15
Jul
15

the grand canyon of the tuolumne

I first visited Yosemite National Park at the age of 18. It was such a Coney Island, I swore I’d never return.  It was only after working on THE GRANITE AVATARS OF PATAGONIA that I thought I should be photographing more of the granite in California, and visited Yosemite for the first time in almost 30 years. I had been avoiding National parks in general, spending my time in national forests, BLM ranges, and some of the larger state parks. But my capacity to tolerate crowds of humans has increased dramatically over the last few years, and now that I live in San Francisco, and my free time is limited, Yosemite is the easiest place for me to access the granite of The Sierras.

Over the years, I’ve flown over Yosemite several times, and what always caught my eye was the other Yosemite Valley, to the north. So over an extended 4th of July weekend I explored the upper reaches of the Tuolumne River through what is called “The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.”

Despite the glorious name, this is not a popular hike due to the 3,400’ abrupt elevation change at one end.

My hiking partner Lauren went to the park a day ahead and camped so she could grab a wilderness permit as the doors to the wilderness ranger’s office opened. She decided that 3,400 ft downhill sounded better than 3,400 ft uphill, so that’s the permit we got– the up-river route.

I arrived that night in thunderstorms. A break in the weather allowed some camp fire time and some beer drinking while staring at the flames. The next morning we were on the trail, a bit sluggish from the beer.

I’ve had several knee injuries over the years, but my knees are doing well these days, so I was surprised how hard the descent was on my knees. The temperature was over 90 degrees, I had a full pack, the trail was unyielding granite, and the beer had depleted my electrolyte stores. I haven’t dropped so far, so fast, since I hiked to the bottom of the grand canyon. It was a relentless decent.

By the time we got to the river in the late afternoon, Lauren had heat stroke. So we cooled off in the river and lounged for a while in the shadow of big ponderosa pines before beginning the journey upriver, which would demand a gradual 4,000 ft elevation gain over the next 26 miles. We soon ran into a pair of big bears foraging along the trail about 100 feet from us. They allowed us to watch them for several minutes. One was quite alarmed by us, but took time before escaping with a graceful gate.

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In this part of the river valley we enjoyed old growth ponderosa pines and deep clear swimming holes that I think were a few degrees warmer than usual since the river has been fed by recent rains, and not so much by the usual snowmelt–little snow fell in the sierras over the drought-stricken winter.

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The granite walls of the valley were fractured and laid back. A veteran of many sierra backpacking trips, I have become a connoisseur of granite walls, and I kept thinking of one of the main points of my book MOVED BY A MOUNTAIN–that the integrity of the rock and its vertical posture are what inspires us. It was three miles into our fourth day of hiking that we found ourselves surrounded by solid monoliths, with occasional shelves claimed but courageous pines. We decided to make an early camp to enjoy what we had come for–no sense rushing through this wonderland.

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It was a lazy day of appreciating the views from various perches by the river, and exploring the various deep granite tanks–world class swimming holes. The majority of these photos come from that day–a day of soaking up the beauty of tall, steep and solid granite, plunging into the cool emerald pools, and sunning on granite slabs. At the same time this was an experience of soul recharge, and an experience of worship via deep appreciation.

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As I told a spiritually-aware hiker we met on the trail, who claimed that all that surrounded us was God, “All matter is God, your hat, your watch, but it takes something as spectacular as this valley to get most of us to realize it.”

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The plunging waters, the regal Ponderosa pines, the thunderclouds drifting over granite domes, and the song of a nuthatch, chickadee, or tanager—together a sensual symphony set in motion by The Source.

Not a bad day on the planet called Earth.

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these prints available now. contact me by email.

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1 Response to “the grand canyon of the tuolumne”


  1. July 16, 2015 at 5:51 am

    Tom this is very wonderful – thanks so much. ron hagg


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