Descending Tenaya Canyon

The moon is looking down into the canyon, and how marvelously the great rocks kindle to her light! Every dome, and brow, and swelling boss touched by her white rays, glows as if lighted with snow. I am now only a mile from last night’s camp; and have been climbing and sketching all day in this difficult but instructive gorge. It is formed in the bottom of the main canyon, among the roots of Cloud’s Rest. It begins at the filled-up lake basin where I camped last night, and ends a few hundred yards above, in another basin of the same kind. The walls everywhere are craggy and vertical, and in some places they over lean. It is only from twenty to sixty feet wide, and not, though black and broken enough, the thin, crooked mouth of some mysterious abyss; but it was eroded, for in many places I saw its solid, seamless floor.
~ John Muir, 1918


This trip follows our tradition of picking unusual trips with outstanding qualities.
In the case of the Tenaya Canyon descent this includes, the history of John Muir’s epic first traverse of the gorge, phenomenal views of Half Dome and Mt. Watkins and the pleasure of finishing in Yosemite Valley. And of course going downhill all the way helps too.


The depths of the deeply incised gorge cut by glaciers and the Merced River seem destined for tales of horror and epic adventure.
In the early 1850s white men arrived in Yosemite Valley and of course conflict with the native Ahwahneechee inhabitants ensued. Attempts to remove the locals (who did not want to be removed) turned violent and the favorite son of Chief Tenaya was shot. In his anger Tenaya cursed the men saying

“…You have made me sorrowful, my life dark; you killed the child of my heart, why not kill the father? You may kill me sir captain, but you shall not live in peace, I will follow in your footsteps, I will not leave my home but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the wind; wherever you go I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold.”

John Muir was the first to explore the depths and immediately ran afoul of the curse when for “the first time since I touched foot to Sierra rocks,” he fell and was knocked unconscious. He was saved from a long tumble by some bushes and after a long night escaped by some of the most daring mountaineering he had ever attempted.
In more recent years the Park Service has been plagued by tourists attempting to hike the canyon and they have erected a sign saying;

This is not a trail
Travel beyond this point is dangerous
without climbing equipment.
Return to Tioga Road

So to make this a safer pleasurable outing we take climbing equipment, know the route and make an offering to Chief Tenaya.


This is not a high elevation trip so acclimatization to the elevation is not as imperative as it is for many of our other trips. We suggest that you camp at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground which is a few miles to the east or the White Wolf Campground about 15 miles west. If you want hotel accommodation the closest is in either Lee Vining or Yosemite Valley. It is however a very long day and you can expect to be on your feet from dawn to late afternoon. Be prepared and in shape.
Wasps have become more of a problem over the last few dry years so if you have any allergy issues make sure you bring your own medications such as an epipen.

We meet at the Sunrise Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake on Highway 120 between Lee Vining and Crane Flat. Meeting time is 6:00am and you should be packed and ready to go. We aim to be picked up in Yosemite Valley around 5:00pm, or earlier if possible.

The route follows large rock slabs and where there are short steep cliffs these are descended by rappel or a lower. We do the descend in the fall when the river flow slows to a crawl but there are several pools of cold water to swim. There is one short 4th class section where we employ the use of a rope to descend, but most of the route is easy technical mountaineering or perhaps better described as technical hiking.

Program Prerequisites:

This is primarily off trail hike sometimes in rugged terrain with a couple of technical descents. These are short and, although the guide will take care of the technical aspects, you need to have prior rappelling and lowering experience. If you are not familiar with these then spend an hour or two at a local gym to get up to speed. You do need to be able to move efficiently across uneven terrain and be able to comfortably walk down steep smooth rock slabs. A very high level of physical condition is required for this long day and do not underestimate the continuous nature of this descent..

Program Inclusions:

Price includes guiding, permits, group climbing gear, tents, kitchen gear, breakfasts, lunches and dinners (you bring hot/cold drinks and snack items). Scheduled dates include USFS trail fees. Private programs do not.

Local accommodation is not included.

Please Read before you go

We feel the following information is essential... (links open as PDF in new window)

  1. Details, itinerary, and equipment list for your trip
  2. SMC Cancellation Policy
  3. Suggestions on preparation - get the most out of your trip!
  4. Tips on physical training for your trip
  5. LNT - Let's work together to protect our precious mountain environment.

PDF Maps:

Map for Tenaya Canyon descent

Rental Equipment:

Need to rent equipment for your trip? We can help.