Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River – Yosemite National Park (33 mile point-to-point)
Cooling down in the Tuolumne River with a view of Colby Mountain, in Yosemite National Park
A falls shortly after Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
Lembert Dome viewed from near the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers Campground in Yosemite National Park
There was another nice fishing hole with a view not far from our campsite.
View looking back at the Hetch Hetchy Reservior.
After setting up camp we cooled off in a large swimming hole at the base of California Falls
Trip Overview: The 33 mile Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River backpacking trip is considered one of the highlights within Yosemite National Park. This route follows the Tuolumne River through a deep canyon that leads from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to Tuolumne Meadows. Much of the canyon is only accessible via backpacking or very long day hikes, so you are likely to get away from the crowds during this trek (a rarity in Yosemite!). +6,000 / -5,500 feet of elevation across the course of this trek with a peak elevation of 8,660 feet. Highlights include impressive granite peaks and domes, spectacular waterfalls, alpine meadows, and nonstop views of the Tuolumne River. The images in this report are from a trip in mid August 2020.
Higher resolution version of the overall map for Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (PDF)
Permits: Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular backpacking and hiking destinations in the United States, so permits are required year round for overnight camping and the number of permits is limited based on a quota system. You will want to secure a permit as early as possible to do this hike in June, July, or August. The peak hiking season for this trek is generally late June through early August. Hiking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in June can be a challenge due to high stream crossings, but waterfalls should be near their peak flows. Hiking later in the summer provides safer stream crossings but also brings very hot temperatures and lower flow in the Tuolumne River (and thus less spectacular waterfalls).
Wilderness permit applications for any given trek start day are processed (via random lottery) starting 24 weeks before the hike start date, so you want to submit an application at least 24 weeks in advance of your hike. Permit applications can be easily submitted online (info here) and the cost is $5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person on the permit. You only pay the fee if you permit application is accepted and confirmed.
Prior to submitting an application for a permit, check the Yosemite National Park trailhead map and trailhead permit availability report (if applying fewer than 24 weeks before your start date). Note that each trailhead has a designated direction you must hike. For this specific itinerary you start at the White Wolf to Pate Valley Trailhead. Alternatively you could start at Glen Aulin and hike east to west. If hiking a full loop, you can also start at a few different trailheads along Highway 120 between White Wolf and Tuolumne Meadows (e.g. Murphy Creek, May Lake, Ten Lakes, etc). The full loop pass through Ten Lakes between White Wolf and Tuolumne.
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Logistics: If you have a wilderness permit, you may camp at one of the Yosemite backpackers’ campgrounds the night before and night after your wilderness trek. For this specific itinerary, it is easiest to stay at the White Wolf or Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ campgrounds. Backpackers must pay $6 per person to camp and you pay with exact cash at the campground. There is no overnight parking at the Backpackers Camps, so after you drop off your camping supplies you must park in legal long term spots at trailheads along highway 120. There is also parking near the Lembert Dome and along the road to Soda Springs.
The itinerary described in this report is a one way point-to-point hike, so you will either need two cars or will need to utilize the YARTS bus or the Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows Hikers Bus (or hitchhike). More info on the transit options can be found here. For our itinerary, we parked at White Wolf and began our trek from there. Upon reaching Tuolumne Meadows at the end of the our trek, we caught the YARTS bus at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and took the bus back to our car at White Wolf.
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Trail Conditions and Difficulty: Backpacking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is of moderate difficulty when the 33 miles are covered in 4 (or more) days. If completing the route in 2 or 3 days, expect a more difficult hike. For an enjoyable experience, I recommend a 4 day trip. This allows you to take advantage of the many swimming and fishing holes along the Tuolumne River.
The primary challenges are the ~4,000 foot elevation different between White Wolf and Pate Valley and the high afternoon temperatures within the canyon. If hiking from White Wolf to Pate Valley in one day, expect sore knees and feet because the downhill trail is very steep (many people comment that this section is tougher than they expect). If you plan to hike more than 10 miles in a day through the canyon, I suggest leaving early in the morning. Temperatures within the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne can get very hot during the middle of the day and some sections of the trail are very exposed to the sun.
Supplies: There are very active black bears in the Yosemite National Park, so you need to bring a bear canister to store food and scented items. Bear spray is not allowed and hanging food is illegal throughout Yosemite. If you do not own a bear canister, you can rent them from the various Wilderness Centers in the park for ~$5 per week.
You likely will want bug spray because the mosquitoes can be out in force in certain areas of the trek. I prefer a picaridin based spray because it does not damage plastics and synthetic fibers like high concentration DEET sprays can. I also like to pre-treat my clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.
Below is a list of the gear I brought on this backpacking loop in Yosemite National Park:
On the first day we hiked from White Wolf down to the Tuolumne River in Pate Valley. The road to the White Wolf campground was closed due to COVID-19 at the time of our hike, so we had to hike an extra ~1 mile from Highway 120 to the White Wolf Trailhead. If the White Wolf facilities are open, you can camp at the backpackers campground there and start directly at the trailhead.
Overall this hike is fairly tough because it involves a long, steep descent. If the weather is expected to be warm, consider leaving early in the morning because much of the trail is exposed within the warm canyon. Midway through the hike you catch glimpses of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. You then start the steep drop into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. After the descent, the trail begins to follow the Tuolumne River. Rattle snakes are quite commonly encountered in the several miles of trail before and after Pate Valley, so be aware and keep your eyes on the trail.
After you cross the Pate Valley bridges, there are a variety of good campsites near the Tuolumne River in Pate Valley. We camped in one site that was nearby a good swimming hole with a beach.
On Day 2 we began the ~20 mile route through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The trail follows the Tuolumne River as it slowly ascends up Tuolumne Meadows. This portion of the trail is the highlight of this trek and provides near constant views of the river as well as many views of towering canyon walls and countless waterfalls.
The ascend is steady but modest for the first 4 miles. In several sections, the trail skirts directly along the edge of the river. Then, the trail begins to steeply climb away from the river as it traverses around the Muir Gorge. The climb is tough as you go up many stairs and switchbacks. The climb is also very exposed to the sun, so it is best tackled early in the day. We reached the top of the climb shortly after the 5 mile mark. From there, it was a steady descent down to our eventual campsite which sat across the Tuolumne River from Grand Mountain. This campsite was exposed to the sun, but had a great view of Grand Mountain and Colby Mountain and had a scenic swimming hole nearby.
The Day 3 hike is one of the more beautiful sections of this trek. You continue hiking up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and pass by two of the more impressive waterfalls along the route, Waterwheel Falls and LeConte Falls. The amount of elevation gain is similar to the Day 2 hike so it is no cake walk. However, the great views made up for the many switchbacks and stairs. After passing LeConte Falls at the 5 mile mark, we continued to climb for another 1 mile or so. At that point, we reached a larger pool of water ~0.25 miles short of California Falls. We forded the Tuolumne River and found a nice, private campsite on the south side of the river. After setting up camp, we hiked up to California Falls and relaxed in the swimming hole at the base of the falls.
Day 4 was our last day on the trek. We had to get back to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center by ~10 am in order to catch the 10:27 am YARTS shuttle back to our car at White Wolf. So, we got off to a very early start hiking in the morning (~5:45 am) and hiked the 8 miles back to the visitor center. The hike starts with a climb up over California Falls. You then enter the Glen Aulin valley/meadow and hike along flat terrain for ~1 mile. This section of trail is very serene and the slowly flowing Tuolumne River is a stark contrast to the falls and rapids elsewhere in the canyon. After Glen Aulin, the trail begins to climb again and you exit the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Along the way, you pass several impressive falls (White Cascade, Tuolumne Falls, and others) and cross a footbridge bringing you to the north side of the Tuolumne River.
By the 4 mile mark, the trail begins to flatten out again and the river begins to wind through a meadow. You are treated to great meadow views with several domes and peaks in the distance. At ~6.5 miles you reach Soda Springs and then cross Tuolumne Meadows on your way back to the Visitor Center. From there, we caught the YARTS bus, which drove us back to our vehicle at White Wolf.