Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Day hike to little known 90-story waterfall

Wapama Falls. Photo courtesy
Yosemite NPS.

Spring walk offers benefit of additional
waterfall in Hetch Hetchy region

Families can day hike to a little known 1,080-foot waterfall on the Wapama Falls Trail in Yosemite National Park.

The 5.5-miles round-trip in the park’s Hetch Hetchy section is little traveled compared to those in Yosemite Valley, making it a perfect hike for those who want to get close up and personal with one of the park’s many wonders. Spring marks the best time to hike the trial, as you’ll get to see an extra waterfall and wildflowers galore. Don't go too early in spring, however, as the heavy water flow can make the trail impassable.

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, which after a few miles strangely enough becomes Evergreen Road again.

The parking lot is on an expansive pullout southwest of the dam. The trailhead starts at the dam, which you get to cross the top of. Sitting at an elevation of 3,728 feet, O'Shaughnessy Dam is a 430-foot high concrete arch-gravity dam. Holding back the Tuolumne River, it opened in 1923.

Along the reservoir
After crossing the curved dam top, the trail descends somewhat and runs along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir’s shoreline. At 8-miles long, the 117 billion-gallon reservoir supplies drinking water to 2.4 million residents and industrial users in the Bay Area some 150 miles to the west.

Along the way, the conical-shaped Kolana Rock stands out across the blue reservoir. The granite dome towers 2000 feet above the water.

After about a mile, the path junctions with a trail that switchbacks up the gorge’s side. Continue east, paralleling the reservoir’s shore.

About 1.8 miles from the trailhead, during spring the trail passes Tueeualala Falls. The water is overflow from Falls Creek, which feeds Wapama Falls. At 800-foot high, for about 600 of those feet the water falls free at Tueeualala. A wooden footbridge heads over the fall’s base as the water rushes into the reservoir.

Wapama Falls
At 2.25 miles from the trailhead is the base of Wapama Falls, where rainbows rise in the mist as the water tumbles 1,080 feet into the reservoir. Flowing out of Vernon Lake to the northwest, upon reaching the gorge’s rim the creek hits three drops, with the longest of them 300 feet high.

The waterfall actually once was 1480 feet high, but Hetch Hetchy Reservoir submerged more than a third of it. Still, today it ranks as the world’s 148th highest waterfall in world; if not for the reservoir, it would rank 133rd highest.

In spring, you’ll get wet if crossing the bridges at either falls, so bring along rain gear or a change of dry clothes in a waterproof bag. If water is flowing over a bridge, for safety’s sake, do not cross it.

After taking in the views at Wapama Falls, head back the way you came. Note that the Hetch Hetchy entrance gate closes by 9 p.m. in summer and earlier the rest of the year, so leave well before nightfall.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.