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NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Hetch Hetchy's hush

A Yosemite-adjacent parkland of abundant beauty is a little-known find for hikers and campers. The serenity nevertheless permits a wet and wild white-water experience.

August 30, 2009|Dan Blackburn

HETCH HETCHY, CALIF. — You might say it was a family challenge. My daughter Courtney was graduating from high school, so I asked what she wanted to do to celebrate. She replied, "Go camping somewhere we never have been that is less than a day's drive from Los Angeles."

Not a simple request. We've done a lot of California camping. Out came the road map, familiar Yosemite in the middle. But what was that spot northwest of the park? Two words. Hetch Hetchy. Challenge met.

If Southern Californians know anything about Hetch Hetchy, it's probably that the reservoir there provides drinking water to San Francisco and that the damming of the Tuolumne River stirred controversy that continues to this day. The O'Shaughnessy Dam took 20 years to build and was completed in 1934, creating a lake eight miles long and more than 300 feet deep. The dam and reservoir sit just inside the Yosemite National Park boundary. The rest of the Hetch Hetchy area is contained within the Stanislaus National Forest.

For would-be visitors, however, the most impressive statistic is the comparison between the number of people who visit Yosemite Valley and those who visit Hetch Hetchy. Yosemite: 3 million a year, most in the summer. Hetch Hetchy: 50,600 a year. Most come from the Bay Area. In fact, Hetch Hetchy may be San Francisco's best-kept secret.

After some research, we piled into our car and headed off for the six-hour drive to the Dimond O Campground, where we would spend the week. Joining us was my daughter's good friend Celine, who had signed on for her first real camping trip. She could not have asked for a better location. Stately sequoias towered above our campsite while whispered sounds of the Tuolumne River, just a few yards away, lulled us to sleep at night. There was even a natural swimming hole by the riverbank.

The campground was well maintained, with plenty of room between campsites, and, as the girls quickly noted, restrooms were nearby.

We promptly popped up our tents -- one for the girls and one for me. Next came a couple of camp chairs and storing food and other cooking items in the metal bear box at the campsite. (Since campgrounds in national forests and parks started installing the bear-proof boxes, potentially dangerous encounters between hungry black bears and campers have dropped to near zero.)

Once we had settled in, we took time to explore the immediate area and then started making our plans for the rest of our stay.

First up was the almost mandatory visit to the controversial reservoir. That meant stopping at the National Park Service ranger station, where we chatted with Clarisa Flores, a 12-year veteran of Hetch Hetchy and our candidate for helpful and informative park service ranger of the year.

I asked what it was about Hetch Hetchy that appealed so strongly to her. "The quiet," she said. "When people come out here, it actually feels like a national park should. You can hear the birds sing. You have to get out of your car and walk and explore it. It's for people who are looking for something different. It is a place to hike and backpack. We actually get more backpackers than we do cars. And people always seem to want to tell us what a nice time they had."

In 1870, John Muir said the Hetch Hetchy Valley was "a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite." As I stood on O'Shaughnessy Dam, I could see what Muir was talking about. As I gazed along the reservoir, a granite cliff that strongly resembled the upper half of Yosemite's famed El Capitan rose to my left. Next to it tumbled Wapama Falls, and across the way sat a familiar-looking granite dome.

Miles of scenic trails

Flores was right: This is a place for people who like to hike. From the dam to the base of Wapama Falls is an easy five-mile round trip. The trail meanders through some shady areas and over sunbaked rock and was lined with wildflowers in shades of white, purple, lavender and pink. A fine mist spread over the trail at the base of Wapama Falls, providing a refreshing spray.

Four miles farther on, backpackers and hearty hikers can stop at Rancheria Falls and, from there, trek into the wilderness of the Yosemite high country. We, however, had other stops on our agenda.

As we headed from the reservoir, we passed through Camp Mather -- a summer camp owned and operated by the city of San Francisco for use by its residents. The camp may be best known for its Strawberry Music Festivals featuring bluegrass music on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The camp has several cabins, a small lake for swimming, a general store and a stable that offers horseback rides.

One of our friends who had recently visited Hetch Hetchy -- mountaineering guide Doug Robinson -- had insisted that we check out Evergreen Lodge. Doug's advice usually is worth following, and this was no exception.

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