Backpacking The Canyon

Written by Lauren Barnum: Director of Partnerships 

We were halfway through our trip when we decided, over breakfast and a topo map, to completely change course: we were going to hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

Our adventure started 4 days earlier on the trailhead of the JMT. We’d scored last-minute Half Dome permits and, despite some unexpected route changes, were optimistic about getting to Tuolumne Meadows with enough time to explore different sections of the river in the days that remained. 

As we began this second half of our journey, I was giddy with excitement. We had arrived to “my” watershed, and I was eager to explore and experience the landscapes I work to protect from my desk. This was my first time in Tuolumne Meadows and would become my first descent into the Grand Canyon of the “T”.

The meadows were clearing out when we hopped on the trail: 6 miles until Glen Aulin and a few hours until sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement and knew that we’d have to hustle to make camp before dark. As the river picked up speed rushing toward Tuolumne Falls, I, too, was running to catch a glimpse of this gateway to the canyon before darkness fell.

When we arrived at the bridge crossing at the top of the falls, I was overcome with glee: something special was waiting just around the bend. 

My first glimpse of Tuolumne Falls evoked a feeling in me I can’t quite describe. It’s akin to the feeling you get when you finally find the puzzle piece you’ve been looking for. The one you thought maybe hadn’t been printed, fell out of the box or was eaten by the dog, but you find it and you click it into its place and a slow wave of satisfaction and completeness envelopes you – you’ve found it. 

I had finally found what the Tuolumne evokes in me: pure joy, renewal, and a sense of belonging. The days to come would be full of all three. 

After setting up camp in the starlight, we fell asleep to the gushing White Cascade. The next morning, we began our descent into the canyon, taking our time at Waterwheel Falls to feast our eyes upon the lavish display of aquatic theatrics. The heat of the day continued to build with each downward step we took. “I’m sure glad I’m not going the opposite direction,” I thought to myself, knowing full well that in a couple days’ time it would be our turn to hike out of the canyon, sweaty, heat-stricken, and forsaking the extra weight in my pack (did I really need to bring along that copy of My First Summer in the Sierra?).

The descent continued with spectacular views of the canyon as we traversed the river-adjacent trail. We passed one last solo hiker before dropping into solitude and didn’t see another soul on the trail for two days. Those two days were full of all the reasons I believe we venture out into nature. The palpable quiet, pure water and potent sunshine helped me connect deeply with myself and everything around me. Not only was my spirit rejuvenated, but my reverence for this place, this river, multiplied. 

The magic of the Tuolumne doesn’t just lie in the way it changes color depending on how the light hits it, the way it gracefully fluctuates between raging rapids and majestic waterfalls to meandering currents and still shallows, nor the way it carves granite so old you can hear the whispered stories of the canyon if you stop long enough to listen. 

It’s the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger than myself. It’s a reminder that we are supported by nature’s systems in quantifiable and simultaneously indescribable ways. It’s a reminder that we need nature, and nature needs us.  

I know many of you have found joy in its waters, thrills on its rapids, and peace along its banks. Just like you, I find refuge in the Tuolumne. It is my hope that you’ll take time this season to slow down and appreciate what’s important to you, whether that be the Tuolumne, time with loved ones, or a little bit of both. If you feel inspired to give back and support our work to protect this magical place, I invite you to send in a contribution today.