Situated in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park, west of Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy Valley is a hidden gem that’s often overlooked by visitors.
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Yosemite Valley attracts millions of visitors each year, while Hetch Hetchy remains relatively unknown and sees only a fraction of the visitors, even during the busy summer months. It’s a peaceful area to escape the crowds and appreciate the gorgeous scenery of this part of Yosemite Park.
We discovered Hetch Hetchy on our recent visit to Yosemite with the help of ECHO Cooperative, a hiking and outdoor adventure company based in Yosemite. For us, Hetch Hetchy was the perfect introduction to the park and a beautiful and quiet spot to explore on our recent visit to the Yosemite area.
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We’ll go even as far as to say that hiking in Hetch Hetchy was more enjoyable than in Yosemite Valley. It’s definitely an experience we want to share with others. So we hope our guide below (along with our photos) will inspire you to visit Wapama Falls during your time in Yosemite National Park.
History of Hetch Hetchy
Hetch Hetchy’s history dates back to the early 1900s when a major earthquake in San Francisco caused a lot of damage and led to widespread fires. The disaster created an urgent need for a stable water supply, and the Hetch Hetchy Dam was designed to fill that role.
The dam was a massive undertaking, a creation by the same engineer who built the famous Hoover Dam. Designed as a gravity-fed system without the need for pumps, Hetch Hetchy was created to allow water to flow naturally all the way to San Francisco.
Today, some 90 years later, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir still serves as the main water source for San Francisco, supplying around 65% of the city’s drinking water as well as hydroelectric power to the surrounding Bay Area.
The dam’s construction faced strong opposition from conservationists, as the reservoir project resulted in the submersion of the once-majestic valley beneath the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.
Despite human intervention, the beauty of Hetch Hetchy Valley as it stands today is undeniable. The towering peaks, gushing waterfalls and shimmering waters of the reservoir are just as stunning as the views of Yosemite Valley … if not better! Most people visiting this area are here to hike and not just snap pretty photos for the ‘gram. It’s quieter, more relaxing and a lot more enjoyable!
So let’s get into some more specifics about visiting Hetch Hetchy.
How to Get to Hetch Hetchy Valley
It’s important to note that Hetch Hetchy Valley is located in the Northern part of Yosemite National Park, about 35 miles (1-hour drive) from Yosemite Valley.
If you are planning to visit Hetch Hetchy, we recommend dedicating an entire day to visiting this section of the park rather than combining it with time in Yosemite Valley.
The entrance to the Hetch Hetchy area is located off of Hwy 120, between the town of Groveland and Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy Road, also known as Evergreen Road, winds its way through thick forest, past Rushcreek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge. (Both serve as fabulous spots to stay for 1 or 2 nights while exploring the area – but more on that later)
Take Evergreen Road for about 20 miles (32km) until you reach the Hetch Hetchy entrance.
Note that there is an entrance fee to Yosemite National Park, which is $35 per vehicle for a 7-day pass as of 2023, which can be paid at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station.
If you’re planning to visit other areas of the park, such as Yosemite Valley, you may want to consider purchasing an Annual Pass or America the Beautiful Pass.
Once you reach the Hetch Hetchy entrance, you’ll need to park your vehicle in the parking lot. The parking lot is located near the trailhead, on the southern end of the dam bridge. Parking is free, but spaces can fill up quickly, especially during peak season. If the lot is full, you may need to park along the road. But, be sure to obey any posted signs or regulations.
About Echo Cooperative
As mentioned before, we opted to explore Hetch Hetchy with a local guide, Bryant, from ECHO Cooperative, a B-corp hiking and outdoor adventure company based in Yosemite.
The name “ECHO” stands for “Environment, Community, Health, and Outdoor Adventure,” their name perfectly reflects their mission and ethos. The cooperative is owned and run by guides, who get a percentage of the profits of the business. They develop tours, give guide training, do admin work, promote the company and its services, and also take visitors on the trails. They are jacks of all trades in the business and manage to do it with enthusiasm and passion for the great outdoors and the beautiful Yosemite National Park.
In the busy summer season, they offer group trips along popular hiking trails within Yosemite Valley. This includes half-day and full-day trips, as well as longer backcountry camping trips and fishing trips.
Hiking to Wapama Falls
There are a number of trails in Hetch Hetchy Valley, including
- Lookout Point Trail, a 3 km (2 miles) round trip with a moderate elevation gain of 680 ft (207 m) that brings hikers to a rocky outcropping overlooking the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
- Wapama Falls, an 8 km (5 miles) round trip with 507 ft (155 m) elevation gain that follows the shoreline of the reservoir and offers views of both Tueeulala and Wapama Falls
- Rancheria Falls is a more strenuous 21 km (13 mi) round trip with a 1909 ft (581 m) elevation change that continues past Wapama Falls to Rancheria Falls. This hike can be done as a long day or overnight trip.
- Smith Peak, a 21 km (13 miles) round trip with 3,700 feet (1128 m) of elevation gain, offers access to the highest point in the area and outstanding views.
- Poopenaut Valley, a 4 km (2.5 miles) round trip with steep descends and 1279 ft (390 m) of elevation gain – a difficult workout for particularly active visitors.
- Laurel/Vernon/Rancheria Loop is a multi-day, 47 km (29 miles) round trip hike with 5929 ft (1807 m) elevation gain that includes spectacular views of Hetch Hetchy, high Sierra lakes, and provides access to the park’s vast northwest wilderness.
During our visit, we embarked on the most popular hike in Hetch Hetchy Valley, a trip to the beautiful Wapama Falls. For us, the hike offered a perfect combination of great views of the valley and the waterfalls while being short and relatively easy – perfect afternoon adventure!
Our hike began at the dam, where our guide, Bryant, shared some insights into the history of Hetch Hetchy and its significance not only to the Yosemite area but to the greater Bay Area.
After crossing the dam, we passed through the tunnel and set off on a relatively flat path that snakes around the reservoir. The trail was rocky but partially shaded, offering some reprieve from the hot afternoon sun. Along the way, we crossed several streams and passed by some smaller waterfalls, including Tueeulala Falls.
With the snowy mountain peaks in the background, the scenery was pretty spectacular. It offers a stark contrast between the striking colours of the waters of the reservoir against the jagged peaks of the valley.
About halfway along the trail, the views opened up, giving us a peak into the stunning scenery of the Hetch Hetchy Valley that lay ahead. For us, it was the first sighting of the beauty of Yosemite. Also, the views were even more impressive than we could have expected.
We snapped some photos and continued along the trail. It wasn’t long before we reached Wapama Falls, a powerful multi-tier waterfall cascading down granite cliffs and crashing down into the reservoir below.
If we were hiking on our own, we would have turned around at the last wooden bridge to start making our way back. But Bryant lead us past the bridge to an amazing spot overlooking the valley tucked away behind a peak in front of the falls. That’s the beauty of hiking with a local guide – we would have never found this special spot on our own.
After a scenic lunch break, we headed back along the trail past the impressive Wapama Falls back to O’Shaughnessy Dam.
We managed to complete the hike in under 3 hours and enjoyed a lengthy stop at the falls for a picnic with a view. We also stopped many times en route and on the way back for photos and to learn more about the flora and fauna of the park from Bryant.
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Travel Tips and Advice
- A visit to Hetch Hetchy is worth it, even if you do not have time for a 2-3 hours hike to Wapama Falls. The O’Shaughnessy Dam is a marvel of engineering, but besides that, it’s also a great spot for photos, with views of the reservoir and surrounding mountains. If you only have an hour to spare, it’s worth a detour en route to Yosemite Valley.
- Hike according to your fitness Level. Wapama Falls hike is rated as moderate but is generally suitable for most fitness levels. It’s long but relatively flat, although it could be challenging for kids (especially stream crossing). Always hike to your fitness level. Don’t be ashamed to turn around if the trail becomes too much for you or another member of your hiking party.
- Watch out for poison oak. Thanks to our guide, Bryant, we had a heads-up every time we passed a poison oak plant along the trail. If you are hiking without a guide, be extra vigilant. Look up photos of poison oak to make sure you know what to look out for when you are on the trail.
- Dress for the occasion. The trail to Wapama Falls gets rocky and slippery at times. So, we highly recommend wearing good sturdy footwear, like hiking boots.
- Carry water. Carry water and pack snacks to enjoy at the end of the trail. Even if you have just eaten before the hike, the exercise will make you hungry – trust us!
- There are no facilities along the way, so make sure you use the bathroom before you set off.
- Leave your pets at home. They are unfortunately not allowed on the trail. One of the reasons for that is that bears are also frequently sighted in the area, particularly in the first quarter mile hike where the trail passes through a valley. Keep your eyes peeled and exercise bear caution when hiking in small groups.
- Be aware of the water flow. The volume of water flowing down Wapama Falls can vary throughout the year. During periods of high flow, the mist and spray can be quite intense. So, take care of yourselves and your belongings, especially electronics, as mist can easily be too much for a camera.
- Respect nature and leave no trace. It should go without saying, but we feel inclined to remind you to preserve the natural beauty of Wapama Falls by adhering to Leave No Trace principles. Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photographs. Respect wildlife, stay on designated trails, and pack out any trash or waste.
Disclaimer: We visited Hetch Hetchy as guests of Visit Tuolumne County, but, as always, all opinions expressed int his article are our own.