A hike along beautiful Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with three beautiful waterfalls is hard to beat. Throw in some beautiful wildflowers and a good workout to make it extra special!
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 11.81 Miles (About 5 miles rt to Wapama Falls)
Elevation Range: 3,682′ to 4,463′
Elevation Gain: 2,797′
Date: April 13, 2022
Maps: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls
Dog Hike: No
I drove up Big Oak Flat Road to Hwy 120 and the snow was still hanging in the trees. It was so pretty that I couldn’t resist stopping to take a quick picture at Big Oak Flat.
I continued on about a mile west of Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, then took the Hetch Hetchy turnoff, following Evergreen Road, then Hetch Hetchy Road 16 miles to its end at the parking lot above O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. My directions sound complicated, but the signs lead you where you need to go. It was 8:05 when I reached the Hetch Hetchy Visitor booth on Hetch Hetchy Road, which was open, and they checked my Yosemite Park Pass. Their hours were 8 to 5, then the gate would be closed, so I made sure I was out by then. I parked just above O’Shaughnessy Dam and headed out and across the dam, which is a 430 foot high concrete arch-gravity dam on the Tuolumne River. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is formed behind the dam which is the source for the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, which provides water for over 2 million people in San Francisco and other municipalities of the west Bay Area. The dam is named for engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, who oversaw its construction.
I walked across the dam. When the wind is calm, beautiful reflections can be seen from the dam but not today. It was still very pretty with Wapama Falls showing off.
I took a peek through the bridge to see how the water was flowing downstream.
Building the Hetch Hetchy dam in such a remote location was an enormous project. Before they could break ground at the O’Shaughnessy Dam, more infrastructure was required. To get the electricity they would need, they first built a smaller dam at Lake Eleanor. Plus, they needed a way to bring supplies and workers into the mountains.
The construction of the Hetch Hetchy Railroad took place from 1915 to 1918. The new 68-mile (109 km) railroad wound its way up the narrow canyon of the Tuolumne River past sharp curves and up steep 4% grades. It carried workers and materials for the dam, as well as tourists, postage and other amenities. If you want to follow the old railroad line today, the Hetch Hetchy Road and most of the Mather Road were built on the old railroad bed and are beautiful scenic drives as well.
Finally, with the railroad complete, teams broke ground on the O’Shaughnessy Dam on August 1, 1919. They poured an estimated total of more than 398,000 cubic yards (304,000 cubic meters) of concrete to form the dam. It was the second tallest dam in the U.S. at the time.
Teams completed the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923 and the reservoir filled for the first time in May of that year. Including additions made between 1934 and 1938, the dam currently stands 430 feet (131 m) above the bedrock below. It spans 900 feet (270 m) with a 17-foot (5.2 m) wide trail across the top that hikers use to cross to the opposite side.
After crossing the dam, I headed through the 500 foot long tunnel that was built during dam construction.
As soon as I got out of the tunnel, this was the view that unfolded.
The purple lupine that we usually see was blooming along the trail.
But farther up the trail harlequin lupine was blooming, one of my favorite spring wildflowers.
Paintbrush was also very pretty.
And a healthy crop of poison oak lined the trail, encroaching on it in a few places.
The trail split and I followed the sign to the right toward Wapama Falls.
After crossing granite slabs, I came to water flowing across the trail. Tueeulala Falls was barely falling but looked very graceful as it made its way down the hill. At about 880 feet it is the smaller of two large waterfalls that spill into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the other being Wapama Falls. It is the larger of the two in terms of greatest free-fall distance, as Wapama is split into two falls. Tueeulala Fall drops free for 600 feet, hits a ledge, then slides steeply down 280 feet further.
As I headed up the trail, there were several areas with water on it but I could easily step on rocks across these spots.
After about 2 1/2 miles, I could hear the roar of Wapama Falls before I could see it but then I saw this. There was a little slushy ice piled up on one side of the bridge. I pondered whether I could or should walk though this area but then figured if I held on the railing and took it slow and easy I could safely do it. The bridge wasn’t icy but it can be during the colder weather.
The warning sign is here for a reason. People die here. They get swept over the bridge when the spring water flows strongly in these falls. Even though the water isn’t as strong as prior years, this is still a dangerous area and the water is flowing plenty strong enough to tumble your body over the rocks and kill you. Don’t take the chance. Follow any warnings that the park service has posted and if there’s water flowing over the bridge or it doesn’t look safe, please don’t risk it. Some of the smaller streams you pass along the way can also be difficult or dangerous to cross. As snow melts higher up in the afternoon, the flow can increase from what you experienced in the morning. Wapama Falls continues below the trail over rocks in the reservoir.
From the bridges I could look up to the top of Wapama Falls, which is the larger of the waterfalls that spills into Hetch Hetchy.
On occasion the waterflow is so strong that it inundates the trail bridge crossing at its base and the trail is shut down and impassible at that point. On this date, the water was not flowing very much, especially for this time of the year. Wapama Falls water comes from Lake Vernon and has two main drops of water, along with a cascade of water as it empties into Hetch Hetchy. Its total drop is about 1,100′, with the top part dropping about 300′, then a 600′ drop through a steep gorge, the bottom dropping about 200′ down an escarpment. You can’t see the whole falls when you are right next to it but you can see it from the dam.
I took a look back toward the dam.
And ahead toward the direction I was going.
I continued on.
I could soon get a glimpse of Rancheria Falls but I still had a ways to go.
I crossed a couple of bridges and pretty creek.
Then I continued up the trail.
Rancheria Falls is actually a series of cascades, dropping more than more than 1,000 feet though a narrow canyon into Hetch Hetchy.
And this was a perfect place for a lunchspot.
It was soon time to start heading back and on the way, I had a nice glimpse of Tueeulala Falls with some ice deposited along its drop.
Then a view of Wapama Falls.
I was the first dayhiker on the trail in the morning and didn’t see a single person until I was about 1/2 the way back when I passed a couple of backpackers. When I reached Wapama Falls, there were many more people but it wasn’t super crowded. This isn’t one of those hikes that you will have the trail to yourself. It is very popular on the weekends and later in the day. I try to get there early and leave early to beat the crowd and that works sometimes.
We always see a bear on this hike, but I didn’t today. Rattlesnakes are also in this area so watch for them. Don’t forget the mosquitoes, ticks and gnats either! Personally I don’t like to do this hike when it is warm. That trail gets awful hot and dusty, plus the falls diminish their flow and aren’t as impressive.
Evergreen Road into Hetch Hetchy is open all year, but can be closed due to snow in the winter or a washout after storms. You can check road conditions here or by dialing 1-209-372-0200, dialing extensions 1/1. Chain restrictions may also go into effect at any time in the winter, so bring chains with you. This is the only park road not open 24 hours/day, the hours below may change without notice:
April 1 to April 30: 8 am to 7 pm
May 1 to Labor Day: 7 am to 9 pm
Day after Labor Day to October 31: 8 am to 7 pm
November 1 to March 31: 8 am to 5 pm
No swimming or boating is allowed in the reservoir.
Dog Hike? No
Dogs are not allowed on this Trail.
Where Pets Are Not Allowed
- On trails, including the trail to Vernal Fall (however, pets are allowed on the Wawona Meadow Loop)
- On unplowed roads covered in snow
- In undeveloped and wilderness areas
- In public buildings
- On shuttle buses
- In lodging areas
- In all walk-in and group campgrounds/campsites, including Camp 4
- In any other areas, as signed
These regulations protect both pets and wildlife from disease and each other. The National Park Service has prohibited pets on trails for many years. In particular, some pets chase wildlife, pollute water sources, and can become defensive and dangerous in unfamiliar surroundings. Pet owners have the burden to assure their pet does not damage the park values for others in those areas where pets are allowed.
What is a Doarama? It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.
Maps and Profile:
CALTOPO has some free options for mapping and here is a link to my hike this week’s Topographic Map: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls
Prior Blogs in the Area: