Want to visit Yosemite but looking to avoid the 3.7 million tourists that coat the valley floor each year? Hetch Hetchy is your answer. Located in the Northwest corner of the park, Hetch Hetchy sees much less traffic throughout the year, but offers all of the classic beauty that Yosemite landscapes have to offer.
No stranger to controversy, Hetch Hetchy, once a mirror image of Yosemite Valley, was John Muir’s favorite corner of the park. In 1913, however, work began on the O’Shaughnessy Dam by government decree, flooding the valley to house water for the thirsty San Francisco area. The surrounding steep granite walls now make much of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir inaccessible, apart from the trail along the north rim.
Routes: You can easily do one night, two night, or even multi-night backpacking trips out of Hetch Hetchy. A few of my favorites are:
One Night: Rancheria Falls (6.3 miles) out and back. You’ll spend the bulk of the hike along the northern shore of the reservoir, passing Tueeulala Falls and 1,400 foot Wapama Falls along the way. The trail rolls up and down, with not much elevation gain until you reach Rancheria. I had Rancheria Falls completely to myself earlier this week. You can’t say that about many places in Yosemite.
Two Night: Vernon Lake (10.3 miles), Rancheria Falls (9.3 miles), O’Shaughnessy Dam (6.3 miles). Leave early as the switchback route up from the reservoir is only partially shaded.
Three Night: Laurel Lake (7.1 miles), Vernon Lake (7.4 miles), Rancheria Falls (9.3 miles), O’Shaughnessy Dam (6.3 miles). If you like to fish, both Laurel and Vernon are supposedly full of rainbow trout. This trip gives you the best experience of high-Sierra lakes and access to the park’s northernmost wilderness.
When to go: At under 4,000 feet in elevation, Hetch Hetchy is the lowest part of Yosemite. The area can get unbearably hot during the summer months, especially with the added heat radiating back off of the reservoir. Winter, spring, or fall would be my chosen time to go, although the high-Sierra lakes make for good swimming in summer.
Wilderness Permit: A wilderness permit is required if you plan to stay overnight. You can get your free permit right at the Hetch Hetchy Yosemite entrance. There is an overnight parking lot close to the dam and the ranger will give you a parking permit. Be sure to take all food out of your car and place it in the bear lockers by the parking lot unless you want your car broken into. If you arrive later in the day, you can camp overnight in the backpackers campground then set out early the next morning on your trip.
- Snakes: Rattlesnakes love the lower elevations and warm temps of Hetch Hetchy. I thankfully did not see any earlier this week but Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd (a.k.a. @calipidder), who was there just a couple of days before me, said her friends saw three on the trail.
- Poison Oak: The toxic plant seems to love Hetch Hetchy, as the trails are covered in the stuff. Bring Tecnu if you are particularly sensitive to poison oak and be mindful where you step when hiking.
- Bears: Rancheria Falls is known for quite a bit of bear activity so bring that bear can (it is required in Yosemite and can be rented from the Hetch Hetchy entrance station).
- Bugs: I got chowed on whenever I hit the shade by both mosquitoes and small flies. Wear insect repellent clothing if possible.
- Water Levels: If you are backpacking in early spring, be aware that the Wapama Falls bridge might be closed and many creeks, such as Frog Creek, impassable due to water levels. Don’t be dumb and try to cross bridges or streams if the water is raging- too many people have died in Yosemite trying to do just that.
Priest Station Cafe: Along the Hwy 120 route into Yosemite, sits this infamous cafe and general store. Be sure to stop on your way in or out as the food is amazing, especially after four days on the trail. Owned by Conrad Anker and his family, the cafe has been around since 1849 and in the Anker family since 1853. It’s a historical Yosemite institution.