As the temperatures cool off in fall I headed to Hetch Hetchy for the weekend. Hetch Hetchy sits relatively low in the Sierra and gets very hot in the summer months. It was also the peak of the Orionids meteor shower in the early hours of Sunday morning so under clear skies I hiked into the wilderness.
I did the Lake Vernon loop in the spring so this time I was looking for a different route that’s doable in a weekend. Scouting the maps for a destination Hetch Hetchy Dome on the north rim of the valley looked like it had a large flat top, is accessible with an off trail hike from the top of the switchbacks, and looked like it would offer great views over the reservoir.
I checked in with the ranger while picking up my permit, and he remembered me from my trip earlier in the year. He said I should have no trouble getting over to the Falls Creek basin, which feeds Wapama Falls. He recommended going to the top of the granite cliff to the west of the falls and peering over and assured me that I would have the entire basin to myself.
The parking lot is on the south side of the dam and the trail immediately starts by traversing over the dam and through a walkway blasted through the granite. I couldn’t help myself from taking the same set of photos while crossing over the dam. The water level didn’t seem to be any different to the spring time, a testament to how much water was in the snowpack this year. At the highest elevations not all the snow melted and won’t now as the overnight temperatures routinely drop below freezing.
The trail follows a short way around before switchbacking up over 1,500 feet of vertical. At the last switchback the reservoir is hidden from view and the trail starts to head into the forest. Just past the top there’s a trail junction with a fire road to Miguel Meadow and Lake Eleanor. I take the trail towards Beehive and follow it for a short distance before turning right to follow the north rim of the valley off trail.
The forest is pretty open at this elevation and it’s easy to follow around. I stick at around 5,400 feet elevation and follow the contour. There are many game trails through the brush that make it easy-going. There are rock outcroppings here and there which offer views down to the reservoir. At this time of year Tueeulala Falls is dry, but it’s pretty easy to tell which creek would have fed it as I climb over.
I reach the smooth granite dome at the top of the vertical cliffs besides Wapama Falls at lunch time and lay out on the warm granite to eat my sandwiches. The views from here are really stunning, you’re just across from Kolana Rock, at about the same height, right where the valley bends around the rock, and the sheer cliffs just below offer a view up and down the reservoir as well as to directly below. I’m definitely a little timid when it comes to getting to the edge of such a sheer drop but the top was large and flat and I had a pretty good view without going right to the edge.
After lunch I skirted around the edge of the cliff to drop down to the top of the falls. The cliff edge here was vertigo inducing. The top of Falls Creek was actually really beautiful, there’s a little pool right before the edge with sandy banks. I imagine in the heat of summer it would be amazing to swim in, so long as you stay away from the edge!
But I had my eyes set on Hetch Hetchy Dome so I jumped some stones over the river and headed up the granite ledges on the other side. Getting up to the dome was the steepest part of the day, another 800 feet of climbing, and by the time the granite started flattening out I was starting to get low on energy as the sun beat down. I headed over to the dome peak. Because the dome is so large and flat on top the peak doesn’t actually offer direct views of reservoir, you have to walk down a little. Right past the peak there’s a set of eye bolts set into the granite, apparently during World War 2 there were cables strung between Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy Dome as an anti-aircraft measure.
I had eyed up heading up-stream to explore the pools along Falls Creek but I decided to have an easier afternoon and scout out a campsite on back down on the west side of the creek. Finding a campsite in the basin was easy, the granite on the west of creek rises pretty gently and there’s a lot of flat ridges to choose from. I selected a site, put up my tent, inflated my mattress, and lay down in the late afternoon sun in the golden grasses.
Early Sunday morning was scheduled to be the peak of Orionids meteor shower. The Orionids are residue from Halley’s comet as it rotates the sun and the earth passes through its path. They’re named as they appear around the Orion constellation in the night sky. As the sun set the moon was visible low in the sky, it was only 3 days since the new moon and it setting just an hour or two after the sun. As it disappeared into the faint yellow glow of the sun the sky was illuminated by the milky way.
I crawled into my tent as the wind picked up slightly and was causing a chill lying outside. I saw a couple of shooting stars but my eyes were feeling heavy so I decided instead to poke my head out of the tent in the early hours when it was meant to be the best viewing time when I inevitably woke up in the night. Sure enough, as I checked my watch, 3am rolled around and I opened up my door and lay my head outside. By this time the milky way had disappeared and Orion was clearly visible in its place. I trained my eyes on the sky and watched out. I saw a few more shooting stars but my eyes were still feeling heavy, so I called it good and closed my eyes until the morning.
As the night sky made way to dawn I had my morning coffee and packed down my tent. The hike back was retracing my steps from the previous day, contouring back around trained on 5,400 feet. The landscape in the morning light is magical, the sun rose over the reservoir and peeked through the trees.
Instead of heading straight back down I took a small detour right before the switchbacks. When I got to the trail I crossed straight over and headed up to Condon Peak. It’s right at the top of one of the granite ridges that the O’Shaughnessy Dam rests on, to the north. The slopes leading up to the domed peak were fairly steep and covered in brush which required a little bushwhacking, scratching up my arms and legs in the process. But it wasn’t too far and it was well worth it for the view from the top. Looking down to the valley below I couldn’t help but wonder if John Muir had looked down on green meadows from this point and felt a little heartache that the dam had been built at all.
The weekend was really a lot of fun. I think it would be a great day hike to reach the cliffs above Wapama Falls. While Hetch Hetchy Dome sounds a little magical, after all Yosemite is famous for its granite domes, I think it might actually have been more fun to explore the Falls Creek basin. Condon Peak was also well worth the detour and could also be done as a day hike, taking the whole day and going to the top of Wapama Falls and Condon Peak would offer views over the reservoir that few see.