is intense. I must have been doing barely 1mph by the time I reached the top – and as trails do – when they go up, they usually end up going down. As soon as I started going down my right knee cried out in pain. I must have hurt it in the fall – and it didn’t hurt at all going uphill, but going down the pain was almost unbearable. Great. My only saving grace was that the rest of the hike would almost entirely be uphill (one of the few times when I’ve been grateful for that).
I finally found a perfect spot next to some huge azalea bushes and right on the banks of the river. I made dinner, filtered water, and I was in bed before the sun was down.
I slept great, and with how hot it had been the day before I wanted to get in as many miles as I could before the sun came up – and I had to catch the bus back to my car, which meant I had to get in 16 miles before 2:30. Didn’t seem impossible, but I knew it would be tough. I was out of camp at 6:00. The sun was still far below the mountains and I was booking it. The air was cool, and so perfect, and I was flying down the trail. And sure enough, the second that sun hit, all bets were off.
The unfortunate thing, is that the 3rd day truly was a blur. The uphill was steep and difficult and relentless. My legs hated me. But the thing that bothered me the most was that the scenery was spectacular. This was the day I passed all of the waterfalls that people do this hike to see – and I realized by around 8am that I didn’t have time to stop if I was going to catch the bus. Looking back through my photos I truly feel disappointed at how this day panned out. I took so few photos, and didn’t really stop at all to enjoy any of the incredible views – I just kept pushing on. I couldn’t tell you where the miles went – but at noon I reached Glen Aulin and I still had 6 miles from there to Tuolumne Meadows and I knew there was no way I was going to make it.
It was baking again, and I was exhausted again (or still). I hadn’t stopped at all, so since I realized I wouldn’t be able to catch the bus I decided to stop for a break by the pool below White Cascade and Tuolumne Falls and have some lunch. When I finally went to get up and put on my pack after resting, my legs were done. My whole body was so tried from the heat, and the tough uphill climbing. At Glen Aulin the trail meets with the PCT and takes that back to the meadows. Even that last 6 miles I couldn’t tell you much about. I remember seeing several hikers resting on their packs in the shade – it seemed that everyone agreed that the heat was unbearable. As with the rest of the day, I saw so many beautiful spots and places, but I just didn’t have the time or energy to even take any photos – as if stopping and turning on my camera would waste needed calories.
I dragged myself to the road to hitchhike. The one stroke of luck I did have was that within only 5 minutes a car stopped. The driver happened to be a girl that worked for Yosemite NPS and it just so happened that she was heading to White Wolf where my car was! I couldn’t have been more happy or relieved. She ended up being incredibly cool and as if her ride alone wasn’t generous enough, she let me sneak in a shower in the employee bathrooms (because she said she knew how important that first shower is – and, oh man, was she right!).
I showered up and changed my clothes and headed back down towards the valley. As it always happens, a shower and a clean set of clothes always seems to emphasize every sore spot on your body. In this case my “downhill knee” was getting stiff with pain, and my legs were so sore I could barely walk. Ibuprofen. Vitamin I.
I was originally planning on driving straight back to Colorado from the trail, but with how tired and sore I was I knew I wouldn’t be driving far at all that night. I decided to go back to Santa Barbara for the rest of the week and work from there, and then head back to Colorado the next weekend. I stayed that night in some cheap hotel in Fresno, and upon turning on the local news I found out why this hike felt so incredibly hot and miserable – it turned out to be a record setting weekend. I almost felt relieved knowing that it wasn’t all in my head, and it truly was as unbearably hot as it felt. Looking at the weather online, it was likely over 100 degrees down in the bottom of the canyon. Yeesh. The next morning leaving Fresno, it was 109, expected to reach 112. GROSS.
Reflecting on the GCT, I can say it might have been the most beautiful backpacking trip I have done. In the 33 miles, there was not a single stretch that was boring or dull. I am however disappointed that I essentially had to rush through the trail in 2 days – this hike definitely warrants more time, especially when the water is running high and the falls are in all of their glory. I’m debating doing this hike again next year as soon as the snow melt allows for safe water crossings, but I will probably give myself either a true 3 days or possibly even 4 days – to swim, and take photos, and really take it all in.
This is a cool video from Yosemite National Parks ‘Nature Notes’ series on the Tuolumne River: