This is an amazing hike! I have been to Yosemite multiple times, but had never been to Hetch Hetchy and actually didn’t even realize it was part of Yosemite.
Why is there a dam in the middle of a National Park?
It’s worth learning the history of Hetch Hetchy before you explore this area. Until recently, the extent of my knowledge of this area was “that’s where we get our water”. This is true – if you live in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, or San Mateo Counties then this is where you’re water comes from. It is some of the best tap water I’ve ever had, but there’s more to the story – it’s complicated and somewhat tragic in my opinion.
It all started with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which caused a series of fires that burned for days and destroyed 25,000 buildings. This highlighted the fact that there was no reliable water source for the growing city. San Francisco applied for the rights to Hetch Hetchy in 1908. Despite protests by the Sierra Club, John Muir, and other activists, Congress signed the Raker Act in 1913 to allow the construction of a dam in a National Park. The O’Shaughnessy dam was completed and the reservoir filled in 1923.
Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valley are similar as they were both formed by the same sequence of geological activity. The surface of the reservoir hides 300 feet of granite cliffs and a valley floor that once was home to bears, bobcats, eagles, flowered meadows and ancient forests. This is why Hetch Hetchy is often referred to as “Lost Yosemite”.
Only 3 years after the approval of the dam, public outrage of the seizure of the valley led Congress to pass the National Park Service Act which ensures our parks are preserved & managed for the enjoyment of all. Today there is still much controversy over the area and there are many organizations who continue to fight to remove the dam, most notably Restore Hetch Hetchy.
Whatever your thoughts on the dam, it’s a gorgeous area worth exploring!
Although Hetch Hetchy is within the boundaries of Yosemite, the entrance is separate. From Highway 120, take Evergreen Road approximately 7 miles. You’ll pass through Evergreen Lodge and just past the “Gateway to the Hetch Hetchy”, take a right onto Hetch Hetchy Road. Stay on this road for another 7 miles until you see some buildings and then the dam. Day hikers can park in the lot closest to the dam. We arrived at 10am on a Tuesday in March and had no problem getting a spot.
- Distance: 5 miles
- Elevation: 200’ gain
- Our rating: Moderate
- No dogs; no strollers
- Parking: Free
- Restrooms: Yes
Starting out across O’Shaughnessy Dam
The trail begins by crossing O’Shaughnessy Dam. The views are impressive from the start: the large reservoir with Wapama Falls in the distance, looking down at the Tuolumne River from the top of the dam, and across the bridge to a long damp dark tunnel.
We thought the tunnel was a bit creepy. There were large puddles inside and we didn’t have headlamps so we couldn’t really see where we were stepping. We did see lights up on the sides of the tunnel, but they weren’t on, however they were on when we returned which made avoiding large puddles much easier!
This was the view just on the other side of the tunnel. The trail begins on a well worn gravel path. The entire trail hugs the edge of the reservoir with amazing views though we always had a decent buffer between us and the edge.
It was breezy when we parked and crossing the dam, but as soon as we were on the other side it really warmed up! We were there in March and there were lots of little waterfalls along the way. Here the trail transitioned to rock & granite. On the way back, we stopped here and cooled down in the water!
My 11-year-old is a faster hiker than me (partly because I’m always stopping to take pictures and also because he’s just fast). I’d come around a corner and see him stopped and admiring the view.
Lots of streams to cross and rocks to jump on.
At this point the trail transitioned to a rocky path with lots of stairs.
The scale of the rocks is massive!
This is a great view of Kolana Rock (on the right below). It reminded me a lot of Half Dome. Although these views are absolutely breathtaking, it was hard not to imagine what it would look like without the reservoir!
Reaching Wapama Falls
The falls were really impressive in late March!
Before the dam could be constructed, a 68-mile railroad system was built between 1915-1918 to bring supplies and workers to the remote location. After the dam was constructed, the railroad system was dismantled, but some of the old railroad ties were repurposed and used to build the bridges across Wapama Falls.
This area of Yosemite is absolutely worth visiting! It was much less crowded than the valley! We started our hike around 10am and saw a handful of other hikers as we started out and on the way to the falls. It got more crowded as we approached the falls, but people were spread out. On our way back to the trailhead, we ran into many more hikers all headed to the falls. I would definitely suggest starting the hike on the earlier side to ensure a parking spot and avoid as many people as possible. No matter how crowded it gets here, I would imagine it’s always less crowded than the valley!
Only my 11-year-old and I went on this hike. Both of us were blown away by the views and the towering granite walls. Just about every step of this hike has gorgeous expansive views of the reservoir and cliffs. My 11-yo especially loved all the rocks to hop on and all the streams that ran across the path. This hike was the first time he was testing out new hiking boots and he loved that he could walk through deep puddles and keep his feet dry – he really put them to the test! Be both rated this hike 10/10!
Check out our full guide on how to plan an epic trip to Yosemite in Spring!