Four Great Hikes In Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Area
By Dan Sanchez
Most visitors to Yosemite hike along the valley floor, but the Hetch Hetchy area offers many unknown surprises. Native inhabitants lived in Hetch Hetchy for more than 6,000 years. Historians claim the Miwock Indians called it hetchhetchie, as the word means “edible grasses”. In 1913 the federal government passed the Raker Act, which permitted the construction of a dam that would flood the Hetch Hetchy valley. While the glacier carved valley still remains under water, Wampa Falls still pours water into the reservoir. This hike is not as popular as others, but it takes you through a variety of interesting and historical structures.
The Wampa Falls hike is an easy 5.5 miles round trip trek and can be seen from the O’Shaughnessy Dam that was finished in 1923. Starting from Yosemite Valley, take highway 120 north and exit at the Big Oak Flat gate. Turn at the Evergreen Road that leads to Hetch Hetchy, and follow it for 16 miles. The road will end at a parking lot near the reservoir. The lot just pased the reservoir is closest to the Wampa Falls trail head. You begin by crossing the O’Shaughnessy Dam. On the southern edge of the reservoir, you’ll see Kolana Rock, a large granite dome that remains when the glacier carved out the valley.
The trail then takes you past Tueeulala Falls that drops 840 feet before you get to beautiful patches of wildflowers. Afterwards, you’ll find yourself at the base of Wampa Fall. There are several bridges that span the cascades at the base of Wapama Falls. On a hot summer day, the spray can be cool and refreshing and is sure to get you wet. The trial is mostly exposed, without trees and shade. So it’s a good idea to bring sun protection and plenty of water. During the spring seasons when the water level is high, the trail can be ankle deep in streams that cross it. So good, water-proof boots or quick drying boots are in order.
The Rancheria Falls trail is another in the Hetch Hetchy area. The trail continues past Wapama Fall and is much longer at 13-miles round trip. You can make it an extended day hike or get a wilderness pass and make it a two-day backpack excursion. Either way, you’ll see beautiful views of the valley and experience the Rancheria mountains that make up the northwest wilderness of Yosemite.
If you want a challenge, the Smith Peak trail reaches 7,751 feet, the highest point in the area. You can start this hike from the entrance station before you get to Hetch Hetchy, just passed the Mather Ranger Station. The trial is 13-miles round trip that spans 3,700 feet in elevation gain. The Smith Peak trails are often used to get into the high country.
When you want to experience the backcountry, try the The Laurel/Vernon/Rancheria loop. This 29-mile hike offers spectacular views of Hetch Hetchy,and several high-Sierra lakes. The first four miles of this loop follow the old Lake Eleanor Road as it climbs out of the valley. You can take a leisurely pace making 8-miles per day, and enjoy a say at Lake Vernon, Laurel Lake, and Lake Eleanor. For more information on any of Yosemitie’s hiking and backpacking trails, vist www.nps.gov/yose