Yosemite from Tioga Road: Don’t Plan on Dry Feet

Northern Nevada’s lack of campgrounds led to us exploring one of the most impressive waterfalls I’ve visited in recent memory.

We drove into Nevada after meeting my aunt for a lovely dinner near Sonoma, in search of a campsite (seriously, CA state parks, $35/night??). After a few misses – one full campground, one dirt road that turned treacherous for the Old Gal five miles in, and nothing else nearby – we gave up and returned to California to check out the Toyiabe National Forest. We drove along the rushing Walker Creek for a while before finding the Bootleg Campground, which ended up not only secluded and quiet but less than 50 miles from Yosemite’s northeastern entrance.

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Tioga Road, the only thoroughfare that connects the eastern and western sides of Yosemite, opened the day we got to Bootleg, continuing our trend of visiting sections of parks as they open for the season. Even though we hadn’t planned a hiking day on our way towards Las Vegas, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see Yosemite waterfalls running full of peak snowmelt.

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Tioga Lake

Both of the guides that I booknapped from my dad’s collection rated Tuolumne Falls quite highly. Keeping in mind the ranger’s warning that we’d have to cross several streams, we set out towards the Glen Aulin High Sierra camp just under six miles from the parking lot.

This hike did not disappoint. Terrain ranged from evergreen forest teeming with (relatively young link GB) bristlecone pines, to massive slabs of granite marked by cairns, to lush meadows cut by the Tuolumne River overflowing its banks. We’d hear rushing rapids well before we saw them.

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We hit our first water crossing about a mile and a third into the trail, and at that point it was quite clear we wouldn’t complete this hike with dry feet. We needed the traction from our boots to make it through the icy-cold, knee-deep racing current and we hadn’t brought spares. We watched the group ahead of us cross first, seeing if we could learn anything; all we got was the water was cold and the current strong. Fortunately we knew from our snow hikes that our insulating socks kept our feet warm even when wet.

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I think we crossed another eight streams, but none as memorable as that first one. Most of the trail paralleled the Tuolumne River, crashing through rapids and then mellowing back into a fast-flowing current.

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We must have gotten accustomed to the river noise, because we turned a corner out of a grove of trees and there stood a bridge over the upper part of the falls. For about two miles, we hiked down along the falls, switchbacking from slick granite to muddy forest to human-made stone steps. The spray from the waterfall cooled us down whenever the trail brought us back towards the water. The spectacular view at the bottom made every mosquito bite worthwhile.

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The upper tier of falls.

We sat a bit near the base of the falls, on the stone leading up to where the bridge to the Glen Aulin camp had been until an apparently-recent torrent had ripped it about twenty feet downstream.

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I waded into knee-deep frigid water to get an unobstructed view of the lower falls.

The return trip was beautiful but fairly uneventful – Dan saw a marmot! I saw a doe and her fawn! – before we reached that last stream crossing. I had figured the volume of the stream would increase as the warmth of the day melted more snow. I didn’t expect to see grown men struggling towards us with the water up to mid-thigh and splashing up to their waists. We took all valuables out of our pockets and into our packs, Dan helped me brace myself through the deepest part, and we carefully pushed through the torrent, grateful yet again for our hiking poles.*

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The terrain included large stretches of granite marked by cairns.

I loved this hike. Tuolumne Meadows sit around 8000 feet above sea level, but tbe trail didn’t involve much elevation change: perfect since we’d been near sea level for close to three weeks. The varied terrain kept us interested over the course of eleven miles round trip, and the distance felt just long enough to make our legs pleasantly sore. And of course, that waterfall.

*For worried family and friends: we were in no danger of being swept away. If the current had knocked me over, I would’ve fallen and felt silly (and soaked!) but nothing worse.

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