Yosemite Nature Notes – 7 – Tuolumne River

[Music] Well, Yosemite
National Park is home to these two
amazing watersheds; the Tuolumne River
watershed to the north and the Merced River
watershed in the south fork of the Merced
to the south. Those two major
watersheds really do form the basis for the boundary of
Yosemite National Park. We’re sitting at the top of
the Tuolumne River watershed, and basically what
that means is, there is a drainage divide of
peaks of 11,000 to 13,000 feet, and basically when precipitation
in the form of rain or snow falls on this side
of the drainage divide, it all coalesces in the form
of the Tuolumne River. Indeed, most of the
Tuolumne watershed kind of is a large
catcher’s mitt, with the river
being fairly close to the southern edge
of the watershed and having the majority of the
watershed from the north. The Upper Tuolumne,
particularly the Lyell Fork, is fed by two of the
largest glaciers left on the western side
of the Sierra Nevada and those are the Lyell
and McClure Glaciers. The Lyell Glacier is positioned
beneath Mount Lyell, which is the highest point in
Yosemite National Park; it’s just over 13,000 feet tall. And to get to
the Lyell Glacier, it’s about a 12-mile hike up the Lyell Fork of
the Tuolumne River, through a big broad
U-shaped Canyon, and then up
some steep slabs, and then you clamber over
the loose rocky moraine. Most of the Lyell Glacier is
visible behind me here; the west lobe is the
larger of the two. And we’re looking at what’s left
really of the Lyell Glacier. Those glaciers have
decreased dramatically over the last century
in size and volume, and the concern or
interest there is that they are the primary water
source for the Lyell Fork. So once the snow melts
off each summer, the flow in
the Lyell Fork is sustained
almost exclusively by melting of the Lyell
and McClure Glacier. So it cascades through
rest of Lyell Canyon. There are places where you
can’t even hear the river, you’re walking
right next to it and the water is just like
glass carving its way through this beautiful
incredible grassy meadows and into Tuolumne Meadows, where
it’s joined by the Dana Fork, its sister fork, which originates off the
shoulder of Mount Dana. So these two amazing
forks converge right in
Tuolumne Meadows and they flow and meander
peacefully through the landscape until they start
to tumble down incredible
granite escarpments. Hiking down the Tuolumne
River from Tuolumne Meadows is certainly a great spring
to early summer hike, because the river just
totally dominates your experience
of the place, because it is
the feature. When you hike
down that area, it’s just granite as far
as the eye can see, an amazing granite
canyon that leads down to what’s known as the Grand
Canyon of the Tuolumne River. It’s not a canyon as
you would think of in terms of the Grand
Canyon of the Colorado, but in terms of relief, the
relief is pretty much the same, it’s about a vertical mile in
the area of Pate Valley and still 3,000-4,000 feet
downstream at Poopenaut Valley, and all the way
down to Don Pedro. The Tuolumne River drainage is
one of my primary patrol areas within Yosemite Wilderness. We’re at about 5,500
feet today in elevation, it’s a warm
June day, and very few clouds in the
sky, although that may change based upon previous
days in our trip. So one of the reasons why
the lower stretches of the Tuolumne River are much more dramatic
than the higher elevations is because of all
the side streams that flow into the
Tuolumne River. Just along with this hike,
there is Morrison Creek, Rodgers Creek, Register
Creek, Return Creek, not to mention all of
the unnamed streams that are flowing
into the river. Some are bridged, like Return
Creek and Rodgers Creek, some you just have to
take your boots off put on your river crossing shoes
for the stream crossings. The Tuolumne River eventually flows into Hetch Hetchy
Reservoir, O’Shaughnessy Dam collects water for millions of
residents of the Bay Area. Well, the City of San Francisco
is certainly interested in the Tuolumne watersheds
starting in the 1880s. They recognized this
one as delivering particularly good water that was already protected
within the National Park. In 1913, the Raker
Act was passed and that permitted the City to construct two
reservoirs in the park; the first one
being Lake Eleanor and then ultimately
the construction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
and O’Shaughnessy Dam completed first in 1923 and then raised and
completed again in 1938. It was a valley that
many compared to Yosemite Valley itself and no one would think
today of putting a dam on the Merced River and
damming Yosemite Valley. You know, one of the lessons
learned from Hetch Hetchy was that dams in
a national park, where we are preserving
these resources for future generations, that typically dams
just don’t belong here. The dam on the Tuolumne
River at Hetch Hetchy, I think in a lot of
ways ensured that dams on other rivers
might not happen. The river ultimately
benefits millions of people, there is certainly three
to four million people visiting Yosemite National Park, and a fair proportion
of them of course come to Tuolumne Meadows and experience the river
in its natural state, but then several million more
are benefiting from the river, because of its water
supply delivered to the Bay Area residents. I think about the river coming
right off of that glacier and knowing what the river turns
into and what it means to so many people who come
here and enjoy it. You know, looking at this
canyon and how huge it is and the amount of water
coming down this river, it makes you feel small, and I think that’s one
of the reasons why people come to
places like this, is that it kind of puts things
in perspective for them. This has been a place where
people come back to for thousands and
thousands of years, it draws people back, and if you come and dip
your toes in the water, it will draw you back too.

14 thoughts on “Yosemite Nature Notes – 7 – Tuolumne River

  1. @califlyangler Sweet! Basically anywhere along the Tuolumne?
    I'm thinkin of usin' some Panther Martins and Kastmasters…

  2. It is God's country (and I'm atheist). Been there several times and it is stunning. Well made video. It conveys the peace and beauty of the area.

  3. Very informative video. What a shame that they created the dam that destroyed Hetch Hetchy valley. Unbelievable. 

  4. Thank you for this education. I am blown away that SF Bay area's water supply is really a finite resource coming from just two shrinking glaciers the Lyell and Maclure. I'm equally blown away from the diversity and ecology of Yosemite that they afford and how to that will change as the water supply dwindles unless the glaciers can build again. 

  5. I'm very curious about the current condition of the Lyell glacier. Since last winter was exorbitant wet and long. How much did it recover its resources?

  6. Makes perfect sense why the cost of living in San Francisco is the highest. You guys are drinking mountain spring water from one of the most beautiful places on earth.

  7. Can you guys explain stuff cause I don’t know what you guys are talking about

  8. ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACES ON EARTH..!! I have camped at the Upper Tuolumne River 4 times. Hiking around there is FANTASTIC… Watch out for bears and mountain lions..

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