Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: A Practical Guide

  • 01 of 09

    Guide to Visiting Hetch Hetchy

    Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
    ••• Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Justin Guerlan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Hetch Hetchy is what the native Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute Indians called one of the Sierra's most scenic valleys. They lived in the valley long before the first white men arrived in 1850.

    It was the scene of a major conservationist battle led by the legendary John Muir. It has a waterfall that drops into the lake. The lake itself is on the Tuolumne River, stretching for about eight miles. It is a primary source of water for people who live in San Francisco, about 160 miles away. It forms the water supply for San Francisco, San Mateo, and Alameda Counties and the dam generates electricity for the city of San Francisco.

    Why Go to Hetch Hetchy

    Today, the area called Hetch Hetchy is mostly buried beneath the reservoir. It's about a half-hour drive from CA Hwy 120. 

    Hetch Hetchy is pretty and interesting, but it's not among the top sights at Yosemite and hardly worth the long drive to get there if you're making your first or second trip. If you're staying 3 to 4 days, it...MORE might make a good change of pace for the third or fourth day.

    At the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, you can walk across the dam and learn more about area history from the interpretive signs. Those with more energy can hike on several trails, ranging from 2 to 13 miles long. Because of its lower elevation, Hetch Hetchy has the park's longest hiking season.

    In spring, wildflowers bloom along the trails. Wapama Falls and Tueeulala Falls, two of North America's tallest, cascade into the lake. Wapama Falls is easily seen from the dam. Fishing is allowed year round at Hetch Hetchy, with a valid California fishing license.

    Pets are allowed in the parking area only, on a leash, but cannot go on the trails or the dam.

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  • 02 of 09

    Poopenaut Valley

    Poopenaut Valley
    ••• Poopenaut Valley. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    The Poopenaut Valley is below the lake, downstream from the dam. You drive above it as you travel toward Hetchy. You can see it from a number of points along the road.

    You can see Wapama Falls in this photo, cascading toward the lake.

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  • 03 of 09

    O'Shaughnessy Dam

    Hetch Hetchy reservoir, Yosemite National Park, California
    ••• O'Shaughnessy Dam. Amit Basu Photography / Getty Images

    When completed in 1923, the gravity arch, concrete O'Shaughnessy Dam stood 364 feet high. It is named for named for the original chief engineer of the Hetch Hetchy Project.

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  • 04 of 09

    Wapama Falls

    Wapama Falls
    ••• Wapama Falls. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    One of North America's tallest waterfalls and one of three waterfalls around the reservoir, Wapama Falls is a 1,300-foot-tall cascade that flows fastest in the spring when the snow melts.

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  • 05 of 09

    Spillway, Hetch Hetchy

    Spillway, Hetch Hetchy
    ••• Spillway, Hetch Hetchy. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    This view is taken from the edge of the dam, showing the water cascading over the spillway. Like the natural waterfalls, this artificial falls flows more in the spring.

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  • 06 of 09

    Water Release

    Water Release at Hetch Hetchy
    ••• Water Release at Hetch Hetchy. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    Besides the water cascading over the spillway, more of it flows through the hydroelectric generating plant and is discharged into the Tuolumne River below the dam.

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  • 07 of 09

    Hetchy Hetchy Power

    Hetch Hetchy Power
    ••• Hetch Hetchy Power. Eric Fischer/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Hetch Hetchy is more than just a water reservoir. It's also the backbone of San Francisco's clean energy system, supplying hydroelectric power from four powerhouses.

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  • 08 of 09

    Getting to Hetch Hetchy: A Map

    Map of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy
    ••• Map of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. Adapted from Google Maps

    Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir are at about 3,800 feet elevation, on the east side of the park, about a mile east of the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite. You can see where it is on this Yosemite map.

    To reach Hetch Hetchy, you have to exit Yosemite National Park and re-enter it. Take Highway 120 from the park toward Groveland. From the main road, it's about a 20- to 25-minute drive to the parking area.

    The half-hour drive to Hetch Hetchy from Hwy 120 begins outside the park boundaries. It passes Camp Mather, the construction camp for the O'Shaughnessy Dam, which — because the land is owned by the city — is now a San Francisco city park. From there, the road follows the Tuolumne River, curving above the Poopenaut Valley to a parking area and wilderness campground. For a casual visit to Hetch Hetchy, allow about 1.5 hours to make the round trip from the main highway.

    Vehicles more than 25 feet long are prohibited on the narrow, somewhat winding road...MORE to Hetch Hetchy.

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  • 09 of 09

    Hetch Hetchy Valley Before Dam

    Hetch Hetchy Valley in California by Albert Bierstadt
    ••• Hetch Hetchy Valley in California by Albert Bierstadt. SuperStock / Getty Images

    This painting by Albert Bierstadt — although probably idealized — gives you an idea of what the valley looked like, and how it might look if returned to its natural state.

    The Fight to Preserve Hetch Hetchy

    In 1870, naturalist John Muir called the Hetch Hetchy Valley "a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite." When damming the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley was first proposed, it met vigorous opposition from Muir. He has been quoted by the Sierra Club and others as saying: "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

    Muir and his allies fought a fierce battle, the last in Muir's life (he died in 1914), but they lost. Hetch Hetchy Lake drowned the valley. Even today, some oppose its presence and try to have it removed. Read their viewpoint.

    Almost a century later, the debate still rages. In 1987, Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel...MORE proposed a plan to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Sierra Club supports the continuing pressure to tear down the dam and restore the valley, and the organization Restore Hetch Hetchy has much information about current status, the truth about common myths and ways you can make your opinion heard.