Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hike to rocky vista of Hetch Hetchy Valley

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Photo courtesy Yosemite NPS.

Steady climb leads to panoramic view
of dam, reservoir, countryside

Day hikers can enjoy an impressive outlook of the famous Hetch Hetchy Valley via the Lookout Point Trail at Yosemite National Park.

The 2.8-miles round-trip demands a steady climb to the lookout, with a 500-foot elevation gain, but the out-and-back trail isn’t steep. May through mid-June marks the best time to visit, as water flow over the waterfalls is at its highest and wildflowers abound along the way. However, if snowfall was high during the winter, that will leave you with a few small streams to cross.

Bear-proof your vehicle
To reach the trailhead, from Yosemite Valley, drive Big Oak Flat road north to Calif. Hwy. 120. Turn left onto Hwy. 120. Past Hodgdon Meadow Campground, turn right onto Evergreen Road. In about eight miles is a T-intersection at Camp Mather; turn right at this intersection onto Hetch Hetchy Road. In a mile is the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station.

Park at a pullout just beyond the entrance station; the trailhead is across the road. If the pullout is full, explain to the station attendant that you wish to hike to Lookout Point, and typically you’ll be cleared to park in the lots for one of the nearby buildings. Also, if you have food in your car – even if it’s just a simple candy bar – be sure to store it in the bear-proof storage lockers at the pullout.

The trailhead begins at about 4,750 feet above sea level. Within a few yards you’ll have to pass through the first of two gates to the lookout. From there, the trail parallels the road for about a third of a mile.

In about a mile, the trail forks. Go left for the final stretch to a rocky outcropping that overlooks Hetch Hetchy Valley. Lookout Point’s elevation is 5,280 feet.

Dam, reservoir, waterfall
The point offers a 360 degree panorama of the area. Gazing from southwest to northeast is the Hetch Hetchy Valley. West of the valley, the landscape descends into California’s agricultural Central Valley; east of the valley, it rises to the highest points of the Sierra.

The highlights are all to the valley’s northeast: Partial views of the eight-mile long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, of the O'Shaughnessy Dam, and of Wapama Falls. The dam holds back the Tuolumne River to form the 117 billion-gallon reservoir, which supplies drinking water to 2.4 million residents and industrial users in the Bay Area. Wampama Falls drains into the reservoir’s north side.

After taking in the views, head back the way you came. Be sure to do so in plenty of time before darkness falls; during summer the road gates at Camp Mather close no later than 9 p.m. and sometimes earlier (The Yosemite road conditions line at 209-372-0200 – enter 1 after the first two voice prompts – lists the current closing time.).

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.