Yosemite National P ark, and in particular Yosemite Valley, is home to some of the most famous wilderness landmarks in America. But north of the Valley, and north of Highway 120 and Tuolumne Meadows, resides an area of the park known as the Yosemite Wilderness. And in the same way that the mighty Merced River cuts its way through the 3,000+ foot deep Yosemite Valley, so too does the powerful Tuolumne River cut its way through a similarly spectacular canyon in the Yosemite Wilderness know simply as The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne. This huge river runs West and Southwest from Tuolumne Meadows, through Glen Aulin and then almost 20 miles to the massive Hetch Hetchy Reservoir – all the while cutting its way through the deep and massive Grand Canyon of Tuolumne. The Grand Canyon features a series of famous waterfalls at it’s upper/Eastern end, including Waterwheel Falls, LeConte Falls, California Falls and Tuolumne Falls.
The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne can be backpacked as a multi-day out-and-back from either its West side or East Side, or it can be backpacked as a loop – starting from either Tuolumne Meadows or from White Wolf. We decided to backpack it as a loop starting and ending at White Wolf in a fantastic 5-day, 50-mile backcountry adventure.
Why start/end at White Wolf? Several reasons:
- During 2022, the Tuolumne Meadows backpacker’s camp was CLOSED for restoration and repairs. This eliminated the opportunity to sleep there the night before our start for acclimation and gear shakedowns. The White Wolf campground was open and available.
- The White Wolf campground is much closer to the entrance to the GC of Tuolumne, eliminating the out-and-back miles that would have to be repeated from Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin and back.
- The White Wolf campground day one start would be almost all downhill into the GC of Tuolumne – a good way to start day one.
Planning the Trip
We booked our backcountry permit online through the Yosemite backcountry permit system exactly 168 days prior to our entry date. The map we used to plan our route was the Tom Harrison Yosemite High Country Map. This one map shows the entire route. We chose the following schedule for our trip – hoping that this would keep our average miles around 10 miles per day and also put us near water each night:
- Travel Day One: Drive to Yosemite National Park via Highway 395 and Highway 120 – enter YNP at the Highway 120 Eastern Gate. Acquire our backcountry permit at the Tuolumne Meadows ranger station. Then drive to White Wolf, sign in and pay the money at the drop box, and pitch camp in the White Wolf backpackers camp.
- Day One: Hike from White Wolf North to Harden Lake, then East/Northeast and down into the GC of Tuolumne to Pate Valley.
- Day Two: Hike East up the GC of Tuolumne to Waterwheel Falls.
- Day Three: Hike East up and out of the GC of Tuolumne to Glen Aulin, then South to the May Lake / Ten Lakes trail junction with a side trip to Polly Dome Lakes.
- Day Four: Hike West around Tuolumne Peak to Ten Lakes.
- Day Five: Hike over Ten Lakes Pass and then South and West to White Wolf, load up the car and then head home via a night in Bishop.
Total (Tom Harrison Map) Miles (including the side trip to Polly Dome Lakes): 48.9 Miles.
(NOTE: Actual GPS hiking mileage as recorded by the GaiaGPS for iPhone app was 53.35 Miles.
Map of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Loop
Day One – White Wolf Campground to Pate Valley
The trail from White Wolf Campground starts as a fire access road heading North towards the GC. In just under three miles you reach Harden Lake, which during our late-summer trip was quite low.
From Harden Lake the trail heads east and Down, Down, Down into the GC, winding its way 3,000 vertical feet to the canyon floor and the Tuolumne River. During this first week of September, the cool temperatures of White Wolf would skyrocket to over 100 degrees at the canyon floor! The switchback trail winds it way down Morrison Creek, which at this time of year was bone dry.
The smoke from the Rogers fire was burning high up on the opposite canyon ridge, so we were in no danger. Looking back, there are a few good view points where you can make out the Hetch Hetchy reservoir to the West. This would be a much prettier hike earlier in the season, with some fun water crossings too.
Once at the canyon floor, the trail winds East/Northeast along the river. At approximately 10 miles in from White Wolf, you arrive at Pate Valley. There’s a large summer work camp there, and several bridges that cross over the Tuolumne River from the south side to the north side. Next to the main bridge is a fairly large area of calm river and several sandy beaches where we were able to get our shoes off and soak in the cold river water for some relief from the 100-degree heat! Pate Valley is known for its rattlesnake activity, and today was no exception. No sooner did we set foot on the beach than a huge black rattler greeted us. Needless to say we selected another spot to sit!
After a rattlesnake-free soak in the river, we decided to pack up and head up the trail further to find a more shaded campsite, as the sites at the Pate Valley bridge were very sun-exposed. We found a nice little spot along the trail with good river access about a mile up the trail, and pitched camp. It would be a hot night in the tent, with temps never getting below the mid-70s, sleeping on top of our bags…not in them. But we would get some sleep in the end. We would need it for the BIG climbing day tomorrow.
Day Two – Upper Pate Valley to Waterwheel Falls
Day Two of our adventure in the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne would be our big climbing day, as we would be heading directly UP the canyon. We woke to continued warm temps, had coffee and hit the trail while still dark to try and catch as much cool weather as we could. NOTE: try and avoid the biggest heatwave of the summer when doing this trip. Less than a mile up the trail, Pate Valley delivered its second rattlesnake sighting. This guy was sprawled out across the trail – and he was a big one! After throwing small rocks near him for a while, he finally decided to move out of the trail and into the woods – and we were able to continue our hike. It would be nice to get out of Pate Valley.
The hike up the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne is stunning. Like it’s big brother Yosemite Valley, the huge walls of granite on both sides of the powerful river make for an absolutely stunning backdrop. Up, up, up the trail climbs – and in places it leaves the canyon floor to climb around large rock formations, making for some challenging switchback ascents. As the temperatures rise again, the ascending becomes more challenging, and we work our way section by section, stopping to drink and rest and give each other pep talks to keep going strong. Again, this would be easier and more pleasant in earlier summer temperatures. The heat wave was energy sapping.
Finally, after an all-day hike and a final set of steep switchies, we arrive at Waterwheel Falls. Again, the late season waterfall flow is less than the majestic photos found in guide books, but it’s still quite beautiful and the perfect place to spend the night. The view from the top of the falls looking West unfolds to the grand canyon below, and the view to the East displays the most amazing sunset against the granite canyon walls. Above the falls, the river opens up to a beautiful still pond, and we sit on the flat granite and enjoy and perfectly gorgeous evening.
Later that night, the wind would pick up – making our sleep less than peaceful as it buffered our tent repeatedly. But in the end, it was a beautiful spot to enjoy the GC of Tuolumne.
Day Three – Waterwheel Falls to May Lake / Ten Lakes Trail Junction
Day Three is the “Waterfall Money Day” in the GC of Tuolumne. The first three or so miles up to the top of the canyon and Glen Aulin feature a series of gorgeous falls and granite features. Again we started early to beat the heat, so our views of the falls were shaded and lovely.
First, we arrive at LeConte Falls. Again, the late season flow is light, but it’s still an absolutely beautiful setting. Next, we climb up to California Falls – and hike in a bit off-trail to get a close up view. After California falls, the trail departs a bit North of the river and winds it way through the stunning Glen Aulin meadow. The walls of the canyon jut straight up from the side of the trail, and the lush green meadow creates an incredibly vibrant color pallet. As we approach the junction of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, the final water feature is the White Cascade – with its water flow and red rock, the sunrise gives it an absolutely beautiful look.
We stop for a quick rest just after the bridge over the Tuolumne River to admire the magnificent Tuolumne Falls and check out the map for upcoming water sources. Again, the late season schedule as eliminated most if not all of the seasonal water sources – so we need to make sure we’ll have water on this next leg of the trip. After a map review, we decide that we’d better carry and extra load of water – so I fill up our dirty bag at the falls with 4 extra liters of water and strap it to the outside of my pack. Not the most pleasant additional weight, but better safe the sorry. With the water strapped in, we turn away from the PCT (that heads back to Tuolumne Meadows) and head south and UP on the May Lake trail.
As we pass McGee Lake – a potential water source – we confirm that the lake is low and dirty, so we’re happy we have extra water. We encounter a solo hiker doing the same loop but counter clockwise and he confirms there’s not much water around. We then encounter two rangers on horseback that have ridden up from May Lake and Tuolumne Meadows on patrol. In a “small world” story, we find out that the ranger is from Southern California and works with Montrose SAR! We talk about the Angeles NF a bit, confirm the lack of water, and discuss a water side trip to Polly Dome Lakes. The ranger tells us how to find the trail and we say goodbye and carry on.
We find the turnoff to Polly Dome Lakes and I convince my wife that the extra 1.8 miles will be worth it to have a full water source. It’s a small up and down trail but it leads us to a beautiful and stunning setting on the lake with tons of camping areas. My wife is bushed from the lack of good sleep the night before, so I lay out a towel and get her comfortable for an afternoon nap. While she naps, I dump out all the water and do a complete fresh re-fill of all our water containers. Now we are good to go for the night and next morning. The combination of the water source, naptime and the beauty of this pristine lake make the 1.8 mile side trip totally worth it! After my wife wakes up – fully refreshed – the clouds start to roll in and it looks like a thunderstorm is on its way. So, we saddle up fast and head back to the main trail and south to the May Lake / Ten Lakes trail junction hoping to beat the storm.
We arrive at the trail junction and scope out a flat piece of ground to pitch camp. As it starts to sprinkle, we quickly get the tent up and get everything secured in the vestibule. No sooner are we done than the thunder, lightning and rain hit full force. We jump in the tent and hunker down, riding out 30 minutes of storm. When it passes, we climb back out – inspect everything – and cook dinner. We are good to go for the night with enough water to get us to the next viable source on the way up to Ten Lakes the next day.
Day Four – May Lake / Ten Lakes Trail Junction to Ten Lakes
The climb to Ten Lakes starts off with about a mile of flat trail crossing a beautiful meadow.
Then the climbing and switchbacks begin as the trail heads north and northeast up and around the 10,800 foot Tuolumne Peak. It’s beautiful alpine hiking with fantastic views to the north back towards where we came. We encountered three hikers on this part of the trail.
After 3 or 4 miles, on the Northwest corner of the base of Tuolumne Peak, the trail dives back down into the South Fork drainage. On the way down the steep switchbacks, we find a beautiful, crystal-clear spring bubbling up from the ground – and we take the opportunity to have a rest and filter some of the cleanest water we’ve had all week…absolutely delicious. At the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail then turns directly North and heads about a mile and half up the South Fork drainage through some beautiful forested areas and a lovely meadow. There is a bit of water in the South Fork, but it’s pretty dry. Luckily we are filled up with that amazing spring water so we don’t need to stop.
At the top of the South Fork drainage, the trail then turns immediately West and UP UP UP about 800 vertical feet of crazy switchbacks to make the climb towards Ten Lakes. We stop at the bottom and eat a light lunch before making the climb, as the sun is now up and in full force and this will be a HOT ascent. We encounter one solo hiker coming down from Ten Lakes, and he asks us about water sources. We turn him on to the location of the magical spring, and he thanks us and heads off.
We begin our ascent of the switchbacks – taking it one section at a time and hydrating regularly as the sun is now beating down and temps are HIGH. We complete the climb quickly and efficiently and then slowing ascend the final flatter section to the first of the Ten Lakes. Of the Ten Lakes, the two largest ones are actually right on the Ten Lakes trail (the others require some off-trail nav via use trails). We stop at the first one (“East” lake) at 9,400 feet elevation and have a rest and filter some water. There are some great campsites there are zero people, but we decide to keep going to the second lake (“West” lake) which will position us better for the climb over Ten Lakes Pass the next morning. We hike the last mile and change, descending down to the “West” lake at 8,950 feet. The view on the descent is stunning and we stop a take a few pictures. We arrive at the “West” lake and pitch camp on a rock outcropping overlooking the lake. Because Ten Lakes – accessible directly from the Yosemite Creek / Ten Lakes trail head on highway 120 – is only about a 6-mile hike in, there are quite a few people camping there by the end of the evening. We share the lakefront with some other campers and swimmers during dinner, but then everyone settles in for a quiet night. The storm rolls in but we don’t get hit as hard as the night before. This will be our last night in the Yosemite Wilderness.
Day 5 – Ten Lakes to White Wolf
We wake up early and pack up our gear for the last time. The morning is cool, which is good because we now have to climb 800 feet of switchbacks in about a mile to get out of the Ten Lakes area and up-and-over Ten Lakes Pass. We begin the due West climb up the switchbacks – and it doesn’t take long for the East-rising sun to start to heat us up. We encounter some pikas and a huge Marmot on the switchback ascent, as Ten Lakes Pass is reasonably high up at 9,670 feet in elevation.
We finish the ascent and arrive at Ten Lakes Pass – a beautiful alpine meadow – and are greeted by some playful deer. Now – we begin our 8 mile descent South and West to are starting point at White Wolf campground. After the initial set of steep downward switchbacks, the trail crosses the lovely Half Moon Meadow. We encounter a pair of backpackers camped out there, but otherwise it is quiet and still. It’s a beautiful meadow at the base of the Ten Lakes Pass – and we make a note to come back and visit it again.
From there, it’s another 2 miles or so until the trail junction of the Ten Lakes Trail and the East/West White Wolf Trail. We stop at the junction for a snack – there’s no water in Yosemite Creek at the junction, but we have plenty so we are ok to keep going. The trail heads directly West towards White Wolf, covering about 3 ½ miles of beautiful dense forest with some amazingly large trees. It also winds its way through a burn area left over from the Lukens fire many years earlier. But the forest is coming back – which is a good sign. From the Lukens Lake trail junction, it’s now just a bit under 2 miles to complete our journey.
We arrive back at the White Wolf Campground to the eerie sight of zero people. The campground closed just after Labor Day (the day after we were there), so it was locked up tight and no one was around. We saw two people sitting at a picnic table, and they look surprised to see us coming out of the forest, but other than that – no one. We were the only car left in the overflow parking, which was weird. We packed everything back into the car and followed the dirt loop back to the access road.
When we got to the access road / Highway 120 junction the GATE WAS CLOSED! Uh oh – how were we going to out??? I’ve got no phone signal either!! My first thought was to turn around and go back to those two people at the picnic table and say “how the heck did you guys get in here???” But first, I decided to get out of the car and check the gate. Sure enough, it was closed BUT THE LOCK wasn’t latched. Phew!!! I unwrapped the lock and chain and opened the gate, moved my car out, and then re-wrapped everything up. It took a few minutes for my heart to slow down LOL.
And just like that, our 5-day adventure on the Yosemite Wilderness Grand Canyon of Tuolumne Loop was complete. Now, time to drive to Bishop for Mexican Food and Beers! Then, the next morning, it would be a stop at the Alabama Hills Café in Lone Pine for breakfast, and then home!
Yosemite Grand Canyon of Tuolumne Tips and Notes
- Wilderness Permits are required to stay overnite in the Yosemite Backcountry. All trailheads are based on a quota system, and permits can be applied for 168 prior to departure. For all information on Yosemite Wilderness Permits, trail quotas and applications, go to https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
- With the exception of the White Wolf Campground backpackers camp, all of the campsites we used on the trail were backcountry sites with NO bear boxes for storage. Therefore, APPROVED bear canisters are required for this loop to store all food and items with a scent. You will be required to go through a quick education process on this when you pick up your permit at the Tuolumne Meadows permit station.
- We tracked the trip via GaiaGPS for iPhone. Our GPX track can be downloaded above.
- Due to our late season start date, water was scarce in some spots. Lakes and major streams should be used – seasonal water on maps was almost entirely dry. Earlier in the season would yield water from all seasonal sources and would require many wet trail crossings.
- Normally in Yosemite, campfires are permitted above 6,000 fee and below 9,600 fee in elevation in improved rock fire rings. This year, NO FIRES were permitted in the park backcountry.
- We had a short burst of heavy rain on Day 3 and light rain on Day 4, so make sure you have proper rain gear, pack covers and shelter on this loop.
If you are as passionate about Yosemite National Park as we are (after all, we were married at Glacier Point), then a trip to the Northern half of the park and the Yosemite Wilderness should be on your bucket list. The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne and it’s majestic canyon and stunning waterfalls are a box that should be checked off.
Another benefit of this route is the small numbers of people in late season – it is a true backcountry experience after Labor Day.
This loop is perfect for beginner backpackers and experienced backpackers alike.
There’s no better way to see the Northern section of Yosemite National Park than the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne Loop.
Originally hiked September 3-8, 2022 by Greg Glass and Barbara Hale. All photos by the same.