California's Classic Class IV Trip
"Rapids and side hikes: eat your heart out Disneyland, this is more fun, exciting, and safer than any rides you have."
- B. Bashaw, Azusa, CA
The Tuolumne, or “T” as it is known among whitewater aficionados is “The Champagne of Whitewater” and 'The King of Sierra Rivers.' It is certainly the finest whitewater river in the state, and no river can claim as many rapids per mile. Clavey Falls makes everyone's “Ten Best Rapids in the America” list and Grey's Grindstone, over a half mile long, might be the longest rapid. Sunderland's Chute, Hackamack's Hole, Ram's Head, Evangelist, Hell's Kitchen, and Cabin are all extremely exciting. Even unnamed rapids on the Tuolumne River would have names on other rivers.
The famous Tuolumne River originates in the Yosemite National Park. The Tuolumne meanders through Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, then carves the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne before filling Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Then it tumbles west and out of Yosemite. We raft about thirty river miles west of the Park near Highway 120. This is where the Tuolumne cuts a deep canton full of Class IV Rapids and beautiful campsites.
Even unnamed rapids on the Tuolumne would have names on other rivers. The Tuolumne has three distinct personalities, determined by the seasons. It's first and prettiest season is from April to early May. This is when the snow first starts to melt and the river starts flowing after its winter rest. The canyon comes to life during this time and the hills explode with wildflowers and green grass. You can take incredible side hikes to view the stream fed cascading waterfalls or hang out in camp with some hot cocoa and take in the splendor of the canyon.
It is wildest in late May and early June when the snow melts in the high country. Water pumps into the river from the high country, the river swells, and the rapids become huge and fast. This is the time for the truly adventurous.
From late June through August the canyon dries out and the river recedes to normal flows. But it never loses its punch. Now the challenge becomes avoiding rocks and holes, and maneuvering through narrow chutes, channels and falls. This is when the big side streams, the Clavey River and the North Fork of the Tuolumne, offer wonderful hiking, with beautiful swimming holes carved out of the solid rock river bed.
The Tuolumne is an easy drive from the San Francisco Bay Area. People coming from farther away often combine their trip with a visit to Yosemite National Park, whose border is about a half an hour from where trips begin and end.