Hetch Hetchy is a magnificent small likeness of the more popular Yosemite Valley.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is located in the Northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy is unique, with its own hours, entrance station and rules. Hetch Hetchy is a little out of the way but as many find out, it is well worth the time spent getting there. This area was defined by John Muir as the close counterpart to the famous Yosemite Valley, and from old photographs, it is easy to see the comparison.
Steeped in controversy since the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the first ever intrusion of a National Park since their creation, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a high elevation reminder of the far-reaching effects of urban sprawl. San Francisco’s demand for drinking water after the great earthquake of 1906 was the catalyst for damming the Tuolumne River, flooding the valley, and remains the argument for the dam to remain despite intense lobbying for its removal.
The way to Hetch Hetchy is to the North of the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station to Yosemite National Park. The road is clearly marked and heads East towards the Northwestern edge of Yosemite National Park. It takes about 30 minutes to get to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir depending on the traffic. There is one small bathroom, one place to get drinking water and no services, so be prepared. Parking is minimal above the O’Shaughnessy Dam so only the early birds will get a spot that is close.
There are several nice day hikes to be taken in the Hetch Hetchy area, we had chosen to do an in and out to Rancheria Falls. This route passes underneath Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls on the way to Rancheria Falls. The trail starts at the top of the O’Shaughnessy Dam with a brief walk through an old railroad tunnel, then the trail follows a narrow band of vegetation that running the full length of the main escarpment that is visible from the dam.
A few short miles and the viewing walkways of Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls welcome sightseers and photographers to revel in the magnitude of these giants. Tueeulala is a seasonal Falls only visible during the winter through late spring, our viewing was in September and only that of vertical discoloration of granite cliff wall. Wapama Falls is the landmark falls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and was flowing nicely for September and viewing from the walkways made picture taking easy.
The trail on to Rancheria Falls is a great hike with multiple vistas of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Kolana Rock, Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls. This area has a gnat population of Biblical proportions, the upper body workout from swatting at gnats is a battle through the trail on the escarpment. Meeting experienced hikers wearing insect hoods is a telltale sign of the severity of the infestation.
We pushed through the bugs and the less than favorable reviews of Rancheria Falls we had received from passing hikers to our destination. A gentle breeze was blowing up the granite bowl that holds the treasure of Rancheria Falls. The breeze had liberated us from the relentless gnats, and Rancheria Falls was displaying its own unique beauty. Rancheria Falls is much like Silver Apron above Vernal Falls, the water flows several hundred feet down over the top of a gently sloping granite dome. As we ate our lunch it was pretty easy to imagine the Indians using this as a gathering place for hours of fun and relaxation.
Once rested, we decided to make our way back. Much of the trail back is downhill, bringing an unexpected relief, it was easier to reach escape velocity in the Gnat Kingdom. Seriously, the bugs truly required head netting.
In review, Hetch Hetchy is a magnificent place for a day hike. Starting the hike from the O’Shaughnessy Dam is perfect, as it provides information monuments and great views of the Hetch Hetchy area. The large tunnel at the end of the dam has a Jurassic Park quality about it as if you are entering another world, in a sense, you are. Apart from the gnats on the hiking trail, the views are inspiring, Wapama Falls is world class, and Rancheria Falls is as unique as the Hetch Hetchy Valley. We were there in September, Tueeulala Falls was nonexistent, Rancheria Falls had low flow, the gnats were everywhere with shade, and it was still an awesome experience.