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South Fork of the Tuolumne "The Gorge" V-V+

“South Fork Tuolumne River. The South Fork Tuolumne River drains a small portion of the western edge of the park. The headwaters begin between White Wolf and Yosemite Valley at elevations between 8,000 and 8,500 feet. The South Fork Tuolumne River exits the park at an elevation of 4,500 feet, just north of Hodgdon Meadow and upstream of its confluence with the main Tuolumne River” NPS

There is no gauge for the South Fork, and flows are hard to predict. Ben had checked it two times in the past, and found it too low once and incredibly high the other time. We had looked at it before going into West Cherry, and flows looked good but a little high. 

While waiting in Groveland for flows on another run to drop in to the perfect level, and for our shuttle driver to be free, we decided to check out the South Fork Tuolumne to see if flows were still in. We pulled in to the Rim of the World view point, which doesn’t really offer much view of anything unless you walk to the far end and stand up on the rock wall, were a gigantic cascade on the South Fork Tuolumne comes in to view. One quick glance at this dubious gauge had us sold on hiking down with our boats. 

Access to the South Fork Tuolumne is unusual. There is a maintained road that clings to the canyon wall, crosses the Middle Fork Tuolumne, and then ends where a large hydro or perhaps drinking water pipe used to cross over the river. At this location the pipe has been moved due to flood damage in years past, but the steep gated road still offers great access into the steep canyon. There are no shortages of beautiful vistas on the hike down, with the Middle Fork dropping in over a several hundred food cascade, as well as the South Fork falling over several large, but low volume waterfalls.

Evan Garcia at the confluence.

On our initial foray into the South Fork we had a large group composed of Chris Korbulic, Evan Garcia, Drew Duval, one other who I apologize for forgetting, Ben Stookesberry and myself. Getting to the water, Evan decided he wasn’t feeling it and opted to hike back up the steep road while we pushed into the gorge.

Ben Stookesberry takes an exciting line down the first slide.

We had gathered seemingly decent beta for this run, the first group to run it had rappelled twice around two large drops and ran some fun drops in the gorge. We were told a rope wouldn’t be necessary, and that if the drops didn’t go we could just execute a throw-and-go portage, perfect for the hot weather. The rough, rugged gorge contains an intimidating, no way to return waterfall to get things going.

Getting committed.

The initial slide into the waterfall looked a bit chunky, more like something from Newfoundland than California, so we ran or portaged the top of it in different ways and got into the gorge. Floating in the pool below we gazed at the walls around, all acknowledging that trying to get back upstream or out here looked like a dismal option. 

One small class two rapid led us to a large horizon line, and we all got out to scout the massive slide. The entrance looked terrible, but then not so bad as we saw the slide downstream. We checked from both sides, and then sat in the shade at the top of the slide debating our options. The slide certainly did not go, since it slid, then fell vertically onto another low angle slab, contained a large, lethal looking pothole with most of the water going into it, and either a sieve or possible lights out piton at the bottom. Overall no one felt that the slide was in any way good, and there was no portage route, we were cliffed in. 

There was also no access to the pool at the bottom of the slide, so a throw and go was totally out of the question too. So we looked at the slide again, checked seal launching options and deemed either option too borderline to consider seriously.

So how about that dismal exit back upstream? Knowing that was pretty much our only option, we attained and portaged back upstream to the pool below the entry falls. High on the right we could see the almost macabre remains of an old walkway once made of metal pipes and wood. Unfortunately only a few scraps of wood still clung to the walkway, and there was no access to get on the pipes even if we had wanted to. 

Looking back up at the left, we saw an old ledge high up off the water, apparently the remains of an old mining or perhaps hydroelectric project. The ledge was located about thirty feet up off the river. From the top of the pool I started climbing around, hoping to make a short climb and traverse to the top of the falls, but upon inspection I couldn’t find a safe route down low, and ended up climbing higher until the cliff got vertical, but had decent hand holds, and eventually the hand holds started to fade away, but not wanting to down climb at this point, and needing to get out, I pushed further up using some of the old and sketchy anchors that looked like they had been there about a hundred years, ending with one was just a small braid of coat hanger thin wires that I tried to not put too much weight on, and managed to get on the ledge. The ledge was nice and safe, and I walked it to above the entry falls where I was cliffed out again. There was a home-made rope ladder attached to an anchor, but it looked like it was a few years too old to be safe. (if it ever was!) Thankfully the ladder was attached to a 1” steel rod anchored into the rock, and I doubled my throw rope over this, used some webbing for a harness and put the rope in a Munter hitch and got to the lip of the falls. 

Chris Korbulic followed next, and orchestrated getting the boats out of the pool and up above the falls, so we could hike back up the steep and hot road.

Most of us were willing to write the run off, but Ben is hard headed, so the next day we researched our options and drove into Sonora to pick up a new rope. It was time to get serious, and while most of the group had reasons (good excuses) not to put back in, Chris joined us for our return. 

This time the flows looked a bit on the low side but we made quick work of the put in slide and entry falls, which were certainly smoother than they looked. Knowing the business at hand, we made quick work of the rappel to the base of the slide, and gave inquiring gazes downstream into the deep gorge. 

Chris Korbulic rappels down in.

One small rapid led into a nice slide into a big hole, followed by a near perfect fifteen footer. It appeared we had perfect flows for this drop, the hole looked like it would be a stomper with more water. 

Chris Korbulic enjoying the good section of the South Fork Tuolumne.

Once Chris and Ben had gone through I found the angle I should have used for the great slide and waterfall.

One small pool led right into another great slide, this section wasn’t looking too bad after all!

Once we got done enjoying the slide, we took a good look at a manky rapid leading into a large horizon line, and took turns setting safety and running down to an eddy on the left. Further reconnoitering had us standing at the top of a low volume, eighty some odd foot slide. From the top it looked a little questionable, but perhaps there was a thin line…we decided in follow a theme of prudence to do another rappel portage so we could check the bottom. Once at the bottom it was obvious that the slide wouldn’t go unless there was more water, undoubtedly too much to kayak the section down to it.

Rappelling the final slide.

We had assumed that below the gorge, the river would ease to class III boulder gardens until the confluence with the main Tuolumne. We were very dismayed to find that it was actually quite manky class IV-V boulder gardens with some mandatory portages due to a few completely sieved out rapids. More water might have helped this section too, but once again make the gorge too high. Eventually and to our relief we reached the confluence, plenty of water, and made our way down to the take-out at Lumsden Campground, glad to be off the river just before dark.

Video of the run.

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