We’ve been planning to go to Hetch Hetchy for years, and in spring 2018, it looked like it’s finally happening. Two years prior, we visited the area briefly, walking around the dam for an hour, but we were on a “touristy” trip with my parents in tow and couldn’t do any backpacking.
This place is a less-often visited part of Yosemite National Park, off the main drag, and with all its beauty comes a very sad history. The valley used to be similar to Yosemite Valley: narrow, flat floor, high granite cliffs on the sides, the Tuolumne River meandering in the middle. In 1923, it was turned into a reservoir with the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam to provide much-needed drinking water and hydroelectric power to the Bay Area. Whether such needs could have been accomplished using less destructive methods, it’s still up for debate, and there’s a continuing effort to drain the lake and restore the valley to its former state. I don’t want to get too much into this topic, do a search for yourself and read about the history. The main Wikipedia article is a good start.
Visiting Hetch Hetchy is still an amazing experience and the location is a perfect starting point for many great backpacking trips, especially early in the season.
The turnoff from Highway 120 is near the Oak Flat entrance, just outside the national park, and though the final parking lot at the dam is only around 17 miles from there, it takes a while to drive it on the narrow (but paved) road. The entrance to the national park is a gated place in the middle of the forest, still miles away from Hetch Hetchy. Access is restricted, day visitors can only go during daylight hours. To stay overnight, you require a backpacking permit. Right by the dam, there’s a backpacker’s campground where as short stay is permitted if you’re about to go up in the backcountry.
From the entrance station, the road (called Evergreen Road from here) continues in the forest, climbing a hill, then the reservoir comes into view and the road descends to a big loop that goes around the backpacker’s campground and parking lot, also offering a few daytime parking spaces right next to the dam.
The valley is an impressive site, even with the reservoir. If you frame out the dam and try to force your mind to imagine that it’s a natural lake, it’s even more awe-inspiring.
We had lofty plans. The original idea was to hike to Rancheria Falls, then to Tiltill Valley, continue north, maybe as far as the PCT at Wilma Lake, over to Jack Main Canyon and return via a short side trip to Lake Vernon. This was nice and all, very much doable mileage-wise, but not with the water situation in spring 2018. The snowpack had been huge and melting late. A few days before the trip, I learned that the crossing on the PCT would be impossible and Jack Main Canyon was, for all practical purposes, a huge, flooded bog.
We decided on a much shorter and more leisurely version, namely Rancheria Falls, Tiltill Valley, Lake Vernon and back.
Day 1 – L.A. to Hetch Hetchy and Rancheria Falls
Like with most of our trips, the first day was going to be long. We left L.A. early, but getting to Hetch Hetchy is no straight-forward business, in the most literal sense. We took the most “direct” route, though this meant relatively small back roads from Merced via Snelling, Coulterville, et al. This is a super-scenic area, true Americana in almost pure form. Winding roads, forests, meadows, farms, small towns with frontier charm. Of all, Coulterville is highly recommended.
We got to the national park entrance station around 11am, filled out a permit, then continued to the lake and parked in the designated overnight parking lot, right by the backpacker’s campground. It was busy, but not terribly so. Then of course we had to eat, arrange the packs, secure the car, etc. It was way past noon by the time we got going, traversing the campground (quite a few spots were taken) down to the dam. On the way, we found many harlequin lupins (Lupinus stiversii). These are quite special and rare, they only grow at relatively low elevations and bloom at the beginning of the season. As their name implies, they are multi-colored, mostly purplish-pink and yellow. This was just a taste of what awaited us further up.
Crossing the dam, we had to stop for pictures, admiring the lake with the cliffs and the waterfalls. On the left (north) side, the upper portion of Tueeulala and the lower portion of Wapama Falls can be seen, with Kolana Rock shooting 2,000 feet over the lake on the opposite shore.
On the far side of the dam, the road (as this is way too wide to call it a trail) enters a short tunnel, emerging on the other side, contouring a few dozen feet above the waterline. It gains some elevation, passing the trail junction to Jack Main Canyon (this is where we’ll eventually return), climbing some more, undulating every which way. Wildflowers galore, no matter where you looked, mandating photo stops. We even caught a glimpse of Rancheria Falls, another 4-5 trail miles in the distance.
Next up was Tueeulala Falls. It’s tall, narrow, with sublime braids as the main stream hits the rocks. The best views of this are from a few hundred yards back as the lower-most part is obscured by trees. The trail enters this grove and there are some gorgeous views of some of these braids, cascading among the trees, then flowing right over the trail.
If wispy Tueeulala is like a slender dancer flitting around, Wapama, the following fall on the trail, is more like a mad emperor, roaring threats and insults. The fall’s sound could be heard and its mist cloud could be seen from quite a way. Some people approaching from there assured us that we can safely cross the bridge, though they cautioned we’ll get wet.
People die here. The trail crosses the bottom of the fall on several long footbridges, and when the runoff is high, the raging water submerges the footbridge by as much as several feet. Hikers crazy enough to try crossing here during such times have been swept off and battered to death by the rocks between the bridge and the actual lake.
This time, there was a bit of water running over the floorboards, but not enough for concern. We decided to protect the backpacks by putting our ponchos on. Thus prepared, we walked onto the bridge.
It wasn’t unlike walking into a rain shower – all that rushing water creates its own microclimate with wind-gusts every so often. The air was filled with thick mist, coming and going in bands. During calm periods, it’s not that bad, but a new gust can bring huge amounts of moisture and blow it all over the place.
It was fantastic, we really enjoyed it. From the middle of the bridge, the topmost part of the falls is visible, and the sights, the roar, the smell of oxygenated spray – it’s overwhelming, in the best possible way. We ended up spending several minutes on the bridge, some of it in the mist-shade of a big rock between two bridge segments. I was adjusting the camera and trying to keep it dry, Em concentrating on pictures of rainbows in the spray.
All of a sudden, I saw a huge cloud of water being blown our way, and before I could warn Em, it hit us, along with an unusually strong gust of wind. What I didn’t see that time that it blew Em’s poncho up and to the side, exposing her backpack. By the time I figured it out, the pack got pretty wet, especially on the lower part.
Finally, we crossed the bridge all the way and stopped to take the ponchos off and look back. What a sight!
We figured there’s a good chance the sleeping bag at the bottom of Em’s bag got wet, so we unpacked quickly. We got lucky, there was only a bit of moisture, nothing catastrophic. We attached the sleeping bag to the top of the backpack and proceeded onward.
The trail climbs again, offering great views looking back at both Tueeulala and Wapama Falls.
A bit later, we decided to stop for a snack break. First of all, we unpacked the sleeping bag all the way and laid it out on a sunny rock. Only one corner got wet, and even that wasn’t completely soaked through.
We took our time, eating, snapping pictures, marveling.
A bit further up, the climbing trail leaves the lakeshore, skirting Hetch Hetchy Dome. It crosses Tiltill Creek, then shouldering another small hill, arrives at Rancheria Canyon. The first attraction is a series of waterslides, easily viewable from the rocks right next to the trail. Then the trail enters the forest for a bit and emerges close to the bottom of Rancheria Falls proper.
The falls are not comparable in height to Tueeulala or Wapama, but they make up for it with the sheer magnitude of the rushing water and the diversity of all its segments.
The long version of our trip called for us to go to Tiltill Valley, but as we weren’t going to continue north from there, and it was late and we were tired, there was no point. A nice campsite offered itself in the forest, next to the creek, a few hundred yards from the bottom of the main fall.
The site looked like another popular spot in the high season, but nobody else was around. We set up the tent, laid out the sleeping bag again (it was almost dry by this time).
After securing everything, we went exploring. The bottom of the falls is easily accessible from the trail, but caution is advised, a slip into that ice-cold, rushing water could easily be fatal. The lowering sun was perfect for lighting up the spray in the air, creating rainbows and all sorts of other colorful effects. No matter how much I tried to protect the camera, of course it got wet, along with my shirt, but I didn’t care much. The Canon 6D proved its spray-proof abilities above and beyond the call of duty.
Sunset was still an hour away, but in the shade back at camp, the mosquitoes attacked. This was a legal area to make fires and there was an established fire ring, so to get rid of the buzzers, we made a tiny fire with semi-dry leaves to smoke up the place. As there was no wind, it worked great, the mosquitoes left us alone.
We were dead tired, so we ate an early dinner and retired to the tent relatively early for us, which is to say at 9pm.
Day 2 – Rancheria Falls to Tiltill Valley
We didn’t set the alarm, but after going to bed so early, we were up at 6:30am. So were the mosquitoes, of course, but another smoky mini-fire took care of that. The sun, shining from the opposite direction, lit up the creek from upstream, creating some new wonderful sights to enjoy and photograph. There was no reason to hurry, we only had a whopping three miles to go that day, but we still left around 8:30am as we wanted to take our time.
That we did. From the falls, the trail climbs sharply on the hillside, and the flowers were going crazy, especially on the south-facing slopes. It was a wonderland of colors and shapes. A bit above the waterfall, we passed the junction leading east towards Pleasant Valley. A few people could be seen camped on the other side of the bridge crossing Rancheria Creek. We turned north-east. Some more climbing followed, offering more wildflowers plus views of Rancheria cascades and the lake with Kolana Rock.
The trail gains about 1,200’ in elevation, flattens out, passes by a beautiful little tarn (more wildflowers!), then descends 150’ to gorgeous Tiltill Valley. The valley itself is oblong-shaped, about 1 mile long east-west and a quarter mile wide north-south. It’s divided into two distinct segments by a rock outcropping in the middle. The trail enters the valley on the south-east side. This is a huge, boggy meadow, which I hear is sometimes submerged. Now it was moderately bad, with short sections of the trail under a few inches of water. The less soggy parts were covered with thousands of violets, both purple and white. In the middle of this meadow, there’s the junction with the trail leading north toward Tiltill Mountain and eventually the PCT – our originally planned route.
We kept left, lost the trail under some more serious water, then found it again on the far side of the meadow and followed it under the trees into the western segment of the valley, past the outcropping. Here the trail crosses the creek and turns north, starting the climb over the hill to Lake Vernon.
We stopped, however, looking for a campsite. Among the trees we found an amazing spot, hidden from view, but close to the creek and sporting a great fire ring nearby (fires are legal here, too) and great views of the other part of the meadow. It was only 10:30am and we had the entire day to explore and have fun.
There was a small chance of rain, so we pitched the tent first, then I set out to fish. A logjam created a tiny pond just downstream from us, making for a prime location.
In the meantime, another couple arrived and set up shop not far from us. We became friends really fast, and we ended up fishing together, giving tips to each other. The trout were not very active, it took a while to catch a few.
Em, who is not much of a fisherlady, got some firewood together and started a nice campfire. The four of us decided to pool our resources, cook all the fish and have a nice big dinner together. The weather was perfect, the rain never came, and we had a great time. To round out the pleasures, we had a nice spectacle around dinnertime: a huge bear appeared on the far side of the meadow. It was about half a mile away, but it was obviously a huge individual. It ambled back and forth on the side of the meadow, finally disappearing into the trees.
As I mentioned this many times before, we almost never make campfires in the backcountry, mostly because in many places we go to they’re illegal, and also because there’s no real need. Those few times we make a fire, it’s usually tiny and smoky, to chase away mosquitoes, or hot-coal producing, to cook fish. That day was an exception. After the fish was cooked, we revived the flames into a bona fide bonfire and the four of us sat around for another two hours, sharing trail stories. Everybody had a great time. Finally, we went to bed at 11pm.
Day 3 – Tiltill Valley to Lake Vernon
Even though we only had 7 miles to go, we wanted to leave quickly as the weather forecast called for a 30% chance of rain in the afternoon. Regardless, after getting up, we had a long breakfast, soaking up sunshine, gawking and the view, photographing flowers – you know, the usual. It was 9am by the time we started walking on the trail.
The way to Lake Vernon involves about a 2,000’ gain and then a 1,000’ drop. Essentially, you go up almost to the top of Mt. Gibson, skirting the peak on the western side. The climb is very nice and graded, the trail in good condition. The day before, another couple came from there and complained how steep and long it is, and I respect that, but it also means they haven’t been on too many Sierra trails. I wonder what they would say about going up Mt. Whitney.
About an hour into the climb, we got really lucky. For years, we wanted to see a male sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus). The females are much more active, we’ve seen quite a few, even up close. The males, however, sit around, eat pine needles all day, and vocalize with their distinct whoop-whoop. It’s a very low frequency sound that travels far, but for human ears, it’s hard to pinpoint its exact location. Seems to work for the females of the species, though, as this is the mating call. While proceeding up the hillside, we kept hearing a few males here and there, some of them close to the trail. Once we even stopped and tried to make him out in the bushes. No luck first.
We know we’re supposed to make noise on the trail while in bear country, but this time we decided to proceed quietly for a while. A bit later a very loud whoop sounded right in front of us, behind a bend on the trail. We stopped, turned our cameras on and crept forward as quietly as possible.
There he was! We almost missed him, but the moved. Sitting on a big rock on the right side of the trail was a big macho of a bird, with his chest and eyebrow feathers in full mating colors. If he had stood still and quiet, we would have walked right by him. He wasn’t very spooked though, just walked off the rock slowly and into the bushes on the other side of the trail. He even vocalized a few more times.
Soon we entered a burn area, fairly recent by the looks of it. I don’t know which fire this was. The vista opened up, we could look all the way back to Tiltill Valley, now almost 2,000’ below us. There was even a glimpse of the reservoir in the distance. Here the trail turns north, and after a bit more climbing it levels out, crossing a boggy meadow with a seasonal-looking creek. There were a few snow banks left, enough for Em to start pummeling me with snowballs.
It was around noon when we caught the first glimpse of the valley before us where Lake Vernon should be, with Moraine Ridge on the far side. This is where the vegetation changes, the forest thins out and everything becomes more rock-strewn. We started our descent and soon saw the lake, too. Needless to say, the vista is amazing, there’s the lake, the ridge, cascades and waterfalls where the water gushes in from Falls Creek and (unseen) Lake Branigan, then gushes out via the famous Lake Vernon cascades. To the west, one can see all the way into the Hetch Hetchy area, but the reservoir itself is hidden from view.
The descent is not terribly steep and the lake comes into view more and more with each turn. We were a bit hungry so we took a quick snack break, then proceeded to the lakeshore. A few campsites presented themselves on the shore, but they looked too exposed. Let’s check the other side.
First we had to stop and explore the cascades. There a sturdy wooden bridge to get across, right at the outlet, and the water really goes crazy just about there. The cascades are a few dozen feet wide and at least a quarter mile long. The amount of water rushing out is hard to describe. The sheer mechanical power of all that mass flowing by is very humbling. We took our time, snapping pictures from both sides and a bit downstream.
At the outlet itself we could see that the lake is at least two feet above its normal level, many trees were standing in water.
Just past the bridge, there’s a junction, with one trail going left (south-west) towards Hetch Hetchy, the other following the shore, dead-ending at a ranger station after about a mile. We heard there are great campsites between the trail and the lake. The trail was flooded in a few spots, but we could get around them. On a hunch, we followed a faint use trail into the trees and found an amazing spot, sheltered from view and wind.
The weather looked somewhat unstable, we could hear thunder from far away, so we pitched the tent quickly and ate lunch. It drizzled a tiny little bit, but didn’t turn into proper rain.
After squaring away everything, we went back to the trail and walked towards the ranger station. There’s a huge camp area a bit further down, with most sites in close proximity to each other and rather exposed. Two separate parties set up here, but we could only see one guy, walking around on the rocks.
We wanted to get a better look at the Falls Creek cascades, so we left the trail, contouring north, climbing a bit to get a view, with mixed results. Finally, we skirted back to the south and found ourselves right above the ranger station. A bit of bushwhacking got us back to the building and the trail. The station was closed, but firewood was neatly stacked by the entrance, looking freshly cut.
A use trail took us to the creek, flowing very placidly here. There was fresh bear poop and a big dry log destroyed by a bear (to get to the termites inside) – no bear, however. I’m sure he was close, but scattered as soon as he heard humans.
On the way back, we had to divert from the trail because of flooded segments, but we found some tree frogs (Pseudacris sierra). This time, they were light gray with black spots, an ideal combination to blend with the small rocks. They change their color almost like chameleons, just much slower (it takes at least a few hours, sometimes days).
Then we saw two newts (Taricha sierrae). Super-cool animals, looking like tiny dragon babies. Sometime during the spring there are thousands of them crawling to the water, but that happens a bit later in the season. Another fun fact: their skin contains a deadly toxin, but it's only dangerous to humans if you eat them. So don't.
The sun came out for a while, then the clouds came back, it drizzled again a bit, but stopped soon. It looked like it’s going to be all the same for the rest of the afternoon – which we didn’t mind.
We even took a shower and I tried fishing for a few minutes before remembering the frogs and realizing that this is one of those lakes where the trout has been removed to protect the amphibians.
Dusk was amazing, with the low sun peeking below the cloud cover, lighting up the southern side of Mt. Gibson. The wind died down and we were in a protected cove anyway, so the mosquitoes attacked. Em made another fire, this time also to warm herself. She sat around too long and it was getting chilly.
Some deer visited us, grazing around our campsite, but minding their own business.
We let the fire die down during dinner, then went to bed early. Tomorrow’s going to be another long day.
Day 3 – Lake Vernon to Hetch Hetchy and L.A.
The plan was to hike out (about 11 miles) and drive home, meaning we got up at 5am. It was a chilly morning, but not very cold as the cloud cover stayed through the night. At least it wasn’t windy or raining.
We left at 6:45am, finding our way back to the trail and following it past the junction. The clouds broke, the sun came out – it was beautiful.
The trail climbs out of the valley, meeting the main trail coming from Jack Main Canyon. We only had another 9 miles from here to Hetch Hetchy, with a 3,000’ drop in elevation. First the descent is mild, it’s easy going in the forest. We found a few more patches of violets and some beautiful, bright-red snow plants (Sarcodes sanguinea), newly emerged from under the snow cover. These are very unique-looking plants. They can’t photosynthesize, hence no green parts, and they “steal” nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi. Check out Wikipedia for more details.
Over half of the drop is on the last two miles of the hike. The forest thins out a bit and the reservoir comes into view with the top of Kolana Rock actually below the level of line of sight.
We took a snack break and couple a dozen more photos of the wildflowers, then dove down.
Man, is it steep. Going down was easy, but I wouldn’t want to come up here in the summer when it’s hot. It’s astonishingly beautiful, though. The trail turns into a veritable road, with a few spots even paved. Day hikers started coming our way, some dressed like for a night out in the city. Whatever.
11am found us on the lakeshore’s main trail, and though we couldn’t help it but stop a few more times for photos, half an hour later we were back by the car.
On the way home, we stopped in Coulterville. I can highly recommend this little town. It’s extremely charming, sort of “genuine” old West and the food at Cakewalk Heirloom Baking Co. is to die for.
We can’t wait to go back here, but the trip has to be timed right. It’s either a full winter trip (the road to the dam is open most of the time) or another spring trip again, maybe in a year with less water. Everybody advises against starting here in the summer as the valley gets very hot and it’s an awful grind to climb out of it. We’ll see.
Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.