Tuolumne River

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California, USA

Tuolumne River Rafting Guidebook

The Tuolumne River, known to many in the rafting world as “The T” is a Wild & Scenic River with its headwaters located in Yosemite National Park. If you are near Yosemite, it can be an awesome adventure to add to the agenda. The trip can be run as a one-day bullet run with a long shuttle or as an overnight trip. The Tuolumne River flows east to west through the Emigrant Wilderness, Cherry Lake, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir into the Don Pedro Reservoir. Along its journey, the Tuolumne mixes high-octane whitewater with stunning mountainous scenery.

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Founded in 1963, ARTA is one of the original outfitters on the Tuolumne River. ARTA offers a mix of one, two, and three-day Tuolumne trips. Learn more about ARTA here.

About This Guide

This guide outlines the Tuolumne from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry covering rapids, camps, creeks, and river access points.

Safety

The Tuolumne is an intermediate to advanced river run. The run starts off with a bang, with numerous Class IVs for the first six miles leading up to the confluence with the Clavey River. The ability to boat scout, catch eddies, ferry and communicate within a group is essential to everyone staying safe on the Tuolumne River. Wet suits or dry suits are recommended. Wrap kits are also recommended on this river as there are numerous places to wrap a boat.

Permits

During high season, permits are required.

A $15.00 fee is charged for the first 10 people, and an additional $2.00 will be charged for each extra person on the trip up to 26 people. For more information about rafting permits, visit the permits page on the Groveland Ranger District site. Permits are not required if you are rafting from October 1 through April 30.

Permits can also be reserved online. It is still highly advisable to reserve these well in advance, as this is a well-known and sought-after section of whitewater. Permits are valid for 3-days. Learn more about Tuolumne River Permit Regulations here.

Shuttle Info

The Tuolumne River has a particularly long & complex shuttle involving a drive down a winding rut-filled dirt road. Winter storms cause excessive damage at the many tributaries crossing the road crosses. As Ward’s Ferry is considered a Federal Highway, and because it is a major maintenance road for Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, it often closes for repairs after big Winters. We recommend a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle to avoid vehicle damage. Leaving a vehicle at Ward’s Ferry Bridge overnight is not recommended, as there have been numerous reported vehicle break-ins. For overnight trips, our recommendation is to park your car at Casa Loma, and pay to have your vehicle shuttled, which will cost you ~$100 and save you several hours of driving.

Camping

The Tuolumne River has plenty of camps for private and commercial parties that choose to run an overnight trip. At the put-in, South Fork and Lumsden Bridge Campgrounds are great places to camp the night before putting on.

There are a few rules to know about before choosing your campsite. If on a private trip, please help commercial outfitters run smooth trips by noting the below. It is encouraged to communicate your campsite preferences at the put-in and along the river as you go. Fires are only allowed in fire pans. They are heavily discouraged by the USFS, and illegal once campfire restrictions go into effect.

During Odd Years (i.e. 2023), commercial trips will be using the following camps:

  • Powerhouse
  • Clavey (upstream/right)
  • North Fork (downstream)

During Even Years (i.e. 2022), commercial trips will be using the following camps:

  • Indian
  • Mohegan
  • Clavey (left)
  • North Fork (upstream)

Tuolumne River Flow

The Tuolumne River is raftable from 800 To 13,000 CFS, with flows greater than 7,500 CFS considered to be very high water. Like many Sierra rivers, the Tuolumne River is dam-controlled, however, the water is shutoff every day at 11AM from the Holm Powerhouse, so you will want to get an early start to your day. to avoid getting stuck high and dry. It is common for water not to be released on “No Water Wednesdays”, which occur every other Wednesday so plan accordingly around this. Click here for the Dreamflows gauge.

Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry

There’s only one run for the Tuolumne and that’s from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry. It packs in 18 miles of scenic whitewater, done either as a one or two-day trip.

IV
Mile 0.1 – Rock Garden Rapid:

Class IV. As the name suggests, Rock Garden Rapid is full of rocks, some of which are notorious for wrapping your boats on, especially during lower summer flows. Start center, left, or right, and work your way towards the left channel, avoiding numerous boulders on your way down.

IV
Mile 0.89 – Sunderland’s Chute Rapid:

Class IV. Pick your way through a rock garden at the entrance of this rapid. The river pushes into a not-so-forgiving hole on river right. Stay center to avoid this. The current then pushes you toward another hole/wave in the center of the river. If you want to scout this rapid, do so on river right.

IV
Mile 1.09 – Hackamack Hole Rapid:

Class IV. Hackamack Hole Rapid follows soon after Sunderland’s Chute, so recovery time between the two rapids is short. Hackamack begins with either hole or rock dodging depending on the flow. At lower flows, a run down the center line drops you into two large boulders that can be precisely navigated between, or on the left. At higher flows, these boulders form one of the bigger holes on the Tuolumne River, which can be avoided to the left or right.

IV
Mile 2.01 – India Rapids:

Class IV. Scout Left. Named after India Fleming, who was the first woman to run the Tuolumne. The current pushes into a wall on the right side at the bottom. Enter center and stay center, being mindful of this wall. This rapid, as well as Phil’s Folly, can be scouted simultaneously from the left.

IV
Mile 2.03 – Phil’s Folly Rapid:

Class IV. Pay attention here at high water as there is a large river-wide hole. At lower flows, the bottom of this rapid is a boulder garden with numerous channels.

Mile 3.29 – Tin Can Cabin Camp:

River Left. This is a large campsite. The landing is after a minor Class II rapid. There are numerous old mines littered throughout the campsite, it’s possible to find many mining artifacts here, but please leave them be. There are also the foundations of an old cabin at this site. A trail leads up to Lumsden Road, which is often used by fishermen.

IV
Mile 4.34 – Sterns:

Class IV. A huge, triangular boulder signals the entrance to Sterns Rapid. The classic Sterns squeeze move is to run the narrow chute on the left side between the boulder and the wall. Be sure to ship your oars here. A lateral wave awaits you just before entering the left channel – make sure you have the correct angle to avoid entering sideways. The alternative is to enter to the right of the boulder and right of the guard pourover just above it. Watch for a sneaker rock just off the boulder that often perches rafts, and work back to the left channel.

IV
Mile 4.82 – Evangelist Rapid:

Class IV. Evangelist gets its name from the numerous large holes located center/right-of-center of this rapid, Avoid these holes, especially at higher flows. There are numerous entrances, but working your way to the left will take you away from the majority of these holes. Watch out for a large boulder center channel towards the bottom of this rapid.

IV
Mile 5.13 – Frame Crusher Rapid:

Class IV. Don’t get caught sleeping here – this rapid is littered with guard rocks, with lots of current pushing toward a large undercut boulder at the bottom on river left, which has smashed many frames. Enter right of center then cut left before running the steep bottom drop. This rapid used to be called ‘Bent Thole Pin’ but no one knows what a Thole Pin is anymore, so the name was changed.

Mile 5.45 – Clavey River Confluence:

River Right. The Clavey River enters the Tuolumne River on the right side.

Mile 5.45 – Clavey Camp Left:

River Left. There are campsites on both sides of the River upstream of Clavey Falls rapid. This camp is used by commercial trips during even years.

Mile 5.45 – Clavey Camp Right:

River Right. There are campsites on both sides of the River upstream of Clavey Falls rapid. This camp is used by commercial trips during odd years.

III
Mile 5.78 – Son of Clavey Rapid:

Class III. After Clavey Falls, the river’s gradient takes a bit of a breather, but there is a Class III rapid to keep you on your toes. This rapid has a series of small drops and is often run on the right. Below this rapid, there are a number of obvious campsites often marked by the confluence of 2 small creeks coming in from both sides of the river. Note: the camps are located on the opposite side of the creek confluence.

II
Mile 7.68 – powerhouse Rapid:

Class II. Powerhouse Rapid is a read-and-run rapid, but keep an eye out for a few holes on the left-side. At the top of the rapid, there are remnants of an old bridge abutment. For the daring, this is considered a swimmable rapid….

Mile 7.69 – Powerhouse Campsite:

River Right. This is a large sandy USFS-designated campsite located on river right, marked by the very conspicuous building on river right. This campsite is used by commercial trips during odd years (i.e. 2023). The site was destroyed by the 1937 flood.

Mile 8.15 – Grapevine Creek Confluence:

River Right. Grapevine Creek enters on River Right, notable by the large pile of debris from previous high flows.

Mile 8.52 – Indian Creek Confluence:

River Left. Indian Creek enters the Tuolumne River from river left. An old trail climbs out of the river along the Indian Creek canyon.

Mile 8.54 – Indian Creek Campsite:

River Right. Large Campsite on river right just downstream of the point where Indian Creek enters. This camp is used by commercial trips during even years.

Mile 9.22 – Wheelbarrow Campsite:

River Left. Another USFS-designated campsite not used by commercial trips, however, is located on river left.

IV
Mile 9.74 – Gray’s Grindstone:

Class IV. Scout on a trail on river right. Most boaters enter right-of-center, the dodge boulders at medium to low flows, which become holes at higher flows. After navigating this boulder garden, the current pushes you into a hole, which at flows above ~3,000 CFS becomes a huge hole that should be passed on the right or left – commit to your decision early. Once through the hole, the rapid becomes a boulder garden at lower flows.

IV
Mile 11.69 – Thread the Needle:

Class IV. This rapid is considered Class IV if you choose to run the very narrow and treacherous slot between two house-sized boulders in the middle of the river, with swift current pushing in between them. It is advised to take the much easier slot to the left of these large boulders.

Mile 11.74 – Driftwood Campsite:

River Left. Two campsites on River Left just after passing Thread The Needle Rapid. As the name suggests, this is a wonderful resting place for driftwood, however, fires may not be legal during the heart of the fire season.

III
Mile 11.86 – Driftwood Rapid:

Class III. Watch out for this boulder garden, which is usually entered on the left, followed by a series of rock-dodging maneuvers.

III
Mile 12.45 – Steamboat Rapid:

Class III. There are numerous rocks at the entrance of this rapid to pick your way through before it ends in a hole at the bottom, which can be skirted left or right. If you choose to run it, beware that it packs a punch. This hole is often surfable, and there is a large pool below if things get too spicy. There is a steam stamp mill above this rapid on river right.

IV
Mile 12.83 – Cabin Rapid:

Class IV. Noted by the confluence with Big Humbug creek on river left. The river curves left at the top, pushing current toward the bedrock wall on river right. Enter right of a large rock field, then work your way left to avoid a large boulder in the center of the river that can become a large hole at higher flows.

Mile 12.87 – Cabin Campsite & Big Humbug Creek Confluence:

River Left. Large Campsite located on River left at the confluence of Big Humbug Creek & Tuolumne River.

Mile 13.08 – Big Creek Confluence:

River Left. Big Creek enters the Tuolumne River on river left. There is a fun side hike leading to a waterfall through a series of small pools and drops.

Mile 13.08 – Big Creek Campsite:

River Left. Two campsites located on river left. One is upstream of the Big Creek confluence, and the other is just downstream of the Big Creek confluence. Sleeping here puts you immediately upstream of Hell’s Kitchen rapid.

IV
Mile 13.11 – Hell’s Kitchen Rapid:

Class IV. This is the last major rapid on the Tuolumne River. It begins as a Class III straightaway run which then gives way to a boulder garden. If needed, pull over and scout on river left once you see the large boulders arise out of the river, as this can be a tricky spot with quick moving current. Stay in the center of the current, but take this one slow to avoid the numerous flip/wrap rocks on both river right and left.

III
Mile 13.92 – Iron Door Rapid:

Class III. Enter middle or right. At low water, boats do not fit through the left slot. Below Iron Door is a section called The Playground that ends at Mohegan rapid. This is a section of read-and-run class III/IV moves with low consequences. There are a lot of ways to run this section, pick the one that looks best to you.

II
Mile 14.45 – Mohican Rapid:

Class II. Mohican Rapid is a read-and-run rapid. At the foot of this rapid, there are old mining claims on either side of the river.

Mohican & Mary Ellen Quartz Mines:

Mile 14.46 – Denoted by the presence of many very large white quartz veins, lies the old mining claims of the Mohican (river left) and the Mary Ellen (river right) groups. There is an old suspension bridge that once crossed the Tuolumne River at this point, however, it currently hangs in tatters, but remains a good marker to learn a little about the history of Sierra gold mining.

Mile 14.46 – Mohican Camp:

River Left. Mohican Camp is a medium-sized camp on the left-hand side of the river and offers excellent access to abandoned mining operations. Please do not disturb any artifacts found in the area. This camp is used by commercial trips during even years.

Mile 15.33 – Upper North Fork Camp:

River Right. Just upstream of the confluence of the North Fork of the Tuolumne River is a small camp. This camp provides access to an awesome swimming hole located up the North Fork. This campsite is used by commercial trips during even years (i.e. 2022)

Mile 15.34 – North Fork of the Tuolumne River Confluence:

River Right. The North Fork of the Tuolumne River joins the Main Stem from river right. This is a wonderful place to hike upstream and explore before you arrive to take-out, which is sadly approaching soon. There are two campsites at this location, one located upstream of the confluence, and the other located downstream.

Mile 15.35 – Lower North Fork Camp:

River Right. Just below the confluence with the North Fork of the Tuolumne River is another camp. From here, you can access the wonderful swimming hole on the North Fork. This campsite is used by commercial trips during odd years (i.e. 2023)

Mile 16.70 – Turnback Creek Confluence:

River Right. Turnback Creek enters the Tuolumne River on river right. Keep your eyes peeled for abandoned mining equipment.

Mile 16.49 – High Water Mark for Don Pedro Reservoir:

This is the late-spring/early-summer high water mark for Don Pedro Reservoir, which can change from year to year.

IV
Mile 17.66 – Pinball Rapid:

This is no longer a rapid, but at one point, this was a Class IV boulder garden. It has filled in with sediments and only comes out if the reservoir is incredibly low.

Mile 18.23 – Ward’s Ferry Take-Out:

River Right. Most years require a long paddle out on Don Pedro Reservoir before the Take-Out emerges, denoted by an impossible-to-miss concrete bridge. However, when the reservoir is low, there may be current all the way to the bridge. The exit is a difficult-to-navigate trail out on river right. Commercial companies will use a boom truck to winch their rafts out of the canyon instead of hiking it up the hill.