January 15, 2021. It was in the upper 30’s when we woke up in the campsite by the creek, the trickling water welcoming us as the sun tried unsuccessfully to warm us through the trees. Everything was already packed from the night before so we left the cozy campsite and headed to Yosemite National Park. Although we’d camped just 5 minutes from the Big Oak Flat west entrance to the Park, our plan was to explore the remote Hetch Hetchy section of the park. Our daughter Juliet backpacked there last year and raved about it. Juliet now has her own blog with super useful information for backpackers. Check it out: backhackerbabe.com.
To get there, we drove along a narrow empty two-lane road through the National Forest until it deposited us at the the national park. No one was manning the Park Service entrance booth. We followed the posted instructions to hang our Lifetime Senior Pass on the rearview mirror and didn’t need to pay the $35 entrance fee and continued down the winding road toward the reservoir.
It was quickly obvious we had the entire Hetch Hetchy section of the park to ourselves, at least for now. We saw no other cars (except Park Service vehicles) and no other people. Really? At Yosemite? We immediately loved this place.
The road passed through towering granite walls and we stopped at an overlook to take in spectacular views. The road ended in a large loop near the reservoir where we got out for a quick view before hurriedly returning to the truck because of the cold air blowing off the water.
We were ready to cook breakfast but the cold shady picnic area overlooking the dam was not an option. Heading back around the loop, we stopped instead at a picnic area set farther back from the lake and out of the wind. There was even an open rest room with running (very cold) water.
We set up for breakfast and coffee, still in the shade of the giant granite mountains at 10:00 am, with no one else around. It was as if the park were closed. The temperature was around 50 degrees and the high was supposed to be 70 here today but I didn’t believe it and it looked like the low winter sun might never warm the narrow valley where the picnic tables were. We bundled up and enjoyed breakfast at the peaceful, if cold, picnic area.
After breakfast, we drove around the loop to a parking area right beside the O’Shaughnessy Dam. There was only a single car in the parking area when we arrived. The other visitors, a couple who’d arrived while we had our breakfast, walked only a couple hundred feet beyond the dam and were already returning to the parking lot when we crossed the dam. We had the place to ourselves.
Signage along the dam described its history and construction, and provided information about the nearby hiking trails. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir supplies water to nearly all of San Francisco and hundreds of thousands of other households near the Bay. During the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, the lack of water to fight the resulting devastating fire underscored the need for a reliable source. The Tuolumne River—160 miles from San Francisco—was chosen. The problem was that the area was already a National Park. So began the nation’s first large-scale environmental fight, between water users of the Bay Area who wanted to damn the river and environmentalists, including John Muir, who wanted to preserve it. But Muir died while fighting against the project and the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire swayed public opinion so Congress eventually granted permission for the dam. Although the lake is very pretty, the valley that was submerged was said to be the equal of any others in Yosemite, including the iconic Yosemite Valley. Fortunately, one of the best things about Hetch Hetchy now is what it lacks—lodges, gift shops, snack bars, cell service and crowds.
Our plan was to take a 5-mile out-and-back trail along the lakeshore would take us to the Wapama waterfall. The hike, like most of the hikes at Hetch Hetchy, began by crossing the dam.
Once across the dam, hikers must make their way through a tunnel dug into a massive granite mountain that’s big enough to drive a truck through. Large puddles from recent rains had us scrambling and hopping to keep our feet dry in the gloomy tunnel.
After walking about 50 yards from the tunnel, we saw a sign notifying us we were entering the Yosemite Wilderness area. Even though the controversial dam had altered the original landscape, we were glad to learn that at least the adjacent land was protected.
The trail was wide initially as it led to the north along the shoreline 50 feet above the sparkling lake. Soon the trail began to climb and many sections were wide expanses of granite.
After the drought of the summer and fall, the water was about 30 feet below the high-water mark and we hoped the winter storms would fill it soon.
Before long, the sun was warming us and it was obvious our heavy jackets would be too much, so we rolled them up and cached them up a hillside along a game trail behind some shrubs.
The trail narrowed and gently climbed and descended across granite outcroppings sprinkled with some sparse pine stands. As the lake opened up, we could see the steep granite sides soaring above, some as high as 2,000 feet. The tallest one reminded us of Half Dome.
We sidetracked out onto one of the vast fields of granite to explore and soak up the gloriously warm sun on the rocks. It looked like the forecast was right and it might actually hit 70 degrees in the middle of January.
Water trickled everywhere, creating streams, small waterfalls and puddles along the trail. Here and there a tree found enough water to grow among the boulders.
Eventually, the trail descended further and we crossed a small bridge, then another as we heard the roar of water. Wapuma Falls had just enough snowmelt to put on a show starting 1,100 feet above us.
We crossed a couple more bridges with warnings not to cross if it was underwater.
The waterfall must really get going in the spring, we thought, as the water was not much more than a creek, now 15 feet below the bridge. We vowed to return to see it at full tilt.
We climbed down from the bridge over some boulders and found a spot to sit and listen to the roar of the falls and the rush of the small creek from it at our feet. We felt the kind of peace you can find in moving water surrounded by natural beauty. The sun was intense and I even rolled up my sleeves, I was warm.
We lingered a while longer and gazed at the emerald pools at the base of the falls before it made its final descent into the lake.
We were shocked that we were hiking Yosemite in the middle of the winter, that it was so warm, and there not only were no crowds but nobody at all.
The sun warmed our faces as we reluctantly headed back south and drank the last of our water. Along the return, we finally saw a few hikers headed toward the falls. As we crossed back over the dam, a raven hovered above us, then landed on the wall right next to Susan and stayed awhile—clearly undisturbed by us in this wild place.
It was mid-afternoon when we left the trailhead by the dam and headed back to find a campsite for the night, hoping to score the sunny one we’d spotted the night before. Luck was with us and it was empty so we made camp, had dinner and relaxed in the still-warm late-day sun. Our campsite was in a small field at the crest of a hill with a view of the mountains, tall pine trees and a large burn scar area to the west.
As the sun lowered, several campers drove by, slowing to see if the sunny site was available, then driving on. Unfortunately, just as it got dark out, one large RV drove in, parked and immediately started his generator not 75 feet from us. While there was no official campground, boondocking etiquette was to move to a larger area or at least far from others if you wanted to run a genset—and we knew there were many more spaces available. If nothing else, it would have been nice to meet our new neighbors but they never stepped outside. I hoped I wouldn’t have to school them on late-night generator courtesy. The sky was clear with no moon as we slipped into bed and we hoped we’d see a star show in the night.