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Yosemite Yosemite

29th July 2010

A Hike in the Beautiful, Wild, Peaceful Hetch Hetchy Valley

Panorama of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir From the Trail      (please use scroll bar)

    After breakfast by the river, I called in at the local garage to give the van some TLC, a.k.a. oil, water, and petrol.
    Since I had done the valley to death, or all that I wanted to see, I decided that I wanted to explore some of the other 99% of the National Park. I had already passed through Tuolumne Meadows, and I would be visiting Mariposa Grove in the south tomorrow. The only logical alternative was to head up north to the wilderness area, more specifically the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
O'Shaughnessy Dam
    Hidden in Yosemite National Park's peaceful northwest corner, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was a treasure worth visiting in all seasons. In spring, two of North America's tallest waterfalls plummeted spectacularly over 1,000' granite cliffs. The dramatic domes surrounding these waterfalls added to the grandeur that John Muir compared to the more well-known Yosemite Valley. In 1870, Muir called Hetch Hetchy Valley "a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite". In the early spring through late fall, visitors had easy access to a vast wilderness filled with high-country lakes, streams, and wildlife.
    People had inhabited the Hetch Hetchy Valley for more than 6,000 years. Early American Indian cultures were prominent before the first European Americans arrived in the 1850s looking for gold and a place to graze livestock. The modern valley name was derived from the Miwok word, hatchhatchie, which meant edible grasses. Miwok names were still used for other features in the valley including Tueeulala Falls, Wapama Falls, Kolana Rock and the Tuolumne River.
    As early as 1882, Hetch Hetchy Valley had been looked at as a potential site for a new reservoir.
    Preservationists, led by John Muir, wanted the valley to remain untouched. They maintained that a dam could be secured outside "our wild mountain parks". Muir and his followers launched a campaign to praise the virtues of Hetch Hetchy. For the first time in the American experience, a national audience considered the competing claims of wilderness versus development. Until the early 1900s, Americans viewed wilderness as something to conquer and natural resources as infinite. The priority was civilisation in the name of prosperity.
    Due to its increasing population, San Francisco was facing a chronic water and power shortage. In 1906, an earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, adding urgency and public sympathy to the search for an adequate water supply. Congress passed The Raker Act in 1913 authorising the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley as well as another dam at Lake Eleanor. The first phase of construction on the O'Shaughnessy Dam (named after the chief engineer) was completed in 1923, and the final phase raising the height of the dam was completed in 1938. The reservoir was eight miles long and was the largest single body of water within the national park.
    Hetch Hetchy's relative low elevation provided for one of the longest hiking seasons in Yosemite, and the varied trails included something for everyone.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with Wapama Falls a Quarter of the Way Along from the Left. The Trail Followed the Green Band along the Cliff Sides
    I made my mind up, I would do some hiking around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It was a 40 plus mile drive to the reservoir, which was situated in the vast Stanislaus National Forest. Apart from the Mather campsite on the way, the route was more or less through forested wilderness. A touch of Jimi Hendrix made the miles pass by quickly.
    The O'Shaughnessy Dam was an impressive structure. A jet of high pressure water was shooting out of the canyon wall 100m down from the dam, power blasting the opposite side of the canyon. It was a pity such power was being wasted. The view from the dam looking up the reservoir showed Wapama Falls on the left, with Hetch Hetchy Dome directly behind them. During the wet season, Tueeulala Falls could be seen cascading down the cliffs to the left of the Wapama falls. On the opposite shore was Kolana Rock, an imposing monolith of granite that rose from the reservoir depths. The reservoir curved around the great Rock for quite some distance.
Granite Tunnel at Start of Trail
Hetch Hetchy Wild Flowers
    I decided to initially hike to Wapama Falls, with the option of carrying on a further four miles to Rancheria Falls. I packed four bottles of water, jerky and trail mix, and set off across the dam. A long tunnel through the granite stood at the other end of the dam wall, which afforded access to the trails. Folk were out on the dam, and some were also walking along the trail, almost all of them taking the short hike to Wapama falls.
    The walk to the falls was not too strenuous, just a few elevation changes to cope with, and the trail passed through lovely grassy areas containing hosts of wild flowers. The killer for a lot of folk was the long steep climb from the base of the falls back to the trail.
    People were sitting by the streams at the bottom of the falls chilling out with their feet in the water. I was feeling full of beans, so I made the commitment to carry on to Rancheria Falls. This was just an additional 8 miles, but there were some stiff climbs and descents which made it seem a lot further.
Wapama Falls
Smoke Drifting Across at the Far End of the Reservoir
    I met one young lad coming down the trail, who mentioned pools at the bottom of the falls, but other than that I seemed to be the only one on the trail. We talked for a while, and I asked him about the smoke that was billowing off the mountains at the far end of the reservoir. He said a fire had been raging on the tops for two days now. Further on the hike, I could hear the monotonous drone of helicopters involved in dropping water or retardant onto the fires. I eventually reached the Rancheria Falls, and they were a very welcome sight too; waters cascading down granite slopes into crystal clear pools, before dropping down a series of gaping canyons to the reservoir far below.
    I had the whole place to myself, though I knew there was a walk-in campsite a quarter of a mile further along the trail. Since the place was totally deserted, and I was absolutely boiling, I chose a secluded pool, completely stripped off and waded in. The icy coldness took my breath away, but once I had got my head under the water, it was bearable. It was deep enough to swim in, and sensationally refreshing. At that point in time I couldn't have cared less if a coach load of tourists had turned up.
Rancheria Falls
My Personal Swimming Pool
    Once I was sufficiently chilled, I climbed out and sat on a rock to let the sun and wind dry me out; a totally liberating experience. Cooled, clean and dry, I got dressed and explored the area before making the tough decision to head back.
    There was no loop option for the hike, just a linear hike sad to say. Half a mile into the trek back I met a couple of lads, laden with heavy backpacks and heading up to the campsite. A short while later, I met a whole family heading up to the campsite too. Crikey, it was like Piccadilly Circus now; I had timed my bathe perfectly. A mile further on I met a chap and his teenage son sitting on a rock. I stopped to chat, and found that they were heading up to Rancheria Falls, but were now debating whether to carry on or turn back. I told them the falls were still 1.8 miles away, with a long descent followed by a hard climb up to the falls. They took this on board. I also asked them how they were doing for water. "That's the problem", he said without giving any specifics. I tactfully said that I had taken four bottles of water and I expected to have used them all up within a mile of getting back. I got no response to this. I didn't want to pressurise the chap in front of his son about the water issue, and if I knew he was low on water, I would have gladly shared what I had left, as I did with Doug and Taylor on Angels Landing. The chap made his mind up, he was going to carry on. I wished them safe journey, but I had nagging concerns after that.
    I carried on with my journey, the trail becoming more populated on the dam side of Wapama Falls. I got back to the van and downed two bottles of ice cold water in as many minutes, before heading back to my campsite.
Kolana Rock in All its Glory
    Since Hetch Hetchy was at the extreme northwest end of the national park, it had its own entrance. The unique thing about this entrance was that a gate was closed at the end of the day. To make sure everyone who went in came out, each vehicle was given a permit to display whilst in the park, and it had to be returned as you left. When I reached this entrance, I gave the permit back to the same girl who had issued it to me. She asked me how I had enjoyed the hikes, and we chatted for a while. I then mentioned about the chap and his teenage son, and put forward my view that they were at their hiking limits and I was concerned about their water situation. These girls are quite clued up, and when you enter the park they ask all sorts of innocent looking questions in a chit chat way, but all the time they are analysing if you are experienced at hiking or an amateur. When I entered, she had asked me if I had a filter (a device where you put in stream water at one end and out pops potable water at the other end), or did I intend to carry all my water with me. I said I would be carrying four bottles. I seemed to have passed the initiative test. The girl recalled the chap and his son, and she must have gone through the same routine with him, since she knew they had four bottles between them. She shared my concerns that this could be a potentially dangerous situation. I showed her on a map where I had met them, and she went off to contact a ranger nearer the reservoir about the situation. I felt a bit easier after that, but I wish I had convinced the pair to turn back.
    The journey back was pretty boring, but I started to notice signs about controlled forest burns taking place in the vicinity (how do you control such a thing?), and flashing lights showing that 22 bears were killed in 2009 by speeding vehicles. I reached the campsite at dusk, a little shattered, but I had enjoyed exploring a different and beautiful, peaceful, wild part of the national park.
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Yosemite Yosemite

Uploaded from American Resort Campsite, Coloma CA on 01/08/10 at 09:10

Last updated 1.8.2010