Hike along Hetch Hetchy to Tueeulala, Wapama and Rancheria Falls
A hike along the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with three beautiful waterfalls is hard to beat. Add some beautiful wildflowers and a good workout to make it even more special!
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 11.81 miles (about 5 miles to Wapama Falls)
Elevation range: 3,682′ to 4,463′
Elevation gain: 2,797′
Date: April 13, 2022
Maps: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls
Canine hike: no
I drove Big Oak Flat Road to Hwy 120 and the snow was still hanging in the trees. It was so pretty that I couldn’t help but stop for a quick photo at Big Oak Flat.
I continued about a mile west of Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat entrance station, then took the Hetch Hetchy exit, following Evergreen Road, then Hetch Hetchy Road for 16 miles to at the parking lot above O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. . My directions seem complicated, but the signs lead you where you need to go. It was 8:05 a.m. when I reached the Hetch Hetchy Visitor Booth on Hetch Hetchy Road, which was open, and they checked my Yosemite Park Pass. Their hours were 8am-5pm, then the door would be closed, so I made sure I was out by then. I parked just above the O’Shaughnessy Dam and walked towards the dam, which is a 430 foot high concrete arch dam on the Tuolumne River. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is formed behind the dam which is the source of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, which provides water to over 2 million people in San Francisco and other municipalities in the West Bay Area. The dam is named after engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, who oversaw its construction.
I crossed the dam. When the wind is calm, beautiful reflections can be seen from the dam but not today. It was still very pretty with Wapama Falls.
I peeked across the bridge to see how the water was flowing downstream.
Building the Hetch Hetchy Dam in such a remote location was a colossal project. Before we could innovate at the O’Shaughnessy Dam, more infrastructure was needed. To get the electricity they would need, they first built a smaller dam at Lake Eleanor. Additionally, they needed a way to get supplies and workers into the mountains.
Construction of the Hetch Hetchy Railway took place from 1915 to 1918. The new 68-mile (109 km) railway ascended the narrow canyon of the Tuolumne River through sharp curves and steep grades of 4 %. It carried workers and materials for the dam, as well as tourists, postage and other amenities. If you want to follow the old railway line today, the Hetch Hetchy Road and most of the Mather Road were built on the old railway bed and are also beautiful scenic drives.
Finally, after the railway was completed, crews broke ground on the O’Shaughnessy Dam on August 1, 1919. They poured an estimated total of over 398,000 cubic yards (304,000 cu m) of concrete to form the dam. It was the second tallest dam in the United States at the time.
Crews completed the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923 and the reservoir first filled in May of that year. Including additions made between 1934 and 1938, the dam currently stands 430 feet (131 m) above the bedrock below. It spans 900 feet (270 m) with a 17-foot (5.2 m) wide trail across the summit that hikers use to cross to the opposite side.
After crossing the dam, I went through the 500 foot long tunnel that was built when the dam was built.
As soon as I exited the tunnel, this was the view that unfolded.
The purple lupine we usually see was blooming along the trail.
But further up the trail, Harlequin Lupine was in bloom, one of my favorite spring wildflowers.
The brush was also very pretty.
And a good crop of poison oak trees lined the trail, encroaching it in a few places.
The trail split and I followed the sign to the right towards Wapama Falls.
After crossing some granite slabs, I came across some water crossing the trail. Tueeulala Falls was barely falling but looked very graceful as it descended the hill. At around 880 feet, it is the smaller of two large waterfalls that flow into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the other being Wapama Falls. It is the larger of the two in terms of greater free fall distance, as Wapama is split into two falls. Tueeulala Fall falls freely 600 feet, hits a ledge, then slides steeply down 280 feet further.
As I ascended the trail there were several areas of water on it, but I could easily walk over rocks through those spots.
After about 2 1/2 miles I could hear the roar of Wapama Falls before I could see it, but then I saw this. There was a bit of melting ice piled up on one side of the bridge. I wondered if I could or should walk in this area, but then I thought if I held on to the railing and took it slowly and easily, I could do it safely. The bridge was not icy, but it can be in cold weather.
The warning sign is there for a reason. People are dying here. They are swept away by the bridge when spring water flows strongly into these falls. Even though the water is not as strong as in previous years, it is still a dangerous area and the water is flowing hard enough to knock your body onto the rocks and kill you. Don’t take the risk. Follow all warnings the park service has posted and if there is water running over the bridge or it seems unsafe, please don’t risk it. Some of the smaller streams you cross along the way can also be tricky or dangerous to cross. As the snow melts higher in the afternoon, the flow may increase from what you experienced in the morning. Wapama Falls continues below the trail over reservoir rocks.
From the bridges, I could look up to the top of Wapama Falls, which is the largest of the waterfalls that pours into Hetch Hetchy.
On occasion, the water flow is so strong that it floods the crossing trail bridge at its base and the trail is closed and impassable at this point. On this date, the water was not flowing much, especially for this time of year. The water in Wapama Falls comes from Lake Vernon and contains two main drops of water, as well as a waterfall as it empties into Hetch Hetchy. Its total drop is about 1,100′, with the top dropping about 300′, then a 600′ drop through a steep gorge, the bottom dropping about 200′ over an escarpment. You can’t see all of the falls when you’re right next to them, but you can see them from the dam.
I glanced towards the dam.
And forward in the direction I was going.
I might get a glimpse of Rancheria Falls soon but I still had a ways to go.
I crossed a few bridges and a pretty creek.
Then I continued the trail.
Rancheria Falls is actually a series of waterfalls, dropping over 1,000 feet through a narrow canyon in Hetch Hetchy.
And it was a perfect place for a lunch.
It was soon time to head back and on the way I got a nice glimpse of Tueeulala Falls with ice deposited along its fall.
Then a view of Wapama Falls.
I was the first hiker on the trail in the morning and didn’t see anyone until I was about half way back when I passed a few backpackers. When I reached Wapama Falls it was way busier but it wasn’t too crowded. This is not one of those hikes where you will have the trail all to yourself. It is very popular on weekends and later in the day. I try to arrive early and leave early to beat the crowds and sometimes it works.
We always see a bear on this hike, but I didn’t today. Rattlesnakes are also in this area, so keep an eye out for them. Don’t forget mosquitoes, ticks and gnats either! Personally I don’t like to do this hike when it’s hot. This trail gets awfully hot and dusty, and the falls decrease in flow and aren’t as impressive.
Evergreen Road to Hetch Hetchy is open year-round, but may be closed due to winter snow or washout after storms. You can check road conditions here or by calling 1-209-372-0200, dialing extensions 1/1. Chain restrictions can also come into effect at any time in winter, so bring chains with you. This is the only road in the park that is not open 24 hours a day, the times below may change without notice:
April 1 to April 30: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
May 1 to Labor Day: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
From the day after Labor Day to October 31: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
November 1 to March 31: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
No swimming or boating is permitted in the reservoir.
Canine hike? Nope
Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Where pets are not allowed
- On trails, including the trail to Vernal Fall (however, pets are allowed on the Wawona Meadow Loop)
- On unplowed roads covered in snow
- In undeveloped and wild areas
- In public buildings
- In the shuttles
- In accommodation areas
- At all walk-in and group campsites, including Camp 4
- In all other areas, as signed
These regulations protect both pets and wild animals from disease and from each other. The National Park Service has banned pets from trails for many years. In particular, some pets hunt wildlife, pollute water sources, and can become defensive and dangerous in unfamiliar surroundings. Animal owners bear the burden of ensuring that their animal does not harm the values of the park for others in areas where animals are allowed.
What is a Doarama? This is a video playback of the GPS track superimposed on an interactive 3-dimensional map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt or rotate it and look at it from different angles. With the bunny and turtle buttons you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.
Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and beyond Doarama
Cards and profile:
CALTOPO has a few free options for mapping and here is a link to my Topographic Map hike for this week: CALTOPO: Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls
Previous blogs in the region:
Hetch Hetchy Hike to Wapama and Rancheria Falls
Hetch Hetchy Rancheria Falls Hike March 5, 2020
Hike along Hetch Hetchy April 5, 2016
Tueulala Falls Wikipedia
O’Shaughnessy Dam Wikipedia
Hetch Hetchy—Natural history before the dam
Michael O’Shaughnessy Story of the Wandering Lizard
Michael O’Shaughnessy Wikipedia
Hetch Hetchy Yosemite National Park Service
Wapama Falls Wikipedia
Explore Hetch Hetchy Yosemite.com
Yosemite: The Park and Its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene
What impact did the Hetch Hetchy project have on Native Americans? Snowy Range Reflections
Hetch Hetchy Preservation or public utility