Hetch Hetchy, California

Visiting Hetch Hetchy has been on my list for some time now. Since I did a little research about the lost valley, sunken underneath a reservoir. Also, my coworker, Kevin has been talking about it since I first mention it to him.

It was New Year’s Eve, my parents and Sam (Ollie) decided we should go to this valley. The weather was still cold, and so in our winter outfit, we drove back to the Sierras. Dad drove while I navigated and followed the highway 120 and to La Grange and missed a turn and ended up climbing the mountain behind Coulterville. I won’t advise that route because it was kind of winding and we ended up on the other side of 120 to Yosemite. We passed by a restaurant by Buck Meadows but were close so we head on to and stopped and got out at Stanislaus National Forest Vista; Rim of the World.

Orange fields

We saw the devastation caused by the wildfires a year or so ago. It was heartbreaking and we took this time to take some pictures and tried out the drone. Then after that, we continued on 120 and finally turned to the small road of Cherry Lake Road. We were the only vehicle who turned this way because of the people were going to the main park of Yosemite. We made a stop and take more pictures, with yellow grasses and yellow flowers. Then we made a turn which led us down to a dam office, which we realized was the wrong way and as we made u-turn here was the beginning of the history of the valley and the reservoir.

Native Americans

“People have lived in Hetch Hetchy Valley for over 6,000 years. Native American cultures were prominent before the 1850s when the first settlers from the United States arrived in the Sierra Nevada. During summer, people of the Miwok and Paiute came to Hetch Hetchy from the Central Valley in the west and the Great Basin in the east. The valley provided an escape from the summer heat of the lowlands. They hunted and gathered seeds and edible plants to furnish themselves winter food, trade items, and materials for art and ceremonial objects.

Hetch Hetchy Valley

Periodic clearing of the valley provided ample space for the growth of the grasses and shrubs they relied on, as well as additional room for large game animals such as deer to browse. In the 19th century, the first white visitors to the valley did not realize that Hetch Hetchy’s extensive meadows were the product of millennia of management by Native Americans; instead they believed “the valley was purely a product of ancient geological forces (or divine intervention) … this was fundamental to its allure as a destination and subject.”

Entrance to the park

The valley’s name may be derived from the Miwok word hatchhatchie, which means “edible grasses” or “magpie”. It is likely that the edible grass was blue dicks. Chief Tenaya of the Yosemite Valley’s Ahwaneechee tribe claimed that Hetch Hetchy was Miwok for “Valley of the Two Trees”, referring to a pair of yellow pines that once stood at the head of Hetch Hetchy. Miwok names are still used for features, including Tueeulala Fall, Wapama Fall, and Kolana Rock.

While its cousin Yosemite Valley to the south had permanent Miwok settlements, Hetch Hetchy was only seasonally inhabited. This was likely because of Hetch Hetchy’s narrow outlet, which in years of heavy snowmelt created a bottleneck in the Tuolumne River and the subsequent flooding of the valley floor.”

We finally got back to the main road and headed up the open gates and we passed by several more burned trees which left this mountain area bare, with only burned trunks of the trees to remind us of the devastations. After driving for a while, we finally reached the entrance where there was a booth and she gave us a sticker for the price of $25 for entrance.


Then we continued on, we drove bypassing the parking lot and realized there were also plenty of people in this part of the Yosemite. We drove around looking for parking and we passed by the reservoir and the dam but unfortunately, there was no close parking so we ended up parking in some distance, but close to the restroom.


“In the early 1850s, a mountain man Nathan Screech became the first non-Native American to enter the valley. Local legend attributes the modern name Hetch Hetchy to Screech’s initial arrival in the valley, during which he observed the Native Americans “cooking a variety of grass covered with edible seeds”, which they called “hatch hatchy” or “hatchhatchie”. Screech reported that the valley was bitterly disputed between the “Pah Utah Indians” (Paiute) and “Big Creek Indians” (Miwok), and witnessed several fights in which the Paiute appeared to be the dominant tribe. About 1853, his brother Joseph Screech (credited in some accounts for the original discovery of the valley) blazed the first trail from Big Oak Flat, a mining camp near present-day Lake Don Pedro, for 38 mi (61 km) northeast to Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Map

During this time, the upper Tuolumne River, including Hetch Hetchy Valley, was visited by prospectors attracted by the California Gold Rush. Miners did not stay in the area for long, however, as richer deposits occurred further south along the Merced River and in the Big Oak Flat area. After the valley’s native inhabitants were driven out by the newcomers, it was used by ranchers, many of whom were former miners, to graze livestock. Animals were principally driven along Joseph Screech’s trail from Big Oak Flat to Hetch Hetchy.

German Charles Frederick Hoffman

In 1867, Charles F. Hoffman of the California Geological Survey conducted the first survey of the valley. Hoffman observed a meadow “well timbered and affording good grazing”, and noted the valley had a milder climate than Yosemite Valley, hence the abundance of ponderosa pine and gray pine. The valley was slowly becoming known for its natural beauty, but it was never a popular tourist destination because of extremely poor access and the location of the famous Yosemite Valley just twenty miles to the south. Albert Bierstadt, Charles Dorman Robinson and William Keith were known for their landscapes that drew tourists to the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Bierstadt described the valley as “smaller than the more famous valley … but it presents many of the same features in his scenery and is quite as beautiful.”

We all got down and me leading my parents and Sam we followed the trail down to the dam. We saw the iconic domes of the valley and the clear water and we couldn’t help but admire its beauty as we took some pictures. Then we continued on to the dam, where we had more pictures and at the same time there was information about the building of the dam and the history behind it.

We walked across and entered a cave-like tunnel into the other side. Our mission was to visit one or both the waterfalls on this side. We followed the trail along the banks of the reservoir. We had barely started when Mom got tired and said she would be waiting by the giant rock. She sat while the three of us continued on. There were plenty of hikers we passed or meet on the way from couples, to families to a group of friends. It took like half a mile before we reached signage that only 2 to reach the Rancheria waterfalls. As we walked, we got to higher ground and we stopped and then so Sam can explore and look at some of the plants. We also got to see the domes of the other side and we took pictures of these picturesque scenes.

“When Yosemite Valley became part of a state park in 1864, Hetch Hetchy received no such designation. As the grazing of livestock damaged native plants in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, mountaineer and naturalist John Muir pressed for the protection of both valleys under a single national park. Muir, who himself had briefly worked as a shepherd in Hetch Hetchy, was known for calling sheep “hoofed locusts” because of their environmental impact.

John Muir

Muir’s friend Robert Underwood Johnson of the politically influential Century Magazine and several other prominent figures were inspired by Muir’s work and helped to get Yosemite National Park established by October 1, 1890. However, ranchers who had previously owned land in the new park continued their use of Hetch Hetchy Valley – a “sheep-grazing free-for-all [that] threatened to denude the High Sierra meadows”– before disputes over state and private properties in respect to national park boundaries were finally settled in the early 1900s.

Interest in using the valley as a water source or reservoir dates back as far as the 1850s, when the Tuolumne Valley Water Company proposed developing water storage there for irrigation. By the 1880s, San Francisco was looking to Hetch Hetchy water as a fix for its outdated and unreliable water system. The city would try repeatedly to acquire water rights to Hetch Hetchy, including in 1901, 1903 and 1905, but was continually rebuffed because of conflicts with irrigation districts that had senior water rights on the Tuolumne River, and because of the valley’s national park status.”


As you can see the situation of Hetch Hetchy has become more critical with the destruction of its resources by man and San Francisco eyeing it as their new water source. We walked the trail with barely any break. We came across some hikers going back and we asked them the waterfalls and they said we were close so we head-on. We were confident we will be able to reach it and go back before they close the park.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Then we finally passed by a dry stream, well almost dry there was still water running down from the mountain. The black shadow of the waters was visible and down the stream and to the reservoir. We figured out that this must be one of the falls, so we took some pictures and tasted the water and headed back to Mom.

O’Shaughnessy Dam


Dam site

In 1906, after a major earthquake and subsequent fire that devastated San Francisco, the inadequacy of the city’s water system was made tragically clear. San Francisco applied to the United States Department of the Interior to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield, granted San Francisco the rights to the development of the Tuolumne River. This provoked a seven-year environmental struggle with the environmental group Sierra Club, led by John Muir. Muir observed:

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.

Proponents of the dam replied that out of multiple sites considered by San Francisco, Hetch Hetchy had the “perfect architecture for a reservoir”, with pristine water, lack of development or private property, a steep-sided and flat-floored profile that would maximize the amount of water stored, and a narrow outlet ideal for placement of a dam. They claimed the valley was not unique and would be even more beautiful with a lake. Muir predicted that this lake would create an unsightly “bathtub ring” around its perimeter, caused by the water’s destruction of lichen growth on the canyon walls, which would inevitably be visible at low lake levels.

goof collage
Goofing on the trail

Since the valley was within Yosemite National Park, an act of Congress was needed to authorize the project. The U.S. Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act in 1913, which permitted the flooding of the valley under the conditions that power and water derived from the river could only be utilized for public interests. Ultimately, the city sold hydropower from the dam to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which led to decades of legal wrangling and controversy.


Work on the Hetch Hetchy Project began in 1914. The 68 mi (109 km) Hetch Hetchy Railroad was constructed to link the Sierra Railway with Hetch Hetchy Valley, allowing for direct rail shipment of construction materials from San Francisco to the dam site.

The city hired John R. Freeman, who had previously worked on the water supply systems of Boston and New York City, to plan the complex dam and aqueduct system. Civil engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy would oversee the construction and design details of the Hetch Hetchy project. The dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley would subsequently be named in his honor. Before the construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam could commence, the city completed a 70-foot (21 m) high dam at Lake Eleanor to provide water for the Early Intake Powerhouse, which was necessary to provide electricity for the construction site of the larger dam.

Construction of the Dam

Construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam began in 1919 and was finished in 1923, with the reservoir first filling in May of that year. The dam was then 227 feet (69 m) high; its present height of 312 feet (95 m) was achieved only later, in 1938. On October 28, 1934 – twenty years after the beginning of construction on the Hetch Hetchy project – a crowd of 20,000 San Franciscans gathered to celebrate the arrival of the first Hetch Hetchy water in the city.

We saw the complete dam from the view of our trail. We took some pictures with the sun behind it. Then continued walking back, like most travels the way back always feels faster, and we found her where we left her. We crossed back through the dam, and once more gaze at the flowing water at the other side of the dam which led to the Bay Area.

Hetch Hetchy Railroad

Restore Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy Valley serves as the primary water source for the City and County of San Francisco and several surrounding municipalities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. The dam and reservoir, combined with a series of aqueducts, tunnels, and hydroelectric plants as well as eight other storage dams, comprise a system known as the Hetch Hetchy Project, which provides 80% of the water supply for 2.6 million people. The project is operated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The city must pay a lease of $30,000 per year for the use of Hetch Hetchy, which sits on federal land. The aqueduct delivers an average of 265,000 acre⋅ft (327,000 dam3) of water each year, or 31,900,000 cu ft (900,000 m3) per day, to residents of San Francisco and San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties.

Dad and I went first and I got my drone and try to fly it around the valley. Unfortunately, there was no signal again so I can’t do anything about it. As we gazed on the other side we realized we might not have reached the first waterfalls, but reached only a smaller one, cause the first waterfalls’ shadow started narrow and get bigger as it goes down. While the one we reached was consistent on its width throughout the water’s journey down to the reservoir. Also, that area has more trees and greenery than the bare waterfalls. In the end, we admitted we didn’t reach the first waterfall.

At the beginning I was a bit disappointed but what can we do? All I can do was be happy that I finally reached the controversial Hetch Hetchy and at the same time learned more about it and its connection to Muir, Yosemite, and the waters of the Bay Area. Here is the rest of the history of the reservoir and its current status.

The battle over Hetch Hetchy Valley continues today between those who wish to retain the dam and reservoir, and those who wish to drain the reservoir and return Hetch Hetchy Valley to its former state. Those in favor of dam removal have pointed out that many actions by San Francisco since 1913 have been in violation of the Raker Act, which explicitly stated that power and water from Hetch Hetchy could not be sold to private interests. Hydroelectricity generated from the Hetch Hetchy project is largely sold to Bay Area customers through a private power company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

In 2015, Restore Hetch Hetchy filed a complaint arguing that the construction of the dam had violated a provision in the constitution of California about water use, but the lawsuit was rejected by an appeals court and later the California State Supreme Court.

Before and After of the flooding

Preservation groups including the Sierra Club and Restore Hetch Hetchy state that draining Hetch Hetchy would open the valley back up to recreation, a right that should be provided to the American people because the reservoir is within the legal boundaries of a national park. They acknowledge that a concerted effort would have to be made to control the introduction of wildlife and tourism back into the valley in order to prevent destabilization of the ecosystem and that it might be decades or even centuries before the valley could be returned to natural conditions.

Those in opposition of dam removal state that demolishing O’Shaughnessy Dam would take away a valuable source of clean, renewable hydroelectric power in the Kirkwood and Moccasin powerhouses; even if measures such as seasonal water diversion into the powerhouses were employed, it would only make up for a fraction of the original power production. The remaining deficit would likely have to be replaced by polluting fossil fuel generation. The removal of the dam would be extremely costly, at least $3–10 billion, and the transport of the demolished material away from the dam site along the narrow, winding Hetch Hetchy Road would be a logistical nightmare with possible environmental impacts. Most importantly, San Francisco would lose its source of high-quality mountain water, and would have to depend on lower-quality water from other reservoirs – which would require costly filtration and re-engineering of the aqueduct system – to meet its needs

Hetch Hetchy was very controversial. It’s unfortunate that I might not be able to see in my lifetime the restoration of this wonderful gift of nature. As a history buff and enjoy nature I do agree to the restoration. There was a suggestion that a hole could be made from the dam to avoid its destruction. So it’s a win-win situation.

Here are the links for more information:




Say Cheez!

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