Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valleys in a dry water year; still not to be missed!


A two-mile hike, climbing 700 vertical feet from the valley floor takes one to the base of 300 foot Vernal Falls, still impressive even with reduced water flows.

Hanging Rock juts from Glacier Point, with Yosemite Falls, running low on water, across the Yosemite Valley.
Tourists hang from Glacier Point observation walk, with Half Dome looming in background.
O’Shaunessy Dam, completed in 1923 and heightened in 1938, impounds Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and floods Hetch Hetchy Valley, for water bound for San Francisco,
Wapama Falls thunders 1,080 feet in three segments into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
John Muir’s letter to magazine publisher Robert Johnson, in 1913, makes the case for saving Hetch Hetchy Valley (photo courtesy of UOP Holt-Atherton archives)
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, with Hetch Hetchy Dome on left, Kalana Rock looming on right.

John Muir, gazing at the Yosemite landscape in 1869, wrote, “I gained the noblest view of the summit peaks I have ever yet enjoyed. Nearly all the upper basin of the Merced was displayed, with its sublime domes and canyons, dark upsweeping forest and glorious array of white peaks deep in the sky, every feature glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire”.

My brother, visiting from Ohio two weeks ago, and I had Muir in mind, and only two days to visit the park.  Despite our fears that this lowest of all Sierra winter snowpacks would leave the area a shadow of its former self, we departed on a whirlwind trip to Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy.

We packed the rudiments for hiking and camping; a simple tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, good footwear, binoculars and a change of clothing.  We had checked and found that the RV campgrounds in Yosemite were booked, but Camp 4, the tents-only campground (favored by backpackers and rock climbers) had plenty of room.

So, we embarked early-morning, with a quick coffee stop in Groveland on the Hwy. 120 approach to the park, and made Yosemite Valley about 11:00.  I had never hiked to Vernal Falls (brother John had), and we both wanted to see the falls up close, despite water flowing about 30% of what might be normal for April.

The falls remains spectacular, even at lower water levels; the trail from the valley climbs about 1,000 vertical feet in two miles. From the top of Vernal Falls, one also has the option to climb to Nevada Falls, another 900 vertical feet.  Due to shortness of time and breath, we decided to save it for another visit!

We then trekked some of the trails in the Yosemite Valley (14 miles of lovely trails, virtually flat, circumnavigate the valley; bring your bikes!) and stopped in a meadow near the Merced River, running low but still beautiful, below El Capitan. El Cap is the largest granite monolith in the world, and, with binoculars, we searched its mighty face for climbers.  Seeing none, we searched across the valley to the south, watching two inching their way up Cathedral Spires.

We had a late pizza dinner at the Yosemite Lodge, delicious after hiking about six miles and admired nearby Yosemite Falls!  Onward to nearby Camp 4 after dinner, where we pitched a tent for $3 per head. Later that night, we would listen in on climber’s campfire chat, who were readying for assaults the next day on Yosemite’s mightiest monoliths.

The next morning, we were up early for a breakfast at Yosemite Lodge, then off to drive to Glacier Point.  This spectacular road takes you 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley. Jaw-dropping views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, the Merced River, El Capitan, Half Dome and the mighty Sierra, extend for 50 miles in three directions.  Muir himself would have stood in awe as the sun arched higher into blue skies, casting subtle shadows over some of God’s greatest creations!

From Glacier Point, we returned to Yosemite Valley, headed northwest on Hwy. 120 and made for Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Valley.  It’s a sister valley to the mighty Yosemite – just 20 miles off Hwy. 120 on Evergreen Road.

Hetch Hetchy Valley was the scene of one of the most epic environmental battles 100 years ago, as John Muir, the  fledgling Sierra Club and other environmental groups fought to keep this valley pristine.

Muir’s exploration of both Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys and writings in the influential Century Magazine helped to get Yosemite National Park established in 1890. However, the much less-visited Hetch Hetchy valley remained in peril.

San Francisco had eyed the valley for extending its water supply since the 1890s and applied several times for water rights. The huge San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and fire underlined the city’s need for more water.

In 1913, Muir noted “The Hetch Hetchy Valley is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its sublime cliffs and waterfalls and it’s peaceful river, but in the gardens, groves, meadows and campgrounds on its flowery park-like floor”. To his chagrin, Congress passed the Riker act in 1913; O’Shaughnessy Dam would begin construction in 1919, be completed in 1923 and heightened in 1938.

What remains is a still stunning valley and pristine reservoir, nearly the equal of Yosemite Valley. The drive takes one through Camp Mather, with store, restaurant, lodge and cabins. Try the Evergreen Lodge’s Reuben and barbecue tri-tip sandwiches – some of the best we’ve had in years!

One can drive to the parking lot right beside O’Shaughnessy Dam. Views from the dam are memorable, but hike a half-mile or several miles along the north side of the reservoir for the most enduring views.

Looking up the valley, on the right one sees the massive Kolana Rock, on the left, massive Hetch Hetchy Dome. The view extends east, up the reservoir and Tuolumne River; serious hikers can continue further east into the Tuolumne Meadows area.

Our trail took us past the base of Tueeulala Falls, dry for lack of snowmelt, to the base of Wapama Falls, dropping 1,080 feet with surging snow melt. It’s about a 2.5 mile hike from the dam to Wapama Falls on a well-maintained trail.  At the end of day two, we had hiked about 13 miles and seen much of the most spectacular scenery in the west!

How to get there: From Stockton, 115 miles, 2.5 hours. Take Hwy. 4 east to Copperopolis, turn right on O’Byrnes Ferry Road and follow Hwy. 120 past Chinese camp and Groveland (two great Gold Rush towns) into Yosemite. To reach Hetch Hetchy from Hwy. 120, turn north on Evergreen Road to O’Shaunessy Dam.

For more info: Go to: www.nps.gov/yose.  The park headquarters is at PO Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389-0577; phone: 209.372.0200.  Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777. 

Next week, highlights of a recent tour from Morro Bay up CA Hwy 1 to Big Sur.  For other inspirational destinations in CA, see my Record blog: blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel!

Happy travels in the West!

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