I was really excited about spending a day in Hetch Hetchy. I’ve never been there before and knew it was a little off the beaten path.
The hiking group consisted of my parents, my girlfriend Julie, and some friends I met through her named Stacey and Andy.
After spending the early morning hours in the Valley at Lower Yosemite Fall, we left for Hetch Hetchy at around 11:15am. About 90 minutes later, we passed through the Mather Entrance Station, showed our $50 park pass, and drove the narrow winding road leading to the parking area by O’Shaughnessy Dam.
As we approached the flooded valley, we could already see the pair of Tueeulala and Wapama Falls in the distance. Mom was already impressed with the scene with her exclamations of “Ooo Wow!” The scene strengthened our haste to get to the dam and start hiking.
The moment we got out of the car, we felt Hetch Hetchy’s early summer heat. Being some 1500ft lower than Yosemite Valley, it wasn’t all that surprising for this to happen. It merely made us want to get to the falls and cool off as fast as we could.
As we walked across the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the prevaling thought that all of us had was what might have been had this valley not been drowned. Now, there was a deep blue sapphire lake covering what was once a valley. In the mean time, it was like the ultimate tease because we couldn’t touch the water (let alone get near it) despite the Summer heat bearing down on us.
Looking upstream, we could see Kolana Rock opposite the pair of waterfalls that were gushing. Looking the other way, it looked like the dam was releasing water (causing the thundering sound that drowned out the muffled thunder of the waterfalls in the distance). Poopenaut Valley looked very rocky and barren, and it made me wonder how much more of the Tuolumne River would’ve been gushing this time of year had this dam not been built.
After spending a good 30 minutes or so on the dam soaking in the panoramic views of both Hetch Hetchy Valley and Poopenaut Valley, it was finally time to keep moving.
As soon as we got to the tunnel at the other end, we noticed a sign. It said something about high water possibly closing the trail or something like that. We weren’t quite sure what this meant and we were determined to get closer to the waterfalls that seemed so tantalizingly close. And so we continued through the cool, dark, drippy tunnel and got to the other side without incident.
The tunnel provided a nice respite from the heat, but it ended soon enough, and then we found ourselves on an obvious trail that was brutally sun drenched. At least we knew that the hike we were on was going to be no more than 5 miles according to our guidebook.
Indeed, that manmade lake looked enticing under this unrelenting sun, but that lake was not accessible due to sharp dropoffs as well as the fact that it was Frisco’s (i.e. San Francisco’s) drinking water.
At least 4 1L water bottles weighed down my pack. I even decided to waste some of it pouring water onto my head to cool off.
Tempering the harsh conditions we were hiking in were the constantly changing views of Kolana Rock and the curving valley. We also had one short stream crossing that seemed to have pretty healthy flow, and it conspired to make us slip and fall thanks to its flow on the hard but slippery-when-wet granite surface we were now hiking on.
Finally after what seemed like a very long hour of hiking, we finally made it to the base of Tueeulala Fall – the first of the waterfall tandem we saw back at the dam. Its satisfying flow was pleasant and refreshing, but we still had walk another half-mile to get to its larger-looking neighbor.
Barely minutes after passing the footbridge beneath the falls, we noticed lots of standing pools of water on the trail. Given the height of some of this standing water and the limited amount of rocks to hop on, I guess we couldn’t proceed without getting our feet wet. Even with our gore-tex boots, water would still come in from the top in some places.
Soon the thundering roar of Wapama Falls became more apparent. We descended some rocky steps and saw bits and pieces of Wapama Falls’ overwhelming flow. Then, we rounded a shaded area before the shade gave way to a turbulent scene at the footbridges beneath the falls.
The mist of Wapama Falls looked like it was shrouding the trail before us. It looked scary to say the least, but it did offer us welcome relief from the Hetch Hetchy heat.
Now it was time for me to get photos of the falls. It was very tough to do because water would get on the lens the moment I pointed it at the falls. Maybe we might get better views if we continued, I thought. Some of the others in the group were curious enough to keep moving as well.
And so we went forward.
With the unrelenting mist all of the sudden feeling chilly, we weren’t so confident we could proceed. And so we froze – going back and forth between the front of the footbridge and the obstacle – wondering whether we could cross the streams.
Man the streams looked awfully dangerous! They would quickly flow over the trail (mostly without railings to hold on to) and go airborne when the width of the trail gave way to a dropoff. So now we were faced with a decision. Not even the Ghostbusters would “cross the streams” (albeit in an entirely different fictional context).
Well it wasn’t long before we saw a couple of solo hikers easily getting through the obstacle. Hey if they could do it, why couldn’t we? Plus we had hiking sticks. The water probably didn’t go much deeper than the shin, but it sure did move fast!
So with lots of hesitation, we squinted, shivered, and took slow but sure steps through the streams. That was just the first part! We still had more steps to go up before we saw more stream crossings before another footbridge. Undeterred by this obstacle, we continued onwards through the stream beneath the pounding mist of Wapama Falls.
Finally, we made it to the last footbridge. We were now beyond the mist and there were no more stream crossings before us. But…
With a big sigh of disappointment, it quickly dawned on me that we probably didn’t have to go through all of the drama if taking good photos was the goal.
My parents didn’t waste much time. They were already crossing the streams the other way. I was always fearful of a fatal slip and fall over the dropoffs, but they made it through without problems.
Stacey, Andy, Julie, and I remained on the other side of the streams taking photos and trying to somehow capture the turbulence of what we had just encountered. Looking back towards the white storm, we could see the shrouding mist of Wapama Falls almost fogging the view of Tueeulala Fall. It was quite a scene to say the least – a taste of how insignificant we can be when mother nature does her thing!
When we had our fill of the Wapama Falls experience, it was about 3:30pm and it was getting late. We still had to get through the streams again. All four of us got through without unnecessary drama and we met up with my patiently awaiting parents. Then, all of us trudged on and headed back to Tueeulala Fall – the last spot where we remembered we could stay cool but also start wringing water out of our clothes and shoes.
After spending nearly an hour snacking, drying off the best we could, and just recuperating in general, it was 4:30pm and time to head back to the car. We made really good time on the hike back as the afternoon seemed much cooler. The fading afternoon sun and the quickly building thunderstorm looming to the east probably helped to speed us along.
It was about 6pm when we made it back to the car. Finally, we could take the wet shoes off and let the car provide the air conditioning. Much of the cotton clothes were close to dry by now and the hiking clothes were dry long ago.
We eventually made it back to the Yosemite West condo where Mom was eagerly ready to prepare a very satisfying steak dinner while the television was tuned to the last quarter of the Kings and Lakers playoff game. The condo also sheltered us from the quick downpour and rolling thunder of that pop-up thunderstorm that kept building all day.
I know this wasn’t exactly a naturesque way to end the day, but we’d never forget the imagery and drama of our first Hetch Hetchy experience – especially crossing the streams. We still think of this day when we share travel adventures with friends and family.
Now that’s what it’s all about!