Yosemite’s Valley’s Little Sister: Hetch Hetchy

The grandeur of the Yosemite Valley goes undisputed, but just a short distance away, the Hetch Hetchy Valley quietly affords views and beauty that rival its more popular sibling. In the northwest section of Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy quietly collects a grand array of wildflowers, waterfalls, and majestic California Black Oaks. Hiking the trails around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir delivers views and beauty similar to those of the Yosemite Valley, often without the crowds.

Carved by an ancient glacier and settled by a 6,000 year old native culture, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded by the damming of the Tuolumne River in the early 1900s. Providing high value water and power to the San Francisco Bay area, this gravity system sends 180 billion gallons of water to the city daily, so pure it needs no filtration.

The dam structure itself is startlingly large. Staring down the impressive 400-foot high dam wall is not for the faint of heart. It’s a big drop. So are the waterfalls at Wapama and Rancheria, sending flows down as much as a 1,300-foot tumble that is markedly more dramatic during spring runoff. The power exhibited by the flow commands respect from the first view.

Such water wealth translates to bowers of wildflowers along the banks and meadows, showing off lupine, wallflowers, and buttercups among the gorgeous gray pines. Hikes through the area are magnificent adventures, taking in the flora and fauna with a variety of exertion levels.

Easy hikes to Wapama Falls and Lookout Point require an hour or two investment. More serious walks to Rancheria Falls and Smith Peak ask more of your muscles and time, taking between six and eight hours to complete the round trip. A strenuous climb through the Poopenaut Valley, while only three miles and two hours, makes the most of a steep trail with quick asccess to the Tuolumne River, descending 1,229 feet to the dam below.

Debates are ongoing with regard to the Hetch Hetchy dam and its effect on this lovely valley. Regardless, the area’s pristine beauty remains a draw for hikers, photographers, and artists, providing a majestic landscape with multiple uses.