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Hiking: Yosemite National Park

Hetch Hetchy--Bless You

June 23, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Almost no one living now remembers how Hetch Hetchy Valley looked before it was flooded with water in 1915. It certainly looks beautiful in old photographs and paintings. Travel books of that era and descriptions by conservationists, including John Muir, who struggled to save Hetch Hetchy say that it was second only to Yosemite Valley in grandeur.

When O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed and the waters of the Tuolumne river impounded, the valley became an eight-mile-long reservoir, providing water for the city of San Francisco, as it does today.

We can imagine how the pre-dam valley appeared while hiking along its northern wall. Even with its floor flooded, the valley is something to behold.

Like Yosemite Valley, the Hetch Hetchy area is characterized by dramatic granite domes, cliffs and crags. Both valleys display the handiwork of ancient glaciers. Both boast mighty waterfalls.

Hetch Hetchy's Wapama Falls spills 1,200 feet over a granite precipice. The falls are spawned by Falls Creek, a tributary of the Tuolumne River. At the end of the hike is tiny Rancheria Falls, providing a little water music for an inspiringly situated trail camp.

Linking the waterfalls is a path along the north side of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It's a fairly low elevation pathway and, therefore, makes an enticing early season Sierra jaunt. In the spring, Hetch Hetchy's falls are at their most vigorous.

Directions to trail head: From California 120, a mile west of Big Oak Flat entrance station, take the Hetch Hetchy turnoff and follow Evergreen Road, then Hetch Hetchy Road 16 miles to its end at the parking lot above O'Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

The hike: Proceed across the dam, reading en route the interpretive plaques detailing the dimensions of the dam and reservoir. Look to the north side of the canyon to view Hetch Hetchy Dome and Wapama Falls.

Travel through a 500-foot-long tunnel, emerging to join an old road that leads over gray pine-dotted slopes.

A mile out, you'll reach a junction and head right (east) as the road gives way to a footpath. In another half mile, pass by seasonal Tueeulala Falls and in another half mile spot Wapama Falls, soon reached by winding trail.

With the falls roaring in your ears, cross a couple branches of Fall Creek on a series of wood and steel bridges, then climb oak-covered (and poison oak--watch out) slopes.

About four miles out, the trail levels, crosses a footbridge over a creek at five miles, then climbs past some inviting swimming holes and water slides located along the creek. At the six-mile mark, reach a junction with a connector trail that leads to a Ponderosa pine and incense cedar-shaded campsite located below Rancheria Falls.

Stick with the main trail for another half mile to reach a bridge over Rancheria Creek that's located just above the falls. Enjoy the inspiring vista before retracing your steps back to the trail head.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Hetch Hetchy Trail

Where: Yosemite National Park

Distance: To Wapama Falls is 4 miles round trip; to Rancheria Falls is 13 miles round trip with 800- foot elevation gain.

Terrain: North wall of hetch hetchy Reservoir.

Highlights: Impressive valley and waterfalls.

Degree of Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.

For More Information: Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; tel. (209) 372-1000.

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