In the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park there is a valley that John Muir described as “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.” Since Muir’s time, Hetch Hetchy Valley has changed. It was dammed in 1923 and a large blue reservoir now covers the valley. Muir opposed the dam, and fellow conservationists lost a long battle to preserve the valley. There is a continued effort to return the valley to its natural state by removing the dam. Residents of San Francisco and outlying areas use water held in Hetch Hetchy Valley. It is argued today, as it was a century ago, that a dam placed farther downstream could deliver the water more efficiently while preserving the beautiful valley.
Even in its altered state, Hetch Hetchy Valley is beautiful. The trail around the reservoir provides impressive views of up to three waterfalls. To the powerful Wapama Falls and back is a 5-mile day hike with 200 feet of elevation gain. Beyond, the trail continues deeper into the Yosemite Wilderness and is a great route for backpackers. Hetch Hetchy Valley receives far fewer visitors than its more popular neighbor, and this picturesque mostly level trail is a great way to explore an enjoyable pocket of Yosemite National Park.
Begin by hiking across O’Shaughnessy Dam. Off the dam to the left, water spills into the Touloumne River. To the right lies eight miles of protected waters, the largest body in Yosemite National Park. Boating and swimming is not permitted, reserving the pristine reservoir for hikers. Pass through a tunnel on the far side of the dam and continue along the northwest side of the lake. Cross Tueeulala Falls, which cascades down the granite slope to the left. This falls is less impressive than the one to come, so continue up the trail, gaining minimal elevation to a scenic rise along the lake. From the high point of the hike, there is a superb view up and down the lake including the dynamic summit of Kolana Rock, which rises up from the opposite side of the big blue body.
Proceed along the gradual rocky trail to wooden footbridges that cross the spillway below Wapama Falls. The waterfall is over one thousand feet tall, separated into segmented drops and cascades. Before the dam was built, Wapama Falls fell hundreds of feet farther to the bottom of Hetch Hetchy Valley, but the truncated tumbler is still impressive. Dart across the bridges, enjoying a refreshing mist from the powerful falls. Look for rainbows in the area where the falls meets the lake. The view from the bridge includes mountains, a waterfall, and a lake. What more could you want?
Energetic hikers may continue another four miles to Rancharia Falls or deeper into the Yosemite Wilderness and neighboring Stanislaus National Forest. Since swimming back is not an option, return the way your came.
To get to the trailhead: From the west entrance of Yosemite National Park, continue another mile outside the park on Route 120 (Big Flats Road). Turn right (east) on Evergreen Road. Drive 7.5 miles on winding miles through forest and farms to Mather. Turn right on to Hetch Hetchy Road – Evergreen Road and continue another 7.5 miles to the parking area for Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir next to the dam.
Trailhead address: Evergreen Road (Hetch Hetchy Road), Yosemite National Park, CA 95321
Trailhead coordinates: 37.946905, -119.787376 (37° 56′ 48.85″N 119° 47′ 14.55″W)
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