Hetch Hetchy Valley is located in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park. It’s scenic beauty rivals that of the famous Yosemite Valley. But, despite being situated closer to the western entrance of the Park than Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy is far less visited and less crowded than the former. The reason for that is simple: Hetch Hetchy was turned into a reservoir by a huge dam. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides fresh water to San Francisco and surrounding residential areas.
The story of turning this valley into a reservoir is controversial and it goes back to early 20th century. The idea of the dam had many proponents and opponents, and among the latters was John Muir, the father and advocate of Yosemite National Park. Some say that the decision to build the dam drove him into despair and contributed to his death in a matter of months.
Anyway, despite the dam this place is still beautiful and majestic, easy to get to and unbelievably uncrowded. When we arrived there on a perfect Saturday morning in mid-September, there were barely 20 cars in the parking lot next to the dam.
The first thing one sees when one gets there is the huge granite monolith on the opposite shore of the lake, reminescent of El Capitan of Yosemite Valley. On the right shoudler of the monolith one can see the white ribbon of a water fall. This is Wapama Falls. Our trail leads to this waterfall and beyond:
The next thing you see is O’Shaughnessy Dam. It’s big. Not as huge as say Barrage de Dixence in Switzerland, but big:
It’s been a rainy and snowy year, and the reservoir is full, end excess of water is dumped down via the spillway…
… which erupts as a ferocious jet of water from the opening below the dam and hits the rocks on the opposite side of the river gorge:
To get to the trailhead we first cross the dam via a broad driveway on its top, which leads into a wide tunnel which is several hundred yards long and is large enough for a dump truck. There are lights in the tunnel, but they are kind of dim, and a flashlight comes handy in there.
Once out of the tunnel we soon reach the spot where the trail forks. The left trail starts climbing up to the plateau on the north side of the Valley, while the right one keeps going along the shore of the lake with little elevation gain. We choose the trail on the right in order to get to the bottom of Wapama Falls. As we keep walking along the shore we’re rewarded by some scenic views:
After about 2.5 miles (4 km) of leisurely walk we get to Wapama Falls:
There are quite attractive pools at the bottom of the falls, and we saw a few people swimming there. Not sure about the pools, but swimming in the reservoir itself is not permitted.
We keep walking east on the trail past the water fall, and in a couple of miles we reach the final point of the hike, taking a break and enjoying a sip of water and more views:
We turn back and retrace our path to the tunnel and the trailhead, this time the lake and the views are on our left:
The last glimpse of the lake with the clouds of the approaching thunderstorm, and we’re back to the trailhead at the dam.
There is no good hike without a good après-hike, so on the way back stop by the authentic Iron Door Saloon, a proud relic of the Gold Rush Era, in Groveland (Highway 120, about 40 minute west from the Yosemite Park entrance:
From Groveland, California, drive 23 miles / about 40km east on Highway 120. Turn left on Evergreen Road. You’ll see the sign pointing to Hetch Hetchy Valley before the turn. If you get to the Park Entrance on Highway 120 then you’ve missed the turn. Drive about 9 miles following the signs to Hetch Hetchy and O’Shaughnessy Dam. At some point you’ll reach the Park entrance and will have to pay the entrance fee or show a valid pass. Park on the lot next to the dam. Walk across the dam and through the tunnel to get to the trail. GPS coordinates: 37.946333, -119.787678. Click on the image below to get the trail info and download the GPX track.