I couldn’t believe it when I first laid eyes on Yosemite National Park’s Hetchy Valley. Here was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, in one of the most visited National Parks in the country, and very few people know about it.
About Hetch Hetchy
While Yosemite National Park has become known for its crowds over the last few decades, they by and large haven’t found Hetch Hetchy yet. According to the National Park Service, less than one percent of all visitors to Yosemite visit Hetch Hetchy. That makes Hetch Hetchy a great place if you want the beauty of Yosemite, but don’t want to deal with the crowds.
Like Yosemite Valley, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was carved by glaciers. The Tuolumne River used to wind through the valley, and with its high walls making a natural V-shape, people thought it was the perfect place to put a dam.
After the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, San Francisco was granted water rights to the Tuolumne River. Over the next few years, this caused a major fight between conservationists and the government, but in 1913 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, allowing San Francisco to build a dam and flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Despite 300 feet of water flooding the valley, Hetch Hetchy remains one of the most amazing places in Yosemite National Park and a true hidden gem.
How to Get to Hetch Hetchy
Hetch Hetchy is located in Yosemite National Park’s northwest corner and is not connected to the rest of the park by roads. The Hetch Hetchy area of the park has its own entrance.
If you are already in Yosemite National Park, you will need to exit through the Big Oak Flat entrance and head north to get to Hetch Hetchy. Big Oak Flat Road eventually merges with California State Route 120. You will ultimately come to Evergreen Road, where you turn north towards Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. After traveling on Evergreen Road for about 9 miles, you will reach the entrance station for Hetch Hetchy.
If you are traveling to Hetch Hetchy from outside Yosemite, regardless of which direction you are coming from, you will need to take California State Route 120. If you come from the north, you can take the 120 to Cherry Lake Road, then Forest Route 1S02, or take the 120 to Evergreen Road.
We have taken both Cherry Lake Road and Evergreen Road and found Evergreen Road to be far less curvy. So if that sort of thing bothers you, it might be best to pass Cherry Lake and just take Evergreen. On the flip side, the Cherry Lake route has far less traffic and gives you a much better opportunity to see wildlife (we actually saw a bobcat on our most recent trip).
There is no public transportation to Hetch Hetchy, and none of the park’s shuttles travel there.
Entrance Fees and Reservations
Unlike the rest of Yosemite National Park, which requires reservations to enter the park at certain times of the year, no reservations are needed to visit Hetch Hetchy.
While the rest of Yosemite’s entrance stations are open 24 hours a day, the Hetch Hetchy entrance station is only open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (for 2021 at least).
The normal park fee is required to enter Hetch Hetchy. In 2021 the entrance fee to visit Yosemite is $35 per vehicle for non-commercial cars, pickup trucks, RVs, or vans with 15 or fewer passenger seats; $30 for a motorcycle; and $20 for visitors arriving on foot.
When you pay an entrance fee, it is valid for three days from May 21 through September 30 and seven days the rest of the year.
All the National Park Annual Passes, Senior Passes, Volunteer Passes, etc., are valid at the Hetch Hetchy entrance station as well.
What to See and Do in Hetch Hetchy
The 430-foot tall O’Shaughnessy Dam is the reason the Hetch Hetchy reservoir exists and is a must-see. Construction on the dam began in 1919 after about five years of planning. The dam was completed in 1938, and the reservoir now supplies drinking water to about 2.5 million San Francisco Bay Area residents, along with some hydroelectric power generated by two plants downstream.
There is a decent-sized parking lot at the dam, and most of Hetch Hetchy’s hiking trails start here. You can walk out onto the dam, and there are a few informational signs on the dam’s history, but the main reason to walk out onto the dam is the incredible views of the Hetch Hetchy Valley that can be had from there.
Going to Wapama Falls is the most popular hike at Hetch Hetchy, and if it is your first time visiting and you only have a limited time in the park, this is the hike you want to take. The hike is moderate difficulty and is five miles out and back, but you are rewarded with beautiful scenery pretty much the entire length.
The Wapama Falls Trail starts after crossing the dam and going through a pretty cool tunnel. Once you exit the tunnel, you will immediately find the trailhead sign for the hike. The trail follows the shoreline of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir with some up and downhill hiking, but nothing too bad.
Along the way, you will come across Tueeulala Falls, which depending on when you visit, will look spectacular, or there won’t be much there. On our most recent trip in early May, there was very little water flow on Tueeulala Falls, while Wapama Falls had a ton of water going down it.
Wapama Falls is the real reward for the hike. It is a beautiful waterfall that you can get right up close to. A series of bridges cross right in front of the bottom of the falls, and the water splashes right over them. You will get wet.
There are signs at the bridges warning not to enter if there is too much water, as it can be extremely dangerous. If it looks too crazy, it is best to take the advice of the wise philosophers TLC, “stick to the rivers and the lakes that you are used to.”
This is our favorite waterfall hike in all of Yosemite.
If Tueeulala and Wapama Falls aren’t enough, you can continue on the trail for a few more miles and visit Rancheria Falls. The total hike out-and-back to Rancheria Falls is almost 12 miles, and with Hetch Hetchy only being open from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm, unless you are a pretty fast hiker, this is hard to do as a day hike.
The Poopenaut Trail, which goes to the Tuolumne River, is probably one of Yosemite’s least rewarding hikes, especially for the effort. According to park rangers, this is the steepest official trail in Yosemite National Park, with it only being 2.5 miles but gaining 1,229 feet of elevation.
There is a small parking area for the trail that holds maybe two or three cars. Luckily the trail isn’t very popular (for a good reason), so you probably wouldn’t have a hard time getting parking, though.
The trail is not well maintained, and when you get to the bottom of the valley, it disappears completely, meaning you’ll need to bushwack the last bit to get to the river. There is plenty of poison oak along the way too.
There isn’t much of a view at the end of the trail. Unless you’ve done everything else in Hetch Hetchy and are a completionist when it comes to hikes, we recommend avoiding the Poopenaut Trail.
Smith Peak is the highest point in the Hetch Hetchy region and offers fantastic views. Two trailhead options lead to Smith Peak, and both are fairly long and difficult, however.
The first route begins at the Hetch Hetchy entrance station and is 16 miles round-trip with about 3,300 feet of elevation gain. The other trailhead is six miles past the entrance station. That trail is13 miles round-trip with 3,700 feet elevation gain.
The trail is hard to follow at times and towards the top is pretty overgrown. There are some beautiful views of the valley to be had along the way, however.
Where to Stay Near Hetch Hetchy
There are no campgrounds or lodges in the Hetch Hetchy portion of Yosemite (aside from a backpackers campground). So if you want to stay in the area, you have to stay outside of the park. That isn’t much of an issue, though, as there are some good options right outside of the park entrance.
The Stanislaus National Forest is located right outside of Hetch Hetchy, and there are a number of campgrounds available in the national forest. The closest campground to the entrance, less than a 10-minute drive away, is Dimond O.
Dimond O is near the Middle Fork Tuolumne River and has 26 camp spots. Its proximity to the park can make getting a campsite difficult, however.
Another camping option is Sweetwater Campground, which is right off State Route 120. Sweetwater Campground is about 15 miles from the entrance to Hetch Hetchy but is close to Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat Entrance. This is a first-come, first-served campground and has 13 campsites.
No RV hookups are available at either campground.
The Evergreen Lodge (which we’ll discuss in more detail in a moment) also has what is called “Custom Camping.” The lodge provides a fully furnished, set-up tent site that accommodates two-four people. Amenities provided include sleeping bags & liners, pillows, towels, toiletries, camping chairs, and a lantern. This might be a good option if you want to camp but don’t want to bring any camping gear or want to set anything up yourself. However, it does cost substantially more than the other camping options with nightly rates of $120 and up.
The Evergreen Lodge
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, the Evergreen Lodge The lodge sits on 20 acres and is located only about five minutes from the entrance to Hetch Hetchy. The Evergreen Lodge has 88 cabins to stay at, a restaurant, tavern, grocery store, swimming pool, and more.
The lodge’s location in the woods gives it a really quiet and scenic feel. Even though it isn’t in Yosemite itself, it really is a hidden gem in the Yosemite area. If you can’t stay at one of the lodges in Yosemite National Park, we think this is the next best option (really, I’d rather stay here than anywhere else in the area aside from The Ahwahnee).
The Evergreen Lodge is especially great for families, as there are a lot of activities that are great for kids. There are four different play areas, with the biggest one featuring a slide, wooden fort, swings, and a zip line, among other things. You can also rent bicycles, take part in arts & crafts, or go on a nature hike. Their family cabins are a great place to stay too.
Being near Yosemite, though, does have its drawbacks. If you plan on visiting in the summer, you will want to book well in advance, and the rates can be a bit pricey (though fair for the area). Still, The Evergreen Lodge is worth looking into and would be my first pick if none of the lodgings in Yosemite itself was available.
If you don’t mind drives of an hour or more getting to Hetch Hetchy, numerous campgrounds, lodges, hotels, and motels are available in the area. If you are coming from the west, Groveland is about a 45-minute drive to Hetch Hetchy, and from the south, you can find a number of hotels and motels in Fish Camp and Oakhurst, which is about two hours away. Staying in Oakhurst is an especially good option if you plan on exploring other parts of Yosemite, too, as it’s only 30 minutes from Yosemite’s South Gate entrance.
John Muir thought Hetch Hetchy was more beautiful than Yosemite Valley itself, and while there is a giant reservoir there now that wasn’t there in his time, it is still an amazingly beautiful place. It is definitely worth spending a day visiting on any Yosemite trip.