Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir; undiscovered but stunning part of Yosemite!

Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir, looking east from trail on the north shore trail of the reservoir.

The trail along the north shore of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, looking back towards the dam.

The Hetch Hetchy Dam, started in 1919, completed in 1923 and further heightened in 1938, it now floods the valley and creates a reservoir that is 8 miles long, and up to 300 feet deep.

Hetch Hetchy Watershed at top, the much-more visited Yosemite Valley (to the south) at bottom of map.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley and free-flowing Tuolumne River, in the early 1900s, before the dam was approved.

A portion of the ferocious Rim Fire of a year ago, that burned vast swathes of forest in and around Yosemite Park; this view looking to the northeast, into the Tuolumne River drainage, with Hetch Hetchy in distance.

The old post office in Chinese Camp, part of a three block Gold Rush ghost town, right on Hwy. 120, on the way to Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Tuolumne Valley are close cousins to the mighty Yosemite Valley, virtually undiscovered and almost equally stunning.  Hetch Hetchy is just 115 miles and a scenic day-tour from Stockton!

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was the scene of one of the most epic environmental battles 100 years ago, as John Muir, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups fought to keep this valley pristine and free of development.

Muir's exploration of both Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite, and writings in the influential Century Magazine, helped to get Yosemite National Park established in 1890. However, the much less-visited Hetch Hetchy Valley portion of the park remained in peril.

San Francisco had eyed the valley for extending its water supply since the 1890s and applied several times to the federal government for water rights but was denied. The huge San Francisco earthquake in 1906, when much of the city burned, underlined the city's need for more water and turned the political winds in the city’s favor.

In 1908, US Secretary of interior Garfield granted the city the rights to development of the Tuolumne River, provoking a multi-year environmental battle led by the Sierra Club and John Muir. Muir observed, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well damn for water tanks the peoples’ cathedrals and churches for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man".

In 1913, writing to Robert Johnson of Century Magazine, he pressed his argument, noting "The Hetch Hetchy Valley is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its sublime cliffs and waterfalls and it's peaceful river, but in the gardens, groves, meadows and campgrounds on its flowery park-like floor". He would continue to fight the city of San Francisco to his death in 1914.

Muir's writings are archived at the University of Pacific and can be read online at

In 1913, the US Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Raker Act, which permitted the flooding of the valley. Muir died the following year, bitter to have lost the fight. Construction on the O’Shaughnessy Dam would begin in 1919 and end in 1923; it was further heightened in 1938 and now supplies water to almost 2.5 million San Franciscans.

What remains is a still stunning valley and pristine 8-mile long reservoir, nearly the equal of Yosemite Valley, and visitors have this part of the park almost unto themselves and can still appreciate the treasure that so stoked John Muir’s soul.

One can drive to the parking lot right beside the O'Shaughnessy Dam. Views from the dam are memorable, but hike a half-mile or several miles along the north side of the reservoir for the most indelible views.  Hetch Hetchy’s relatively low elevation makes for one of the central Sierra’s longest hiking seasons, but, check weather forecasts for winter trips.

Looking up the valley, on the right one sees the massive Kolana Rock, on the left, the Hetch Hetchy Dome. The view extends east, up the reservoir and through the Tuolumne Valley; serious hikers can continue even further east into the Tuolumne Meadows area. Hikers will find varied views both remarkable, and reminiscent of nearby Yosemite Valley.

Crossing the dam, our trail took us past the base of Tueeulala Falls, dry for lack of snowmelt, and to the base of Wapama Falls, surging mightily with early snow melt. It's about a 2 mile hike from the dam to Wapama Falls on an easy, well-maintained trail (note to self: return in April or May to admire these falls when more water is flowing!).

The discussion over water supplied to San Francisco, and ongoing battle over restoration of the valley by removing the dam, continues – but entering our fourth year of California drought, probably won't gain traction in the near-term. Until then, pack your binoculars and camera and set forth on a serious day tour, or longer!  If you are planning a longer trip to Yosemite in general, include a day to tour Hetch Hetchy!

One of the side benefits of such a trip is you pass through a couple of historic towns worth a stop. Chinese Camp is a true Gold Rush ghost town, right on Highway 120. Take the walk down the three block stretch of Main Street, with an old abandoned hotel, post office, merchant’s buildings, rooming house and homes slowly moldering away. Just up the hill on Main is the St. Francis Xavier Mission Church/cemetery, established in 1854.  You will find family plots and pioneer tombstones dating to the 1860s.

Groveland is closer to Hetch Hetchy, also on Hwy. 120, a quaint Gold Rush town catering to tourists with the historic Groveland Hotel, jail dating to 1854 and Groveland Pizza, on north edge of town, a fine family food stop.

Camp Mather and Mather Family Camp, just nine miles from Hetch Hetchy, offers a store, restaurant and variety of accommodations, from cabins to lodge, in a bucolic wooded setting. Vast stands of scorched forest along Evergreen Road, both before and after Camp Mather, offer mute testimony to the ferocious Rim Fire of a year ago.

How to get there: From Stockton, 115 miles, 2.75 hours. Take Highway 4 east to Copperopolis, turn right on O'Byrnes Ferry Road, take a left on highway 120/108 and follow Highway 120 past Chinese camp and Groveland. Then, left on Evergreen Road to the reservoir.  Leave early, particularly if you want time to see Chinese Camp and Groveland; and this portion of Yosemite closes at 5 PM.

What to take: Pack cold weather gear, binoculars, camera and snacks for the trip. Fishing rods and your CA fishing license!
For more information: Yosemite National Park, go to; call 209/372-0200 (then dial 3, then 5) or by mail: Public Information Office, PO Box 577, Yosemite, CA 95389 (the park does charge a day-use fee).
For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me,
Happy travels in the West!

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