Trail Report: Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley

A short backpack in the valley of controversy

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This is the first installment in a summer-long series called the "Trail Report" that will celebrate the beauty of hiking and backpacking in the kinds of wild places Earthjustice is working to protect.

Near Yosemite National Park’s western border lies Hetch Hetchy Valley. For nearly 90 years, the valley has been submerged by a reservoir that interrupts the mighty Tuolumne River, storing water that is sent to more than 2 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area (it also generates a modest amount of hydropower electricity). On maps, the reservoir resembles the bloated belly of a python that has just swallowed its prey.

The push to dam Hetch Hetchy originated in the early part of the 20th century and was stiffly opposed by the venerable John Muir. Despite his and others’ protestations, often downright poetic in their construction, the Raker Act of 1913 authorized flooding of the valley, and O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed ten years later. The passing of time hasn’t subdued the controversy surrounding Hetch Hetchy. I’ve included some thoughts from longtime environmental writer Tom Turner at the end of this piece.

Hetch Hetchy in the early 1900s, before the valley was flooded. Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls drop from the valley’s north wall (left and right, respectively) and the Tuolumne River snakes its way along the valley floor into the picture’s foreground. A portion of Kolana Rock is visible in the middleground on the right.

Last weekend, some friends and I went to Hetch Hetchy for this year’s inaugural backpacking trip. The area is a doorway to Yosemite’s remote northern territory, where ridges thrust well above 10,000 feet before connecting to wilderness areas beyond the park’s border. In early May, these heights are still blanketed by many feet of snow. Without snowshoes, we elected to hike along Hetch Hetchy’s northern slope to see the whitewater of Rancheria Falls, swollen with the spring melt from a year of heavy snowfall.

About two miles into the roughly seven mile hike from O’Shaughnessy Dam to Rancheria Falls, we passed the magnificent Wapama Falls. In total, Wapama drops more than 1,000 feet, bringing water from nearby Lake Vernon down into the valley. Wapama is powerful enough that walking along the wooden bridge that traverses its lower cascade can be reminiscent of walking through a carwash (albeit a very pretty one).

Looking up at the lower stretch of Wapama Falls. The upper sections of the falls aren’t visible from below, but can be seen in all their glory from the top of Kolana Rock. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Past the falls, the sun dried our wet clothes as the trail continued to provide stunning views of Kolana Rock, one of Hetch Hetchy’s most memorable features, as well as an assortment of vibrant Sierra wildflowers.

Kolana Rock, which crests at 5,774 feet, is on the right. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Harlequin lupine (purple and yellow) and dwarf lupine along the trail. Photo: Nate Hill

Alpine phlox. Photo: Nate Hill

Some pretty awesome-looking rock lettuce (Dudleya cymosa). Photo: Nate Hill

Close to 7 miles out, we caught our first glimpse of Rancheria Falls, a tiered series of small but incredibly powerful falls over which water from Rancheria Creek tumbles into the valley. We pitched our tents in an awesome campsite overlooking sections of the falls with a view of Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy’s eastern reaches.

Lower sections of cascading water in Rancheria Creek. Photo: Nate Hill

Get a sense of Rancheria’s power in this short video clip.

After exploring the banks of Rancheria Creek for a few hours, we cooked our dinner on a rock overlooking the plunging whitewater, stealing glances into the Manzanita at our backs for the phantom bear whose twig-snapping approach we never would have heard over Rancheria’s rush. Sated, we built a fire in anticipation of a night full of backcountry joys: the sun’s fading light, emerging stars (some shooting), the path of satellites, and headlamp scans of the surrounding rocks and trees for the glassy eyes of late-night visitors.

We hiked out the following morning as dark clouds passed over the valley, demonstrating every so often their capacity to get things wet in a hurry. Just outside of camp, we saw the weekend’s wildlife highlight: a camera-shy western bluebird whose regal poses would have made for great pictures had any of us been quicker on the draw. The downpour didn’t come until we emerged from the tunnel that delivered us back to O’Shaughnessy Dam, past the throngs of day-hikers who got wet long before they reached Wapama Falls.

Clouds converge in the valley before the rain begins. Photo: Sam Edmondson

From Tom Turner:

Along with Glen Canyon, the sacrifice of Hetch Hetchy Valley stands as the greatest crime against the American earth committed in the last century. Just think of the outrage if anyone proposed building a dam inside a national park these days. San Francisco stole Hetch Hetchy from the American people for its selfish purposes, and it’s high time it gave the valley back. Tear down the damn dam!

Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, dam proponents argued that one Yosemite Valley was enough, that the second—Hetch Hetchy, smaller but every bit as beautiful as Yosemite—could be sacrificed for water and power. A complete travesty.

Which brings me to an old refrain: Why oh why do people seem to believe that dams create water? They store water, sure, but removing the O’Shaughnessy Dam would not mean that Tuolumne River water is lost. There’s the great, big, ugly Don Pedro Reservoir downstream that’s never full. Let the water flow unimpeded through Hetch Hetchy and collect it at San Pedro if you must. Yes, some power generation would be lost, but regaining Hetch Hetchy would be worth every kilowatt.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.