Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon

An overnight loop from Hetch Hetchy dam, up to Lake Vernon, and back down through Tiltill Valley, past Rancheria and Wapama Falls, and skirting Hetch Hetchy Reservoir back to the start. The spring temperatures are pleasant, and the lower elevation means it’s mostly snow free.

This past weekend, for my first trip to the Sierra this year, I headed to Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. I’ve never been to Hetch Hetchy before, although I have glimpsed the reservoir from the trail, while doing the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Spring time is the most popular time to visit this entrance; as it lies at a relatively low elevation so the snow melts earlier, and, also due to the elevation, it gets rather warm in the summer.

After an incredibly wet winter in California Yosemite received record snowfall and snowpack at the higher elevations, at 215% of average, but at the lower elevations, below around 8,500 ft, warmer temperatures produced a snowpack of only 150% of average. So as of May most of Yosemite is still under snow. But Hetch Hetchy, and the areas surrounding it, are mostly snow free.

I arrived at Hetch Hetchy around 8am to pick up my wilderness permit and chat with the ranger about the wilderness conditions. The ranger suggested a couple of destinations but I had my eye on Lake Vernon. The route up was entirely snow free, save for one or two small patches in shaded areas. However, to complete the loop requires climbing up and around Mount Gibson before dropping back down to Tiltill Valley, peaking at a little over 7,600 ft. This route still had quite a bit of snow over 7,000 ft. I had my snowshoes with me and the ranger suggested climbing up and having a look.

The loop starts right at the dam, crossing over and into a short tunnel blasted into the granite. After around a mile the trail starts switchbacking up, with pretty views of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, and then the reservoir falls out of sight as the trail continues to climb up to Beehive. Here is a trail junction to Laurel Lake, however the ranger had said the lake was closed, due to snowmelt, and he wasn’t wrong, this area was very very wet with pooled water and streams.

From Beehive there’s another gentle incline, over the drainage basin, and then the trail is mostly flat, walking across a large granite basin where the creek from Lake Vernon drains to become Wapama Falls. After around a mile the lake falls into view, and with the snow-capped mountains surrounding it, it was beautiful. The weather was warm, and I spent most the afternoon dozing on the warm granite with the view of the lake. I dropped down to the lake to filter some water and take a look from the shore, but headed a little way back up to camp overlooking the lake.

The route next day first crosses over the drainage from the lake, over a footbridge. The lake was completely overflowing, with the surrounding trees partially underwater. To get to the bridge I first had to wade through water spilling up before it, and boy was it cold. A shock to the system first thing in the morning. The water was really gushing underneath the footbridge, turning white as it cascaded over the granite below.

The trail then switchbacks up the slope of Mount Gibson. There was a fast flowing stream cascading down the granite, just past the apex of the switchbacks. There were great views across the lake and down the drainage from the trail.

After about 800 ft of climbing I hit the first patches of snow, and then as the tree cover started the trail disappeared under the snow completely. I strapped on my snowshoes, this was the first time I’ve used them. As the trail skirts around Mount Gibson there’s a further few hundred feet of climbing and then it contours around. Due to the snow no one else was coming this way so I got a real wilderness experience on this section of trail, which was a real treat, as Yosemite is usually teeming with backpackers.

I travelled a lot slower across the show, having to navigate without being able to see the trail. But it was only for around 2 miles, before crossing over a lush green meadow, and popping out of the treeline, and then the snow suddenly disappeared, replaced with dusty chaparral. From here the trail switchbacks down, dropping 2,000 ft from the peak, to the green meadows in Tiltill Valley.

From the valley there’s a small climb before another steep set of switchbacks down to Rancheria Falls, feeding into Hetch Hetchy. With the snow melt the falls were also gushing and white, with a huge volume of water emptying into the reservoir. There’s great campsites at Rancheria Falls, so long as you don’t mind falling asleep to the sound of waterfalls, but I was only spending one night, so I started the 7 mile trip around the side of Hetch Hetchy and back to the entrance.

As I was leaving the Rancheria Falls area I passed 2 day hikers and a pair of backpackers, but then for a few miles saw no one else. Considering it was just past midday on Sunday there were suspiciously few walkers here. After a few miles Tueeulala and Wapama Falls popped into view, and boy were they flowing. There was a huge amount of spray pouring off of Wapama Falls, not surprising considering the amount of water I saw flowing out of Lake Vernon.

The trail had been following around a few hundred feet above the reservoir, and just before the falls drops down a little to a series of bridges crossing over near the base of Wapama Falls. As I got closer I could see a group of people on the far side of the falls, but I still hadn’t seen a single hiker since the few near Rancheria Falls. I crossed over the first couple of bridges, and around a boulder, and the final bridge was inundated with water.

As no one was coming over I wasn’t sure if it was safe to cross over the bridge, so I backtracked and waited on the far side of the bridges. I figured either someone would cross over, or the day hikers I’d seen earlier in the day would come back and I’d be able to ask them how the bridge was like when they came across earlier in the day. I didn’t much fancy the idea of the alternative, which would be to retrace my route, 24 miles and over 7,000 ft of climbing back around. But I also didn’t much fancy attempting to cross a bridge that wasn’t safe.

It was only about 20 minutes later that the day hikers both happened to arrive almost at once, and had no fear walking straight over the bridge. They said it had been flooding when they came. So I followed suit, and got a soaking walking to the other side. In the end it didn’t feel unsafe as the water flooding across the bridge was mostly coming down and not flowing sideways. But on the other side, with the group of people, there were two park service rangers and a “trail closed” sign, which is why the far side was so free of people. The rangers said it was a “soft closure”, but that they were recommending against crossing given the conditions. The Wapama Falls had the most water they’ve had in many years. In the end it was all fine, and the quick rest combined with the soaking was very refreshing given the mid afternoon heat and sun beating down, and gave me a second wind for the final few miles back around to complete the loop.

Share this: