Hetch Hetchy Valley
Yosemite National Park
Hetch Hetchy Lake, fed by the Tuolumne River, photographed from from atop the O'Shaunessey Dam
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then we have 8,000 words for you to describe the wonders (natural and otherwise) of the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park.
The valley was the object of great controversy during the period when the City of San Francisco lobbied in Washington D.C. to build a dam to contain the water of the Tuolumne River. The dam created a water source for the city along with electricity. The Sierra Club and John Muir waged a strong battle to stop the development but the city got its congressional vote and presidential approval and the O'Shaunessey Dam and the reservoir were created.
The devastating Rim Fire, in the summer of 2013, raged over thousands of acres at the northern section of Yosemite National Park, including some parts of the Hetch Hetchy area, and also burned several camping facilities including the City of San Francisco's Mather Camp. Fortunately the Hetch Hetchy Valley was spared due to the nature of the valley—a deep river valley, with a reservoir, surrounded by hundreds of feet of granite walls.
The present lake fills the deep Hetch Hetchy valley, leaving about 300 feet of granite wall underneath the lake's rim. Image the original valley as seen by early explorers looking very similar to the neighboring Yosemite Valley with high walls, an average of 1800 feet, granite domes, and high waterfalls pouring into the Tuolumne River as it wandered through the valley, much as the Merced River does in the southern valley.
This area of the national park is not widely known, nor much visited by the public, although it is open to visit with road access from Highway 120 to the site of the O'Shaunessey Dam, where you'll find a park ranger station. Short hikes, including a popular walk to Wapama Falls, are available. Backpackers register here to hike into the wild backcountry. You'll find a picnic area near the dam and the ranger station. Groveland is the nearest town for indoor accommodations and supplies. Several motels are located along Hwy.120 between Groveland and the park turnoff.
The lake, stretching for nine miles from The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and Tuolumne Meadows, further to the east, stores water from the Tuolumne River. The reservoir provides water for use by the City of San Francisco—167 miles west—and several neighboring municipalities.
O'Shaunessey Dam and the spillway
to the Tuolumne River
Water from the dam spills down the hill
before rejoining the Tuolumne River
The high landmark dome (Kolana Rock)
graces the southern side of the reservoir.
Wapama Falls—found on the north side of the reservoir, about a half-hour hike from the dam
Lower Wapama Falls
from the end of the viewpoint deck
Sparkles on the granite
at the base of Wapama Falls
When you're standing at the base of the falls, it staggers the mind to realize that these falls—very high already—continued falling another 300 feet to the river level before the reservoir was created.
How to Get There & Hikes
Hetch Hetchy Valley is hidden at the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. The only main road that leads toward the valley is Highway 120 that leads from the town of Groveland through the Big Oak Flat entrance to the main (southern) section of Yosemite, leading to the southern Yosemite Valley.
From Highway 120, before reaching Big Oak Flat, take Evergreen and Hetch Hetchy roads to the entrance to the park. A ranger station, rest rooms, and a picnic area are located at the entrance. The dam and the lake are a short walk from the main parking area.
The shortest hike from the dam is the two-mile (3.2 KM) Lookout Point Trail. It's a moderate climb to a rocky outcropping offering a great view of the lake below.
The most popular hike in the valley leads to Wapama Falls, a 5-mile (8.4 KM) round trip, passing Tueelala Falls (usually seasonal in Spring) on the way.
Other more strenuous trails lead to Rancheria Falls (13 miles -21KM round trip); Poopanaut Trail, a 2.5 mile (4 KM) round trip with 1229 elevation gain; Smith Peak Trail leads 16 miles (25.7 KM) from the entrance station to an elevation of more than 7,000 feet; the Laurel/Vernon/Ranchiera Loop leads for 29 miles (46.7 KM) that should take several days to complete and passes several wilderness lakes and the forested landscape of the pure wilderness..
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