Rafting the Tuolumne: “Each visit changes your life forever”

As we headed towards a raging Clavey Falls, I took a deep breath and gripped my paddle with white knuckles. During the biggest runoff in a decade on the Tuolumne, the steepest drop on the state’s wildest river looked like the watery end of the world. But it was definitely too late to go back.

“Forward, forward, forward!” screamed our guide over the water’s roar. We pulled our paddles furiously even though obeying the order ruled out hanging onto the raft for dear life. Hearts pounding, we dropped off the edge.  The boat rocked about madly and one paddler nearly swam before the crew pulled him back from the brink.

Terror turned to triumph moments later as we reached the safety of a calm eddy, the roughest rapid of the trip behind us. “All right, woo-hoo, huzzah!” cried my shipmates. I shared the sentiment but was too winded to join in.

Though far from an expert, I’ve enjoyed rafting perhaps a dozen runs on Sierra Nevada rivers over the years. My trips along the Tuolumne always took a different form, though. I had climbed atop Yosemite’s Lyell Glacier where the river originates and hiked beside the Tuolumne for dozens of miles. Yet I always knew I’d have to raft “The T” someday.

That occasion finally arrived when friends and I joined Sierra Mac River Rafting Trips for a two-day, 18-mile run on the main segment of the Tuolumne, from Meral’s Pool to Ward’s Ferry. The outing began with multiple Class 4 (challenging) rapids including Rock Garden, Nemesis, Sunderland’s Chute and Hackamack Hole.

Like many rafters, we spent a night camping beside a sandy beach near Clavey Falls. Those who go with a guided group may enjoy a decadent meal of steak, salmon, potatoes, hot green veggies, beer and wine, as we did. We rafted rough water but hardly roughed it. The river sang us to sleep.

After an equally hearty breakfast, the main event awaited. Clavey Falls, the run’s only Class 5 (experts only) rapid, tends to lodge in boaters’ memories and not just because of the adrenaline rush it produces. The confluence of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers embody nature’s power which shaped this beautiful canyon. It’s also a special setting to Marty McDonnell, Sierra Mac’s owner and Tuolumne rafting pioneer.

“The Clavey River/Tuolumne River confluence for me is my place to worship, play, call home and enjoy a display of nature’s Michaelangelo’s stone carvings,” McDonnell said. “Rock, gravity and water create one of the world’s greatest navigable rapids… Each visit changes your life forever.”

Tuolumne RiverThe second half of the journey features Class 3 (moderate) and more Class 4 rapids like Gray’s Grindstone and Hell’s Kitchen, providing boaters with thrills and also a chance to take in the canyon’s scenery and wildlife. Cedars, alders, willows, oaks, pines and plenty of manzanita make for pleasant viewing. Black bears, coyote, hawks and even mountain lions show themselves occasionally.

Everyone was sorry to reach the take out at Ward’s Ferry Bridge. “If you liked the Main T, you’ll love the Upper T,” another rafter commented. Just like that, I knew I had to go back, and a month later I did.

With nine miles of continuous Class 4 and Class 5 rapids, the Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne route is the most challenging rafted run in the United States. Wetsuits and life vests are mandatory, as are swimming tests across the icy, fast flowing river and back. The exercise will kick-start your heart for the workout that awaits downstream.

The Guillotine, Jawbone, Unknown Soldier and Coffin Rock rapids bear fearful names but the more innocuous-sounding Mushroom, Flat Rock Falls and Lewis’ Leap are actually more hazardous. Many parties disembark and walk to avoid these and especially Lumsden Falls, a Class 6 rapid (potentially deadly even for experts) and the river’s most dangerous spot.

Still, that leaves plenty of whitewater and this run felt like a non-stop thrill ride with more exciting rapids than all my previous rafting trips combined.

The Upper T averages an amazing 100-foot drop per mile but a middle section known as the Miracle Mile drops a phenomenal 200 feet. By this point, guide Jeff Hall had our two-man, two-woman crew working well in sync, thankfully. Only a miracle could get a raft with less-than-expert guidance through this mile, a slalom course of raging rapids and countless rocky obstacles.

The memorable outing ended with a well-deserved lunch and a congratulatory champagne toast the rafters and guides shared. I was surprised to learn that guides who’ve completed this challenge hundreds of times still consider every run a special occasion.

“Cherry Creek is tops: steep, absurdly difficult and relentless,” said Adam Crom, a guide since 1982. “It’s simply the best guided whitewater trip I’ve ever seen. This run demands your best every minute of every day. If you are inattentive or unfocused, bad things will happen, and soon! It is a rare thing to work in a place that demands so much and rewards you so beautifully if you do it right.”

As a frequent Yosemite visitor, I drove beside the Tuolumne on Highway 120 for nearly 20 years before finally rafting this gem. I’m not going to wait nearly so long to take the plunge again.

Sierra Heritage Magazine, 2012

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