Lower Tuolumne – Tuolumne River (IV)
April 11-12 and 18-19
The Lower Tuolumne, often just referred to as the “Lower T” or simply “The Tuolumne” or “The T” (without ambiguity to the upper section which is strictly referred to as the famed “Cherry Creek” even though the majority of that run actually lies on the Tuolumne proper), is a true classic when it comes to wilderness whitewater. There are no roads or even hiking trails (to my knowledge) for the 18 beautiful miles between Meral’s Pool and Ward’s Ferry Bridge. While it is possible to run in a single day, the true joy of the Tuolumne lies in the serene, riverside camping. During my multiple trips to “The T”, I’ve always had gorgeous weather that permitted sleeping out under the stars. Author’s Note: if the weather doesn’t look good, I would suggest running something else. The Tuolumne should be enjoyed with summery leisure.
While the overall mood of the trip may be leisurely, there are plenty of rapids that are far from. I think of the Tuolumne as a pretty standard class IV run. Due to the many class II-III rapids and long pools interspersed between the harder rapids, it may feel like an easier run than other standard class IVs – such as Chamberlain Falls or Edward’s to Purdon’s– which have higher rapid density. However this perception is likely just due to an averaging effect over the 18 miles. There more than a dozen rapids that tip the scale into class IV, some of which are quite long, and one tipping more toward V-. Adding on the remote nature of the run makes this a definitive class IV; not to be taken lightly by an eager class III boater.
The river starts in the Tuolumne Meadows portion of Yosemite National Park before being dammed in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Between Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro Reservoir lies the Cherry Creek section and the Lower Tuolumne. The release for the Lower T actually comes from one of the Tuolumne’s tributaries; Cherry Creek. For both weekends that our group of friends ran The T, we had 1200 cfs released from Holm Powerhouse on Cherry Creek; quite an enjoyable level.
Setting shuttle can be a bit lengthy, but for both weekends we were on the water around noon. Packing light, we brought paddling gear, safety equipment, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a few survival items, cameras, food, fishing poles, and a few beers. The top of Meral’s pool offers a good current to practice your eddy turns with your gear-laden boat.
The first 4 or 5 miles keep you entertained with many class IVs. The nature of the rapids on the Lower Tuolumne are comparable to Meat Grinder on the South Fork of the American – bouldery, long, and with multiple moves – but with all of those aspects taken to the next degree. The top part of the run culminates with Clavey Falls; a class V- on the right line, IV on the sneak left or a relatively easy portage on the right.
Clavey Falls is somewhat of a one-move wonder for it’s V- right line. If done properly, it just involves entering the correct channel on river right, taking a lefty boof stroke over a small curler that drops off 5+ feet of vertical, and riding out the finish. Two subsequent drops are taking on the left side of the river. What makes it a V- is the power of water trying to push you toward a large “F*** You!” rock in the middle of the river and the potential for nasty pitons or pins if you enter in the wrong place. If you don’t go of the the top drop with a left-handed boof stroke, chances are you are going to get acquainted with the F-You rock.
After one more quasi-technical IV after Clavey, the river mellows for several miles until picking back up with some long boulder gardens such as Grays Grindstone and Hell’s Kitchen. I recommend camping along this mellow stretch. Both weekends found us camping a few miles past Clavey Falls. The first weekend had us at an abandoned powerhouse while the second was spent at a sandy beach a mile or two further on; I prefer the latter though both are comfortable. I find that the river is experienced in a whole new way when you spend a night on the banks. On a normal river trip, the hustle of driving to the river, setting shuttle, paddling down, collecting shuttle, driving home – detracts from the river-experience, itself. You have to sit and stare at the river and canyon for a few hours to get a sense of the place. Take a fishing pole and wander the banks. Cook a basic meal. Slap mosquitos. Sleep and wake with the Sun. Instead of being just a passerby, you start to get a vague sense of familiarity with the wild location. The Tuolumne offers a great opportunity for these experiences.
The second day contains many fun, exploratory class IVs. There are any number of lines through the long boulder gardens with countless opportunities for tight eddy hopping, rock splats, and boofs. Several miles from takeout, we got out for lunch at the confluence with the North Fork of the Tuolumne and explored a short ways up the small drainage. Joseph had an encounter with a rattlesnake but, fortunately, got nothing more than a warning rattle.