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California; Tuolumne River

Tuolumne River

  1. Upper Tuolumne: Cherry Creek (2,240') to Meral's Pool (1,430'). Vp; 9 miles; 93 ft./mi.
  2. Main Tuolumne: Meral's Pool to Ward's Ferry (750'). IV+; 18 miles; 38 ft./mi.

California's premier whitewater river, the Tuolumne, courses through outstanding rapids in a spectacular wild canyon in the central Sierra. Many of California's best rafters and kayakers cut their teeth on the exciting, boulder-strewn rapids from Meral's Pool to Ward's Ferry. Until more difficult runs were opened in the late 1970's and early 1980's, this section of the Tuolumne was considered the state's prime test of technical boating, and it remains one of the West's best river trips.

Upstream, the river is truly fierce. Clavey Falls, the biggest drop below Meral's Pool, would be just an average rapid on the Cherry Creek run. The Upper Tuolumne is one of the toughest stretches of regularly-boated whitewater in the country. Commercial raft trips have been offered since 1981, and the run grows more and more popular.

The river's upper watershed makes up a larger portion of Yosemite Park than that of the Merced, which flows through Yosemite Valley just to the south. The Tuolumne1 -- known affectionately as the "T" among river runners -- drains the western slopes of the Sierra crest from an area southwest of Mono Lake northward to the Emigrant Wilderness. North of Tuolumne Meadows, the great granite walls of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne open onto Hetch Hetchy Valley, described by John Muir as "another Yosemite Valley."

Much of that valley has long been buried under the waters of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a San Francisco city project approved by Congress in 1913 over the objections of Muir's young Sierra Club. Hetch Hetchy is the only sizable commercial reservoir in the country permitted in a national park. O'Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1923 and named for its designer, is relatively small: maximum reservoir capacity is only 360,000 acre-feet. The City of San Francisco not only drinks the Tuolumne but realizes about $25 million a year by selling Hetch Hetchy power. Such is the price of another Yosemite Valley.2

Between Hetch Hetchy and the backwaters of New Don Pedro Reservoir some 36 miles downstream, the Tuolumne flows like a wild river in winter and spring and at the behest of dam operators from about midsummer on. San Francisco also operates reservoirs and powerhouses on two major tributaries, Cherry Creek and Eleanor Creek, and another powerhouse downstream on Moccasin Creek. Below Ward's Ferry the Tuolumne has been harnessed again by New Don Pedro Dam, owned by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.

What remains of the Tuolumne was admitted to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in September 1984 over the opposition of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, who along with their political allies have prevented the river's friends from passing a bill to protect more of the watershed. Even though the Tuolumne already supplies their customers with cheap, plentiful water and electricity, the irrigation districts are studying a project for a dam and powerhouse on the Clavey River.3 This beautiful major tributary, a favorite of hikers and anglers, is being boated by a growing number of daring experts and is briefly covered in the More Western Rivers section of this book.

Upper Tuolumne The Cherry Creek run of the Tuolumne, also known as the "Upper T," is the most popular Class V run in California. Excellent scenery, outstanding whitewater, and a long boating season -- all within a relatively easy drive of the Bay Area and Sacramento -- make this one of the most frequently-boated expert runs in the West.

Tackling the Cherry Creek run puts boaters on the leading edge of the sport. Here in Jawbone Canyon, the Tuolumne plummets at an average rate of more than 90 ft./mi. over granite boulders torn from the Sierra bedrock. In one mile-long section the river falls 200'. The Upper Tuolumne is for experts only, and then only at low flows. The rapids are separated by very short pools; kayakers must have a bomb-proof roll, and rafters should use self-bailers since a swamped boat can get into trouble in a hurry.

The mile guide in this chapter lists only the very toughest rapids on the "Upper T." Aside from Lumsden Falls, the three most feared by boaters are Mushroom, Lewis's Leap, and Flat Rock Falls. But there are plenty of others difficult enough to cause trouble. Stop and scout whenever possible, even though this probably means contact with poison oak -- another good reason to wear a wet suit even in the heat of summer. Don't get overconfident when you make it to the halfway point: the pools grow shorter and the rapids even more difficult the rest of the way. Be sure you recognize Flat Rock Falls (mile 6.8); most boaters wisely portage this dangerous drop. Lumsden Falls is even worse and should be considered unrunnable.

Though relatively short, this run takes all of a long day due to the slow shuttle, frequent scouting, and likely portages. Get an early start. If darkness catches you on the river, tie up the boats, climb up the right bank to the road, and finish the run in the morning.

Kayakers Dick Sunderland and Gerald Meral were the first to run the "Upper T" in 1968. Marty McDonnell and Walt Harvest made the first raft trip in 1973 (see story), and McDonnell's company, Sierra Mac River Trips, pioneered commercial rafting here in 1981.

Main Tuolumne The "T" is perhaps the best-loved river trip in the state. The reasons are simple: it offers an overnight float in a region where extended trips are rare; the scenery is striking and the wilderness solitude is deep and unspoiled; the river is within a relatively easy drive of the Bay Area and Sacramento; and the whitewater is sublime. This is a challenging run for advanced boaters at any level, and for experts only above 4,000 cfs. More than a dozen drops rated Class IV or higher dot the run, and there are many unnamed Class III and III+ rapids.

When kayakers and rafters first began tackling this run in the 1960's, they usually portaged its biggest rapid, Clavey Falls. First to run all the rapids was solo kayaker Noel DeBord in 1965, but early descents by Dick Sunderland, Gerald Meral, and Jim Morehouse had more to do with turning boaters' attention to the "T." In 1968 Bryce Whitmore and Marty McDonnell made the first raft run without portages.

The Tuolumne's popularity soared as whitewater sport took off during the late 1970's and early 1980's. Though the river is sometimes too high to run from late May to early July, some 6,000 people float the Tuolumne every year, and that number would be considerably higher without the Forest Service's fairly tight restrictions on both private and commercial boaters.

1 "Tuolumne" is an attempt at "talmalamne," or "people of the stone dwellings," and was the name of Miwok Indians who lived, perhaps in caves, near this river and the nearby Stanislaus. For more on the natural and human history of the Tuolumne, see John Cassidy, A Guide to Three Rivers.

2 For a full discussion of Hetch Hetchy and more recent conservation issues on the Tuolumne, see Tim Palmer, Endangered Rivers and the Conservation Movement.

3 The completion of massive New Don Pedro Reservoir (2 million acre-feet) in 1970 flooded the end of the Main Tuolumne run as well as a fine six-mile float below Ward's Ferry. For updated information on the Clavey River project, contact Friends of the River (see appendix for address).

Drainage Area and Average Annual Discharge: 723 sq. mi. and 950,000 af at Cherry Creek confluence. 1,350 sq. mi. and 1,205,000 af at Ward's Ferry.
Season: March - Oct. Often too high during peak snowmelt in late May and part or all of June. After peak snowmelt, flows are largely controlled by upstream hydro plants. Summer releases usually range from 900 to 1,300 cfs weekdays, 600 to 800 Saturdays, and 500 or less Sundays. Water comes up slowly in the morning and drops early in the evening.
Recommended Levels: Upper Tuolumne: 700 - 2,000 cfs. Main Tuolumne: 1,000 - 5,000 cfs.
Flow Information: DWR tape, (916) 653-9647. Flow at Meral's Pool includes Cherry Creek, the main Tuolumne, and the South Fork, which enters just above Meral's Pool. Hydrograph below does not take daily fluctuations into account. Daytime summer flows are usually higher than graph indicates.
Special Hazards: Upper Tuolumne: Lumsden Falls and Flat Rock Falls.
Permits: Required May 1 - Sept. 30. First come, first served. Request form from Forest Service after Jan. 1 and return form with fee. Advance reservations confirmed by mail. No advance phone reservations. Limit 6 trips per person per season. Group limit 26. Call for unused or cancelled dates and pick up permit at ranger station.
Managing Agency: Groveland RD, Stanislaus NF, 24545 Highway 120, Groveland, CA 95321; (209) 962-7825.
Commercial Raft Trips: Yes. For a list of outfitters contact the managing agency.
Land Ownership: Almost all National Forest.
Scenery: Excellent.
Solitude: Excellent.
Wilderness: Upper: Partial. Lightly-used dirt road follows the lower part of the run. Main: Yes.

Fishing: Very good for trout.
Wildlife: Abundant. Deer, coyote, bobcat, otter, raptors, waterfowl.
Water: Cold and clear.
Camping: Upper: Don't try to carry camping gear downriver; camp at Lumsden Bridge CG or other nearby sites. Main: Large sites are fairly scarce above mile 15, presumably due to the trapping of sand and sediment by upstream reservoirs. Some sites are reserved for commercial use, some for private.
Side Hikes: Main: Clavey River, North Fork Tuolumne, others.
Side Excursions: Yosemite National Park.

Guides and References:

  • Cassady & Calhoun, California Whitewater: A Guide to the Rivers.
  • Holbek & Stanley, A Guide to the Best Whitewater in the State of California.
  • Cassidy, ed., A Guide to Three Rivers: The Stanislaus, Tuolumne and South Fork of the American. Flora, fauna, geology, history.
  • Wright, Rocks and Rapids of the Tuolumne River: Guide to Human and Natural History.
  • Orr & Orr, Rivers of the West: A Guide to the Geology and History.


  • USGS 7.5': Upper: Cherry Lake South, Duckwall Mtn, Jawbone Ridge. Main: Jawbone Ridge, Groveland, Tuolumne, Standard.
  • USGS 1:100: Oakdale.l
  • AAA: Yosemite.
  • Tuolumne River (Cassady & Calhoun). Main Tuolumne run. Waterproof paper.
  • Riverguide Bandana to the Tuolumne (Rivers & Mountains). Cloth map.
  • Logistics: Please see Western Whitewater, page 345, for details.

    Excerpted from Western Whitewater from the Rockies to the Pacific
    Copyright 1994 Jim Cassady, Bill Cross, and Fryar Calhoun. Reproduced in cooperation with Fryar Calhoun.


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