Wapama Falls is the feature waterfall of the Hetch Hetchy area. With its consistently strong flow, reported height of 1341ft, and surrounding granite formations, I tend to think of this waterfall as the Hetch Hetchy version of Bridalveil Fall (more or less).
If you get a chance to see old photos of Hetch Hetchy Valley before it got flooded from the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1911, it looks hauntingly similar to that of Yosemite Valley. The difference is you have Kolana Rock taking the place of El Capitan, and you have Wapama Falls taking the place of Bridalveil Fall (though it flows with similar vigor and flash as that of Yosemite Falls).What we tend to think about most when it comes to this waterfall is the flooded conditions we encountered on our very first visit here in early June 2002. It was a situation when the rushing waters from the waterfall actually spilled over the footbridges and granite steps near its base. However, we had never seen the waterfall do that again on our subsequent visits, and I have a theory about why that’s the case and how we can use Tueeulala Falls to tell us what the trail conditions would be before setting out on the hike (which you can read about on the Tueeulala Falls page).
Anyways, the trail to get right in front of this waterfall is said to be 5 miles round trip without much significant elevation gain (though there were some slight undulating sections). However, with Hetch Hetchy Valley being lower in elevation than Yosemite Valley, there were times when it got well into the 90s here, especially considering that most of the trail lacked shade. So wearing a hut, bringing lots of water, and putting on sunscreen was definitely a must on this trail.
From the car park by the O’Shaughnessy Dam (see directions below), we walked across the dam where we could see the panorama of Hetch Hetchy Valley looking east and the ruggedly dry Poopenaut Valley looking west. At the end of the dam, we then entered a long, dark, and drippy tunnel, which provided some relief from the heat on a hot day. Even though the tunnel was dark, there was enough daylight on both ends that we could still see where we were going while also avoiding some of the larger puddles (so we didn’t need a flashlight).Once out the other end of the tunnel, we then followed a trail that followed above the northern shores of the reservoir. At no time was the reservoir accessible (due to the steep dropoffs leading into the water with no way to get back up) though getting into the water would be prohibited anyways since it was San Francisco’s drinking water. The trail was pretty straightforward to follow as one trail junction about a mile into the hike was also well-signed (we kept right). Beyond the junction, the trail surface became more dominated by granite (which can be slippery in rain) as it also crossed a stream or two. These crossings may require some some nifty rock hopping under high water conditions.
Around this time, we also noticed a disjointed waterfall that sometimes may have better flow than Tueeulala Falls. In fact, our Topo! map even mislabeled this particular waterfall as Tueeulala Falls. Anyways, it turned out that the outflow of this waterfall was also responsible for those stream crossings mentioned above so if we saw this waterfall in high flow, we knew the stream crossing would be a bit trickier.Beyond the crossing, the trail meandered a bit more amongst a mix of granite and dirt. Throughout the entire stretch of hiking up to this point, we gained different perspectives of Kolana Rock looming across the reservoir as well as the inundated valley itself since the views were unobstructed thanks to the relative lack of vegetation here.
Finally after about 2 miles from the trailhead, we started to get underneath Tueeulala Fall. There was a footbridge at its base where we could gaze up at the falls which may or may not be impressive depending on its flow. When it was flowing well, the stretch of trail beyond the footbridge was flooded enough to wet our socks as water would flow into the top of our hiking boots. However, in all the times we did this hike, we encountered the flood only once. The rest of the time, the trail remained dry and free of issues.
The trail briefly undulated before making a longer descent across a section talus that culminated in some granite steps with part of Wapama Falls starting to come into view. After about a 1/4-mile past the base of Tueeulala Fall, we were at the first footbridge beneath Wapama Falls.
Under flooded conditions, this section of the trail was completely covered in mist with some of the stream crossing over both the bridges and the drop-off exposed granite trail in between some of the bridges. Again, we only encountered the flooded conditions once in all the times we’ve done this trail so usually traversing these footbridges was no big deal.
As for seeing Wapama Falls, the first footbridge gave us the most direct view looking right up to the top of the multi-tiered twisting waterfall. However, this side also tended to be the mistiest side so taking photos from here was tricky, especially in high flow. As we went further along the trail, the top part of the waterfall started to disappear but then we were able to see other parts of the falls as its stream seemed to break up and fan out over the many giant boulders and gullies above the footbridges.
Once we got to the end of the last footbridge, we were able to look back at both Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls together. In flood, the mist from Wapama Falls actually covered the view of Tueeulala Falls! And when we looked towards Kolana Rock and the rest of Hetch Hetchy Valley, we started to see more of the back of the valley that we weren’t able to see from the dam.
This marked the turnaround point for our out-and-back hike to Wapama Falls (we were roughly 2.5 miles from the trailhead at this point). However, we could’ve kept going beyond the footbridges towards Rancheria Falls and more of Hetch Hetchy’s backcountry. To see what the continuation of this trail was like, see the Rancheria Falls page.
Wapama Falls sits in Hetch Hetchy, which is in the remote northwest corner of Yosemite National Park. We generally drive up to Yosemite Valley from Los Angeles before getting up to Hetch Hetchy so we’ll describe this route first. It typically takes us about 6 hours to make the drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite Valley. We normally go from Los Angeles to Fresno via the I-5 and Hwy 99, then through Oakhurst and Wawona via the Hwy 41. Once in Yosemite Valley, we’d drive west towards the Big Oak Flat Road where the Hwy 120 and Hwy 140 junction. Then, we’d drive uphill on the Hwy 140 towards the Big Oak Flat Entrance (the Northwest Entrance), where we’d leave the park.
From the Big Oak Flat Entrance on the Big Oak Flat Road (Route 120), we’d shortly have to turn right at the signed turnoff for Mather and the Evergreen Road. Then, we’d follow Evergreen Road for 7.5 miles to its junction with Hetch Hetchy Road in Mather. Turning right onto Hetch Hetchy Road, we’d follow it to the parking lot by the O’Shaughnessy Dam after about seven miles. On the way, we’d have passed through another entrance fee station. The two-lane road was a bit narrow in places so we had to drive slowly. Eventually, we’d reach a car park next to the dam. The drive from Yosemite Valley to the car park at the O’Shaugnessy Dam took us less than 90 minutes.
From San Francisco, we’d drive east towards Pleasanton, then continue east on the I-205 towards the Hwy 120 passing through Groveland and eventually through the town of Mather. Once we were east of Mather, we’d follow the road to the O’Shaugnessy Dam as described above. Overall, this drive would take around 4 hours without traffic.
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