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Hiking Hetch Hetchy: Waterfalls, Wildflowers and Old Trails

Clouds were just passing through and they teamed up with the waterfalls to create ever changing reflections in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Walking up that trail had me wondering about the old trails and people who walked here back in the day.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 6.86 Miles (About 5 miles rt to Wapama Falls, 13 miles rt to Rancheria Falls)
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Range: 3,682′ to 4,301′
Date: April 5, 2021
Maps: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Beyond
Dog Hike: No

I drove up Big Oak Flat Road to Hwy 120, then about a mile west of Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, I 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. The Hetch Hetchy Visitor booth on Hetch Hetchy Road was not open but there were signs advising that their hours were 8 to 5, then the gate would be closed, so I made sure I was out by then. I arrived at the gate past the Visitor booth around 830 and it was open. 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.

Yosemite National Park estimates that the Hetch Hetchy area was inhabited since the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago and included seasonal villages, hunting camps, sacred sites and gathering areas. During the Mariposa phase (A.D. 1200-1850), ancestors of the Sierra Miwok occupied the park area. … Upon Euro-American contact, the Central and Southern Sierra Miwok occupied the Yosemite area, with the Tuolumne/Merced watershed divide forming the boundary between the two groups. Thus Hetch Hetchy Valley falls within the territory of the Central Sierra Miwok…permanent villages were generally established below 4,000 ft. in elevation with seasonal camps and villages scattered throughout the area currently defined as Yosemite National Park. Mule deer and acorns were important food items although a diverse array of animal and vegetable items were used.

A major ethnogeographic report in 2002 by ethnohistorian Brian Bibby for Yosemite National Park adds there were “seven different tribal communities indicated who had “a traditional, historic relationship with the lands presently within park boundaries—The Central Sierra Miwok, Southern Miwok, Bridgeport Paiute, Mono Lake Paiute, Owens Valley Paiute, Chukchansi Yokuts and Western Mono.… the fluidity of tribal borders and the complexity of cultural and linguistic identities through time and space” would make precision impossible at the present time. Moreover, inaccurate use of tribal and/or ethnolinguistic labels by 19th and 20th Century Western observers, including references to any and all Natives as “Indians” makes use of the historic record further problematic.

From Linda W. Green’s 1987 book Yosemite: the Park and its Resources:

Some controversy surrounds the identity of the first white man to enter Hetch Hetchy Valley, although historians believe it was undoubtedly one of three brothers—Joseph, Nathan, or William Screech. Joseph is the one most often credited with the first exploration of this beautiful area northwest of Yosemite Valley in 1850, but other sources claim that without a doubt Nathan made the discovery. The latter recorded in 1935 that during an early hunting trip in the mountains he climbed a high peak, from which vantage point he could see the Tuolumne River flowing out of the Sierra Nevada through a deep cut. He also saw beyond what appeared to be a wider cut in the mountains resembling a deep, wide valley.

Although he did not pursue his discovery at that time, he returned -two years later and succeeded in entering the valley and speaking with its Indian inhabitants. Observing that they cooked some sort of grass covered with seeds, he inquired its name, and received the answer “hatch hatchy.” James Ackerson, who homesteaded near Hetch Hetchy Valley, however, said that Joe Screech and two others made the first trip into the valley and that he accompanied them on their second one. Possibly all three Screech brothers composed that first party and that was when Nate finally reached the valley he had seen earlier. Because by 1868 Joe had cleared a trail that was used to bring in sheep and cattle, he became most closely identified with Hetch Hetchy Valley. Sheepherders and cattlemen also once occupied a level spot in the Tuolumne River canyon referred to as Poopenaut Valley.

My oh my, those reflections.

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 I walked on the trail, the views and reflections just didn’t stop.

And then, right smack dab in the middle of the trail, was the smallest Sierra Newt that I had ever seen making its way. Only about 3 inches long, he or she was just as cute as any of the larger ones though and was soon safely off the trail and onto whatever important destination it was headed.

I continued on the trail, which narrowed and meandered a bit more.

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.

Tueeulala Falls continues across the trail, finding its way into the reservoir.

I started noticing wildflowers and the lupine were stealing the show.

I also noticed the poison oak, new and shiny, hugging the trail.

I could soon look back toward the reservoir toward the dam.

After about 2 1/2 miles, I reached 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.

Pictures just don’t do justice to illustrate the powerful sound of that water coming down, so here is a short video.

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. Wapama Falls continues below the trail over rocks in the reservoir.

A look back, then I continued on up the trail.

There were a few smaller down trees across the trail but nothing I couldn’t climb over.

Harlequin lupine is one of my favorite flowers. They just look so happy as they hugged the rocks along the trail in a few places.

Paintbrush was also blooming.

And bluedick were also blooming.

About 1 mile above Waupama Falls, I left the trail for an overlook area on a big granite rock to have a snack and ponder.

I had taken a look at historic topographic maps of the area before my hike, noting the trail at the bottom of the lake, adjacent to where the Tuolumne River ran down in what used to be Hetch Hetchy Valley. I daydreamed about what it must have been like to ride up that trail before the area was dammed up.

Yosemite Historic Photo Collection (https://npgallery.nps.gov/YOSE/AssetDetail/891d96cf2827434786d11151dfc264cb)

A wonderful source for locating old pictures of Yosemite can be found at Yosemite Archives. You can search on key words and see some amazing old pictures of Yosemite.

Hetch Hetchy Valley 1900’s Yosemite Historic Photo Collection (https://npgallery.nps.gov/YOSE/AssetDetail/eb7366c263534376ae96bc79c2ae63a0)

Hetch Hetchy Valley 1900s, Yosemite Historic Photo Collection (https://npgallery.nps.gov/YOSE/AssetDetail/eb7366c263534376ae96bc79c2ae63a0)

When I got home, I took another look at that old topographic map dated 1897. It shows the trail, along with a few structures. One of those structures was right below where I had been taking my snack break, but what was its purpose and who lived there?

1897 USGS Topographic Map, Yosemite Sheet

I did some research but couldn’t locate specific information. Perhaps they were sheepherder or mining cabins? From Hetch Hetchy Preservation or Public Utility, the following is shared:

White miners and settlers began to move into the region with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The first known European American visit to Hetch Hetchy was by Joseph Screech and his brother in 1850.

Use of the valley by non native Californians was largely in the form of summer pasture for sheep into the 1890s. John Muir, whose own experience in the Sierras began as a shepherd, noted that:

Sheep are driven into Hetch Hetchy every spring, about the same time that a nearly equal number of tourists are driven into Yosemite; another coincident which is remarkably suggestive.

When the U.S. Calvary was given responsibility for protecting the new Yosemite National Park beginning in 1891 Hetch Hetchy became a gateway out of the Sierras as troopers would escort shepherds in one direction and their sheep in another across the mountains.

Tourist travel to Hetch Hetchy was limited because of the isolation of the valley. Impressions, though, by those who did visit were vivid as this passage from an 1887 letter by John Wells suggests:

We enter the valley on the southwest, after hours of toil, and feel at once the power of its mingled, yet contrasted, beauty and grandeur. There are, in fact, two valleys, the western — into which our trail brought us by a sharp descent — being a mile in length and from an eighth to the half of a mile in width. It was the pasture ground of about twenty mares and their colts, gleaming in the sunlight as if groomed by an hostler every day.

The eastern valley is about two miles long and of ranging width, though nowhere more than half a mile. It was the pasture ground of sheep, and is parted from the western valley by a bold spur of granite from the south, reaching quite to the Tuolumne River. In this spur there is a depression through which a path leads from valley to valley.

Out of these narrow cañons snow waters issue, making up the Tuolumne that waters the valley as a whole. Having done this service, and spread out its beauty to the sun, it passes into a narrow gorge at the west, — so narrow, indeed, that when the water is high in the spring it is dammed up, and the valley, from end to end, becomes a rock-bound lake. Then, too, a large body of water from the melting snows plunges over the lower rocks on the north, a thousand feet, into the lake below.

I usually continue on up the trail to Rancheria Falls but guess I was just lazy because I decided to turn around and head back. The clouds provided a few raindrops and a little breeze to discourage the gnats. I met more people heading up the trail, mostly only up to Wapama Falls. Many small groups had younger children and I thought that this could be a fun trip for them to see and hear Wapama Falls. Of course I also saw one or two that didn’t appear to being having such a fun time.

View From O’Shaughnessy Dam Looking West

We always see a bear on this hike, but not today. Rattlesnakes are also in this area so watch for them. Don’t forget the mosquitoes and ticks 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. This is not one of those hikes that you will have the trail to yourself and can be quite busy at times. I try to get there early and leave early to beat the crowd and that works sometimes.

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.

Doarama:

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.

Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Beyond Doarama

Maps and Profile:

CALTOPO has some free options for mapping and here is a link to my hike this week overlayed on the 1883 Topographic Map: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Beyond

Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Beyond Topographic Map

Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Beyond Profile

Prior Blogs in the Area:

Hiking Hetch Hetchy to Rancheria Falls March 5, 2020

Hiking Along Hetch Hetchy April 5, 2016

Sources:

Tueeulala Falls Wikipedia

O’Shaughnessy Dam Wikipedia

Hetch Hetchy—Natural History Before the Dam

Michael O’Shaughnessy Wandering Lizard history

Michael O’Shaughnessy Wikipedia

Hetch Hetchy Yosemite National Park Service

Wapama Falls Wikipedia

Exploring Hetch Hetchy Yosemite.com

Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene

How Did the Hetch Hetchy Project Impact Native Americans? Snowy Range Reflections

Hetch Hetchy Preservation or Public Utility

Yosemite Archives

 

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