There is lots of debate on the toughest part of the John Muir Trail, but most thru-hikers agree that one of the easiest stretches is the trek up Lyell Canyon. The surface is compacted dirt – about as forgiving as you can get – and the climb is so gentle that many don’t even realize they are ascending. It’s also one of the most picturesque parts of the hike since, for much of the way, you parallel the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River.
Ever wonder where the water you see flowing the opposite direction is going?
The tributary that is keeping you company as you head toward Donohue Pass is one of two that begin in the high country of Yosemite, before combining with the Dana Fork in Tuolumne Meadows to form the Tuolumne River. From there the course heads west, below California 120, over Tuolumne Falls, through Glen Aulin, and enters the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.
Much of the stretch between Tuolumne Meadow and the canyon is rough, fast, and violent. Not long after leaving the canyon the water pours into placid Hetch Hetchy, an artificial reservoir built within the borders of Yosemite National Park and created by the O’Shaughnessy Dam.
Once the river leaves Yosemite it must negotiate at least two more obstacles: the New Don Pedro and the La Grange Dams.
About fifty slow-moving miles later it joins the San Joaquin River, which takes it all the way to San Francisco Bay (via Suisun Bay).
The Tuolumne River is no Mississippi, but it can definitely put out some water, especially in big snow years. The discharge at the mouth, in Suisun Bay, has been recorded to be more than 5,000 cubic feet of water per second.
That is after it acts as the primary water source for the City and County of San Francisco. The river provides 80% of the water for the city and county. (In case you are wondering, the Tuolumne River provides nearly 31 million cubic feet of water per day.)
Last, if you are so inclined, the trout fishing in the Lyell Fork is reportedly pretty good. The scenery certainly is.
Good hiking, Ray
Another interesting aspect of the Lyell Fork is where the water comes FROM. In August of 2013, at the height of the drought, I spent a leisurely day wending my way up Lyell Canyon, noting among other things, how desperately low the Lyell Fork and its tributaries (Rafferty Creek, e.g.) were. What really hit home was the thought of how fragile a river is compared to how we often think of it. Old Man River is really not old at all: he’s no more robust or eternal than this year’s runoff. Next day, after crossing the even more fragile and depleted section among the headwaters lakes, I ran into a real anomaly in a drought year: a cascade of pure, clear water, flooding and rushing across the trail: it seemed to be flowing at a rate equal to that of the entire stream that I had just crossed. I had to reassess my observation of the previous day as I realized that what I was crossing (and dipping my Sierra cup in) is indeed a good percentage of what is flowing to Hetch Hetchy, the San Joaquin and San Francisco, and its not this year’s runoff at all. It represents what is left of Lyell Glacier. Old Man River is really Old Woman Glacier, and she is dying.
Good stuff, Peter. Thanks for the interesting and informative comment.
Excellent post, and excellent comment from Peter Hirst!
Hi Mr rippel I am finding it difficult to get a permit out of yosemite could I go further south entering a lower trailhead and hike back into yosemite then start the journey to Whitney?
It is definitely a process, Ray. If you would like, send me an email at ray DOT rippel AT gmail DOT com and I might be able to help. Thanks!