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Pushing Boundaries in the Outdoors: The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

60 miles, 3 days, 13k elevation change and the most stunning scenery.

By: Kristen Fuller + Save to a List

National Parks are some of my favorite places to visit in the United States. Of course, Yosemite National Park is on the top of my list, but I cannot grapple with the crowds, traffic jams, and long lines. I avoid Yosemite Valley in the summer and instead drive up Tioga Pass to Tuolumne to experience the beauty of granite rocks, waterfalls, and lush green meadows, without hoards of crowds. I avoid summer weekends and instead get there early on weekday mornings. I also prefer going after Labor Day when the kids are back in school, and the weather is a bit cooler.

Choosing the route

Permits for backcountry Yosemite trips can be challenging to come by through the lottery process, but walk-up permits in shoulder seasons are usually always guaranteed. Luckily for me, I scored a two-night/three-day permit out of Glen Aulin for the middle of September. I was not too familiar with this area, but after a couple of days of research, I stumbled upon an area known as “The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne.” I read that it was not an easy hike, and there were two ways to conquer this trip into Pate Valley.

1) Glen Aulin to White Wolf and either hitch or take the bus back to Glen Aulin.

2) The 60-mile loop from Glen Aulin to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin.

I read that both routes were challenging, in a knee-breaking sort of way, and the elevation change was killer. Hitchhiking or taking the bus seemed like a bit more effort than I wanted to deal with, and I was itching for a knee-breaking challenge, so I decided to hike the 60-mile loop over three days.

Hiking solo

Since I had a permit for three people, I tried to recruit a couple of my friends, but since it was midweek; it seemed that this was going to be a solo trip. I LOVE solo trips! I can make my own itinerary, go as fast or as slow as I want, wake up early or sleep in late. The caveat to backpacking solo in Yosemite is I would be solo, without my dog. I take Moo pretty much everywhere with me, so leaving her behind is always something I struggle with. When I am out with my dog, I do not consider myself solo, since she is entertaining and overly adventurous and the best company on the trail.

My game plan

My game plan was to average 20 miles and 8,000-elevation change per day. I have never hiked this mileage and elevation change over consecutive days. Sure I have done 30-mile days with a daypack, but not for multiple days in a row. I haven’t ever backpacked more than 13 miles in a day with a fully loaded pack. However, I knew I was in great shape after spending my entire summer in the outdoors, so if I was going to complete this challenge, now was the time to do it.

The importance of pushing boundaries

I am a huge advocate of pushing boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone. If you do not test these boundaries, how will you learn your limits? How will you discover new things? How will you find out what you love? If you spend your life in a box, playing it safe and doing the same routine; not only is this mundane and boring, but you are robbing yourself of discovering a whole new world. This philosophy is not just applied to the outdoors but also can be applied to your professional and personal life.

This was going to be the most challenging trip I have ever done. To add to this challenge, I planned to climb Mt. Tyndall from Shepherd’s Pass the next day with a friend who was visiting me from Utah! I talked all of this over with a couple of friends, and they were incredibly supportive and had faith in me. I also knew there were three ways to exit the trail just in case I could not keep a steady pace or if I became injured, and of course, I was going to carry my Garmin inReach. I told my work I was going to be off the grid for a few days, emailed my emergency contacts my trip itinerary and contact numbers for Yosemite SAR, hugged my dog, and headed into Tuolumne.

Day one: permit pick-up

I arrived at the Tuolumne ranger station at 8 AM to pick up my permit. There was a line of 7 people or so waiting for walk-up permits, and thankfully, the rangers helped whoever had a reservation first. I went inside, gave them my information, and told them my plan. I arrived on September 9th and was planning to complete the loop on September 11th. I was planning to be on the trail by 8:45 AM sharp. The ranger looked at me and told me that my permit entry date was for September 11th. I WAS TWO DAYS EARLY! I apologized and told him how humiliated I felt. I have done some pretty mindless things before, but never have I showed up for a trip two days early! He knew I was hiking out that day and I had 20 miles to cover, he talked to his co-worker, and they went ahead and gave me a walk-up permit without making me wait in that line. We talked about the Leave No Trace Rules, and he not only asked me if I had a bear canister but asked me which kind. I have never been asked this before. For those who are wondering, I have the Bearikade, which is gold! I thanked him a million times, he wished me luck and gave me directions to the trailhead, and I was on my way. Although I was off to a rocky start, at least I had good karma on my side.

Glen Aulin to Pate Valley

Hiking out of Glen Aulin was breathtaking. The sky was bright blue, the air was crisp, and there were so many waterfalls raging over the granite cliff formations. I hiked mostly downhill, descending the steep granite steps into Pate Valley. I walked (I was actually jogging) past Tuolomne Falls, Glen Aulin High Camp, California Falls, Le Conte Falls and arrived at Waterwheel Falls, where I decided to take a break and eat lunch. I was making great time and averaging 3.5mph. My pack was relatively light (32 pounds, including the six pounds of camera gear). My goal for each day was to start on the trail by 8 AM and stop hiking at 6:30 PM, so I had ample time to look for a campsite, set up my tent and cook dinner before it got dark and cold.

The fly apocalypse

After finishing lunch, I hiked through the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne into Pate Valley. The raging Tuolumne River cut through the huge granite walls that hovered over each side of the canyon. I felt insignificant and tiny among this powerful landscape. I continued to hike up steep granite steps to gain 1,000 feet of elevation to then hike right back down 1,000 feet into another valley. What goes up must come down, and this was the story of the trip. Pate Valley is at 4,000 feet, which is a lot of elevation loss compared to 8,000 feet. The constant up and down was tough, but the swarms of flies made it an absolute death march. These flies were relentless. I couldn’t stop because they would devour me. I would look back and see a black swarm following me. Thank goodness they were not biting, but no amount of DEET or any size bug net would stop them. For the first time in months, I wanted to cry. I was constantly waving my hiking poles in my face so I could have split seconds of normalcy. To be honest, I would never hike this route again because the flies were that bad. I swallowed at least a dozen, and the anxiety it caused me was indescribable.

My goal for day one was to reach Glen Aulin, which is about 30 miles, but of course, after the huge elevation change and World War III with the flies, this was not going to happen. After I clocked 22 miles, I found a decent campsite at the end of Pate Valley and knew day two was going to be even more challenging.

After a couple of miles, I started my climb out of Pate Valley into White Wolf. I gained 4,0000 feet in elevation over 4 miles, and the switchbacks were worse than the Mt Whitney switchbacks. They were never-ending. I was glad I camped in the valley last night because there was no way I could have made this climb on tired legs or in the dark. This never-ending death march became steeper and steeper, and I just started to laugh. I wanted a challenge, and clearly, God has a great sense of humor. At one point, I managed to roll my ankle, and I heard, “crack, crack,” however, it was minimally painful, and I was still able to hike on it. When I stumbled across views of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I was mesmerized. It was stunning. I decided to filter water and soak my feet in a nearby stream. I made sure to soak my feet every day on this trip, even just for 10 minutes.

Taking care of my body

Each night before I went to sleep, I drank 1 liter of water, soaked my feet in the river, ate a package of electrolytes, and took a full dose (800mg) of Ibuprofen. I needed my body to remain strong, as I could not afford to hike slow or lose too much mileage; if I did, I knew I wouldn’t finish the trail. Prophylactically treating myself with Ibuprofen was a game-changer. My body did not ache in the mornings, and I felt relatively good for the number of miles and elevation change I was traveling.

Day two: White Wolf, death marching and bears

I awoke on day 2, quickly packed up my camp, devoured an espresso GU energy (I didn’t have the time to make coffee and didn’t want the extra weight, so I decided on espresso gels in the morning) and was on the trail by 8 AM. Within a mile, I can across a sign that read “bridge out.” I remember reading that this bridge was repaired, so I was a bit confused but was prepared for any water crossings that came my way. When I came across the bridge, there was a trail crew working on the repairs. I looked around, and thankfully the river was calm, serene even. It was about mid-thigh deep, so I knew it would be an easy crossing since it was not raging. I ventured towards the bridge and greeted the trail crew. I asked them if this was the bridge that was out. They replied, “yes, it is, but lucky for you, it is almost finished” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was curious. They offered to escort me across the bridge, telling me where I can and cannot step. “More good karma,” I thought to myself. I thanked the trail crew multiple times, and they wished me a great hike.

After a couple of miles, I started my climb out of Pate Valley into White Wolf. I gained 4,0000 feet in elevation over 4 miles, and the switchbacks were worse than the Mt Whitney switchbacks. They were never-ending. I was glad I camped in the valley last night because there was no way I could have made this climb on tired legs or in the dark. This never-ending death march became steeper and steeper, and I just started to laugh. I wanted a challenge, and clearly, God has a great sense of humor. At one point, I managed to roll my ankle, and I heard, “crack, crack,” however, it was minimally painful, and I was still able to hike on it. When I stumbled across views of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I was mesmerized. It was stunning. I decided to filter water and soak my feet in a nearby stream. I made sure to soak my feet every day on this trip, even just for 10 minutes.

After about 10 miles of some of the hardest hiking I have ever done, I reached White Wolf. I considered getting off the trail at this point and hitching to my car. I knew day two was only going to be a 15-mile day if I continued, which meant I would have to do 25 miles the next day. This plan was starting to become ridiculous, but I was not yet convinced I should quit. I continued and ran into some fellow backpackers who were beginning their journey out of White Wolf. It seemed everyone was making the loop over 5-7 days or going from White Wolf to Glen Aulin in 3-5 days. I got a few strange looks when I told others my itinerary. Luckily I met one other guy on day three who had the same itinerary as me, which made me feel a little bit better.

After I completed the death march into White Wolf, I was greeted by stunning lush green meadows, cooler temps, and FLAT ground. I ran the next three miles. My goal for day two was to make it to Ten Lakes, but I had a feeling I may be cutting it too close to dark. I usually do not mind hiking in the dark, but only when I have fresh legs and a sharp mind. I don’t hike over mountain passes in the dark or climb down steep granite rock, so hiking in the dark during this trip was not on my agenda. I started to hike through a forestry area as the sun was setting behind the ridge. I changed into my puffy and pulled out my hat and gloves as the sun dropped behind the mountains. I had a gut feeling this was bear territory; it was also about 5:30 PM, dinnertime for bears. Within minutes of having these thoughts and while I was singing along to my music, a large black bear appeared on the trail about 30 yards in front of me. We both froze, and he bolted before I could even think about making noise. I was so tired to even process what was happening, and I think we both were simultaneously surprised. I stood there hoping there were no cubs around, and then I quickly continued on. I think bears and marmots are the cutest mountain creatures I have ever seen. I am not afraid of bears; however, I am always nervous I will run into a mom and her cubs, and that terrifies me.

 If only my dog will stop barking at bears during our walks through town or the Lake Basin.

 After the five-second bear encounter, I took this as my cue; I should probably start looking for a campsite. I was about one mile from Ten Lakes Pass and two miles from Ten Lakes. I couldn’t beat myself up about a 16-mile day and over 10, 000 feet in elevation change. I found a perfect campsite, and as I took off my boots, I felt the pain from my ankle. I definitely sprained it, and the compression and rigidity from my boots were minimizing the pain. One more day left!

Day three: Ten Lakes aka heaven

I awoke at 6 AM the next morning with hopes of being on the trail by 6:30 AM; however, after discovering my tent was covered in frost, and it was absolutely freezing outside, I quickly got back into my sleeping bag and waited until the sun rose. Once it was warm enough, I quickly packed up camp and headed for Ten Lakes Pass. I was tired. These miles and elevation changes were getting to me, and I knew I had a lot of ground to cover. But I also knew I was strong enough to complete this loop, and that strength is what carried me through. I arrived at Ten Lakes and could not believe how beautiful this place was. It was early enough in the morning that the lake reflections were in full force. I knew I wanted to come back and camp here. This area was one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen in the Sierra. Unfortunately, I was on a time crunch, so I quickly climbed over the ridge and began to descend steep granite switchbacks. I climbed over so many ridges this day that it felt disorienting.

I had to remind myself of my sense of direction continually. The views of Tuolumne Peak were stunning, but I knew I had at least seven more miles to Glen Aulin and four miles from Glen Aulin to my car. It was 3 PM in the afternoon, and it was dark by 8 PM. I had five hours to hike 11 miles. Yes, this is very doable for a day hike. This is even doable on a multiday hike. With a sprained ankle, and after pushing myself to the extreme the past two days, I was a bit nervous this was going to be a challenge.

I hiked for five miles as fast as I could, and when I realized I was going to be hiking in the dark, I sat down to rearrange my pack. I knew it was going to be a full moon, so I was going to have natural light, but I also knew I was going to be extremely tired. As I was getting out my headlamp, my warm clothes, and my dinner, I noticed my car keys were missing. I frantically tore apart my entire pack while trying to come up with a plan of how I was going to get into my car without any cell service. I was a wreck. I always put my car keys at the bottom of my bear canister, but they were not there. I figured they must have fallen out at camp early that morning. The last place I looked was in my electronics dry bag, and after praying and simultaneously swearing at myself, I found my keys. I spent 30 minutes tearing apart my bag and wasted so much energy on crazy emotions. This was my final sign that I was exhausted. I am not an emotional person in the backcountry, so when my emotions do come out, it is a sign I am tired and need to stop. I told myself when I reached the end of the loop; I am going to set up camp and hike the last 4 miles to my car in the morning.

Hiking in the dark

I hiked the last couple of miles in the dark, and even with a headlamp and a full moon; it was becoming difficult to find the trail. I gave myself two more rules; if I had difficulty finding the trail and/or if I ran into switchbacks, I was going to call it and set up camp immediately. I finally completed the loop at Tuolumne Falls at 9:00 PM on day three.

I felt it was unsafe to hike the last four miles to my car because I was exhausted and delirious. I was in communication with both my dog sitter and my friend, who was coming into town from Utah, and I explained to both of them my plan. I was proud of myself for completing this 60-mile loop in 3 days but stressed that I was spending an extra night on the trail. I knew I set up my tent off the trail, but I had a hard time deciphering how far off. I also knew I was technically hiking out a day past my permit, however in the event, I did come across a ranger, I would explain to him my journey, and I was not going to compromise my safety. As I lay in my tent, all I could think about was the last four miles to my car, my sore ankle, if I had any important work emails to return, and how am I supposed to hike up Shepherds Pass in the next 36 hours. I also was simultaneously grateful I made it this far for my friends who sent me funny stories and jokes through my Garmin inReach and for Christie, who runs Sierra Dog Ventures for taking such good care of Moo. 

The final home stretch

I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn and hiked to my car as fast as I could. I made the hour drive back to Mammoth, unpacked, showered, took Ibuprofen, soaked my ankle in Epsom Salt baths, and waited for Moo to come home. I had six hours to reset, take care of my ankle, pack my bag, and hang out with my dog before my friend arrived. We were off to backpack Tyndall the next morning!

 Throughout the entire three days, I ran into only a handful of people. I also only came across two other groups of females; the rest of the hikers were male or mixed-gender groups. The trail was not crowded, which I much appreciated.

All in all, this trip was incredible. I pushed myself to my core, I hiked through stunning scenery in solitude, and I learned I never want to go back to Pate Valley, but I do want to go back to Ten Lakes. I am forever grateful to the kind rangers and trail crew who helped me when they did not have to. And of course, I am lucky to have people like Christie from Sierra Dog Ventures and Judy and Allie from Donna’s Dog Boarding who take the best care of Moo and also put up with my backcountry shenanigans. This trip was one for the books, and I am so glad I did it!

Trip details

  • Trail: Grand Canyon of Tuolumne: Glen Aulin to Pate Valley to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin

  • Season: Mid September

  • Mileage: 64ish miles

  • Net Elevation: 24,000 feet

  • Highest Elevation: 9,000 feet

  • Lowest Elevation: 4,000 feet

  • Dogs: no

  • Permit: yes

  • Parking: Along the dirt road at Lambert Dome parking area

  • Weather: Dry, 80’s during the day and 20s-50s at night.

    Thanks for reading,

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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