Tuolumne River Paddling Overview

Rafting: Tuolumne River, California
The wild, blue Tuolumne River runs through California's scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains, featuring premier whitewater as well as wildlife, shore hikes, and adjacent creeks and waterfalls. (courtesy, O.A.R.S.)
Rafting Tuolumne River at a Glance
Price : $$
River Rapid Class : III-V
Trip in Miles : 18
Trip Duration : 1 to 3 Days
Season : April-October
Raft Types : Paddle Raft, Oar Raft
River Sections : Lumsden Launch to Ward's Ferry Bridge
Nearby Towns :Groveland, CA; Yosemite National Park, CA
Gateway City :Groveland, CA
Driving Times : San Francisco, CA: 3.5 hours

California's premier whitewater river is a slalom course of boulders of escalating intensity. Staircase rapids, chutes, and pools by the score, and Yosemite National Park create the ultimate river adventure, a journey by turns exciting and pristine. World famous, this is where ambitious runners earn their stripes.

An 18-mile run of whitewater will challenge experienced rafters with its Class IV-V rapids, swelling at high water flows to 25 major rapids, 14 of which are named stretches of rock, water, and chilling turbulence. Boaters may access the River at one of two entry points: the Cherry Creek Trailhead and Launch and Meral's Pool. While the protected areas of the Tuolumne River begin above Preston Falls, there are no designated campsites until one approaches Meral's Pool.

While the protected areas of the Tuolumne River begin above Preston Falls, there are no designated campsites until one approaches Meral's Pool. Not far upstream from the pool are three developed campgrounds. Downstream, boaters may utilize one or more of the 13 undeveloped campsites. After 18 miles of whitewater thrills, take out is at Wards Ferry Bridge.

The Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River attracts visitors enthusiastic about fishing, hiking the trails, enjoying the wildlife and wildflowers, picnicking, and camping, as well as running the rapids.

1. Rock Garden (0.1 mi.)
2. Nemesis (0.5 mi.)
3. Sunderland Chute (0.8 mi.)
4. Hackamack Hole (1.0 mi.)
5. Ram's Head (1.6 mi.)
6. India (2.1 mi.)
7. Stern (4.5 mi.)
8. Evangelist (4.8 mi.)
9. Clavey Falls (5.5 mi.)
10. Gray Grindstone (9.5 mi.)
11. Thread-The-Needle (11.0 mi.)
12. Steamboat (12.1 mi.)
13. Cabin (12.8 mi.)
14. Hell's Kitchen (13.1 mi.)
15. Pinball (17.6 mi.)
*Note: All mileages are taken from Meral's Pool

Camping is permitted only in designated sites.

There are three campgrounds in the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River corridor. There is no fee at these campgrounds. The camping season runs from April until October. Access is via a five-mile-long steep dirt road, making these campgrounds unsuited to trailers or motorhomes. Nearby fishing areas offer salmon, rainbow trout, and brown trout. The elevation of the campgrounds is 1,500 feet. The weather ranges from mild in the spring to hot in the summer.

The LUMSDEN BRIDGE CAMPGROUND is located alongside the river 3 miles upstream from the Lumsden Campground, with 9 sites, 2 vault toilets, stoves, and tables.
The LUMDSEN CAMPGROUND is located on the Tuolumne River about 14 miles from Groveland. It has 11 sites, with stoves, tables, and 4 vault toilets.
The SOUTHFORK CAMPGROUND is located a mile upstream from the Lumsden Campground near the confluence of the South and Main Forks of the Tuolumne River. It has 8 sites, 2 vault toilets, stoves, and tables.

A. Tin Can Cabin (3.5 mi.)
B. Clavey (2 sites) (5.5 mi.)
C. Powerhouse (7.6 mi.)
D. Grapevine (8.0 mi.)
E. Indian Creek (8.3 mi.)
F. Wheelbarrow (8.8 mi.)
G. Baseline (8.9 mi.)
H. Driftwood Paradise (11.4 mi.)
I. Cabin (12.8 mi.)
J. Big Creek (2 sites) (13.0 mi.)
K. Mohican (14.1 mi.)
L. North Fork (2 sites) (15 mi.)
*Note: All mileages are taken from Meral's Pool Put-in

The 1974 California Recreational Trails Act recognized the need to provide for increased recreational boating opportunities on California's rivers by designating specific rivers, including the Tuolumne, for study as boating trails.

The Tuolumne River has also been designated a Wild and Scenic River, under the 1968 California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Act provides that rivers possessing extraordinary scenic, recreational, fishery, or wildlife values shall be preserved in their free-flowing state, together with their immediate environments, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the state. The Tuolumne was added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System on September 28, 1984.

The name for the Tuolumne River (twah'-luh-me) has as many possible meanings as it does spellings. The original meaning of the word "Tuolumne" may have been "cave people" or "stone wigwams," both taken from the history of tribes known as "Taulamnell," or "Tahualamne," or Yokuts Indians living near Knights Ferry in the rocks and recesses by the river. Another theory is that "Tuolumne" is derived from a Central Sierra Miwok word "talmalmne," whose meaning is unclear today.

The Tuolumne River drainage basin is a spectacular natural feature that has offered an abundance of natural resources to people inhabiting the area for generations. The Tuolumne River drainage is traditionally known as the southern boundary of the range of the Central Sierra Miwok. There is reason to believe that it also served as a main corridor of travel, trade, and communication.

The benefits of living along the river and on its adjacent flats are easy to recognize. Water is plentiful, and a wondrous variety of plant and animal foods is bountiful within the several biotic communities that coexist within the drainage basin. The deep canyon, with its steep sides, rock outcrops and overhangs, and dense tree stands, offers protection from wind and snow, and a cool haven from the summer heat. The rock outcrops also were useful to the Miwok as natural pestles for processing traditional native foods such as acorns.

Another resource of the river that became important in the late 1840's is gold. This treasure attracted a variety of ethnic groups with a common goal, and initiated a complex relationship between newcomers and natives, as well as between people and the environment. Miners' cabins dotted the Tuolumne River shores and slopes, and previously existing trails became thoroughfares. In late 1861 and early 1862, a series of torrential rains sent a major flood down the river leaving death, destruction, and illness in the remnant mining camps.

1904 saw a resurgence of mining camps along the Tuolumne River. Plans were made at this time to provide both mines and surrounding towns with electricity through the construction of the Tuolumne Electric Company's powerhouse just below the confluence of the Tuolumne and Clavey Rivers.

You may find remnants of the rich history of this portion of the Stanislaus National Forest as you travel its scenic passageways. These relics of the past are part of the landscape now and are protected by federal laws. The removal or damaging of archaeological or historical sites and artifacts is prohibited by law and punishable by penalties such as fines, prison sentences, property forfeiture, and damage assessments. Finding historical sites and artifacts can be exciting, but preserving them will make the experience available to people for years to come. Look and enjoy, but please leave these sites as you found them.

Tuolumne Powerhouse
Past the confluence of the Tuolumne River with the Clavey River, the foundation of the Tuolumne Powerhouse is visible on the right bank of the Tuolumne.

In 1905, a steep road was cut on the south side and into the drainage area of Indian Creek. The final mile ran alongside the river on a masonry foundation that can still be seen today. Still standing are the stone abutments of the cable bridge that went across to the powerhouse. This structure was largely destroyed by the Cave Diggings Fire of 1928, and the 1937 flood.

While visiting the river, whether rafting, hiking, camping, or just out for a Sunday drive, watch closely for the abundant wildlife in the canyon. Make sure you take your camera along for some great shots!

The varied bird species found along the Tuolumne River include nesting golden eagles near the confluence of the Clavey and Tuolumne Rivers, wintering bald eagles, water ouzels (dippers), common mergansers, California quail, dark-eyed juncos, great blue herons, scrub jays, Steller's jays, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, acorn woodpeckers, and a myriad of other avian species.

Common mammals seen along the river's edge include coyotes, skunks, black-tailed jack rabbits, mule deer, bats (which eat up to 500 mosquito-sized insects an hour!), and several species of squirrel. Less commonly seen species to keep a sharp eye out for are river otters, bears, beavers, and bobcats.

Although most large mammals avoid anything smelling like humans, bears are an exception. The simple rule is: Stay away from bears and DO NOT harass them.

If bears are a problem, hang all food, toothpaste, etc., from a tree, at least eight feet from the ground and four feet from the trunk. Set your camp up at a reasonable distance from the food, and allow absolutely NO FOOD in the tent; a tent will not stop a bear!

A valid California state fishing license is required to fish in the Stanislaus National Forest. Make sure you pick up a current fishing regulation guide. Fishing season on the Tuolumne River is from the last Saturday in April to mid-November.

The Tuolumne River is stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game with salmon, rainbow trout, and brown trout. Fish should not be cleaned closer than 100 feet from streams or lakes. Scatter the remains away from the river, in an inconspicuous location.

The Tuolumne River Canyon is well known for its colorful spring wildflower displays. Among the flowers are bright blue lupines, yellow seep-spring monkeyflowers, bright pink shooting stars, blue gilia, and white globe lilies. At times, the steep slopes of the canyon are ablaze with California poppies, fiddlenecks, and the sunflower-like goldfields.

The display of colors continues into summer with pale orange paintbrush, deep blue harvest brodiaeas, white mariposa tulips, yellow-and-pink harlequin lupines, and pink blankets of clarkias.

In addition to its colorful spring wildflowers, the Tuolumne River Canyon is also home to many different shrub and tree species. The California bay tree, with its prominent spicy scent, may be found at several locations in the canyon. The California buck-eye, the first deciduous shrub to produce leaves in the spring, is common throughout much of the canyon. An evergreen tree, the California nutmeg, grows sporadically on the north-facing slopes. More common coniferous trees include the ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar, and gray pine. Broadleaf trees in the Tuolumne Canyon include the black oak, canyon live oak, interior live oak, and the alder.

Several species of chaparral, including chamise, manzanita, and buckbrush, dominate the hot, dry, south-facing slopes of the canyon walls. Poison oak, one of the most widespread shrubs in California, is found throughout the canyon.

Published: 21 Apr 2011 | Last Updated: 28 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

  • Tuolumne River Travel Q&A

  • What's your favorite hike? Where's the best campsite? Join the conversation! Ask Your Question

Articles & Advice on Tuolumne River

park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »


Parks Near Tuolumne River
GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog


Ask Questions