When it comes to US National Parks, Yosemite is king.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again the prettier the park, the bigger the crowds. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s amazing to see so many people outside, exploring the wonders of the Earth, and enjoying the natural beauty of the country, on the other crowds can really affect how you experience a place, Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park is a great example of this!
If you love National Parks but aren’t a fan of crowds don’t get discouraged, there are loads of ways to avoid feeling like a herded cat while hiking in some of the most pristine areas of the United States. Visiting in the offseason is a great option that works for most places. Yosemite, unfortunately, is an exception to this rule, there is just something about this incredible landscape that draws people in no matter the season or the weather. The best way to get away from the crowds in Yosemite is to get off the beaten path and go where other people aren’t going! We’ve got what we think is the perfect place for that…
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Hetch Hetchy Valley
5 million people visit Yosemite National Park every year and only 1% of them make a visit to Hetch Hetchy, and man-oh-man are they missing out! Don’t be like them! Not, only is Hetch Hetchy stunningly gorgeous it’s also a history-rich landscape and the birthplace of the American public’s involvement in the land conservation movement.
Things To Do In Hetch Hetchy Valley
If you watched our video, then you already know Hetch Hetchy is the perfect spot for a hike. Hiking season in Hetch Hetchy runs spring through fall, with spring being the best time to spot waterfalls, summer brings the heat, and of course, fall is all about the colors!
Wapama & Rancheria Falls– During our visit hiked out to Wapama Falls ( 5 miles round trip), with the intention to continue on to Racheria Falls for a total of 13.4 miles, ultimately we enjoyed the hike out to Wapama so much that we were content wasting a couple hours soaking in the view and then calling it a day. The trailhead for this trail is located at the O’Shaughnessy Dam parking area.
Other great hikes in the area that were suggested to us by the ranger that we’ll have to save for next time:
- Lookout Point- A moderate 2 miles hike out to a view point overlooking Hetch Hetchy Valley. The trailhead can be located at the ranger station at the entrance to the valley.
- Smith Peak- We were told that this one can be quite a burner, taking you through forests and meadows and Smith Peak, with some of the best views of the Hetch Hetchy area! This relatively strenuous trail is a round trip distance of 13.5 miles. The trailhead can be located at the ranger station at the entrance to the valley.
- Poopenaut Valley- If you want to work, then this one is for you. This strenuous 3-mile hike descends 1,229 feet down to the Tuolumne River. Just like hiking in the Grand Canyon, what goes down, must come back up. This trailhead is located outside of the Hetch Hetchy area four miles East of the entrance station- there is a small turnout on the right with visible trail access.
Not into hiking? That’s ok there are lots of other recreational opportunities in the area:
- Backcountry Camping- permits are required, for more info check out the link to the NPS site here.
- Birding- The NPS has a convenient little printable list of all the bird species spotted in this area, how cool is that? You can find and print that list here.
- Fishing- There are lots of regulations regarding, the how, where and why of fishing within the National Park, be prepared! Check out all of the regulations for this area here.
What Happened To Hetch Hetchy Valley- A Brief History
Hetch Hetchy is often referred to as Yosemite’s, “Other valley”, if you were to wander out to Hetch Hetchy today- which we think you should- it would be hard to come to terms with the idea that the valley you’d be laying your eyes upon was once almost a perfect carbon copy image of the famed Yosemite Valley, everyone knows and loves. Instead of soaking in visuals of sloping granite domes and a deep glacier cut valley, you’d see a glistening lake, situated between granite walls- a lake that in fact is not a lake at all but a reservoir, created by the massive O’Shaughnessy Dam, not a sight you expect to see in a National Park, and certainly not in one like Yosemite.
Hetch Hetchy didn’t always look like this:
In 1906 a massive earthquake struck the city of San Francisco, setting off a series of uncontrollable fires, burning homes, businesses, and demolishing infrastructure. So what does this have to do with a valley located almost 200 miles away, well an awful lot. After the flames were put out and the damage assessed, the city began to look for a higher volume source of water, the demand was high and the current supply was little. The solution was found in the damming of the Toulmine River, Hetch Hetchy Valley through which the river flowed proved to be the perfect natural reservoir.
At the time of the proposed damming, land conservation was still in its infancy. Pioneers like John Muir were fighting to protect large tracts of wildlands for public enjoyment and protection, and there was no landscape on Earth Muir was more dedicated to protecting than that of Yosemite National Park. Despite the best efforts of Muir, The Sierra Club, and many others in 1906 the Hetchy Hetchy project was approved, and the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam began in 1914 and by October of 1923, the first water from Hetch Hetchy flowed into the city of San Francisco.
To this day, the loss of the battle for Hetch Hetchy is still considered one of the greatest in the land conservation movement. However, there is a bright side to this rather grim tale. The discussion on whether “to” or “not to” dam Hetch Hetchy Valley marked the first time in history the American public began to weigh in on land conservation issues. It was unprecedented. Never before had families sat around the dinner table and debated the moral, ethical and political impacts of government’s usage of land; land which by all rights belongs to the people. Hetch Hetchy lit a spark of interest in involvement in the American public, a light for conservation interests that still burns bright today.
How To Get To Hetch Hetchy
Hetch Hetchy is tucked away in the Northwestern Corner of Yosemite National Park. The entrance to Hetch Hetchy is actually outside of the main park’s boundary and has its own checkpoint/ gate. If you’re camping in Yosemite Valley it’s a 38-mile drive (approx. 1 hour and 15 minutes) to the entrance to Hetch Hetchy, you’ll want to head out of the Big Oak Flats entrance station.
Cell reception is sparse throughout almost all of Yosemite, but Google maps got us there just fine, as long as we started the navigation before losing a signal!
GPS Coordinates: 37.9491° N, 119.7339° W
Operating Hours- We asked about operating hours for this section of the park, and could never really get a clear answer from park staff. The general consensus was that they are open during daylight hours, so that’s what we’ll go with! Just keep in mind that the access to Hetch Hetchy is pretty, “out there” so keep track of time while on your hike!
Ever been to Yosemite? What was your experience like? Have a favorite trail? Know a good spot to get away from the crowds? Leave a few lines in the comments! Sharing is caring, and sharing knowledge of this big beautiful world, helps us all travel happier! Thanks for being here, and being you!