Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River – Yosemite National Park (33 mile point-to-point)

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.

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Overall map of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park. Starting at White Wolf and ending in Tuolumne Meadows.
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Approximate elevation profile of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park. Starting at White Wolf and ending in Tuolumne Meadows.

Jump to Day 1: White Wolf to Pate Valley
Jump to Day 2: Pate Valley to Grand Mountain
Jump to Day 3: Grand Mountain to California Falls
Jump to Day 4: California Falls to Tuolumne Meadows

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Preparations:

Click here to read more about Permits

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.

Click here to read more about Logistics

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.

Click here to read more about Difficulty

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:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

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Day 1: 11.5 miles; +620 feet / -3,700 feet; White Wolf to Pate Valley

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Map of the Day 1 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from White Wolf to Pate Valley (blue line)

Map of the Day 1 hike (PDF)

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Approximate elevation profile of the Day 1 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from White Wolf to Pate Valley

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.

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The night before starting our trek, we camped at the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers Campground. The Tuolumne River flows right near the campground.
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View of Tuolumne Meadows at dusk the night before our trek through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

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Evening in the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers Campground the night before our trek.
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The facilities and road at White Wolf were closed in 2020, so our hike started where White Wolf Road meets Highway 120.
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Shortly after a mile on the road we reached the trailhead at White Wolf. In a normal year this would be our starting point for the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne route in Yosemite National Park. We were hiked all the way to Pate Valley on the first day.
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The trail from White Wolf starts off heading east through the forest before crossing the Middle Tuolumne River and then heading north.
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A meadow along the trail from White Wolf in Yosemite National Park
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Near the 4 mile mark, the trail cross a small ridge and then begins to head downhill towards the junction with the trail that goes from Harden Lake to Pate Valley.
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Heading along the steep downhill that leads to the trail junction
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Once you reach the trail junction at the ~5.5 mile mark, you are treated to views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
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View of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, seen along the trail near Morrison Creek
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The trail then heads into the forest as it runs parallel to Morrison Creek. In this section the trail starts to steeply head downhill via many switchbacks.
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Around the 7 mile mark, the trail emerges from the forest. Shortly after the trail crosses Morrison Creek. This crossing can be high and swift in May and June. During our hike Morrison Creek was essentially dry.
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In miles 8 to 9, the trail traverses an exposed ridge as it drops down into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The views here are great and give the first major glimpses of the canyon, but this section is very hot during the middle of the day.
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View looking back at the Hetch Hetchy Reservior
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Continuing to hike along the steep descent towards the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park
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View of the west section of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park
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By about mile 9, the trail finally flattens out as you reach the bottom of the canyon.
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Shortly thereafter, you get your first glimpse of the clear, cool water of the Tuolumne River. Continue on towards the Pate Valley bridge to find the best campsites with the easiest water access.
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From here, the trail follows along the Tuolumne River (with a few detours into the forest).
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Keep an eye out for rattle snakes in the vicinity of Pate Valley. We came across one hanging out on the right side of the trail near mile 10.
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View of the Tuolumne River and one of the bridges that leads to Pate Valley in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.
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As we crossed the bridge at Pate Valley, we saw two black bears digging for food across the river.
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The Tuolumne River in Pate Valley in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne area of Yosemite National Park
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Our campsite the first night was in Pate Valley. We found it shortly after crossing the two bridges.
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After setting up camp, we cooled off by floating around the Tuolumne River. There were several nice swimming holes in the area.
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In additional to swimming holes, there are some nice areas for fly fishing as well!

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Day 2: 6.9 miles; +2,060 feet / -1,120 feet; Pate Valley to Grand Mountain

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Map of the Day 2 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from Pate Valley to Grand Mountain (red line)

Map of the Day 2 hike (PDF)

grand-canyon-tuolumne-day-2-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 2 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from Pate Valley to Grand Mountain

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.

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Setting off from Pate Valley on day 2 of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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The trail alternates between following along the Tuolumne Rivers edge and meandering through forests and meadows
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Hiking along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Pate Valley and Register Creek, along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Pate Valley and Register Creek, along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Pate Valley and Register Creek, along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Pate Valley and Register Creek, along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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A small cascade along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Trail in Yosemite National Park
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One of many small cascades and swimming holes along the trail. Whenever you see one of these, you are likely to find campsites nearby.
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The Tuolumne River as it flows through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park
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Between Pate Valley and Register Creek, along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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After the 2 mile mark, the trail started to climb a bit more steeply
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Looking back towards the west end of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
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At the 2.5 mile mark we pass a long cascade that likely is very impressive when the river flow is high
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Looking down at the outlet of the cascade at the 2.5 mile mark
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The trail then continues to climb as you approach the Muir Gorge
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Looking west from near the Muir Gorge
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View looking towards the Muir Gorge. In this section, the trail heads up and around the gorge.
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Hiking through the forest as the trail pass by the Muir Gorge. Shortly after this point, you cross Register Creek at the ~4.3 mile mark. The creek was largely dry in mid August 2020.
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After crossing Register Creek, the trail climbs up a series of steep switch backs. Along the way you get impressive views of canyon walls rising 4,000 feet above the Tuolumne River.
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Climbing along the trail after passing Register Creek, Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park
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View of Colby Mountain in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, Yosemite National Park.
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After the peak, the trail descends 400 feet before meeting up again with the Tuolumne River. We found a nice little cascade and swimming hole across the river from Grand Mountain and set up camp nearby.
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Cooling down in the Tuolumne River with a view of Colby Mountain, in Yosemite National Park
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Our campsite in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, across the Tuolumne River from Grand Mountain.
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There was another nice fishing hole with a view not far from our campsite.
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Sunset in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park

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Day 3:  6 miles; +2,070 feet / -370 feet; Grand Mountain to California Falls

grand-canyon-tuolumne-day-3-map
Map of the Day 3 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from Grand Mountain to California Falls (light blue line)

Map of the Day 3 hike (PDF)

grand-canyon-tuolumne-day-3-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 3 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from Grand Mountain to California Falls

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.

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Starting off our day 3 hike along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne route in Yosemite National Park
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Between Grand Mountain and Cathedral Creek on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park. The trail in this section closely follows the river.
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Between Grand Mountain and Cathedral Creek on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Grand Mountain and Cathedral Creek on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Grand Mountain and Cathedral Creek on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Cathedral Creek and Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Cathedral Creek and Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between Cathedral Creek and Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Approaching Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park. At this point, the trail moves inland a bit.
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After crossing the footbridge over Return Creek, the trail begins a steady climb leading up to several waterfalls.
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A falls shortly after Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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A falls shortly after Return Creek along on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park
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Between miles 3.5-4.5, you climb up several switchbacks and get great views of Waterwheel Falls and the Falls Ridge in the background
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View looking back towards the Return Creek Canyon
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The trail continues up and provides great views of Waterwheel Falls
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Waterwheel Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park
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Waterwheel Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park
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One of several areas of the Waterwheel Falls where the water is shot upwards into the air. Note the flow in the Tuolumne River was very low, so the falls are not as impressive as usual.
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View looking west into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne from the top of Waterwheel Falls.
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The trail then continues to climb up towards LeConte Falls
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View of LeConte Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are of Yosemite National Park
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View of LeConte Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are of Yosemite National Park
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View of LeConte Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are of Yosemite National Park
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View looking west from above LeConte Falls in Yosemite National Park
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After passing LeConte Falls, the trail continues to climb and passes several large pools and small cascades.
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Eventually we reached a large pool and decided to call it a day. We crossed the Tuolumne River and found a nice area to make camp.
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Looking east towards the bottom of California Falls, in Yosemite National Park.
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Our campsite near the base of California Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne area of Yosemite National Park
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After setting up camp we cooled off in a large swimming hole at the base of California Falls

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Day 4: 8 miles; +1,240 feet / -410 feet; California Falls to Tuolumne Meadows

grand-canyon-tuolumne-day-4-map
Map of the Day 4 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from California Falls to Tuolumne Meadows (purple line)

Map of the Day 4 hike (PDF)

grand-canyon-tuolumne-day-4-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 4 hike on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park, from California Falls to Tuolumne Meadows

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.

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View looking west at the start of our Day 4 hike in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. We left very early in the morning and there was also smoke in the air from nearby wild fires.
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Hiking up towards the top of California Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The hike started with a short ~0.5 mile climb to the top of the falls.
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California Falls in Yosemite National Park
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California Falls in Yosemite National Park
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California Falls in Yosemite National Park
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California Falls in Yosemite National Park
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After passing the falls, the trail flattened out and meanders through Glen Aulin. In this area of Yosemite the Tuolumne River is deep and flows slowly through a large meadow.
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The Tuolumne River in the Glen Aulin region of Yosemite National Park
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The Tuolumne River in the Glen Aulin region of Yosemite National Park
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The towering canyon walls still sit on either side of the Tuolumne River here
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The Tuolumne River in the Glen Aulin region of Yosemite National Park
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The trail in this section alternates between following the river and cutting through the forest.
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Shortly before the 2 mile mark you reach the end of Glen Aulin where there is another water fall.
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View looking west into Glen Aulin from the top of the waterfall
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At this point you start a steady climb up towards Tuolumne Meadows. You are now outside of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, but are still following the Tuolumne River.
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Shortly after passing the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, you get a nice view of the White Cascade.
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View looking back towards the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
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You then continue climbing and eventually catch a view of Tuolumne Falls.
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Tuolumne Falls in Yosemite National Park

 

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Another cascade/falls between Tuolumne Falls and the footbridge
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View looking back towards the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
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The trail continues past one more falls as it heads southeast. You then cross a footbridge that brings you to the north side of the Tuolumne River.
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By the ~3.5 mile mark, you are largely finished climbing. At this point the trail traverses along the south side of a large granite structure.
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There is a brief section of the trail where the Tuolumne River flows over granite and there are interesting granite structures.
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The river then flows through a mix of forest and meadows.
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View of the Tuolumne River as you approach Tuolumne Meadows.
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View looking towards Tuolumne Meadows with some granite domes in the background.
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After hiking through the forest for a bit, you come upon Tuolumne Meadows. This a view of the meadow from Soda Springs with Cathedral Peak and Unicorn Peak in the background.
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View of the Lembert Dome and Kuna Crest as seen from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park
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The Tuolumne River as it flows through Tuolumne Meadows. You can see the Fairview Dome and Cathedral Peak in the background. At this point, you are less than a mile from the Visitor Center and end of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne trek in Yosemite National Park.

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Here are some similar trip reports!

Yosemite Highlights Loop – Yosemite National Park (40 mile loop)

Teton Crest Trail – Grand Teton National Park (48 mile loop)

North Circle Loop – Glacier National Park (52 mile loop)

Grand Loop – Olympic National Park (43 mile loop)

 

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