Yosemite Getaway: Hiking & Tuolumne Rafting

Posted July 4, 2022 by Emily Vernizzi, river enthusiast and Armstrong cousin

Being the second largest National Park within the state of California, as well as one of the most recognizable landscapes in the world, Yosemite is a must-see during any trip to the Golden State. With 1169 square miles of protected park land, there are endless combinations of trails and experiences to fill a visit of any amount of time.

Not just a great valley…

Yosemite Valley’s sheer granite faces and massive seasonal waterfalls are major draws for visitors and rightfully so. I already recommended a spring Yosemite getaway combining hiking in this popular spot with rafting on the Merced River. However, if your visit takes place after the initial spring snowmelt, I will suggest another delicious duo: Rafting the Tuolumne River and then heading to the National Park to explore its headwaters upstream.

As a regular visitor venturing from the Bay Area, I can often be found on the hiking trails and riding the rivers during my Yosemite getaways. To help you plan your national park visit, I’d be happy to share some of my tried and true plans to make for an unforgettable trip!

Overlooking the Tuolumne River

Rafters on the way down to their trip overlooking the Tuolumne River canyon with Yosemite National Park in the background.

Day 1 (& 2 or 3)

My suggestion is to start your Yosemite escape with a bang…a rafting trip on the Tuolumne River! Safeguarded from development and overuse, this National Wild & Scenic River is just mere miles from the Park boundary lines and therefore serves as an exciting foretaste to your visit to Yosemite. Rafting on the Tuolumne puts you in touch with the waters that have been shaping the lands and area since it all came to be.

The Tuolumne River can be experienced as a 1-Day, 2-Day, or 3-Day adventure which means it can fit into a quick trip, or offer a significant dose of time off the grid. Upstream dams regulate the river flows, which means we can raft reliable flows from spring all the way through Labor Day in early September. Time on the Tuolumne can also be paired with the Class V Cherry Creek, for those really looking for an added challenge!

Rafting the Tuolumne River

Get a taste of California history

After you get off the river, stay the night and enjoy the small but charming town of Groveland, a popular “jump-off” point for exploring the greater Yosemite region. Three generations of our family have been making visits to this town, for its prime location for heading into the park, as well as the world-class rafting on the nearby Tuolumne River. Do not miss popping on by the Iron Door Saloon – something that both the locals and those merely passing through have been doing for the past ~170 years (it’s the oldest continuously operated saloon in California!).

Lodging Tip: Groveland and the surrounding area offer many AirBnB options, but the old Western charm of Hotel Charlotte makes for a more unique and convenient experience – only about 30 minutes from Yosemite’s West Entrance (and only steps across the street from the Iron Door Saloon – yeehaw).

Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park and just upstream from your Tuolumne rafting trip.

Follow the river upstream

Wake up and drive up to Yosemite’s less visited areas:

  • Hetch Hetchy: Keep it closer to Groveland with a visit to this sister valley to the more famous Yosemite Valley. It was dammed and flooded by the Tuolumne River waters in the 1930s (to provide drinking water and electricity for the city of San Francisco) but still remains absolutely stunning. My favorite is a hike to Wapama Falls (~5 miles) in the spring and early summer!
  • Tuolumne Meadows: Follow the water of the Tuolumne further upstream to this unreal sub-alpine meadow with numerous trails to access some of the most pristine and stunning National Park backcountry in the world. Tuolumne Meadows has many places to explore and enjoy, so you may want to spend another night or two at one of the campgrounds along Tioga Road. My tip for a hike: Lembert Dome via Dog Lake (~4 miles) for stunning views of Yosemite’s peaks and the snaking Tuolumne River below.
Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows from Lembert Dome. Located at 8600′ and two hours upstream from your rafting trip.

Plan Ahead

If you are planning a Tuolumne River & Yosemite getaway for this summer (and I hope you are!), visit the Yosemite NPS website for the latest information about reservations, road and campground closures, and other helpful tips to make your trip a success.


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